This piece, for shamisen and live electronics, is dedicated to my friend, Kawamura Shinyu. Shinyu was the first person I met when I arrived in Japan, and it was through him that I came to study the shamisen. Sadly, Shinyu also grappled with bipolar disorder, and took his own life during one of his depressive episodes. Through this piece, I hope to celebrate his life and express my gratitude for his endless kindness, hospitality, and generosity to me.
It just came up in a conversation with one of my friends, a Japanese jazz musician, that pianist, composer, and big-band leader Toshiko Akiyoshi, wrote a tribute to the Japanese stragglers Hiroo Onoda and Shoichi Yokoi in her piece, “Kyogun” (roughly translating to “solitary soldier”), in her 1974 album of the same name.
(Of course I’m very interested to learn about this piece as I work on my dissertation)
Here are her thoughts on the work from and interview for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project conducted by Dr. Anthony Brown on June 29, 2008 (apologies for the format, the Smithsonian transcribes these interviews verbatim, with all of the “ums” and “ers,” and, of course, all hyperlinks are my additions):
You know, sometimes the little things have to be triggers… he was talking about … how proud Duke was of being a black American, and his music [was] based on his race, a lot of ’em, you know: “Black Butterfly,” what have you, “Black and Beige [Tan] Fantasy,” so on, … And that triggered me to, I should look [at] my heritage, ’cause … the normal belief in Japan was, to be Japanese and play jazz was a handicap. That’s the way, that was the normal thinking… [When] I read it I said, “Well, I’m a jazz player; I’ve been playing since I was sixteen years old… I’m not a bad player, I have probably more experience than a lot of young American players, but I have a different heritage.” … Maybe I could try to infuse something; maybe that would be my job.
So, that’s what triggered me, and at the same time, there was a Japanese soldier was discovered in the Philippine jungle. It was nearly thirty years, he didn’t know the war was ended. In fact, I think he has written a book—it’s a very interesting book. But anyway—Lt. Onoda, Second Lieutenant Onoda [Hiro]—and I was writing for the flute piece…. and also at the same time, my father was a student of noh play…he was a student of tsuzumi, which is a Japanese four-headed [drum]. And I always liked the sound, you know. Actually, I like all drums, I guess, but I really liked that sound, and I was thinking it’d be really nice to use that … so I had a tape sent from Japan. This was like a demonstration tape, a demonstration tape for the tsuzumi playing. And they have all kinds of ways of playing; this was the Kanze [-ryū] style of playing [chuckles]. Noh players… It took me … boy, ten years to put them together in one segment… And that was “Kogun”…
At 80 years old, Akiyoshi may have been misremembering things a bit, since I’m not sure that the timeline she suggests quite works out. Yokoi surrendered in January 1972, and Onoda March 1974 (though he was first contacted in February of the same year). Since “Kogun” was released (in Japan) in April 1974. So it seems more likely that Akiyoshi was inspired by Yokoi’s story, not Onoda’s (although she might just have an extremely fast turnaround time in composing), and it seems like it couldn’t have been ten years that she worked with the noh drummers (unless she’s referring to something else taking ten years to “put together”).
Nit-picking aside, it’s a great piece, and a fantastic performance by Akiyoshi’s husband and flutist Lew Tabackin.