September 2014


September 18, 2014 02:03

One of the exciting things about meeting other amateur string players is finding out what they do when they are not bowing their instrument. At a concert by an amateur string quartet in Tokyo last year, my eyes immediately fell on a table with copies of a book with a vividly coloured cover. It was a manga version of Suzuki Shin’ichi’s live and work, co-authored by the quartet’s violist, Shin Mikio, who had planned and edited the book, while the actual manga were drawn by Kuno Keiji.

The title is “Oto ni kokoro o, oto ni inochi o”, which the authors have freely translated as “Play with heart, and living tone.” The manga was serialized in the Japanese Talent Education Research Institute’s quarterly magazine “Suzuki Method” in 17 instalments from 2005 to 2009; 4 additional instalments followed later.

Apparently when Shin first suggested a manga about Suzuki and his method to the Talent Education Research Association in Matsumoto, they looked at him in astonishment. I’m not sure I understand why. In Western countries manga might be regarded mainly as a source of entertainment. In Japan, on the other hand, many manga are written to educate and inform as well as to entertain. I’m not a great reader myself, but on my bookshelf I have three manga based on works of the classical literary canon, one about do-it-yourself shiatsu massage and one “Introduction to Flamenco”. I mean, if Flamenco is deemed suitable for the manga treatment, why not Suzuki?

As I say, I’m not a manga fan, but the book is appealing and I might end up reading all of it rather than just a few chapters. Anyway, for readers who want a respite from manga, there are the “columns”, on preceding each chapter with additional information and photographs. The first one is entitled “The letter from Dr Einstein.” The letter in question was actually addressed to Suzuki Masakichi, Shin’ichi’s father, who pioneered the mass-production of violins in late 19th-century Japan. Later, he devoted himself to making master instruments (a professor in Nagoya had just published a book about Suzuki Masakichi, I introduce it in my blog at my website ). Einstein tried a selection of Masakichi’s master violins when Shin’ichi showed them to him in Berlin in November 1926. Einstein presented Shin’ichi with a sketch of himself with a dedication, which also features in the column.

So far the historical facts. The first manga episode, “What Einstein taught,” recounts what might be called the “Einstein myth”, not so much because the details don’t add up (as I showed in a previous article ) , but because of the way Suzuki’s encounter with the man who was already becoming an icon of the 20th century has such a significant place in the Suzuki story. In the manga, it is Einstein’s humanism and his assertion that all humans are equal that represents the central message. The episode ends with Suzuki’s marriage to Waltraud Prange and his departure from Berlin.
The following episode treats the couple’s early life in Nagoya and Tokyo, the Suzuki String Quartet Shin’ichi founded with his brother, and his early teaching experience. But the core of the episode is Suzuki’s flash understanding that eventually gave birth to his Mother Tongue Method: All Japanese children learn to speak Japanese, and they learn to speak Japanese with the accent prevalent in the region they grow up in.

The rest, as they say, is history and the following episodes tell the story of the beginnings of Talent Education in Matsumoto, its spread throughout Japan, the first publications, the first summer school the first national concert, the visits of foreign artists, Suzuki’s use of technology; the graduation tapes he listened to and the film that found its way to North America thanks to Mochizuki Kenji, and the dissemination of Suzuki’s teaching first to America and then to the world. The 17th episode ends with the image of a large tree depicting the growth of the Suzuki Method.

This “final” episode was then followed by two flashback episodes about Suzuki’s early life before his departure for Berlin. Episode 20 treats Suzuki’s relationship with Ibuka Masaru of Sony – Suzuki had a keen interest in technology: after all it was the latest sound technology of his youth, the gramophone, that had awakened his love for the violin.

The very last episode, like the book, is entitled, “Play with heart, and living tone” and begins with Suzuki answering a journalist’s question about his philosophy of tone: his years of practising Zen, he says, have taught him that only if a player adopts an attitude of service and puts her heart into her playing will the physical vibrations she produces become music. More details of Suzuki’s travels follow and of the honours he received (including a nomination for the Nobel Prize) and ends with more of Suzuki’s most famous sayings.

One of the people Suzuki imparts his wisdom to is the conductor Ozawa Seiji, one of the first Japanese musicians to achieve major success in the West. According to the story, Ozawa paid his respects to Suzuki when the Saito Kinen Festival was held in Matsumoto in 1992 – partly because of Matsumoto’s status as the “Mekka of the Suzuki Method” and even “the foundations of music” (p. 293).
I’ve wondered about the location of the festival before, because there is no obvious connection between Suzuki’s method and Saito Hideo’s pioneering work at Toho Gakuen School of Music. In some ways they are diametrically opposed in their aims. And although both these towering teachers took their students to North America in 1964, Saito’s work has not had anything like the international impact of the Suzuki Method, but at the time received rather more attention in Japan than Suzuki’s. Suzuki’s reputation in Japan today owes much to the Suzuki Method’s fame abroad – small wonder that one of the last images in the manga depicts children worldwide enjoying the Suzuki Method.

The book is an entertaining and informative addition to the Suzuki literature – perhaps especially in Japan, where there seems to be less published than in the Anglophone world.

Kuno, Keiji and Shin, Mikio. Oto ni kokoro o, oto ni inochi o: Sekai no tobira o hiraketa “Suzuki Shin’ichi” manga monogatari (Play with heart and living tone: A manga story of Suzuki Shin’ichi, who opened the doors to the world). Tokyo: Zen-On Music, 2013.

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