With his back straight and his head up, Thomas Charles Marshall sits down in an arbor overlooking a lotus-filled pond on the compact but verdant campus of the University of Creation; Art, Music & Social Work in Yoshii, Gunma Prefecture. He slowly reaches for his pear-shaped biwa, a century-old mulberry-wood lute with elaborate mother-of-pearl inlays.

"Gion shoja no kane no koe, shojo mujo no hibikiari (The sound of bells at the Gion Temple / Echoes the transitory nature of all things)," he chants, quoting the famous opening lines of the "Tale of the Heike," an epic story about the rise and fall of the Taira samurai family in 10th- and 12th-century Japan. Then he begins slapping the four strings of the biwa with a flat, triangular plectrum — gently at first, then with increasing fervor, filling the air with a tune full of emotions and samurai-like valor.

Marshall, 36, who is now a full-time lecturer at the university, stumbled across traditional biwa music 13 years ago when he was a Japan Exchange and Teaching program teacher in Gunma Prefecture. There, he was introduced to and became fascinated with the late biwa master Yoshinori Fumon who, even at the age of 83, could still conjure tremendous power from both his voice and his instrument.