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Edoya Nekohachi entertains with animal voices

by Judit Kawaguchi

Animal mimicry artist Edoya Nekohachi, 63, is a third-generation Japanese performer who specializes in animal sounds. His precise renditions of hundreds of bird species’ songs, as well as frog croaks, dog barks and dolphin whistles have been amusing audiences of all ages for more than 40 years. For his showmanship and flawless impersonations Nekohachi received the 2004 Excellence Award from The Agency for Cultural Affairs. Although animal mimicry was a very popular pastime during the Edo Period (1603-1867), today only a handful of performers keep this unique art form alive. Edoya Nekohachi (The Eight Cats of Edo) and his son, Edoya Koneko (The Kitten of Edo) are two of them. This pair of stage cats meow to their own tune and to the cheering of their fans in traditional Japanese yose theaters.

On stage, as in life, we must create our own world. And if it’s attractive, people will want to join it.

The greatest compliment for me is when animals mistake me for one of them. It happens often! Once when I was walking in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, I whistled the love call of the male Narcissus Flycatcher, my favorite bird. Almost immediately a female replied and flew right by me. It was love at first sight or, I should say, love at first call. We exchanged a few more songs but she seemed lost and flew away.

I’m like a caveman. Cavemen mimicked animal sounds, except they did it to keep beasts away or to draw them closer in order to hunt them. I do it for pleasure and to present the beauty of animals to humans.

“Don’t be a money-hungry fool, but don’t be foolish and go hungry, either!” my dad used to say. He meant that artists should not work purely for money. Once they do, they will find themselves accepting assignments where their pride or the status of their art form could be compromised. At the same time, we must get paid for our art, and there can be no bargaining about that. Basically, we shouldn’t offer discounts. I think artists have a special phrase for those who request a free show: “Sorry, I can’t do that.” That’s part of artistic freedom! Sure, we may be starving for it sometimes, but it’s worth it.

Birds teach us that we are not that unique and that we have a lot to learn from them. Birds mate, make nests and raise their young. They work so hard the whole time, yet they still find time to play and sing. It’s good to remind ourselves of this beautiful way of living.

Japan is a great country for artists, especially those just starting out. Audiences here enjoy supporting unknown but talented artists. They don’t expect a perfect show, but as long as the artist is trying hard, the audience will become fans and will follow him or her from one show to the next. In this nurturing environment it’s easy to get better at one’s craft.

Family traditions are the most important treasures that we inherit. My wife learned how to cook from her mom. It’s the same for me — I am following in my dad’s and grandpa’s footsteps. Of course, my wife’s traditions and skills benefit us all, every day, so I guess it’s more important than whistling and howling.

Japanese families are comfortable to belong to because we leave each other alone. This is the highest form of love: letting others have their own space.

“On stage, you’re alone and there is no way to cheat. That’s how life is, too.” That’s what my dad used to tell me. I began animal mimicry after high school because I loved my dad’s show. He never pressured me to follow in his footsteps. I could have been anything, but I wanted to be like him. “Do it if you like it,” he said. I did and I still do.

Practice is a very secret exercise and we like to keep it that way. I’ve never seen my dad practice and I never show anyone how I do it, either. I practice in my parked car or I walk around in parks. We learn on our own. My son goes to karaoke rooms to practice. The only time I hear him is on stage. He sounds great!

Japan is blessed with an amazing array of wildlife. I travel around Japan to observe birds and learn their songs. Last week, I was at Hahajima, in the Ogasawara islands. These tropical islands, 1,000 km south of Tokyo, are a World Heritage Site and are nicknamed the Galapagos of the East because so many life forms exist only there. I studied the songs of the Red-headed wood pigeon and the Bonin Islands honeyeater there.

Think of nature and the little creatures that inhabit it. In our daily life it’s so easy to ignore nature. We forget that birds and crickets live right around our homes, even in the middle of Tokyo. I am their voice and their messenger. Singing their songs is my way of showing my appreciation of them and of the universe.

The beauty of my work is that I can honor my ancestors every time I whistle. We get our lives from our parents. I didn’t just appear on this earth out of nowhere. I owe my life to my parents and our ancestors. I sing to that!

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan.” Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com Twitter: judittokyo

  • Hannes Pretorius

    Awesome.