I recently fell down a rabbit hole…
I started researching the origins of the ukulele in Japan, how it got there, who were the early stars , etc., and I learned something new which surprised me but it really shouldn’t have. Second generation Japanese-Americans (nisei), sons and daughters born and raised in Hawaii, brought the instrument back to Japan when they returned there in the 20s and 30s to complete their education.
Yukihiko (Harry) Haida and his brother Katsuhiko both born in Hawaii of immigrant parents returned to Japan with a love for Hawaiian music and a lot of talent. Their Moana Glee Club recordings were well received and started the Japanese love for Hawaiian music that continues today.
Then there’s Buckie Shirakata who arrived in Japan in the 30s and formed the Aloha Hawaiians. Buckie was quite prolific and made over 200 recordings, one of which was with Betty Inada, a Sacramento girl who returned to Japan to become a jazz singer.
So here’s the thing… In the 20s and 30s life in America for most children of Japanese immigrants was like living on a tightrope and having to balance between the culture and traditions of your parents and of the place of your birth. Neither culture fully accepted you. In race conscious America it was hard for a Japanese (“J*ps”) to break into society regardless of talent and brains. Yet in Japan these Americans were looked at suspiciously and said to be bata-kusai- stinking of butter, a derogatory term for Western foreigners.
As ambassadors of the mysterious and exotic Hawaii and the world of jazz, nisei had a cache in Japan that they didn’t have in the States. They were cool! They could also support themselves playing music at a time when there still was money to be made in that profession. Harry Haida and Buckie Shirakata married Japanese women and began to settle down. Betty Inada gained renown as a chanteuse in Tokyo nightclubs. Then the war happened.
Like many Japanese who returned to Japan to complete their education or to work, after December 7, 1941, there was no going home and because they were not born in Japan, life for them was tough there too. “Foreign music” was banned. The Moana Glee Club became “The Southern Band” and the Aloha Hawaiians, “The Music Group”. I can only imagine how difficult it became to support oneself.
I recently learned about the plight of the many Japanese-Americans stuck in wartime Japan by reading the book Midnight in Broad Daylight (Pamela Rotner Sakamoto) which chronicles the wartime experience of one family with children on both sides of the Pacific. One brother was interred and then fought for the US Army, another for the Japanese Imperial Army. A sister was in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped and later died of radiation sickness. All faced discrimination from every side. I’d love to hear Harry’s, Buckie’s, and Betty’s stories of how they coped during that time.
After the war Occupied Japan needed the nisei entertainers to play for the US forces and many gladly did so. Being bi-cultural and often bilingual, the nisei were an ideal group to act as musical ambassadors. Soon a second Hawaiian boom fueled by Hawaiian nisei began to feed Japan’s insatiable curiosity for the exotic islands where the button-down, rigidly proper decorum of Japan was replaced by the flowered-shirt Aloha spirit. Hawaiian bands flourished in the 50s, 60s, and do so even today.
All the while the ukulele has played a staring role in that drama, a role which would not have been possible without the many Japanese-American players: Herb Ohta, Roy Sakuma, Byron Yasui, Herb Ohta Jr., and most recently Jake Shimabukuro.
I started this piece by mentioning the rabbit hole. It appears that there are numerous recordings of Japanese-Americans singing in Japanese and English for Japanese audiences that are still available for listening.
Club Nisei covers the post-war period.
On Soundcloud you can listen to a program in several hour-long installments.
You can read about some of those recordings here.
There are some interesting books too:
Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan. E. Taylor Atkins
Reminiscing in Swingtime: Japanese Americans in Popular American Music 1925 - 1960. George Yoshida
Finally, head on over to UKULELEjapan.com (Artists Pages>Legends) and listen to Buckie Shirakata and Harry Haida.
Back down the hole for me…
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!