Fretwork: A Look at Vintage Japanese Classical Guitars
1968 Yusaku Mokuharu, Katsura and Indigenous Japanese biwa and shamisen.
BY MICHAEL WRIGHT | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
For those of you who grew up double-thumbing those marvelous Japanese inventions Nintendo or Sony PlayStation, it may come as a surprise that back in the 1960s and ’70s, Japanese-made products—including guitars—were often viewed with disdain by many American consumers.
A lot of that had more to do with Pearl Harbor than the items themselves, and in retrospect it was probably unfair. Indeed, when it comes to classical guitars, Japanese luthiers were already building fine instruments and solving technical challenges that would soon make them major exporters well into the 1980s. Some of these vintage guitars now represent excellent value, whether you’re looking for a concert-grade or very high-quality student guitar.
While the somewhat jaundiced American view of Japanese classical guitars during the ’60s and ’70s was partly the legacy of World War II, its roots go much deeper in time. Japanese interest in Spanish guitars dates back at least to 1853, when U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo harbor with a dragon fleet of steam-powered gunships. Japan had been culturally isolated—“sequestered”—since the early 1600s. In reaction to 16th century evangelism by Portuguese missionaries, Christianity was outlawed in Japan, European traders were confined to a tiny island in Nagasaki Bay, and death awaited anyone who left the islands without express permission. Commodore Perry’s mission was to re-open Japan for business . . . with America!
Perry’s diplomatic “negotiations” included staging several champagne-fueled blackface minstrel shows—the popular American entertainment of the day—performed by crewmembers who thereby introduced Japan to the guitar and 5-string fretless banjo. These instruments may have seemed familiar—Japan already had a 4-string wooden biwa (fretted lute) and the 3-string unfretted, skin-covered shamisen. Plus, Japanese musical scales were similar to Western scales (although untempered).
The influence of Western music and instruments steadily increased through the popularity of military bands and Japanese laborers returning from Hawaiian sugar-cane fields after 1868. Japanese musicians began to study in America and Europe.
Morishige Takei (1890–1949) studied in Italy, started the first Japanese mandolin orchestra (1915), and began composing for classical guitar (1919). In 1929, Andrés Segovia toured the islands and classical guitar became a national obsession. Hoshino Gakki Ten began importing Spanish guitars from Salvador Ibanez in Valencia, and by the mid-1930s, Japanese acoustic guitar manufacturers included Hoshino, Kasuga Gakki, and possibly the Suzuki Violin Company, with at least two separate workshops run by brothers Giichi and Sada Yairi. Then came World War II.
One of the key objectives in Occupied Japan following the War (which ended in 1945) was to make Japanese industry—including guitar making—a part of the emerging global economy. Among the earliest known modern Japanese classical guitar makers were brothers Sakazo and Rokutaro Nakade, Kazuo Yairi (1932–2014), and Yamaha.
Sakazo (1906–1993) and Rokutaro (d. c. 1973) Nakade were the sons of violin-maker Kinpachi Miyamoto (who actually measured Segovia’s guitar back in ’29). In the mid-1950s, the Nakades—located in Tokyo—were the first Japanese luthiers to make a pilgrimage to Spain to study traditional lutherie. Many other Japanese luthiers would follow in their footsteps. Sakazo’s sons Teruaki, Toshihiko, and Yukio became famous luthiers, as did his apprentices Yuichi Imai, Hakusui Imai, Yoshimitsu Hoshino, and Hideo Ido.
Kazuo Yairi was the son of Giichi Yairi, who worked for the Suzuki Violin Company in Kiso-Fukushima. Giichi left Suzuki in 1929 and opened his own shop in Kani, just north of Nagoya, where Kazuo apprenticed. Kazuo reportedly began making classical guitars perhaps as early as 1950, as a teenager. In 1965, Kazuo succeeded to his father’s shop and agreed to provide St. Louis Music with Alvarez-Yairi guitars. Giichi’s brother Sada (Kazuo’s uncle) also left Suzuki and opened his first shop in Nagoya in 1932, beginning to produce classicals later, in 1960.
Yamaha’s luthiers are mostly unidentified, but they introduced their patented Dynamic Guitar line in 1952, built in Hamamatsu and designed to take either nylon or steel strings, tolerably good for their time. In 1966, Yamaha brought in Spanish luthier Eduardo Ferrer to advise its luthiers, resulting in their first Grand Concert guitars (GC-5, GC-7, GC-10). In 1973, they brought in Manuel Hernandez to refine the line further. Segovia once performed on a Yamaha GC-71 and used a GC-70 as a practice guitar.
But Japan’s most famous luthier was Masaru Kohno (1926–1998), who also studied lutherie in Spain and opened a shop in Tokyo in the early 1960s. He won the Gold Medal at a prestigious guitar-building competition in Belgium in 1967 and his international fame was set. In 1975 he opened a larger shop with his nephew Masaki Sakurai, who continued the brand upon Kohno’s death. Other exceptionally talented Japanese luthiers include Masaru Matano, Eichi Kodaira, Ryoji Matsuoka, Hiroshi Tamura, Seizo Shinano, Mass Hirade, and numerous others.
Ironically, the factors that made Japanese classical guitar making so successful also made it somewhat schizophrenic. On one hand, it was the existing Japanese fascination with classical guitars that created the luthier culture there in the first place. On the other, the industry grew and thrived mainly because it was an export business, providing guitars to meet a seemingly bottomless international demand.
The primary reason that Japanese classical guitars exhibit a split personality involves the vicissitudes of climate, as discovered by Shiro Arai (Arai & Co., Aria guitars) when he traveled to the United States to promote Japanese classical guitars in the early 1960s. He brought high-end guitars to test the market and within weeks most had imploded due to climatic differences, exposure to heating systems, etc. Upon Arai’s return, Japanese luthiers started using better seasoned lumber, developed their trademark bi-laminated backs and sides—which many Americans derided as “plywood” during the ’70s—and built thicker tops driven by heavier bracing, all designed to help them survive alien environments outside of Japan.
As a result, guitars made to be sold domestically in Japan tend to be fairly lightweight, with traditional Torres bracing (seven tapered fans), and have a warm, romantic, Spanish character; no surprise, given how many Japanese luthiers trained in Spain! (Other bracing schemes are found, however, especially José Ramirez III’s 1A asymmetrical fans.) Guitars made for export usually feature the much heavier build, which tends to yield a crisp, well-balanced sound, with a very Japanese character.
Identifying which is which is not easy. Guitars intended primarily for sale within Japan include those with labels in Japanese (there are a few exceptions), with the name of the shop’s master luthier (Kazuo Hashimoto, Yusaku Mokuharu, Masayoshi Kikuchi, Sumio Kurusawa, etc.), or with Japanese-sounding brand names (Maruha, Fuji, Zen-On, etc.). However, several luthiers did export in the late ’70s, including Ryoki Matsuoka and Hiroshi Tamura. This is further confused by most labels being in English; all those occupying G.I.s after the war were potential buyers, as well. To make matters more confusing, there were a number of Japan-only brands that were Western-sounding, such as Greco and Fernandes.
Guitars made for export include those with well-known brands (Hohner, Conn, Ventura, Epiphone) and some not-so-well-known (Wilson, Westminster, Garcia, Hernandis, Orozco).Trading Company brands could be domestic or export (Aria, Takamine, Yamaha). It’s complicated!
Classical guitar making can occur anywhere in Japan, but is concentrated in three regions on the two main islands. The largest center is in and around Nagoya on Honshu. Tokyo is close behind, followed by Fukuoka on the northern tip of Kyushu.
Japanese classical guitars often suffer from a common misapprehension that, since many were made for export, they are “factory” guitars, conjuring images of washing-
machine assembly lines. In fact, most were produced in small workshops by relatively small crews of artisans, under the supervision of a master luthier, not unlike in most Spanish workshops. Asturias guitars are produced in a small Fukuoka shop with around 15 people. Tama guitars were made in a little corner of the FujiGen electric guitar factory, itself not a very big facility.
Similarly, there’s a perception that Japanese guitars—of all types—were produced in enormous quantities. With relatively small workshops making classical guitars, this clearly was not the case.
By the time we got to the early ’80s—ironically just as the prejudices engendered by World War II began to recede (and Nintendo was grabbing popular attention)—a combination of higher labor costs and unfavorable exchange rates caused international customers to shift business to Korean guitar-makers, and in time Korea developed many of its own superior luthiers. While their guitars have their own special characteristics, they are nothing like those split Spanish/Japanese personalities of vintage classical guitars made in Japan.
By the early 2000s, classical guitar making began to migrate to other Asian countries (for similar reasons), with China now dominant. Indeed, Hiroshi Yairi, son of the Japanese luthier Sada Yairi, had a major influence on the development of the Chinese classical guitar making industry.
Japanese classical guitars continue to be built to this day, but these are largely high-end guitars bearing the luthier’s name—and a correspondingly high price tag. It is with the vintage Japanese classical guitars that the true values are to be found.
A Field Guide to Vintage Japanese Classical Guitars
If you are going to consider buying or using a vintage Japanese classical guitar, the best advice is to play it first. But, in a world where international trade via the internet is reality, that may not be possible. Here are a few tips to guide you in your shopping.
Vintage Japanese classical guitar model numbers tended to be tied to price and, even if they aren’t, are reliable clues to relative grade. And “grade” relates to materials, construction, and trim. A C-60 will be better than a C-50 or a C-30. C-100s or C-150s will be better yet.
Obviously, a guitar with a signed label is more likely to be better supervised and better sounding. Guitars labeled as “Grand Concert” are generally of superior quality.
Lower-grade guitars may be made of mahogany or maple. Since virtually all Japanese classical guitars feature bi-laminated (“double-plate”) backs and sides, this rarely has much effect on sound. Better grades feature Indian or Brazilian rosewood, with the amount of figure increasing as you go up the line. Note that Japanese guitar makers used many exotic laminates, which were often presented as “rosewood,” including cocobolo and zebrawood, among many others. Sometimes the inner plate was fancier than the outer, although it could also be mahogany or a plain hardwood.
Lower-grade guitars may have a laminated (“plywood”) top; better-grades have solid spruce or cedar. Almost all but the cheapest guitars had tuned tops, which usually sound pretty good. I have played many excellent-sounding laminated-top guitars . . . and they won’t crack!
On fan-braced guitars, lower grades might have three fans, intermediate guitars five, the best models seven. The degree of shaping or tapering is another factor. Unfortunately, the number of braces doesn’t, per se, predict how good the guitar will sound!
Finally, the amount of trim suggests how much labor was put into a guitar, the assumption being that lesser guitars with less trim take less overall labor than better guitars. Matching marquetry patterns on rosette, tie-block, and headstock strip
suggest a higher grade; likewise, fancier purfling. A three-piece neck with a rosewood reinforcement strip is almost certainly of interest. Finally, purfling under the binding on the sides is often a clue to better workmanship.
None of these characteristics constitutes a guarantee of sonic quality, just clues.