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BIG IN JAPAN
Yatsuhashi Kengyo

Yatsuhashi KengyoAround New Year' and, unfortunately, virtually no other time of year koto music is often heard in stores and on television. One frequently heard piece is "Rokudan no Shirabe" (Melody in Six Movements), a piece that most koto players have at least attempted to play. Yatsuhashi Kengyo, to whom "Rokudan" is attributed, is famous in the koto world for popularizing the instrument.

He was born Jouhide in 1614, perhaps in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. Apparently blind from birth, he became a shamisen player. Blind musicians were quite common, and most of them were beggars. While we don't know whether Jouhide was a beggar, we can assume that, as a blind musician and popular musician in general in 17th century Japan, he was probably looked down upon.v The koto world of that era was quite closed. While no longer under the wing of the imperial court, the koto community - controlled by the Tsukushi school of Kyushu - maintained an "aristocratic aloofness," as one source puts it, strictly prohibiting Tsukushi members from teaching koto to women or the blind. However, a Tsukushi student named Hosui, after being poorly received by the Kyoto court, traveled to Edo, where he happened to meet the blind Jouhide.

Bucking school rules, Hosui taught Jouhide some basic Tsukushi koto pieces, leading, of course, to Hosui's expulsion from the school. Conversely, Jouhide, who now had a good start on koto mastery, began his upward trajectory. Changing his name to Yatsuhashi Kengyo ("Kengyo" is a title for highly talented blind musicians), he moved to Kyoto in 1636 and established the Yatsuhashi school, a move which eroded the dominance of Tsukushi and brought koto music into the popular arena.

Thanks to Yatsuhashi, koto playing, which had previously been the strict domain of priests and noblemen, was opened to all. Not only did other male blind musicians perform and write koto music professionally, but young girls of rich families also took lessons. Although women were not allowed to turn professional, they studied the instrument to give themselves an air of refinement. Yatsuhashi also moved the koto away from simply being a backdrop to vocal solos towards being a solo instrument in its own right.

Yatsuhashi felt that the tuning used for koto up to that time carried too much aristocratic baggage, so he introduced hira joshi (plain tuning), a derivative of the folksy in tuning used in shamisen music. He transposed many Tsukushi compositions called kumiuta (medleys) into hira joshi, so they would fit popular tastes of the time. Rokudan, which may in fact be an adaptation of an earlier Chinese piece, is also in hira joshi. While popular tastes have, of course, shifted significantly since then, hira joshi remains the koto's standard, or common, tuning.

Yatsuhashi made koto more accessible, both figuratively and literally, to the common people of Japan. This set the stage for the rise, after his death in 1685, of the Ikuta and Yamada schools, which still dominate the koto world today. The two schools have their own individual repertoires, but they both play Rokudan.

And if you think you have heard the name Yatsuhashi before, but not in a musical context, you're probably right. If you've ever been to Kyoto or received edible souvenirs from friends who have been there, you've probably eaten the doughy, sometimes fried, manju (sweet bean jam bun) known by the koto master's name.


Tim Young

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