Haruka KOSAKA: Japan’s love for Chopin

Japan’s love for Chopin

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There is no doubt that the Chopin Competition is specifically important for the Japanese. It is hard not to have a soft spot for something you love. And loving Chopin is simply wonderful. The fact that, in their love for the composer, the Japanese are second only to the Poles, seems to be noticed even by the Poles themselves – writes Haruka KOSAKA.

“Over time the Chopin Competition has become increasingly international. The tendency has been reinforced by the fact that Chopin’s music is played not only in Poland, but throughout the world,” said Susumu Nagai, the first Japanese to have sat on the competition’s jury, upon his return to Japan. Taking place in 1970, it was the 8th edition of the event, the one when Mitsuko Uchida won the second prize.

Nagai added that, even though the Japanese might have some difficulties picking up European customs, they had a perfect sense of what it meant to “cry with your heart and laugh with your face,” a quality that is so crucial for Chopin’s music. This is why they should have high expectations for the future.

“What is a truly Chopinesque interpretation?” continued Nagai. “With the advent of internationalisation the understanding of musical interpretation will become more common and the Japanese will have a lot of potential to express the essence of Chopin’s music.” The issue has been raised anew and discussed by the Japanese piano community for over half a century.

The Japanese first took part in the 3rd Chopin Competition of 1937. The country was represented by Miwa Kai, who spent her childhood in the USA, and Chieko Hara, who studied in France from the age of 13. Both had contacts with Western culture from a very early age. Of the two, Chieko Hara was especially acclaimed by the audience and critics. So much so that when the results of the competition were announced and she came fifteen, “the audience protested vehemently, saying that the verdict was not fair. The commotion was so great that police had to be called.” At least that is how a Japanese journal described it. Eventually Chieko Hara was given a special award.

The first Japanese to have won a regular prize was Kiyoko Tanaka who came in tenth place during the 5th Competition in 1955. She also made an impression on the audience which was so strong that the Japanese who visited the competition in later years would often hear people say: “Tanaka was great.” The pianist herself reminisced that, even though the economic situation in Poland was bad, “the country seemed devoted to art, something I envied the Poles a lot.”

In 1965, one year after the Tokyo Olympics, Hiroko Nakamura was fourth during the 7th Chopin Competition. The Japanese media raved about the achievement of the pianist who had previously come to the public attention as a child prodigy. After her success in Warsaw, Nakamura became a national star, a “world-class Japanese”, and the competition started enjoying growing popularity in Japan.

As it has already been mentioned, its 7th edition was the first to have a Japanese man on the jury. In those days, more and more Japanese would come to Warsaw to listen to the players directly. It was the time of high economic growth and international travel became much easier, at least for the Japanese. But it was also the moment when YAMAHA and KAWAI made a lot of progress in the areas of piano production and music education. This marked the beginning of the Japanese piano boom.

In the 8th Competition, Ikuko Endo, who ran for the second time, came away with the eight prize. Mitsuko Uchida, who was second, was just 21 and studied music in Vienna where she had lived for quite some time. She went to Europe when she was 12 due to her father’s work as a diplomat. After the competition, she explained to a Japanese critic who advised her to return to Japan that she wanted to stay in Europe to continue studying, developing and creating her own music. Uchida finally chose London as her domicile. To this day she is one of the world’s best piano players.

After Uchida’s success the juries of all subsequent competitions have included Japanese names, starting from Akiko Iguchi who was invited to sit on the jury of the 9th Chopin Competition in 1975. The number of Japanese participants kept growing.

Kazuko Yasukawa was a member of the jury during the 10th edition in 1980, when one of the prizes was won by Akiko Ebi, who came fifth ex aequo with Ewa Pobłocka. They will both sit on the jury of the 2021 event like they did for its 17th edition.

The largest number of Japanese contestants (26 out of 124) took part in the 11th Competition in 1985, ten of them qualifying for the second stage. Takahiro Sonoda, a juror, said: “People told me, without flattery, they had not expected that the Japanese would play at such a high level.” In the end, it was Michie Koyama who won the fourth prize. She remains the only Japanese woman who has won prizes in both Tchaikovsky and Chopin competitions. She was also a member of the jury during the 16th Competition in 2010 which took place on the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth.

A special mention must be made of Stanisław Bunin, the winner of the 1985 Competition. His frequent presence in Japan had a major impact on the Japanese music market: a merely 45-minute-long documentary aired by the NHK television channel started a crushing wave of interest in Bunin, a genuine “Buninmania”.

It did not take long to see the results.

In 1990, the 12th Competition attracted a large group of Japanese listeners. It is said that 260 out 1070 seats in the National Philharmonic were taken by the Japanese. In the meantime, the Japanese economy kept growing. One article on the competition said that the Japanese were even sorry that many music lovers from Warsaw could not buy tickets as these were sold out to the guests from Asia. It also said that, perhaps as a sign of dissatisfaction of the local audience, regardless of how well the Japanese performed, they only received modest applause.

Coming back to jurors and participants, the jury of the 1990 Competition included Kazuko Yasukawa and Hiroko Nakamura. The Japanese participants in that edition were rated highly: as many as seven out of fifteen made it to the third stage. A Polish newspaper wrote: “Seven samurais – so many Japanese. Where have all the Poles gone?” With no Polish candidate left in the finals, the local audience pinned their hopes on Takako Takahashi who studied in Warsaw at that time. She eventually came fifth while Yukio Yokoyama won the third prize. It was the first time in the competition’s history when the jury did not award the first prize, which obviously caused an outcry.

In 1995, the Japanese jurors of the 13th Competition were Hitoshi Kobayashi and Hiroko Nakamura. Again, the event finished with the same shocking verdict: no winner. The fifth prize was awarded to Rika Miyatani.

In 2000, the jury of the 14th Competition included Hiroko Nakamura and Ikuko Endo. Following two editions without the first prize, the competition was won by Li Yundi from China. Mika Sato from Japan was sixth. After the deliberations of the jury, Hiroko Nakamura said that Chinese participants were hungry for success while “Japan has a lot of pianists, but has perhaps lost the desire to win for all this wealth.” The observation is worth reflecting upon.

During the 15th Competition, in 2005, two Japanese pianists, Shohei Sekimoto and Takashi Yamamoto, shared the fourth prize. Of the two, it was specifically Yamamoto, a then student in Warsaw, who grew in popularity as he progressed to higher stages of the competition. Nobuyuki Tsujii was awarded the Critics Prize even though he did not get to the finals.

Nakamura, who was famous for her prudence, sat on the jury four times. During the sessions, she exchanged opinions with the world’s best teachers and pianists, accurately analysed what she saw and heard, and then offered many suggestions to the Japanese pianist community.

In an article published in 1970, when Mitsuko Uchida won the second prize, one Japanese critic wrote: “People flattered me there, saying that a Japanese would be the next winner, but I think there was some truth in it.” That second prize, however, remains the greatest Japanese achievement.

Even though Japanese names were almost always among the top six finalists since the 7th Competition, there were no Japanese laureates either in the 16th (2010) or the 17th (2015) editions. What is the reason? Maybe it is just a coincidence? Opinions vary from calm analyses to passionate speculations.

What is obvious is that the Chopin Competition is specifically important for the Japanese. It may seem funny, but it is a fact. It is hard not to have a soft spot for something you love. And loving Chopin is simply wonderful. The fact that, in their love for the composer, the Japanese are second only to the Poles, seems to be noticed even by the Poles themselves.

Looking back, I have realised how astonishing it is that this passion has persisted in Japan for over half a century. I do not think this will change in the future and the Japanese will continue loving Chopin and the Chopin Competition.

Haruka Kosaka

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