Several years ago I stumbled across an article posted on the Internet titled Germans in Grass Skirts about how the humble Hawaiian uke saved German-American C.F. Martin’s bacon from getting fried in the Great Depression. I faithfully bookmarked the URL and when I recently thought to access it again it was gone. Such is life on the Internet. Whatever, I’m using that title as inspiration for this post about how the Japanese saved Martin's ukulele.
In Germans in Grass Skirts the author described how by 1926 demand for Martin’s ukuleles far outstripped supply. According to Tom Walsh and John King’s excellent book The Martin Ukulele: The Little Instrument That Helped Create a Guitar Giant, in April of 1926 Martin’s Board of Directors decided to raise ukulele prices in the wake of strong demand noting “the reason for the increase is largely to provide money for enlargement and to provide a reserve for harder times.” Boy, did they ever call that one right! By 1929 uke sales were a third of their peak production level in 1925. Fortunately, the extra revenue from ukulele sales helped fund factory expansion and gave Martin a cushion to rest on during the Great Depression.
After ukes surged again in the 1950s (thank you Arthur Godfrey), they fell again and by the late ‘60s C.F. Martin was making only a handful of ukes. 1965 was the last year of regular production after which ukuleles were produced only on special order. In 1994, ukulele production ceased altogether.
Oddly, Martin was the victim of its own success. Between the 1907 and 1977 the company had produced over 190,000 ukuleles and used Martin ukes were cheaper than new instruments. A new style “0” cost $500 at retail but you could get a very good used Martin uke cheap at a flea market. No kidding! Just ask Jim Beloff…
But not so fast… Kurosawa Gakki, Martin’s key Japanese distributor never got over the loss of the ukulele. Japanese are great collectors and, as we know, avid ukulele fans. Despite a depressed US market, Kurosawa felt there was still a market for Martin ukuleles in Japan. Chris Martin, however wasn’t so sure and beautifully tells the story in his “A Word from Chris Ukuleles” in minute 5:07.
I would have loved to have been in that meeting when Chris produced several 5K prototypes to show Kurosawa’s executives. From the video its pretty clear that no one in Martin’s entourage spoke Japanese. In a typical meeting between Japanese and foreign visitors it is not unusual for the Japanese at key moments to break away from the main conversation and have an animated “chat” among themselves about what’s been said and much more. There’s nothing underhanded, they are just trying to gain consensus. If you speak Japanese as I do, it’s a great way to get a real-time feel for what your customers are thinking.
Since neither Chris Martin nor his International Sales Rep. spoke Japanese, they were floored when Kurosawa Gakki came back and met their $5,000 MSRP request and immediately ordered 50. That $250,000 order put Martin back in the ukulele business.
For that amount, I’m sure even Chris Martin would don a kimono. I know I would!
I'm an amateur ukulele player who happens to be fluent in Japanese. I hope that I can inspire you to learn more about the ukulele, Japan, or better yet, BOTH!