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Book Review: Not by Love Alone: The Violin in Japan, 1850-2010

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Published: March 5, 2015 at 5:16 PM [UTC]

Not By Love AloneMargaret Mehl
Not by Love Alone: The Violin in Japan, 1850-2010
Copenhagen: Sound Book Press 2014
533 pp.

* * *

A phenomenon with ancient roots, globalization reached Japan in the mid-16th century, when Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries arrived, bearing new technologies, new ideas, a new religion and the recipe for tempura. Dutch, English, Spanish, Franciscans and Dominicans followed.

By coincidence, the instrument understood ever since as the modern violin surfaced almost concurrently in northern Italy. But its appeal was potentially global, and its future was as interestingly open-ended as Japan’s.

In time, as Margaret Mehl spells out in her trailblazer study, parallel lines met in a remarkable special relationship and a friendship as beautiful as Rick’s and Louis’s. But who knew, at least before Western parents discovered Suzuki lessons?
From there on, the news got around. Bumper stickers in Iowa City, Iowa, flashed the dadadada dumdum, four eighth and two quarter notes, familiar to any five-year-old with a Chinese-made one eighth-size fiddle. Mehl herself, now professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Copenhagen, took up the instrument with a Japanese teacher in Beethoven’s home town. “I cannot remember anyone around me expressing surprise,” she recalls. By the mid-1970’s, it seemed practically self-evident.

But self-evident, as Mehl makes eye-openingly clear, is emphatically what it was not. Her scholarship is exhaustive and original. But above all, she goes where no researcher has gone before to show how the special relationship came about, what it reveals about both Japan and the violin, and why it matters.

In fact, she notes, the violin might have arrived with those 16th century missionaries. In Oita, a city of half a million on the southern island of Kyushu, a bronze figure in a cassock plays an indeterminate proto-fiddle with a bow while three local boys sing along. The statues are supposed to represent a Christmas Eve performance in 1557. But Mehl acknowledges that the evidence for this is inconclusive, and even if the violin appeared, it left no traces.

Tempura and the new religion, on the other hand, were both warmly received and well-documented. Reportedly, Ieyasu Tokugawa himself, the first of the clan of military governors who would run the country from 1603 to 1868, was a tempura fan. But while tempura can still be seen and enjoyed, Christianity was a flashing amber light.

Seriously alarmed by its appeal to the rural poor, the feudal establishment first tightened the screws on foreign contacts and influence. It then slammed the window, effectively shutting out the rest of the world from 1635 till 1853, when four American warships arrived in Tokyo Bay, and threatened to open fire if the Japanese refused to open their doors.

If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu, latter day Americans would say. There was no mistaking the message. Over the next five years, Japan concluded treaties with a number of European countries as well as two with the United States. It then undertook a landmark reform program that would not only transform the home country but leave its marks directly or indirectly on much of Asia.

In 1867, after centuries of feudal rule, the last viceroy handed over power in traditional dress. Two years later, the newly-empowered Emperor Meiji held court in a three-piece suit and top hat. In 1872, on a day since recalled as historic, he boarded a train in Tokyo and roared off in the direction of Yokohama to an obligato of guns, fireworks and a French military march by an indigenous bugle corps whose members had learned to play from foreign missionaries and military bandsmen.

In principle, the To Do list included everything understood as modern in Europe and the United States - industry, education, law, constitutionality, naval building, the military and colonial aspirations. But baseball and Western music made the short list too. Each in its way revealed an uncommon feel for the interaction of society and culture.

As with the more familiar avenues of modernization, catch-up was the obvious priority. Baseball was not for fun, Robert Whiting observed in his classic study of the Japanese game. Neither, Mehl emphasizes, was “Western music promoted in Japan for the love of it.” Like the baseball bat, the violin was not an accessory of Western civilization. It was a very symbol of it.

Violin in Japan
"Sights in Yokohama," by Yoshikazu Utagawa, 1860. Library of Congress.

Self-doubt would persist for decades. The Suzuki method that would become one of Japan’s most remarkable exports only caught on in Japan after its breakthrough in America, an executive of the Tokyo program explained to an interviewer. There was even some question whether people who played Western music really liked it. But a pioneer generation of schoolboy ballplayers and aspiring fiddlers were quick to demonstrate how bat and bow could also serve as instruments of the internalized team spirit and rigorous self-discipline that were among Japan’s most cherished values.

“Our coaches would say that there was beauty in suffering,” Whiting quotes a young magazine editor, recalling his high school team. “They would physically punish slow learners.” The message could only resonate with generations of aspiring Japanese fiddlers. “Studying the violin is perceived as shugyȱ, self-cultivation with a strong ascetic element,” says one of Mehl’s sources, the author of a rare study of Japanese amateurs by a civil servant born in 1930.

Where bat and bow went separate ways was gender. There was never any question who was best-equipped to hit home runs or throw fastballs at 95 mph. It was just as clear that business, journalism, politics, the military, the professions as well as innumerable crafts and trades were as gender-specific as antlers.

This was not true of music, at least not with the same monochrome consistency. Well into the 1920’s, music was regarded with suspicion as a proper career for men. There were equally persistent reservations about music as a profession for women, especially, Mehl adds, women who wanted to play for money.

Her cover art, a geisha with a gioconda smile and a violin under her arm, was not a role model. But there was still a niche of equal opportunity, at least by Japanese standards, though new words like kyȱiku mama, the education mama, and tensai shȱjo, the girl prodigy, were needed for new archetypes that shared the niche.

The art, in fact, went back to a couple of founding mothers, the Koda sisters, born respectively in 1870 and 1878, when Western girls too were taking up the violin as they took up bicycles, tennis and higher education. Like many of the reform generation’s achievers, the sisters were children of a samurai father. Unlike many, he sent his daughters as well as his sons to school, where they were introduced to Western music and Nobu, the older, probably heard a violin for the first time.

After learning all her foreign and the very earliest native performers could teach, Nobu was dispatched to a year in Boston, where her German teacher had studied with Joseph Joachim, the era’s reigning virtuoso and founding father of the Berlin conservatory. The year in Boston was followed by five in Vienna.

Kȱ, the younger, took up the violin at 10, was admitted precociously to the new Tokyo Academy, and proceeded to Vienna too. From there she went on to Berlin, where she first studied with a Joachim protégé, then the great man himself.

Over careers extending to their respective deaths in 1946 and 1963, both continued to perform, though demonstratively not for fees. Both were sought out to teach the daughters of the great and good, though in 1943, the same year Kȱ was elected to the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, she was fired without notice from the Academy of Music. In 1932, a benchmark of international recognition, the first Vienna International Competition invited Kȱ to serve on the jury.

By this time, Japan was already on both the cultural and geopolitical map. Planners in Washington and London agreed to let Japan deploy naval forces in a tonnage ratio of three Japanese to five British and American. Barnstorming American major leaguers showed up in increasing frequency to take on, and admittedly wallop, the local talent. The era’s leading virtuosi discovered that Japanese audiences were eager to hear – and pay – them. The great Jascha Heifetz, who had fled the Bolshevik revolution for America via Japan in 1917, returned just weeks after the great earthquake of 1923 to play for record crowds and earthquake relief.

The threshold maturity could be bracketed between two bookend experiences. The first was World War I. In 1914, in return for permission to take German colonies in the South Pacific and China, Japan declared war in alliance with Britain. By the end of the war, Masakichi Suzuki, another recycled samurai, who had taken over a family instrument business in the 1880’s, had increased output from 10,000 to 150,000 violins a year at the expense of German competitors. On June 1, 1918, German prisoners of war on the island of Shikoku performed Beethoven’s Ninth with a local orchestra.

The other bookend was World War II. At war in China since 1937, Japan concluded a cultural treaty with Germany in 1938 and an alliance, including Italy, in 1940. A few years earlier, Nujiko Suwa, Japan’s first homegrown girl prodigy, had settled in Brussels, then Paris, for advanced study. She stayed on after the German occupation.

In 1942 she made her German debut. A year later, Joseph Goebbels, the German minister of propaganda, presented her with what claimed to be a Stradivari from the ministry collection for her services to German music in general and wounded troops in particular. A few months later, she played the Brahms concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic, and continued touring Germany alone under bombardment.

In the end, she was repatriated from American-occupied Austria via Switzerland, Bedford, Pennsylvania, and Seattle. She arrived in December 1945, six months after the Japan Symphony Orchestra, predecessor of today’s NHK, played its last subscription concert – another performance of Beethoven’s Ninth.

In the early 1970’s, at a conference of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, its director, Alastair Buchan, reflected on how the geopolitical landscape had changed in barely a generation. Like virtually everyone in the room, Buchan, born 1918, had grown up in an era when it seemed self-evident that Jews meant business and Japanese meant cheap – or war.

Now Jews were the soldiers, while Japanese had morphed into super salesmen, he observed. Even as he spoke, Jewish violin hegemony, another seeming fact of life since at least Joachim, was sinking slowly in the West, while Tṑru Yasunaga, soon to be the Berlin Philharmonic’s first concertmaster from the Land of the Rising Sun, was already in the pipeline.

Buchan died in 1976. By this time, Japanese cars, consumer electronics, even movies, not only met international standards. They set them. Detroit scrambled to catch up with Toyota-shi. Apple scrambled to catch up with Walkman. John Sturges, with an assist from Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, westernized Kurosawa’s samurai. Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo,” with an assist from the equally gifted Nobuko Miyamoto and Tsutomo Yamazaki, sent up Sturges’s Hollywood cowboys.

A generation later, brands like Sony, Honda and Yamaha had attained a household familiarity RCA Victor, Chevrolet and Wurlitzer once claimed like a droit du seigneur. Conspicuous consumers who once yearned for a Cadillac now lusted for a Lexus.

Occidental young and old learned to distinguish soba from udon and relish raw fish. Over the counter sushi, a distant blowback from the tempura that arrived centuries earlier with the Portuguese, could now be had at the train station in Utrecht. In living memory, Joe DiMaggio of San Francisco had policed center field at Yankee Stadium, and also toured Japan. Now the job was entrusted to Hideki Matsui of Neagari, Ishikawa Province.

Respective iterations of Suzuki only confirmed that there were still more unimaginables where these came from. Suzuki Motor Corporation challenged a motorcycle culture dating back to Gottlieb Daimler in 1885. Suzuki Ichiro, as he was known to the fans at home, challenged a hitting record dating back to Wee Willie Keeler and the infant days of the American League.

Shin'ichi SuzukiBut arguably the most remarkable Suzuki of all was Masakichi’s son Shinichi. With an assist from 10 little research subjects, he appeared at the American String Teachers Association meeting in 1964 to demonstrate his method. The presentation upended conventions of violin teaching dating back to the threshold of the 18th century.

The same year Takako Nishizaki, 20, the very first Suzuki alumna, finished second to Itzhak Perlman in the Leventritt, America’s most prestigious competition. Five years later, Nishizaki and the violist Nobuko Imai, a fellow Japanese, finished first in the Juilliard concerto competition.
By the turn of the current century, it was clear that the postwar landscape, that so bemused Buchan not very long before, had come to stay. The violin really had become as Japanese as, well, baseball. Daishin Kashimoto, the Berlin Philharmonic’s second Japanese concertmaster, and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s first violin section, were as global as any Toyota assembled in San Antonio. The Juilliard-born Tokyo quartet, one of chamber music’s A-list ensembles, settled in New York.

Rio Yamase, married to a Norwegian, played the Hardanger fiddle. Takechiro Kunugi taught Irish fiddling and played gypsy, klezmer and hard rock. Taro Hakase recorded with Céline Dion. Conservatories from San Francisco to St. Petersburg looked to Japan and Asia as the global economy looked to Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Venezuela.

In 2004, the formidable Midori Gotȱ, once a tensai shȱjo’s tensai shȱjo and daughter of a kyȱiku mama’s kyȱiku mama, succeeded to the endowed professorship the University of Southern California had created in 1974 for the godlike Heifetz.

Midori. Photo by Jeff Miller, Wisconsin Alumni Association, 2004

The Nippon Music Foundation, an agency of the Education Ministry, meanwhile acquired what many consider the world’s most distinguished collection of old Italian instruments.

A tale of two violins could be seen as an alternative version of the same story. In March 2011, northern Japan was smashed by a devastating tsunami that led in turn to a world-class nuclear disaster. In its aftermath, Muneyuki Nakazawa, a 71-year-old maker from the worst-affected area, turned debris into two violins intended for serial use at benefit concerts around the world. Ivry Gitlis, the 90-year-old Franco-Israeli virtuoso, flew from Paris to Japan for the first test drive.

Within months of the calamity, the Nippon Music Foundation undertook a relief initiative of its own. It resolved to sell the Lady Blunt Stradivari, a product of the maker’s so-called golden period and one of the world’s two best preserved specimens. A granddaughter of Lord Byron, its namesake and first documented owner was a gifted linguist, a talented amateur and pioneer Arabist, otherwise devoted to making the world safe for Arabian horses.
Her successors included two legendary violin collectors, two legendary violin dealers, a Kansas airplane manufacturer, and a Chinese real estate developer from Singapore, who paid a record $200,000 in 1971 to become its first Asian owner. In 2008 it sold for an estimated $10 million to the Nippon Foundation. Three years later, it sold for $15.9 million to Anonymous.

Hardcore pornography is difficult to define, Justice Potter Stewart said famously. But he knew it when he saw it. Defining globalization too can be a challenging assignment.But if asked for a definition, one can do worse than refer to Mehl, Japan and the violin.

David Schoenbaum is the author of The Violin: A Social History of the World's Most Versatile Instrument.

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Posted on March 6, 2015 at 5:28 PM
It appears that Midori may be double jointed???

I wonder if this would help with finger flexibility?

From Brent Hudson
Posted on March 7, 2015 at 10:48 PM
Thanks to Mr. Schoenbaum for this review, and for "The Violin: A Social History of the World's Most Versatile Instrument," which I read with enthusiasm.

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