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Japan’s Koto Music Lives in Los Angeles

Times Music Writer

Though the koto orchestra from the Miyagi-Kai conservatory in Tokyo has visited Los Angeles before, it has never toured in the numbers involved in the current United States visit. Playing in Seattle earlier this week, in Royce Hall at UCLA tonight and in New York City on Sunday, the Miyagi-Kai contingent numbers 290 people.

Sharing in the pride of other Japanese-Americans as they welcome the touring orchestra, Angelenos Kazue Kudo and Cindy Tomita will take special pleasure in the performance tonight. Members of the co-sponsoring organization, the Koto String Society of Los Angeles, Kudo and Tomita represent two generations who keep alive the tradition of Japanese music in a foreign environment.

“There is much more interest in the koto from the third and fourth generation of Japanese-Americans,” says Kudo, who has lived here since the early 1950s.

“The first generation were generally poor, and concerned with making a living. The second generation seemed to turn its back on its heritage.

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“Now, there is a lot of interest in the koto, and in all Japanese musical traditions--much more, even, than in Japan, where school-age students have so many other demands on their time. There are very few young koto students in Japan today.”

The koto and shamisen ensemble--the koto is a Japanese zither, the shamisen a Japanese lute--arriving from Japan this week was last here in 1976, when it numbered only 30. According to Kudo, for the 1988 tour the conservatory ensemble requires three planes to carry them and all their musical equipment.

Miyagi-Kai was founded by Michio Miyagi (1894-1956), the blind Japanese musician who revolutionized traditional koto performance through a number of innovations.

According to Kudo, who was a pupil of Miyagi’s in Japan, he invented the 17-string koto, devised the first written notation for the instrument--before that, all music for the koto was passed down aurally--developed new playing techniques and wrote more than 1,000 compositions for it.

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“Before Miyagi, everything about the koto was old and ancient,” explains Kudo, who acknowledges that she has played the instrument “for more than 60 years.” Tomita concurs: “He brought the koto into the 20th Century.”

A special guest with the ensemble on this visit is Miyagi’s 80-year-old niece, Kiyoko Miyagi, in Japan a designated National Treasure, who will play in two of the five parts of the program at these three U.S. performances. Miss Miyagi is president of the worldwide Miyagi Koto Assn., which aims to spread Japanese music throughout the world.

Closing the program will be Michio Miyagi’s large-scale, seven-movement cantata, “Nichiren” (1953), which recounts the life and achievements of the Buddhist saint, Nichiren.

The Koto String Society, co-sponsor of this event with the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts, has as its goals “to preserve and promote Japanese music in the United States.” To this end, it presents Los Angeles concerts by its members every other year. Kudo said the next biennial concert will be given in the Japan America Theatre in November. The performers, she said, will range in age from 3 1/2 to 72.

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