Kuronuma continues life's symphony in Japan

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Having spent half a century of her life living abroad, mostly in Mexico, acclaimed violist Yuriko Kuronuma has returned to her homeland, where she continues to inspire many fans with her music.

The 74-year-old has come to realize that Japan is where she wants to spend “the last chapter” of her life, “like in a symphony’s finale.”

On June 14, Kuronuma gave a charity concert in Onjuku, a sleepy fishing port in Chiba Prefecture, which she moved to in May. Even though she announced in January that she would retire as a professional violinist, the Onjuku concert was packed with people. It was a sold-out event, making her feel she was being welcomed back in her home country.

“At my age, you just start missing home. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to come back,” Kuronuma said in a recent interview at her home, which overlooks the Pacific.

Onjuku isn’t just any slow-paced seaside village. It has close connections to Kuronuma, even though she spent more than four decades in Mexico.

She has performed every year at Onjuku’s concert hall since 2009, when she was invited to visit the village for the first time for an event to celebrate the 400th anniversary commemorating the bravery of local female divers who saved the lives of Spanish officials following a shipwreck in 1609.

That year, the San Francisco, a Spanish galleon carrying Don Rodrigo de Vivero y Velasco, the former governor of the Philippines, was heading from Manila to Spain via a Spanish colony in Mexico when it was shipwrecked off Onjuku, “over there,” Kuronuma said from her balcony, pointing at the sea.

From an early age, Kuronuma’s talent allowed her to outshine other young, aspiring violinists. Born in 1940 into a family of grain wholesalers in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district, she started playing the violin — a Christmas gift from her father — at the age of 8. To support her family, who had lost nearly all of their assets during bombing raids over Tokyo during World War II, 10-year-old Kuronuma performed in front of U.S. military officials stationed in Japan, she recalled.

In 1956, during her first year at the prestigious Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo, she won first prize in the Music Competition of Japan, one of the country’s most prestigious music competitions.

The win helped Kuronuma obtain a scholarship to study music at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, the capital of what was then Czechoslovakia, in 1958.

While studying at the academy, she met a Mexican anthropologist who was researching the culture of Mexico’s indigenous people.

The two married when Kuronuma was just 20 years old, two years before she graduated.

After living in a number of countries for several years, the couple, together with their son, Adrian, settled in Huejutla de Reyes in central Mexico in 1972. Her husband had been appointed to give support to the descendents of indigenous Aztecs living in that part of the country.

While her husband was deeply involved with his work, Kuronuma said she was also strongly influenced by their culture and lifestyle, and she considers that experience to be an important chapter in her life.

During the many years she lived in Huejutla, neighboring the area inhabited by the Aztec descendants, she witnessed firsthand their struggles against discrimination and oppression by local officials.

Eventually, the security situation in Huejutla de Reyes became too dangerous and Kuronuma, together with her family, was forced to leave.

Kuronuma also started giving violin lessons to children in Mexico, in between concert tours and performances with renowned orchestras around the world.

She said she was delighted with the children’s strong interest in the violin, but was surprised at the local belief that the instrument wasn’t intended for them.

So when the family moved to Coyoacan, an urban area now a part of Mexico City where Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador who conquered the Aztec Empire once lived, she decided to provide local children with a chance to realize their potential.

In 1980, she opened La Academia Yuriko Kuronuma, which became the country’s first institution of its kind to accept young children, some of whom were only 4 years old, who were already showing an interest in music.

“At that time, no one believed that kids could play the violin,” she said. “People were shocked to see our students perform in a TV program about the school.”

But at that time there was no place in Mexico where parents could buy the instrument for their children. So Kuronuma made a plea to Japanese families to send secondhand violins, and more than 100 small ones were eventually donated to Mexican children, she said.

In 1985, to show their feelings of appreciation, 12 of the academy’s students, aged between 9 to 14, visited Japan to perform at the first Mexico-Japan Friendship Concert together with aspiring young Japanese violinists. It was an experience that impacted not only Mexican but also young Japanese violinists, she said.

“Japanese violinists were surprised to see how enthusiastically the Mexican children played because, especially at that time, practicing an instrument had been considered almost like an obligation,” she recalled.

Kuronuma said that she used to apologize every time she made mistakes. But her studies in Prague taught her she should enjoy performing, which is important to get the player’s passion across to the audience.

She said the roars of applause the kids received became a great motivator.

“Of the 12 students at the academy who performed on stage in Japan in 1985, eight became professional violinists,” she said, adding that some of her students returned to the academy to teach the violin or other instruments.

Meanwhile, some of the Japanese violinists who participated in the concert decided to cross the ocean to continue their studies under Kuronuma’s guidance.

Since its birth, the school has educated several generations of students, many of whom found their professional paths as musicians or teachers of violin, viola, piano or double bass. Unfortunately, Kuronuma closed the school in 2012 due to a number of reasons, including the evolving interests of the children.

“In recent years, many things have changed in Mexico and there aren’t many children interested in playing the violin,” Kuronuma said. “I think I have done all I could.”

Still, her years of work as an educator have been widely acknowledged. In 1986, Kuronuma was awarded the Aguila Azteca (Order of the Aztec Eagle) — the highest recognition awarded by the Mexican government to foreign nationals whose work has benefited the country and its culture.

“I’m happy having chanced upon Mexico, whose people showed me appreciation (for my work),” she said.

Toward the end of her time in Mexico, Kuronuma, together with Koyo Watabe, her current husband, and her older sister, Toshiko, lived in Tlayacapan in the highland state of Morelos, near the capital.

“Mexico is like home to me,” she said. “Foreigners are allowed to participate in society in nearly all forms. And as long as it’s beneficial for the Mexican culture, they are welcome to introduce their cultures. There I was able to do what I wanted.”

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