When Traditional Culture Leads to New Opportunities 自国を離れ、伝統文化が拓く可能性

Published on: February 15, 2021

Noriko Tsuboi has taught and performed the Japanese instrument Koto in the United States and Thailand. Here are her stories and hopes.


By Noriko Tsuboi / Translated by Hanae Matsumura [日本語記事へ]


Looking back, I have spent almost half of my life away from my home country, Japan. Back when I was in Japan, my mother motivated me to learn Koto, one of the traditional Japanese musical instruments. This paved the way for my life in the U.S. and Thailand. I am grateful that my musical life has given me lots of precious encounters and opportunities.


After a childhood in Fukuoka, I moved to Tokyo to learn and perform Koto with my teacher. Then I moved to the U.S. to teach Koto at a university in California. The Koto class had a variety of students—Americans rooted in Europe, Africa and Asia, together with students from other countries including Japan—and they had different interests and motivations toward Koto. In the class, instead of traditional pieces which are difficult and require a lot of time and effort to learn, I chose some modern pieces which incorporate Western rhythm and phrases into the characteristic scales and techniques of Koto. That helped the number of students grow gradually. I also organized a Koto ensemble with students who took my class for one or two years to hold concerts and lectures and demonstrations at nearby universities, hospitals and art galleries. I suppose most of the students were simply attracted by Koto itself, but while teaching, I couldn’t help hoping that their experience of knowing a foreign culture through music would somehow lead to international exchanges in the future.


Later, I moved to Thailand. This country has a strong relationship with Japan and I feel that people expect Koto to serve as an introduction of Japanese culture rather than pure music. This gave me opportunities to “show” Japan on various occasions including Thai-Japan cultural exchange events, a performance in front of Thai Royal family members, and coaching Koto to Thai actors who were going to play the roles of Japanese in a television drama, etc. I feel more motivated each time and it makes me straighten myself up.


Even within Japan, the environment and lifestyle change greatly with the times. It is undeniable that the long-cherished traditional cultures have also been affected by the diversification of sensibilities and values among generations with the influence of Western culture after World War Two. I believe in the necessity of trying to create something that is unique to a time by inhaling something new of that time in order to nurture our traditional cultures, not only maintaining old good things in their conventional style. Plus, “traditional music living in the present” is more easily accepted by a wider audience. I hope that by living abroad I can utilize my experience of interacting with people from various countries through music or daily life to attract more people to the world of traditional music and spread the universal appeal of Koto.


In addition to getting foreigners interested in Japanese musical instruments, it is my greatest pleasure that the Japanese living in foreign countries rediscover the values and attractions of Japanese cultures. As children today are going to act and live more globally, I believe that learning the traditional cultures of their own countries by themselves as part of education is so worthwhile that it can also contribute to forming their identity and understanding different cultures. I sincerely hope that my students will someday feel that their experience of learning Koto enriched their lives, just like I do.


















About the Author

Noriko is a player and teacher of Koto who belongs to Sawai Koto Institute. After graduating from the NHK Academy for Japanese Traditional Music, she taught Koto at the Faculty of Music of the University of California San Diego from 1992 to 1997. She moved to Bangkok in 2001 and continues performing around the world while teaching young players.


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