Biwa in America

Many people would agree that the most famous biwa musician in the United States is Kinshi Tsuruta, who premiered Toru Takemitsu‘s signature piece “November Steps” in New York City in 1967. However, there are hidden stories of Japanese immigrants who played this instrument in the United States through the rough times in the 20th century.

The number of Japanese immigrants to the United States increased in the early 20th century. It was also the time when biwa music gained general popularity in Japan, and the population of biwa players was the highest. Some of the immigrants brought biwas over to the United States with them, and played for their fellow people who missed their home country. They held performances, taught the instrument, and formed groups in Japanese ethnic enclaves.

Biwa music at the time reflected the emerging and later solidified nationalism of Imperial Japan — interestingly, these songs were imported in their original form and performed in Japanese communities in the U.S. without censorship even when the political tension between the U.S. and Japan was heightened. Biwa performances were held even in the internment camps during WWII, where, ironically, they acquired a wider audience than ever.




Hidden Stories

Read hidden stories of biwa and the Japanese American communities. More stories are to be added — please check back! | 米日系社会における琵琶に関する隠れた物語の紹介です。少しずつ追加していきます。

Biwas that survived Japanese-American Internment

【強制収容を乗り越えた琵琶】 February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed the Executive Order 9066, that forced 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast to “relocate” to internment camps. With confusion, anxiety, despair, anger…

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