National | MUSEUM MUSINGS

Blind 'superstar of the koto world' leaves trove of nature-inspired works

by Nao Shimoyachi

He may have struggled with blindness and financial hardships, but Michio Miyagi’s legacy — at Michio Miyagi Memorial Hall — is the unmistakable sounds he produced on the koto, or Japanese harp.

His magnum opus, “Haru no Umi” (“The Spring Sea”), has become a famous traditional Japanese work — so well known that there can be few people in this country who have not heard it, although it may only have been background music in a restaurant.

The memorial hall, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, was built on the spot where Miyagi spent his last years.

It was opened in 1978 to honor the achievements of the prominent blind koto composer and performer, who died in 1956.

Miyagi, who was born in 1894, is often described as the father of modern Japanese music because he incorporated Western methods of composition and performance into traditional Japanese music and helped to revive what was a waning Japanese art form.

In the hall’s exhibition room, which contains about 200 items that belonged to the musician, visitors can follow how Miyagi struggled daily with both physical and financial challenges.

In addition to losing his sight at the age of 8, Miyagi battled poverty and the conservative koto world, which initially rejected his compositions. Yet, throughout his life, he remained positive and continued to pursue his own koto methods.

“(Miyagi) can be described as a superstar of the koto world,” said Yuko Chiba, who works at the museum’s library and cowrote with her husband a biography of Miyagi.

“We’ve heard that his koto performances were excellent, and so was his personality.”

Miyagi is known for his modest and gentle character and has even appeared in a junior high school textbook on ethics.

Standing at the center of the exhibition room is a reproduction of the unusually large koto that Miyagi invented. The koto has 80 strings tuned to produce chromatic semitones that a regular koto, which has 13 strings, cannot. Miyagi devoted a great deal of thought and energy to creating the instrument, enabling him to increase the scale and range of sounds the koto can produce.

In the neighboring audio room, visitors can enjoy Miyagi’s works, most of which were inspired by nature. His first work was “Mizu no Hentai” (“Transformation of Water”), composed when he was 14, and portrays the transformation of water into mist, clouds, rain, snow, hail and dew. Miyagi made about 350 works of music during his life.

The hall is also a repository of audio tapes of 171 of his works. Visitors can listen to seven or eight different pieces each season.

The remaining works are in the museum’s library, which also stores documents related to Miyagi and traditional Japanese music.

Video programs are also available to help visitors visualize Miyagi’s musical world.

Chiba said groups of teachers have begun to visit the hall to learn about koto after lessons of at least one Japanese musical instrument became compulsory at elementary and junior high schools in April.

“Koto is easy to play and the sounds are not as loud as those of Japanese drums,” Chiba suggested as one reason for the newfound interest in the instrument. “Koto seems to be in the spotlight again.”

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