As part of July’s weekend Zushi Festival, Minoru Fushimi took the live stage in front of the station and, after introducing his instrument, began to play.
Most of those who stopped to listen had never seen an oud before; few if any knew that Minoru was paying homage to the late Hamza El Din, the famous Sudanese oud player who lived for nearly 20 years here in Japan.
Now the word is spreading that in a residential area not far from the U.S. military’s Ikego Hills housing complex in Zushi, Minoru has set up shop as the only specialist importer in Japan of musical instruments from the Mideast.
Since most of his business is online and visits to the shop are by appointment only, a central location was not so important. “I’ve had customers from Hokkaido to Okinawa,” he said, “and customers have traveled from Kyoto and Shikoku just to visit my shop. Most of the instruments I stock are from the Middle East, but the musical crossover never ends.”
Until last year, Minoru was an English teacher. He could have held on for another decade to age 60 and retirement, but it was near impossible to teach anymore, and it was teaching that he loved. “I was spending all my time on meaningless unrelated tasks and classroom control.”
Quitting was not a spur-of-the-moment action, however. He spent a lot of time talking it through with his British wife, whom he met while teaching. “We have two young children, and any decision would affect all of us.”
Born in Yokosuka, Minoru became interested in music for the first time in junior high, and remembers the liberal atmosphere of the 1970s.
“I saw the movie ‘Woodstock’ at a local cinema, and American soldiers on leave or on their way to Vietnam were singing along. They knew all the words of the antiwar songs.”
Times may have moved on, but American soldiers are still here and engaged in a different war, in the Middle East, a part of the world now very close to Minoru’s heart.
Not long ago, he went to a concert in Tokyo by the exiled Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma. “He gave an amazing performance, expressing the terrible suffering going on his country. I found myself with tears streaming down my face at the emotional intensity of the music.”
During his 25-year career as a teacher of English, Minoru always tried to instill some emotion and intensity into his lessons. Frustrated with the authorized textbooks, he often supplemented his lessons with handouts and explanations. “I wanted to inform my students, to tell them the truth, and then have them think for themselves.”
He found that the information written about the U.S. in particular was far from the reality: racism ended with Martin Luther King and global pollution was someone else’s problem.
“Maybe I was a strange type of English teacher, warning my students that blindly studying English too much ‘can make you stupid,’ ” he jokes.
He feels that while internationalization is championed in Japanese schools, only superficial aspects of foreign culture are introduced, and concentrate on how different people are in other countries.
“Many students still hold on to the stereotypical image of ‘gaijin’ as white or black and speaking only English, which is hardly surprising given the influence of media, parents and even teachers. Why focus only on the differences, when we are all so similar?
“Towards the end of my career, I felt I was fighting a losing battle,” Minoru adds.
The decision to start anew has been liberating. In his 20s and 30s he had liked rock and pop (with Jimi Hendrix as his hero), blues and jazz, but moved on to incorporate funk, rap and traditional Japanese music into home recordings.
For a while, he studied the biwa with a 95-year-old musician in Zushi. But Minoru really sat up and listened when by chance he heard the profound and reflective sounds of an oud on the radio.
“The oud and the biwa have a common ancestor,” Minoru explains, playing a Western scale on the most beautiful (and expensive) instrument in EmmazMarket, and then the scale’s Arabic equivalent, a “makam,” which in between the notes of C and D has nine fractions. He plucks the strings with a long quill of cow horn (originally a feather).
“See that row of two and three stringed instruments?” he points out. “That wooden shamisen from Kyushu is almost identical to instruments from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Japanese culture is a blend of all cultures at the end of the Silk Road.”
He explains how recent music education has resulted in Japanese people regarding music in the major scale as happy, and in the minor scale as sad and melancholy. “This simplified major-minor dichotomy certainly dominates modern Western music and Japanese pop music. But most music is not that simple.
“For instance, in Japanese traditional music we can use the major-oriented scale for expressing a sad feeling, and Arabic and Turkish music have hundreds of makams to express a wide range of emotions. In fact, even Western music had a great variety in scales up until the Renaissance.”
Before opening his business, Minoru attended seminars where he learned that trade with the Middle East is very rare in the small-scale import business field.
“I love communicating with so many people all over the world,” he smiles.
And Minoru’s goal for the future? “I am committed to promoting Middle Eastern music in Japan, and hope that my business will contribute to its popularity.”