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.

Legend has it that the version of biwa that Fumon played — known as Satsumabiwa — was developed during the latter half of the 16th century by Tadanaga Shimazu, the head of the powerful Satsuma samurai clan in the southern island of Kyushu.

Apparently, Shimazu ordered the blind, biwa-playing Buddhist priest Fuchiwaki Juchoin to create music to suit the educational texts he had written to raise the morale of his warriors. Originally, the songs were about Buddhist teachings and in praise of the Emperor, then warriors gradually developed their own style of music, including tales of battles and Japanese and Chinese poems.

But when Marshall first started learning it, the musical art was on the verge of disappearing, with fewer than 10 traditional-style performers left. Learning to play the stringed instrument has given Marshall, a native of Ireland and a former Cambridge University organ scholar, a whole new outlook on music, he says. “With this (biwa), it’s almost as if the self disappears,” said Marshall, who, with a shaven head and poised demeanor, has the look of a reincarnated medieval priest.

“It’s a very unusual experience, something that I never felt when playing the organ or the piano. It’s almost as if this instrument is playing through me.”

Marshall says playing biwa has been extremely challenging, especially because pitches change dramatically according to the subtle pressures the performer applies on the strings with fingers. But following his hand injury in 1999, he realized that there is much more to playing biwa than getting the pitches right; it’s about experiencing music through his entire body and surrendering himself to his senses and instincts, he says.

Despite his 12 1/2-year career as a biwa player, and despite him being awarded the name Ranjo — an honor given only to those considered to have mastered the instrument — Marshall says that many Japanese people still have difficulty accepting that an Irishman can really play biwa. He likens such feelings to his own former misgivings about Japanese people playing classical music.

“I think they look at me as sort of an attraction, like a freak,” he said. ” When I first came to Japan, I (also) thought the way Japanese people play classical music was so wrong. It sounded strange and out of place. Now I understand that their music language is different.

“And I think for Japanese people, they have an image of what biwa should be, and it’s very hard to understand that it can be in a different form. But as soon as I accepted that I’m an Irishman who loves playing Japanese music, I was accepted, whereas before, I didn’t know what I was, and I was just trying to be Japanese.”

Marshall says he eventually realized that he could just be himself. “I was often criticized by people who said my Japanese pronunciation was strange,” he said. “And I came to the realization that it was supposed to be strange. If I sounded like a Japanese person with this face, it wouldn’t match. So I said, ‘OK, I accept that it’s strange. I let it be strange. And in fact I make it sound strange.’ And I started doing that. Then suddenly people said it sounds so much better. So maybe it still sounds odd, but people accept it for what it is.”


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