Letter From Tokyo: The International Careers Kiyoshi Shomura and Shin-Ichi Fukuda Have Led Them Back Home

Letter From Tokyo- The International Careers Kiyoshi Shomura and Shin-Ichi Fukuda Have Led Them Back Home
Kiyoshi Shomura (L) and Shin-Ichi Fukuda

During a recent visit to Japan, I met with two of Japan’s most prominent guitarists: Kiyoshi Shomura and Shin-Ichi Fukuda. Each has had a brilliant career performing, teaching, and recording. Together and separately they have greatly raised awareness of classical guitar in the Land of the Rising Sun and championed guitar music composed by their countrymen on stage and on record. Toru Takemitsu dedicated three significant works to Shomura. And Fukuda has also been the dedicatee of new music and is currently documenting works by top Japanese composers in a series of albums for the Naxos label.

Shomura became a familiar face to TV viewers across Japan back in 1974 through a weekly program that featured him teaching a half-hour lesson to a young student and closing each episode with a performance. He has concertized extensively in Asia and Europe and records for the Toshiba EMI label. Fukuda built an international profile by winning numerous guitar competitions—including the esteemed Paris International Guitar Competition—and being featured on some 90 albums on various labels. His discography includes solo projects and a range of ensemble recordings featuring repertoire from all style periods. He has also mentored a number of prominent young Japanese virtuosi including Kaori Muraji, Daisuke Suzuki, and Yasuji Ohagi.

Sailors and Statesmen

Upon returning home, I studied up on the history of classical guitar in Japan to trace the progression to the instrument’s current state there. According to a 2003 doctoral dissertation by Daniel Quinn, in the 16th century, lutes and vihuelas were first brought to Japan’s shores by Portuguese sailors and Jesuit missionaries. The appearance of the guitar in Japan in 1854 is documented in a contemporary sketch by Bunsen Takagawa depicting minstrels among Commodore Matthew Perry’s crew accompanying themselves on guitar and banjo. Hiroshi Hiraoka (1856–1934), who had lived and worked for a time in America, is credited with introducing both the modern guitar and baseball to Japan. According to Quinn, Kenpachi Hiruma (1867–1936) became in 1905 the first Japanese guitar teacher to hang out his shingle.

During the Japan modernization campaign begun under Emperor Meiji (1852–1911), Japanese educators started teaching Western music to school children. In the 1920s, the country’s first classical guitar recitals were given by Fuku-ichiro Ikegami and Yoshie Okawara. The latter performed his own music, in addition to pieces by fellow Japanese composers. Ikegami’s recitals tilted more toward European composers such as Sor, Giuliani, Tárrega, and Mertz. In 1929, Segovia made his debut in Tokyo, where, according to Graham Wade, he performed Manuel Ponce’s Sonata Romántica. Segovia’s appearance in Japan spurred great interest in the maestro’s repertoire as well as his aesthetic of sound and music. Segovia visited Japan many more times and his influence remains palpable. In conversation, both Shomura and Fukuda spoke with great respect of Segovia’s contributions.

Today, Shomura is considered the elder statesman of Japan’s guitar scene. Now 71, he gave his debut concert in Tokyo in 1969, and will mark the 50th anniversary of that event in 2019 with a concert in which he will front an orchestra in a program that will include the Concierto de Aranjuez, Tedesco’s Guitar Concerto No. 1 in D, and a new concerto that Shomura will commission, perhaps to Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say.

Shomura began studying guitar with his father at age nine. “My father’s dream was to be a professional guitarist, but at that time it was too hard to make a living as a classical guitarist,” Shomura told me. “He chose a more secure job and started to teach me. Every day we had a one-hour lesson before he went to work. On days when I didn’t play well, he was angry. At that time, [Japanese] fathers were very strict.”  The young Shomura later studied with Yasumasa Ohara after his family moved to Gifu City. “Ohara was also stern,” he relates. “Like a samurai!” Shomura had built a solid technical foundation by the time he met Narciso Yepes when the Spanish virtuoso played in Japan. “He said if I came to Spain he would teach me,” Shomura recalls. “My father always thought it would be best for me to study guitar in Spain. He had prepared financially and had me start learning Spanish when I was 13. I went there in 1964.”

Yepes took a softer approach in teaching Shomura. “I studied with him from 1964 to 1968,” he says. [Shomura studied further with Yepes from 1978 to 1981.] “I learned many things from him. When I came back to Tokyo and gave my debut concert in 1969, it was technically almost perfect, but not very expressive. I’d been practicing ten hours a day and hadn’t experienced much of life.” Shomura decided to put his guitar down for six months and began reading books, going to movies, and socializing more. “I figured that if I learned to enjoy life more, I would learn to play with more expression. When I came back to the guitar, I enjoyed it more.”

After his instructional show aired on TV from 1974 to 1975, the number of concerts Shomura played tripled and he performed throughout Japan. In 1977 he signed with Japan’s top classical management company, Hajimoto, and he has remained on their artist roster for more than 40 years. They have booked him in a variety of settings, from solo recitals to collaborations with flute, violin, mandolin, voice, or piano, as well as with full orchestras. Shomura shared that he has played Concierto de Aranjuez more than 100 times.


Among his collaborations with Japanese composers, Shomura’s work with the late Toru Takemitsu stands out. “I asked him to write a piece for me and went to his house five times before he agreed to write one,” Shomura says. “He asked me what my favorite [Japanese] baseball team was, and I said I liked the [Tokyo] Giants. He said, ‘Then I won’t compose for you. I like the Osaka Tigers. I hate the Giants!’ So I told him that I liked the Tigers, and he wrote Folios, his first solo guitar piece, and dedicated it to me.” Takemitsu dedicated two other pieces to Shomura. The second is Equinox from 1994. The last piece Takemitsu wrote before he died in 1996 was In the Woods. Its three movements are dedicated to John Williams, Shomura, and Julian Bream, respectively. “I was in good company,” Shomura says. “I really appreciate that he wrote music for me.”

Shomura’s career continues to thrive. He plays some 50 concerts annually. “The guitar is my life,” he says. “Each year I feel more for the music than I did when I first started. When I was young, I only wanted to play perfectly and was fighting with the guitar. Now it is my friend and the best [means] for me to express my feelings.”

Countrymen and Friends

Shin-Ichi Fukuda has had a longtime business and personal relationship with Shomura. The two have served as jurors for guitar competitions, and videos of them playing together are on YouTube. “Kiyoshi is a good friend and has been very kind to me,” Fukuda says. “We started a guitar festival in Japan and have played together. Roland Dyens wrote a piece titled for our duo; it was named for the famous Hakuju Hall in Tokyo where Kiyoshi and I hold the festival.”

In a wide-ranging conversation with Fukuda, I learned how his deep connections to the guitar world began growing when he was 11. “My first teacher was Tatsuya Saitoh,” he says. “He was of the older generation and Jiro Matsuda, who was a teaching assistant to Segovia in Siena [Italy], had been his teacher. I studied with Mr. Saitoh for seven years.”

Fukuda progressed rapidly. “I found the joy of playing Etude 1 by Villa-Lobos very fast,” he says laughing. “Then my curiosity brought me to the Fantasia by Weiss and I became a fan of Baroque music. I went in a zig-zag fashion, learning little by little.” By the time he was 17, he played one half of a recital where he performed “La Maja de Goya” by Granados and the second movement of Concierto de Aranjuez.

A pivotal moment came when he attended a concert by Norihiko Watanabe, who was a friend of Mr. Saitoh and the first winner of the Paris International Guitar Competition in 1969. “When I saw him play, it was like I felt a shock,” he says. “I was inspired and wanted to be like him.” Fukuda subsequently became intrigued by French culture—the music as well as painting and cooking. At 18, he went to Paris and enrolled at L’Ecole Normal de la Musique where studied guitar with Alberto Ponce. After graduating in 1978, he continued his studies in Siena with Oscar Ghiglia, graduating in 1980 with high honors. The next year, following in the footsteps of Watanabe, he took first prize in the 23rd Paris International Guitar Competition.

“After winning, I got several concerts in Europe, in Germany and Italy,” Fukuda says, “but it was difficult to make a living out of that. I stayed in Paris four years after the competition. I went back and forth to Japan four or five times a year to earn enough money to return to Europe.” Fukuda gave his debut recital in Tokyo in 1983, and signed a recording contract with the JVC label. He was also offered a teaching post, so it became clear that he should base his career in Japan. For the past 35 years, Fukuda has toured relentlessly, appearing in countless major cities across the globe in solo recitals, as a soloist with orchestras, and in chamber music concerts. In 2011, the Japanese government awarded him the prestigious Art Encouragement Prize in Music for his outstanding achievements.

As mentioned previously, Fukuda has played repertoire from all periods, and explored the music of the early 19th century on a handful of albums playing guitars from the Romantic Era. On a pair of 1995 recordings, Shubertiana and 19th Century Guitar for the Denon label, he played an instrument built by Pierre-René Lacote. On a recent release, Duo Concertant, with Austrian violinist Rainer Küchl, he plays a period instrument built by Italian luthier Gaetano Guadagnini in a program of duets by Paganini and Giuliani. Küchl recently retired as the concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera. Of his work with the esteemed violinist, Fukuda jokes, “He left the big orchestra and came to a small orchestra with me.” The album showcases both the dazzling virtuosity and musical sensitivity of both performers.

Cuban composer Leo Brouwer has composed a few works for Fukuda, including The Harp and the Shadow and Hika. Both are solo pieces, the latter in memory of Toru Takemitsu. Brouwer’s Concerto de Requiem, also in memory of Takemitsu, is ambitious in its orchestration and, according to Fukuda, who has played it five times since its premiere, it has a very challenging guitar part.

Fukuda has taught extensively, guiding many great students through the years. For ten years, he mentored Kaori Muraji, who has since developed a vast following in Japan through her concerts, recordings, and TV and radio appearances. From his vantage point as a jurist for guitar competitions, Fukuda has noted the technical ability of young players growing continually. However, he laments that there is sometimes too much emphasis on technique. “I feel a contradiction as technique is developing,” he says. “I think we’ve lost sight of the music. I got to hear Segovia play three times. Sometimes his way of playing seems very primitive, but his sound touched the heart directly. To me, that’s real music.”

Among the many activities on Fukuda’s schedule for 2018 was a spring tour of the American West Coast and Midwest. He will also celebrate new releases from his Bach on Guitar Series for Meister Music and the Japanese Guitar Music Series for Naxos. And he recently completed volume IV of the Naxos Japanese series, which features Takemitsu’s music for guitar and flute. Additionally, he has finished the first volume of a series of pieces by Manuel Ponce.From my conversations and observations, classical guitar seems healthy in Japan. According to Shomura, the enthusiasm around classical guitar has grown since the days when he was an aspiring young performer. “Now, many Japanese composers are writing for guitar, more than when I started,” he says. “Today in Japan, if you play well, you can make a living as a classical guitarist.”