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Fujie Kagami has devoted her life to studying and teaching the koto. She has been honored with a Cultural Award from Aichi Prefecture.

Fujie Kagami was born in 1921 into a world of privilege. Her life reflects what was going on around her during the years between the wars.

Her grandfather was mayor of their Komaki district in Aichi Prefecture. Her father, a graduate of Waseda University, married the daughter of the mayor of a neighboring district.

“Our family owned a lot of land,” Kagami said. “We ran a factory producing silk threads used in kimono making. There were always 10 people in our house, and once a year the house and factor would bring in 200 workers to help harvest and process the silk.

“Generally, the Japanese economy was flourishing. I appreciate the good fortune into which I was born.”

With only one major interruption in life, her good fortune has stayed with her. “My father majored in literature, and didn’t have a business mind,” Kagami said. “He preferred reading poetry and novels to dealing with the everyday running of a silk factory.

“My grandfather recognized that my father was not of the material to make a suitable successor, and sent him to be a journalist at the Chunichi newspaper. My mother was a koto player. Part of her dowry she took with her to her new home was a koto. I began learning the koto from my mother.”

Kagami, an only child for her first 10 years, remembers her mother playing the koto in duets with her father playing the shakuhachi. “For him, playing the shakuhachi was a hobby,” she said.

She was sent to primary school in Nagoya, a long trip unusual in those days for a little girl to undertake. “Each morning, a maid took me by bicycle 4 km from our house to the train station,” she said. “On my return, I was picked up by a rick shaw at the station. One of my primary school mates was Akio Morita, who became head of Sony.”

The major interruption to the even tenor of her life began in 1935. “Japan was already at war,” Kagami said. “Our family factory stopped its silk production as there was no demand for it in wartime.

“Gradually my family went into debt. My grandparents died. I had no new clothes and little food. I went to work in an army factory.” By now she had a brother 10 years her junior and a sister 15 years younger.

Her sister’s memories, in contrast to Kagami’s, are of being brought up in poverty, having only zori to wear on her feet, and of trekking up a mountain road to school.

Kagami did, however, return to school, and graduated from university. As a reporter she joined the Chunichi newspaper. There, after the war, she met her husband.

After marriage she left the newspaper company, and returned to playing the koto.

She said, “With my sister, I opened our own school. We used to open up our rooms at home and give concerts, to bring back brightness to children.” She qualified as a teacher, and began her koto-playing career in the school of Seiha. For the next 50 years she studied with composer Shinichi Yuize.

Those years were filled as well as with her studies, with teaching, giving concerts of classical and modern music, playing on radio and television and for the Kabuki theater, and going on overseas tours.

She took on the name of Utashi under the Seiha School of Koto, Tokyo. She also became a Grand Master of Koto. In the 1980s she led her group of musicians to play in California and Taiwan, and with the BBC backing her, in Edinburgh and London. European critics praised her music as “of a rare beauty,” “seriously beautiful,” and having “delicacy, refinement and subtlety.” In Japan, she received a Cultural Award from Aichi Prefecture.

One of Kagami’s outstanding memories concerns the 1986 concert her group gave in Gillingham, Kent. That was the birthplace in 1564 of Will Adams, the shipwrecked seafarer who became Anjin Miura, personal adviser to the Shogun. Kagami’s group was given a special welcome by the local mayor at a reception in Gillingham.

Kagami’s husband died in 2005. He left her many letters, encouraging her to stay young and beautiful, to continue with the English studies she enjoyed, to teach her students kindly and energetically, and to travel. She is trying to do everything he urged her.

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