The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Hidetaro Honjoh
Hidetaro Honjoh
Born in 1945, Honjoh is one of Japan’s representative shamisen performers and composers. He studied nagauta under Yoshie Kineya and minyo under Fujimoto Hideo I. In 1971 he went independent and established the Honjoh school [style] of shamisen, adopting the professional name Hidetaro Honjoh. He continues to teach performers of the next generation as the family head of the Honjoh school of shamisen while engaging in a wide variety of activities, from performing the traditional classics to composing and performing for movies, stage and television. He is constantly undertaking new activities, such as his establishment of the group ATAVUS, aimed at reviving and re-establishing hauta and Japanese ethnic music. He has won a large and appreciative audience with the tonal beauty of his shamisen and the richness of his singing voice.

The shamisen is a Japanese plucked string instrument. It is constructed of a body [sound box], consisting of a rectangular wooden-frame box with skin stretched on both sides, and a long neck that passes through the body. The tree strings strung on the neck are plucked with a plectrum and/or the fingers. The origin is said to be the Chinese three-stringed sanxian, and according to the accepted theory it came to Japan in the 16th century via the Ryukyu islands (present Okinawa islands). As a newly imported foreign instrument, the shamisen soon became popular among the common people and its use spread quickly to everything from minyo folk singing and theater music for Kabuki and the like to more artistically sophisticated chamber music like jiuta. Thus it eventually became a central instrument in Japanese music. As the instrument was improved and new methods of playing it were developed, numerous and varied genres of shamisen music were born. In the process, these developments gave birth to unique Japanese music forms such as the katarimono (narrative shamisen), typified by the shamisen of Bunraku puppet theater that accompanies the narration of the tayu narrator, and utamono (song shamisen) that accompanies the singing in nagauta and the like.

Nagauta (shamisen)

The shamisen that Honjoh usually uses is a mid-sized shamisen, among the various sizes of the instrument in use today. Nagauta is a genre of that developed as the accompaniment music for Kabuki theater in Edo, (present-day Tokyo). As a result, the nagauta shamisen is characterized buy its ability to produce beautiful high notes and its rich tonality of sound.


This is a form of popular song born in the middle of 19th century. It was a very popular form in the country’s political capital, Edo (present Tokyo). It consisted of short, stylish or witty verses sung to a shamisen accompaniment. Since 1993, Hidetaro Honjoh has been presented a series of concerts of classical and new hauta titled “Hauta – Listening to Edo.”


A form established and named by Hidetaro Honjoh that attempts to revive and recreate the minyo [folk] songs he specializes in. Honjoh adds contemporary interpretations to existing minyo to make them more relevant and alive to contemporary taste.
Hidetaro Honjoh
Hidetaro Honjoh
Photo: Daisuke Ishizaka
an overview
Artist Interviewアーティストインタビュー
The world of Hidetaro Honjoh – pursuing shamisen music as a traditional Japanese folk art, and even venturing into British contemporary theater  
As the result of ten years of work, director Simon McBurney and his Japanese actors and staff have brought to the stage a production of Shun-kin based on a short novel by Junichiro Tanizaki that is jointly produced by the Setagaya Public Theatre and Complicite and enjoying a 3-week run at the Barbican Theatre in London from Jan. 30 to Feb. 21. The man in charge of the musical score and the shamisen performance for this unique production is the shamisen player and composer Hidetaro Honjoh. Never hesitating to step beyond the boundaries of traditional Japanese music that he excels in, Honjoh is active in a number of realms. He speaks with us on subjects ranging from his original encounter with the shamisen to his recent collaborative work with McBurney.
(Interviewer: Kazumi Narabe)

Although this does not pertain only to the shamisen (*1), the trend among artists in the Japanese traditional arts definitely seems to be toward increased specialization in their arts. In the case of the shamisen, people who do nagauta (*2) (long narrative poems with shamisen accompaniment) stay within that specialty and people doing minyo (traditional folk song) specialize only in minyo. The boundaries between the musical genre are firmly established and very few artists cross those boundaries in their musical activities. I believe that makes you unique, in terms of your broad ranging of activities.
    Ever since I became a performer, I have always had the idea that I wanted to be “a Japanese shamisen player” in the broad sense of the term, so I have never been very concerned about or conscious of genre. But that said, since I am a shamisen player, I believe that the shamisen should not lose its Japanese and its Edo Period flavor.
    There are four main pillars to my musical activities. The first is hauta (*3) as classic traditional shamisen music. Next is the regional songs usually called minyo. That is a name I don’t like, and I prefer to call it chiho uta (regional songs. The third is Risougaku (*4) which is an attempt to make new shamisen music based on the idea of minyo as Japanese folk music. And although I say new, it is still based in tradition. The fourth is the “ATAVUS” group that I perform with as a contemporary, living form of folk music.
    And, since I also compose and perform shamisen music as contemporary music, I believe that you are right in saying that in the shamisen world I must appear to be someone engages in a lot of different activities.

I don’t think there are any other shamisen artists in your generation who are engaged in activities like yours. What made you think to cross the boundaries of the different genre of shamisen music?
    The biggest reason, I believe, is my strong desire to play the shamisen. There is a 17th century book called the Shichiku shoshin-shu that tells how to perform on the shamisen, and reading it one gets a sense of the surprise with which the Japanese first encountered the shamisen. It appears that it had been imported as an instrument separate of any knowledge of how it should be played. So, I believe that the people at that time were like children with a new toy in their search for how to play it. And I want to play the shamisen with the same spirit the people at that time must have had. If I can do that the shamisen can be more alive as an instrument. I want to overcome the image of shamisen music as old music and make it more alive in the present. That is the feeling that started me on my multiple-genre course.
    Also, since in traditional shamisen music the shamisen is always in a set with the song, I thought the instrument could also be played separate from song. I had the desire to separate the shamisen from song so that it could be played more freely.

It would seem that this approach you have to must be related to your original encounter with the shamisen or your early training with it. Can you tell us about your first encounter with the shamisen?
    I didn’t really begin learning the shamisen at a very early age. I was about 11. Actually, I wanted to learn the guitar, but I grew up in a small town where it wasn’t easy to get a guitar. My hometown was a harbor town on the Tone River that still had a good number of geisha and traditional entertainers, so the shamisen was a familiar and accessible instrument. And, since it was also a stringed instrument, I thought it might be just as good—even though it didn’t have as many strings (laughs).
    Once I began learning the shamisen, I would go to my teacher in town for lessons every day. I already had a reputation at the time as a bad boy in town, and my teacher apparently thought I would quit before long. So the arrangement was that I had to take the fee to him for each lesson. I remember that at the time it was 25 yen per lesson, so I would get the money from my mother or someone would give me some spending money and I would take that to go for each lesson. They say I never missed a day, so I must have really liked it.

What types of pieces were you learning at that time?
    I learned pieces from all of their repertoire, including Tokiwazu songs, Kiyomoto songs and nagauta. I was taught minyo and hauta. It seems that from the time I was a child I was singing adult songs without even knowing the meaning of the words or emotions. I was often told that I was singing like a seasoned geisha, even though I was just a child. It became a sort of trauma for me, and to this day, whenever I see a TV show where they have a child singing adult songs, it depresses me to watch it. I guess that is proof of how much of a trauma it was for me.

But if people were saying that you sang like a seasoned geisha, it must mean that you were quite good at it.
    It seems that I was (laughs). I was often up on stage playing and singing at festivals and the like.

And did people call you shamisen child prodigy? Were you famous at the time?
    Yes, I was famous (laughs). Like many parents I guess, my mother saved posters from my performances, with things like “Child Prodigy” written on them in red ink (laughs). Seeing that made me feel her maternal affection. By the time I had reached middle school, I had decided to become a professional shamisen performer, and I moved to Tokyo, with my family in tow. Usually, when a young person makes that kind of move, it is to study under some specific teacher in an apprenticeship where the teacher looks after you. But I was the reckless type and I just picked up and moved to Tokyo with no certain plans. But it happened that in the neighborhood where I settled there was a nagauta teacher named Yoshie Kineya and I was able to enter an apprenticeship under her.
    As a teacher, Yoshie sensei [teacher] had a very liberal approach. She used to take me to the nearby art museums and historical museums in Ueno and have me write reports on the things I saw. Since playing the shamisen is a physical act, anyone can play the instrument to some degree if you train the right muscles. But if you can’t go beyond that and find a certain atmosphere or feeling when you are playing a piece, it is nothing more than a physical exercise and, thus, meaningless as performance. So, she often told me to go out and find true art, things of true beauty, and learned to appreciate and be moved by the real thing. I feel like I was the luckiest person in the world to have met her and to have been able to spend those impressionable young years under her guidance.
    I studied nagauta under Yoshie sensei until I was 18 or 19, and around that time I was getting jobs accompanying dancers [of traditional Japanese dance] and was feeling the desire to reach a level where I, as a musician, could perform on the same artistic level with a dancer and achieve a form expression that involved give-and-take between the dancer and the musician. That made me decide to quit nagauta for a while, and so I left Yoshie sensei’s studio.
    Up until that point, I had been guided by the desire to properly instill in myself, in my ears the distinct scale of the constituted the true “shamisen sound,” and to the degree that I hardly ever listened to [Japanese] popular music or folk music, not to mention foreign music. The shamisen tonal scale has half tones that are slightly different from foreign music, in a way that you might call narrower or more nuanced. So, I thought that if I listened to other types of music besides nagauta I wouldn’t be able to achieve the true shamisen sound when I played.
    That tonal nuance is the thing that I find most difficult to explain to people from other countries. With the shamisen we call the points where you press the strings down to get the different notes “kandokoro” (literally “sense points”) and they are constantly changing, or fluctuating, with the music. You could say that the sound is determined by a balance with the sound that has come before it and the sound that is to come next, or you could say that the kandokoro is not the same every time—in other words not a specific pitch—but, it is like each note has a “sound character” (onkaku) that defines it. It is a sound that, when you play it, the listener gets an intuitive sense of the feeling intended. That is the unique aspect of the shamisen that I wanted to instill firmly in myself back in those days.

After you left Yoshie sensei’s studio, what did you do?
    While continuing to do nagauta, I became a live-in apprentice with the minyo artist Fujimoto Hideo the 1st. At that time I took a combination of my grandfather’s [given] name and my teacher’s name and began performing under the new name Fujimoto Hidetaro. But at the age of 24 I left the apprenticeship at the Fujimoto home and worked for about two years doing recordings for commercials and popular music (kayokyoku). At that time it had become popular to use shamisen accompaniment for popular songs, and I sometimes found myself playing the shamisen in the orchestra pits of places like the Tokyo’s Kokusai Gekijo and the Nichigeki Hall. I have fond memories from that period.
    At the age of 26 I went independent under the name Honjoh Hidetaro.
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