Master Apprentice Award

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A Masters/Apprentice award by the Alliance for California Traditional Arts has been granted this year to my long time koto student, Isabella Lew, and me, Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto Wong.  “The Apprenticeship Program encourages the continuation of the state’s traditional arts and cultures by contracting master artists to offer intensive, one-on-one training to qualified apprentices.”, is the quote on the website. As people all over the world become more and more assimilated, interest in traditional arts has been waning. I am proud and honored to be a part of this very important program that helps master/teachers pass their knowledge of traditional arts to the next generation, in hopes of keeping these arts alive. Interest in traditional arts is even dying in some of the countries of their origin, so I think it’s really wonderful that many Americans are involved in the preservation of traditional arts, truly, for the world.

When I first received my own “Shihan” teaching credentials from the Chikushi Kai in Fukuoka, Japan in 1976, I wasn’t interested in teaching, although that was the traditional route one is expected to take after attaining one’s teaching degree. This discouraged my teacher/mother, but I had my own path I wanted to explore, which included further experimentation on the koto, trying to find new ways to express myself, not just in a Japanese way. The American side of me wanted to “seek new worlds”, as they say.  I’m fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the opportunity to collaborate with many different cultures and genres of art presents itself all the time, giving me new chances to explore, and to expand my horizons artistically and musically. I’m also, now, able to introduce these new avenues to my koto students. At the same time, I also found myself becoming more interested in learning the traditional classical music repertoire, performing and practicing with koto artists in the Bay Area from other koto schools, such as Miyagi and Seiha schools. My teaching degree from the Chikushi Kai did not require me to learn the 3-stringed shamisen, but I saw that other koto schools did require some knowledge of shamisen music.  At that time, I was working for American Airlines, so I decided to fly down to Los Angeles once a month, and take lessons from Kazue Kudo, who is a teacher of the Miyagi School. I learned more of the classical repertoire from Kudo Sensei, as I learned to play  the shamisen and how to sing in the classical “jiuta” style.

A lifelong curiosity of researching how my mom was able to learn the large, 6-foot long koto during WWII while incarcerated with her family in the camps, led to my gathering stories from former internees who practiced these Japanese traditional performing arts.  I’m currently working on a documentary, “Hidden Legacy: Japanese Traditional Performing Arts in the WWII Internment Camps”, due out within the next few months.  Hearing these stories from Americans who practiced the traditional  Japanese arts in these prisons instilled in me the need and responsibility to pass on this gift of koto music.  Hearing the stories from camp survivors made me understand something I didn’t realize before: that the arts can give you something positive in your life to help you survive, the way it helped them.

I’ve taught many students through my 38 years of teaching.  To make playing koto more fun, I sometimes arrange music from various cultures, many times inspired by my own students’ diversity.  This way, we are learning about not only Japanese culture, but also about other world cultures. Though today’s students enjoy learning modern pieces, it’s difficult to inspire students to play classical koto music, which includes singing, as well. I have trained 5 students to their teaching level certificates, which requires a knowledge of classical performance and singing.

Isabella Lew has been taking koto lessons from me for about 8 years.  She started when she was in the fifth grade at Montclair Elementary School in Oakland, when I taught a koto class as part of their after school program. Isabella caught on to the koto right away! It was so natural for her, I remember hoping that she would keep it up.

In Isabella’s application for the Masters/Apprentice award, she writes: “This art form represents a part of my heritage.  I am Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino.  Learning koto introduced me not only to the musical aspect of the art, but also to the traditions and practices in the Japanese culture.  After playing in numerous Japanese festivals and events, I was exposed to different folklore and beliefs. My participation in community events such as Peace Day, Cherry Blossom and Obon Festivals brings awareness to the community about Japanese culture and history through koto music. After I complete this apprenticeship and gain my teaching degree, I would like to teach the art of koto to others, so I and others can carry on the legacy of this traditional art form for generations to come.”

I am very proud of Isabella, and her quest to master and continue the music of the koto.  I know she will be a great representative to carry on the torch.

Lastly, some of you have asked how you can help:

* You can help by getting the word out about the film on your social networks like Facebook and Twitter

* Asking your local public TV station to air the show

* If you know anyone who has a story about Japanese cultural arts in the camps, please talk to them, record their stories, and add to the information on this little-known part of camp life.  And you can also refer them to the Hidden Legacy website , so we may add to this information for others to learn.

Once again, thank you for all of your heartfelt support.

All the best,

Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto-Wong

Koto teacher and performer


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