UC Berkeley employee keeps koto tradition alive

By Katherine Tam

The Japanese koto isn't normally the kind of musical instrument you would associate with jazz or bluegrass or gospel, but Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto blends them seamlessly.

Hers is an ever-expanding world of koto music, one not married solely to its centuries-old past but that forges new roads and bridges multiple genres of music.

Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto plays the koto at a concert at UC Berkeley.

An administrative assistant at UC Berkeley's Public Affairs Office and the University Relations Office, Muramoto — known professionally at the office as Shirley M. Wong — is an avid koto performer in her spare time who helps keep the cultural tradition alive by teaching students and embarking on groundbreaking research on how Japanese arts survived in America's World War II internment camps.

"At first, all I wanted to do was perform and not teach," she said. "Then I decided that in order to ensure that koto music continues on, I wanted to put more energy into teaching. Teaching is a way to continue the art."

For the unfamiliar, the koto is a 6-foot-long stringed wooden instrument that originated in China and reached Japan in the 8th century. It was primarily played by male aristocrat, until the 17th century, when the blind musician Yatsuhashi Kengyo is attributed with creating a new style of music that made the instrument more accessible. In 1854 when Japan was opened to the west, western music began to influence the traditional koto sound.

As the national instrument of Japan, koto is taught in public schools as well as privately.

For Muramoto, the koto is intertwined with the past.

Like many Japanese Americans, Muramoto's grandparents and mother were imprisoned in camps at Topaz and Tule Lake during World War II. Her grandparents wanted her mother to learn the koto. Her mother's koto teacher lent her a koto with no strings or tuning bridges. Muramoto's grandfather used scraps of wood and toothbrush handles to make tuning bridges and fashioned strings from raffia. After the war, her mother continued to play the koto and became a koto teacher herself.

As a girl, Muramoto took up the violin at age 8 because she wanted to play an instrument that would distinguish her from her mother. But she grew to love and excel in the koto.

After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1977, she journeyed to the Chikushi School in Japan where she passed her teaching exams with high honors and earned her master's degree in 2000.

Read more about Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto on her website, and watch her lead a group performance in the video above. For more information or to assist Muramoto in her research of Japanese arts during World War II, contact her at skmkoto@comcast.net.

Since then, she has taught koto to children at local elementary schools and adults at UC Berkeley and through private lessons. Her son, Brian, also plays koto and teaches classes at UC Berkeley.

Throughout those years, the memory of her mother's experience in the camps never faded and sparked a curiosity that would lead her to launch a groundbreaking research project.

"I grew up with the story my mom told me of how she learned to play koto in the camps," she said. "I started to question whether this experience of learning Japanese cultural arts in the camps was unique to my mother."

She began researching how the koto and other traditional Japanese arts survived during the war. In searching library and museum archives, she found little documentation existed. Instead, she found photos upon photos of Japanese Americans playing baseball and participating in other American mainstream activities, the result of the camp authority's insistence that internees be more "American."

Over the past two decades, Muramoto tracked down survivors or their families. Some were not comfortable being interviewed; after all, resurrecting the memory of camp life is a delicate subject.

But she found about 15 people, mostly women, whose experience was similar to her mother's. They opened up about the passion for practicing Japanese music, classical dance and other arts such as flower arrangement and poetry in the camps, despite the danger. They talked about the determination to teach the younger generation so the traditions would not be lost.

Her research led to "Hidden Legacy," a show presented last year in Los Angeles and San Francisco that featured artists who taught or learned Japanese music, dance and theater in the camps.

Muramoto plans to continue her research and interview more internment camp survivors, so their experiences can be documented, shared and learned from.

"Because these people kept up with tradition in the camps, we were able to continue to enjoy and learn from them after the camps," Muramoto said.

Muramoto has performed in dozens of concerts and founded the Murasaki Ensemble, which performs world jazz fusion with the koto, guitar, bass, flute and percussion. She arranges her own music and has produced six music CDs with contemporary koto and world jazz music.

Muramoto will travel to Osaka, Japan, in November to perform in a concert and conduct a lecture-demonstration at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

"As a koto teacher, she has shared her love of the instrument and of Japanese culture with the next generation, having by now instructed literally hundreds," said Cathy Cockrell, UC Berkeley Public Affairs writer who works with Muramoto. "She frequently contributes her time and expertise by performing at Bay Area community events."

Katherine Tam is a communications coordinator in Internal Communications in UC's Office of the President.