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Season 3: Ep. 6: Beauty Beneath the Surface: Composing Change with the Japanese Koto


Masayo Ishigure is a world-renowned performer of the Japanese koto. This conversation explores the legacies of Tadao Sawai, Kazue Sawai, Michio Miyagi, and Japanese traditions of composing for the koto. Exploring notions of wabi-sabi, the Meiji period, and hogaku, this podcast looks at the ethical demands of cross-cultural composition. We open up fundamental questions about how a culture changes and evolves while remaining rooted to traditions and heritage.

Keywords: koto, hogaku, Sawai, Tadao Sawai, Kazue Sawai, Michio Miyagi, composers, composition, gagaku

Masayo Ishigure

Masayo Ishigure began playing the koto and junta shamisen at the age of five in Gifu, Japan and has created an extensive, multi-faceted career that stretches the limits of the koto while maintaining a strong grasp of tradition. After initial studies with Tadao and Kazue Sawai, Masayo became a special research student in 1986 at the Sawai Koto Academy of Music -The academy incorporates many influences from classical to jazz and aims to change the perception of the koto from being limited as a traditional instrument to become an instrument of universal expressiveness.

After becoming a part of a group of disciples of the Sawais, Ms. Ishigure moved to New York City. She has performed at Lincoln Center,  Carnegie Hall, BAM, Merkin Hall, Asia Society, Japan Society, and the Metropolitan Museum. She has been invited to perform at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, the Smithsonian, and will perform at Elizabethtown College this fall. 

In 2005, Masayo Ishigure was a recording artist alongside Yitzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and others on the Grammy Award-Winning soundtrack from the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” (SAYURI) by John Williams. Masayo Ishigure has taught koto and shamisen at Wesleyan University, CT and Columbia University since 2010 and offers private lessons in New York City, New Jersey and Washington DC.

Discussion Questions

  1. The story of the gifts of koto composers is one where skilled musicians sought to engage a traditional instrument in contemporary music and continued creativity. How do we teach “world music” in a way that holds space for diverse traditions to continue to flourish and change?

  2. Japanese musical study is framed by schools and deep teacher-student relationships. How do we continue to build systems of support for relational learning?

  3. Describe Wabi-Sabi and why a more experiential and thorough understanding of beauty is necessary to understand this concept.

  4. What stories resonate for you with the story of Memoirs of a Geisha? How does the pressure of timelines and quests for advancement cause us to sacrifice time for relationship, ethical practice, and deeper understandings?

  5. Ishigure comes back time and time again to contrast surface-level understandings with music that “touches people's hearts.” How do we move beyond surface understandings?

  6. How do we allow space for change and balance that spaciousness with a groundedness and tradition?


2:31 Formation
4:30 Tadao Sawai
9:58 Sakura 
11:47 Impact of Sawai
12:53 Declining Attention 
17:27 Rapid Change
18:45 Tori No Yo Ni 
20:06 Problematic Composition
25:41 Wabi-Sabi
27:52 Moments of Peace
30:07 Sunae
30:37 Closure 



Davies, R. J. & Ikeno, O. (eds.) (2002). The Japanese mind: Understanding contemporary Japanese culture. Turtle Publishing.

Ishigure, M. (2005). Grace [audio CD].

Wade, B. C. (2014). Composing Japanese musical modernity. University of Chicago Press.

Wade, B. C. (2004). Music in Japan: Experiencing music, expressing culture (Global Music Series). Oxford University Press.

Masayo Ishigure Website:


Masayo Ishigure from the Ambassador's Residence

Imagine Japan Performance

Masayo Ishigure at the Kennedy Center



IshigureMix - 5:25:22, 5.01 PM

Wed, May 25, 2022 5:06PM • 32:45


koto, music, japanese, people, wabi sabi, peacebuilding, tradition, performers, embrace, elizabethtown college, songs, traditional, students, play, japan, write, geisha, miyagi, composers, orchestra


Kevin Shorner-Johnson, Ishigure


Ishigure  00:00

So that's our challenge. That's my challenge challenge for us performers. But what we performers can do is to play songs well, that's the only thing we can do. So the composers who write songs are very important. Writing songs that remain in people's hearts for a long time. Our job is to practice those songs to our fullest.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  00:24

You are listening to season three of the music and peacebuilding podcast, a professional development network at music Exploring intersections of peacebuilding, sacredness, community, creativity and imagination through research and story. Masayo Ishigure began playing the koto and Junta Shamisen at the age of five in Gifu, Japan, and has created an extensive multifaceted career that stretches the limits of the koto while maintaining a strong grasp of tradition. After initial studies with Tadao and Kazue Sawai, Masayo Ishigure moved to New York City. She has performed at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall BAM Merkin Hall, Asia Society, Japan Society and the Metropolitan Museum. She has been invited to perform at Harvard, Yale, Princeton Columbia, the Smithsonian, and will perform at Elizabethtown college this fall of 2022. In 2005, Masayo Ishigure was a recording artist alongside Itzhak Perlman, Yo Yo Ma, and others on the Grammy Award winning soundtrack from the movie Memoirs of a Geisha by John Williams. She has taught koto and shamisen at Wesleyan University Connecticut, and Columbia University since 2010, and offers private lessons in New York City, New Jersey and Washington DC. I want to offer special gratitude to Dr. Nobuaki Takahashi, the translator and a professor of Japanese at Elizabethtown College. Gratitude also to miss Erin vago, who as a theater student recorded the voiceovers for this podcast as her senior project in voice acting, and gratitude to Mrs. Ishigure for permissions to use recordings in this podcast. I began by asking Ms. Ishigure about a lifetime of studying and performing the koto and her relationship with the Sawais some of the most important teachers in the koto tradition scholarship it



Yes well let's see, how it started was nothing special really. My mother used to play Koto when she was young, and it was just kept in the house as she brought it as one of the trousseau items. It was a pretty common tale back then. Then why did I start playing it? Well, I don't really remember it as I was just fine. But I think I vaguely remember I started playing around with it when I was about five. Then later on, I started playing piano when I was an elementary school student, but I quit after three lessons because I was scared, scared and hated the teacher. Well, so I quit after the third lesson. And my mother didn't see any reason to make me continue with piano lessons. So I completely quit on it. But my mother used to tell me that I hated piano, but I took out koto on time and time to time and played with it. So I guess I liked Koto. ---- I am originally from Gifu prefecture and I was taking lessons from a local Koto teacher, you know, ordinary lessons from an ordinary teacher. But this teacher wanted to pursue more by learning from someone well known and highly regarded in the field of Japanese music. Then my teacher became a pupil of Tadao Sawai and Kazue Sawai, who were the heads of a Japanese music school, back then I really didn't know much about them, but I just followed my teacher along that was my first encounter was Tadao and Kazue Sawai ---- I think there are many people who have no idea who they are. But in the field of Japanese music Tadao Sawai is one of the biggest figures. Well, a lot of people may recognize the name Michio Miyagi as the most well known Japanese musician, probably from musical scores, but Tadao Sawai was equally well recognized master of contemporary Japanese music.



So you need to go to get the hoga KU knock your show to you. That is the



Tadao Sawai totally changed the image of the Japanese music I had back then. In the same way his works changed the image of Japanese music among many people in Japan at the time. In a way he was like a man of the time. Well, this is because I'm sure you know a TV commercial for Nescafe with a Dabada melody right? With a catch copy with a man who can tell a difference in this commercial. It was like a series of famous people in it and Tadao Sawai was selected for one of them. He was already famous at the time but became even more famous thanks to the commercial. Well it was about 35 years ago






anyway, at the time only two institutions Tokyo National University of fine arts and music, and Osaka University of fine arts and music had the Department of Japanese music. But a new university in music was established in Takasaki Gunma and it highlighted a new Japanese music department inviting Tadao Sawai as an instructor. I don't really remember how but before I knew it, I was going to this institution to study Japanese music further under Sawai. This changed my life big time. Upon graduation, I was offered to be an apprentice in residence spending the next two years a bit more than two years learning his music while living with him. This may be strange or incomprehensible to young people now but it was a common thing to do in the field of Japanese music or traditional Performing Arts. It was one of the busiest times as a musician for him so I learned a great deal about his music firsthand.



When I talked to Kazue Sawai well Tadao and Kazue were married and I talked to Kazue the wife because Tadao was deceased back then, but Kazue was well. She was a person with foresight paying attention to what was going on globally. Back then Japanese Koto was nothing like Well, the way koto was viewed with in Japan at the time was like one of the trousseau items, or something so old fashioned that nobody bothered to listen to or something like that. Kazue said there would be no place for people like us to survive. She said it would be so hard for people like us who properly and diligently studied Japanese music at a university level if the people in Japan kept having such negative image towards Japanese music. That's why Kazue said she wanted to look outward to the world rather than inward within Japan, and started touring many countries, contacting many institutions and musicians in many countries, taking care of all of the expenses totally out of her pocket. One of the many people she contacted was the famous John Cage in New York. She contacted so many people in the world and literally flew around the world with a mission of let koto be known to the world. She got young people like us who were 20 to 23. After graduating from the universities, she got those young people involved so we could survive on our own, spending our lifetime spreading the art of koto to the world.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  08:05

Miss Ishigure spoke at the closure of a traditional Japanese music program at Wesleyan and then the reopening of that program years later. After navigating visa issues Masayo Ishigure landed in New York City in 1997, where she is today. Bonnie Wade's text titled, composing Japanese musical modernity notes the importance of Michio Miyagi and Tadao and Kazue Sawai to the field of Japanese Koto playing. Born blind into the Meiji period Michiyo Miyagi began a line of, performer-composers, teaching himself Koto shamisen and later shakuhachi. Returning from Korea to Tokyo in 1921, Miyagi brought together European music with traditional Japanese music, and was maybe most importantly, the first faculty member to teach traditional music at the Tokyo School of Music in 1930. As a student of Miyagi Tadao, Sawai sought to embrace the koto as a contemporary instrument of universal expressiveness Tadao Sawai had a gift for weaving diverse ensembles together, writing dynamic and virtuosic parts and quote, sectional repeats motivic repetition contrasts between lyricism and driving pulsating rhythms. Tadao Sawai also wrote music for his wife Kazue Sawai, who was a profound performer in her own right. Listen to the following arrangement of Sakura, arranged by Tadao Sawai that artfully balances the creative life of change with a grounding in tradition. The recording is offered with generous permission by Masayo Ishigure from her album, Grace



Now why music and why this field of Koto quite honestly, I don't really remember anymore and I don't really know why myself, but there is no doubt that I loved playing Koto and also meeting with Tadao Sawai was definitely one big factor. If I didn't meet with him, I would have never picked Koto as my life work. So I suppose I really loved his music. Sorting, oh, that would be the biggest factor for sure. I'm sure other members who studied under Tadao and Kazue so I would say the same thing, listing it as the biggest factor for what they do now. There are still lame old fashioned customs, especially in the field of traditional arts. But in this globalized world today, Tadao and Kazue advocated for focusing more on music rather than getting tied up with such unnecessary old customs and many people agreed with them. My local teacher did and other koto musicians agreed with their claim and gathered around them so I would say we were a relatively new group at the time


Ishigure  11:47

----- It's the same Yes. When I became apprenticed there were eight of them already. I was told it was getting full and nobody can be apprenticed anymore. But because Tadao Sawai was so busy with lots of work, all of the apprentices had things to do. Nobody was left out with nothing to do because Tadao and Kazue Sawai were so big in the field at the time when I came to New York, everything was relatively smooth getting offers and jobs and my name was spreading among people. This was mainly because I was a student of Tadao Sawai people wanted to learn Sawai's music and people wanted teachers who could teach Sawai's music so people were saying if you take lessons from Masayo Ishigure we can learn Tadao Sawai's music and I never really had any problem having students I owe Tadao and Kazue so I greatly for this. If I were myself without Sawai's brand. Everybody would be like Who the heck are you? Right? Really, I am so grateful. Thanks to them. I am where I am today.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  12:53

In her comments to follow Masayo Ishigure seems to lament the declining attentions of audiences and the need for modern music to adapt to changing audience tastes. This was the reason for a pragmatic move by performers away from traditional and classical music and toward music that attracts audiences. According to Ms. Ishigure, those schools performers that stick to traditional music are in steady decline. Ms. Ishigure talks about Tokyo National University and the decline of Koto study.


Ishigure  13:30

So maybe I shouldn't say this, but the classical components are less and less valued nowadays. One phenomenon that shows this trend is Tokyo National University of fine arts and music in Japan. They have the Department of Japanese music. A while back. The particular department only admitted the students who learned from those very traditional and conservative teachers, or saw the entrance skill test was specifically for those strictly classical pieces, and those who cannot play it were not admitted. But recently, the number of applicants has been so low that they had to change their system to attract more students, like applicants can shoot for specific areas such as contemporary Koto, song and so on. Otherwise, they cannot attract Japanese students. In fact, 90% of the students learning shakuhachi are foreign natives. For Koto, even though they graduate with a degree it is nothing but a label and there is no guarantee that they will be able to support themselves as full time professional Koto players simply because they graduated from Tokyo National University of fine arts and music. So, the enrollment is suffering so much to the extent that they have had to completely split the contemporary Koto and classical Koto, to survive to avoid closure of the whole Koto program, because students do not want to learn both. Most of them either want to learn contemporary or classical. The situation is getting that bad right now. ---So I would say we already passed the crisis a long time ago and it is getting worse than crisis situation then the Japanese government was involved and Junior High in high school. I think junior high school curriculum now has five or six traditional musical then like Taiko, koto, flute, shamisen, things like that. The junior high school students are required to take something out of those options. That's the requirement right now. It's been about 10 plus years, so some not many of them sometimes continue on to koto club in high school and such. You know, when they learn it at a young age, they get good relatively quickly, and some of them ended up becoming professional Koto players like those who started in junior high or high school club activities. So honestly, the whole notion of wabi sabi is really touched upon in books. I know we are supposed to talk about it when we write a book or getting an interview like right now, but my impression is that the majority of musicians on the contemporary Japanese music field is like, what the heck is wabi sabi? I am not that different myself, either. I don't think I live in that type of bookish notion any longer. If you impose on such relic, nobody will follow you, myself included. That's the reality. Maybe I should say, even so I embrace and value the traditional Japanese values right now. But I don't think most of the koto performers think that way. Maybe 1% of them say something beautiful like that, but I think they just say it without really believing in it. Yes, we can't survive if we do that. I don't think people now will accept it. Okay, but it's really true. This is the reality right now, because everybody plays Koto as a job. We need to live our lives playing Koto, so we need to survive with this music right? Then it is just natural that we choose the best possible way to survive, right? We can't survive by doing something that will not be kept in the future. If nobody acknowledges and accepts my music, nobody will come to me. That's what I think. So there is no choice. This is inevitable. This is the trend right now in history.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  17:27

The transition in history from the Edo period to the Meiji period at the birth of the 20th century, was one of the most intense periods of rapid westernization in world history. In a brief space of decades, Japan shifted radically toward Eurocentric music, and held a tenuous an ever changing relationship with traditional music, or hogaku. Drawing on the scholarship of Martha Gonzalez, I struggle with Eurocentric capitalist economies of artistic production, and how these often unquestioned structures frame our musical identities and engagements. How do modern systems of economy and monetization alter and harm culture and identity. Listening is an act that takes time, attention, and is the very antithesis of a fast moving economy of competing attentions. As a counter cultural move, listen to Tori no Yo ni, flying like a bird, composed Tadao Sawai. This piece imagines dreamscapes of flying in open skies and the happiness when quote, dreams fill our hearts and we float in the sky like a bird


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  20:06

The following section is a critique of the problematic practices of modern composition. While this section names a story of harm that involves the Memoirs of a Geisha soundtrack, I reflect that I may sometimes be complicit. When do I move to surface level understandings of the exotic Other and use the pressure of time and production to undermine mutual relationship and a depth of understanding? When are cultural artifacts of the Other objectified, monetized and appropriated? How do we hold spaces of time, mutuality and understanding where music quote, remains in people's hearts?





Ishigure  20:55

Well, the reason they write Koto songs is because they need to get their hands on something new and interesting to survive. So it can be anything any unusual instrument would do. So they pick uncommon instruments and write songs to become famous. It's so obvious it's their intention, but they don't know the instruments at all. Quite frankly, the famous John Williams is no exception. Well, when I had the honor of playing Koto for the film, Memoirs of a Geisha, it was like that, well, he is an expert. In fact, he is the expert of expert, so he did not just write something just to write something he asked me to meet bring in koto and told me that it was his first time to write a song for koto. So tell me what koto can do and what it cannot do. So I went to his office at Universal Studios and told him exactly what koto could do and what it couldn't while I was super nervous so there were things I couldn't touch upon. But what he wrote was something impossible to play with Koto there were many scenes I got a bunch of music sheets for different scenes, but some of them were simply physically impossible with Koto





Ishigure  22:28

And I still clearly remember well, I don't mean to only point it to John Williams, but they need to study more. That's how I feel. Some of them were simply impossible, not just to me, but any genius koto performer cannot play it just physically impossible. But he said I needed to play it. The whole orchestra was there and you know, orchestra is a union, so you can't go over there contracted work time, not even one minute, right? So he ordered me do it now. Do it now. He asked the whole orchestra to step aside and told me to play alone. Then seeing me struggle. He asked me to play it with the harp performer and then with two harp performers. The other 100 orchestra members were just sitting around waiting for us Koto and harp players to be done, and the particular song wasn't even used. So my point is, I'm sure he thought he needed to use Japanese instruments because the theme of the film was Geisha and that's why he hired me, but I don't think Koto was effectively used in the film. For example, if he incorporates Koto in his music, the essence and unique characteristics of Koto should be kept, but the famous John Williams could have taken it to the next level. I mean, I'm not trying to talk bad about him or anything. I'm not someone who can criticize him. But I wanted the experience to be like, Wow, that's the world class composer John Williams, making Koto music into something extraordinary. But unfortunately, it was not like that. So when he asked me to play with the harp, it was just impossible but he didn't realize that. I thought I explained it, but it was not understood. So in the future, so many new composers will write a lot of Koto songs, and while I truly appreciated it, I sincerely hope that what they will write should be something that needs to be played with Koto. There are so many songs that people think this doesn't need to be on koto. It would be much more beautiful on piano. I often think why do I have to play this song on Koto? That's why Koto songs just come and go without remaining in people's hearts. Those composers do not or cannot play Koto themselves. So they just write their songs on a piano, write it on a music score for piano handed to Koto performers and simply impossible to play. Further since their knowledge on koto is lacking. Many songs end up being the ones that people wonder why it was written specifically for Koto. So if I give my humble advice to the future composers, I want them to study more including wabi sabi. There is no composer right now, who writes songs that has to be on Koto, while having something new and yet maintaining traditional taste. I know that's a lot to ask. And it's really hard. I am saying this because I'm not the one to do so as I am not a composer. But really, there is no composer like that. They just read books and think they understand it.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  25:41

Ms. Ishigure spoke against bookish notions of wabi sabi that trade depth, mutuality and care for intellectual exercise. Davies and Ikeno Note that wabi sabi is an aesthetic, or a Japanese belief in beauty in which the austere the aged, and the embrace of absence and emptiness is beautiful. For music, this aesthetic reveals itself in sparse textures and silences, and Sonic paintings with formal elements. For poetry. This aesthetic reveals itself as Haiku, where an economy of syllables praises the withered, the worn, and the simple, isolated, decaying beauty. However, if we stop at this, we have only reached a surface level understanding. As wabi sabi is, quote, not found in the features of manifest existence. Rather, it is created in the mind of the beholder. In unseen qualities, there is a beauty of imagination that happens in mindful intentions. As I listened to Ishigure's language of the music that quote, touches people's hearts, I wonder if it is this deeper internal sense of beauty to which she refers.


Ishigure  27:02

There are so many composers who write their songs to show off their knowledge, like, look what I can do in my music, like they are full of I know this. I know this, I read this kind of bookish songs, but they don't resonate. They don't touch people's hearts. whoever listens to those kinds of songs would be like, Huh, okay. So that's our challenge. That's my challenge. Challenge for us performers. I mean, it's not only for us performers, but what we performers can do is to play songs well. That's the only thing we can do. So the composers who write songs are very important. Writing songs that remain in people's hearts for a long time. Our job is to practice those songs to our fullest.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  27:52

Masayo Ishigure offers a challenge for greater depth. She named the problems of surface level branding that promote music as an act of peace without moving to sufficient depth. I embrace Ms. Ishigure's thoughtful challenge to move deeper. As I studied the Haiku poetry of Basho and the artful renderings of Ms. Ishigure, I recognize that at the heart of these traditions is a challenge to the hubris of over intellectualizing and making grand pronouncements. The great poet Basho found peace within a single austere moment that crosses thresholds between outer and inner peace. In paintings of language and sound, we may cultivate habits of beauty that embrace the humble, the fleeting, the layered moment to moment noticings of beautiful existence.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  28:52

From the records of a travel worn satchel Basho writes, it was in the middle of April when I wandered out to the beach, the sky was slightly overcast and the moon on a short night of early summer had special beauty. The mountains were dark with foliage, when I thought it was about time to hear the first voice of the cuckoo. The light of the sun touched the eastern horizon. And as it increased, I began to see on the hills of Ueno ripe ears of wheat tinged with reddish brown, and fisherman's huts scattered here and there, among the flowers of white Poppy. His poem: At sunrise I saw // Tanned faces of fishermen // Among the flowers of white Poppy.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  29:46

This tradition invites us to read between the lines, adding the depth where internal meets the external and from the depth of this tradition, we end with a track Sunae that sounds the austere fall of grains of sand and the limitations of our grasp.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  30:37

The challenge of change is in balancing our need to change to learn to grow with a sense of groundedness and who we are. This is the challenge of every relationship and often the foundations of conflict, including the relation of Koto performance to our musical worlds, building on the traditions of Miyagi and Sawai, Ms. Ishigure advocates that the koto will not be restricted as a relic of the past, or an object of the exotic but embraced with the dignity of opportunities to evolve, to change and commune with other traditions. However, those who choose to write new paths for the koto must take the time to honor culture and live within traditions. The line between objectification and embrace is narrow and one that must be ever discerned.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  31:37

Special thanks to Ms. Ishigure for her music, and the elegant challenge of her desire to make music that touches people's hearts. Special thanks to Erin Vago and Dr. Nobuaki Takahashi for their work on translations. At Elizabethtown College, Dr. Takahashi and Dr. Bhattacharya, lead an outstanding program in Japanese language study. Featured at Elizabethtown college this fall of 2022 Masayo Ishigure's album Grace can be found on streaming services everywhere.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  32:13

This is the music and peacebuilding podcast hosted by Kevin Shorner-Johnson. At Elizabethtown College, we host a master of music education with an emphasis in peacebuilding. thinking deeply we reclaim space for connection and care. Join us at music peace

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