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An ancient Japanese tradition lives on in Oakland

on February 8, 2013

You won’t often come across three accomplished koto players in one place—let alone in the same family. But Oakland is home to three generations of musicians who have dedicated their lives to the music of the Japanese harp.

Glenview resident Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto, 58, was recently inducted into the Japanese American Association of Northern California’s Bunka, or “Cultural” Hall of Fame for her musical talents and lifelong dedication to keeping the tradition of the koto alive—since first playing the instrument at five years old.

Made from paulownia wood, the koto is roughly a six-foot-long hollow box with a sound hole underneath, featuring thirteen silk strings (today you’ll find synthetic ones) which are strummed and plucked using finger picks made from ivory or plastic. Movable bridges can be slid back and forth across the strings to change the tuning of the instrument. The koto, which originated in China, was brought to Japan in the 8th century and gained popularity in the emperor’s court.

Centuries later in America, Muramoto learned to play the stringed instrument from her mother, Kazuko, who first came in contact with a koto when she and her parents were interned at the camp in Topaz, Utah during World War II. When she and her parents later moved to Japan, Kazuko began taking koto lessons at the Chikushi Kai School in Fukuoka, where she later earned her teaching degree and the title of “Tobiume,” the highest level of honor the school bestows upon a koto player.

Muramoto followed in her mother’s footsteps, earning a teaching degree and a “Dai Shihan,” or master’s distinction from the same school.

“It’s very bright,” she says, explaining what she loves about the koto. “Even in most of the songs that are melancholy or in a minor key, it still has this bright, subdued sound and yet you can get some really strong emotion out it.”

Shirley instilled the value of music in her two sons, Keith and Brian from a very young age; Brian, now 28, would later pick up the koto and earn a teaching degree of his own from the Sawai Sokyoukuin Koto Conservatory in Tokyo. He and Shirley released a music album together, “Koto Oyako Don,” in 2010.

“Anybody who has a gift of being able to play music or dance should pass on their experience to other generations so that they can carry it on,” says Muramoto, who has taught students of all ages in her home, at elementary schools and at UC Berkeley.

Muramoto also transcends tradition—using the koto to explore and compose her own jazz pieces with the group she founded in 1989: Murasaki Ensemble. Blending the koto with sounds of the flute, guitar, string bass and a variety of percussion instruments, Muramoto says forming the ensemble was a way of “interjecting the American side of me. I wanted to do something that was Western that didn’t really take away the tradition.”

In order for the koto and other ancient art forms to stand the test of time, Muramoto sees the need for it to push boundaries and expand its reach and appeal. “Arts are always evolving,” she says. “They have to evolve with the people.”

To hear what happens when ancient meets modern and East meets West, check out “Japanese Hogaku: New Sounds from America and Japan” on Sunday, March 10. This special performance will feature Shirley and the Murasaki Ensemble, her son Brian, and special guest Masahiro Nitta, a master of the shamisen—a banjo-like three-string instrument—who will be traveling all the way from Japan to share his talents.

The show starts at 4 p.m. in the Old First Church at 1715 Sacramento St. in San Francisco. Tickets are $17 for general admission, $14 for seniors and students and free for children under 12.

For more information, click here.  For tickets, visit

Image: Oakland resident Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto plays the koto, or Japanese harp, in the Cherry Blossom Festival parade in San Francisco in 1991.

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