Printer-friendly version

The Violin and the Mandolin in Japan

August 28, 2013 at 4:25 AM

Funny how things coincide sometimes. Laurie Niles’ interview with Chris Thile about the mandolin and the violin came just as I was thinking about mandolins myself.

Only about 5 years ago, on a chamber music course, did I learn from a fellow-violinist that the strings of a mandolin are tuned to the same pitches as those of a violin. He had brought one along to play at the barn dance. Well that explained why the maker of the violin case I’d recently purchased also offered double violin/mandolin cases, a product that struck me as wildly eccentric when I first saw it advertised.

It also explained why the mandolin gained a significant following in Japan only a few years after the violin had begun to be widely played. One of my first student jobs using my Japanese language skills was interpreting for a Japanese mandolin group performing in the German provincial town of Münstereifel over 20 years ago. A Japanese mandolin group! Really, no European pursuit seemed too exotic for someone in Japan to take it up with great enthusiasm – my own musical environment was a mandolin-free zone. Little did I realize that by the 1980s the mandolin had been played for nearly a hundred years in Japan.

Seen in this light it comes as no surprise that Suzuki Masakichi, the father of Suzuki Shin’ichi of Suzuki Method fame, not long after selling his violins nationwide in the 1890s, began to produce mandolins as well, in 1903. You can see a postcard produced to advertise Suzuki Masakichi's creations:

Suzuki mandolins

And here are pictures of Suzuki's mandolins.

The first Japanese to have played the mandolin is said to have been the son of a samurai from Sendai, SHIKAMA Totsuji (1853-1928), who apparently performed on an instrument he had received from an unnamed Englishman in 1894. I first came across Shikama’s name when I examined ‘The Musical Magazine,’ the first Japanese magazine devoted to music, founded by Shikama in 1890. At the time I was looking for information about the violin in Japan, and didn’t pay as much attention as I could have done to evidence of other musical activity.

Even so it struck me that many different instruments and genres of music were treated in the journal and that Western music and traditional Japanese music did not seem to exist as separately from each other back then as in later years and particularly after 1945. According to the magazine, the piece Shikama played was actually a transcription of a Japanese piece for koto (Japanese zither), and he played it in an ensemble with violin and harp.

Besides editing the magazine, and probably writing most of the articles himself (under various pen names), Shikama Totsuji also published a large number of books in the 1890s. Topics include the Japanese lute (biwa), song collections, the accordion, the (reed) organ, and minshingaku (Ming and Qin dynasty music), popular music from China which was all the rage until about the time of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894-5.

Soon after 1896, however, most of his publishing activities seem to have ended when he returned to his home town, Sendai, to look after his sick father. Not much seems to be known about his life after that.

Shikama Totsuji’s youngest daughter Kiyo (1903-65) played the mandolin and made a few recordings between the World Wars (there appears to have been one on Youtube for a while, but unfortunately it was removed before I could listen to it), and opened a studio after the war.

Meanwhile, the introduction of the mandolin in Japan in a more lasting way is attributed to HIRUMA Genpachi (1867-1936), who graduated from the Tokyo Academy of Music (predecessor of the present Tokyo University of the Arts) and then studied in Europe, bringing back with him a mandolin in 1901. This was the instrument Suzuki copied. In 1903 Suzuki began selling mandolins along with his bowed instruments. Hiruma had many pupils, among them Saitô Hideo, better known as cellist, conductor and founder of the music college that brought forth Seiji Ozawa and the original members of the Tokyo String Quartet.

At the dawn of the 20th century Western music was becoming ever more popular, especially among educated young people. At several colleges music societies were established and some of them devoted themselves to the mandolin. The oldest of these is the society at what is now Keiô University, the Keio Mandolin Club (KMC), founded in 1910. The mandolin club at Tokyo’s other most prestigious private university, Waseda University, was founded in 1913 and celebrated its 100th anniversary earlier this year. Both are still going strong, but more famous than either is perhaps the Meiji University Mandolin Club, which gave its first concert in 1924. Among the players was Koga Masao (1904-78) later to become a famous singer and songwriter. A selection of his ‘Koga melodies’ was even performed NBC radio on 31 August 1939 and broadcast worldwide.

Another mandolin ensemble with a tradition going back to the beginning of the last century is the Orchestra Sinfonica Tokyo (OST), established in 1915. A list of the works it has performed over the decades can be found here: (click the pdf. file)

Shikama’s daughter Kiyo played with this ensemble at one time. Given the history- and lineage-consciousness of many artistic groups in Japan, I am hoping that delving into mandolin history will eventually lead me to information about the elusive Shikama Totsuji and what he got up to in the early twentieth century. He was, after all, a musical pioneer of the late nineteenth century.

At least 2 of his 7 daughters studied the violin, although they failed to achieve fame. The eldest, Fujiko, played with her father in the mandolin performance in 1894, but died early. She was said to rival Andô Kô (see my earlier blog about the pioneering Kôda sisters) in her proficiency on the violin.

From Ellie Withnall
Posted on August 28, 2013 at 4:22 PM
A violin/mandolin case probably only seems eccentric if you have never spent time around fiddle players :-)
From Margaret Mehl
Posted on August 29, 2013 at 12:08 PM
Well, I did look in at the yearly fiddle festival in Edinburgh a couple of times while I lived there in the 1990s. I even attended a couple of workshops. But I can't remember hearing or seeing any mandolins.
Best wishes,
From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on August 29, 2013 at 9:33 PM
I played mandolin before I took up violin. Both instruments are bluegrass staples. I attended a mandolin workshop several years ago where the instructor had a fiddle/mandolin case. The fact that both instruments are tuned the same gave me a head start when I took up violin (or fiddle, depending on whether I'm playing classical or bluegrass). I'm now playing violin almost exclusively - otherwise I'd probably look into getting a combo case to carry both instruments.

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine