Imagine yourself in Edo (old Tokyo) during the mid-18th century. The streets bustle with activity -- almost all of which is accompanied by song: carpenters sing while working wood; mothers lull their babies to slumber; farmers till their paddies to rice-planting songs; and the boatmen's rhythmic melodies echo through the city's many canals and rivers. In the evening, rich merchants gather to hear courtesans quietly intone tunes of love and yearning accompanied by the plaintive melodies of the three-stringed shamisen. The next room may host a rowdy group singing drinking songs. Itinerant shamisen players roam the city's many warrens and alleys entertaining passersby.

Commercial theaters, such as the kabuki and bunraku puppet theaters, flourish, and stage action is always accompanied by copious amounts of song and music. Rows of shamisen, flutes, drums and singers perform for the kabuki and bunraku puppet theaters, a tayu narrator recites dialogue with colorful histrionics. From the common layperson to the star professional, Edo was full of exceptional musicians.

Into this milieu appeared a talented young, blind singer and koto (traditional Japanese 13-stringed zither) player by the name of Toyoichi Yamada (1757-1817). Influenced by the fertile vocal traditions of Edo, where he was raised, Yamada popularized the koto and created for it an extensive repertoire of song. At around age 30, he was awarded the title kengyo, which was the highest social ranking available to members of the Todo-za (guild of the blind) during the Edo Period, and created the Yamada school of koto.