Even in an age like this, where half of us are tweeting our every move, family stories – at least for my family – are still being passed on orally. We talk story during our family gatherings, learning so much about one another, but bits and pieces of our adventures get lost or divided.
While there is such a beauty to oral storytelling, as a writer, I also by default enjoy archiving what I hear. I like to collect things, keep stories and revisit them. My favorite people to do this with are my family because we are all so connected.
Initially, I thought perhaps I would go around and interview family members and write our stories in my words, but instead, I’m attempting to ask my family members to share something memorable in their own respective words. My first guinea pig is my husband. In this entry, he has chosen to write about his parents. This is the first of hopefully many entries by my family. Here is the story of my father- and mother in-law, as told by my husband, Kaoru Watanabe.
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My parents, Haruka and Ayako, grew up playing music in post-war Japan. My father played the violin and my mother played the harp. They never took for granted how much their own parents gave to support their musical education — purchasing precious instruments and paying for lessons and schooling in the decades of recovering from the war. My mother and father practiced diligently, excelling as young classical musicians in Tokyo.
As young adults, my parents decided that in order to get a truly first-rate musical experience, they had to leave the comfort of their friends, families and country and come to the U.S. for graduate school. They married while studying at Indiana University.
Immediately upon graduation, my father was accepted as the first violinist into the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, one of the finest such ensembles in the country, where he has remained until this year. My mother also performed with the symphony as a harpist. If you add together the number of years they stayed with the symphony, it’s about a decade shy of a century (please don’t tell my mom I told you this).
Their devotion to music was a habit that started in their childhoods in Tokyo. Even though she is officially retired, my mother still practices harp many hours a day. My father also practices many hours a day albeit what he is practicing now is not so much violin, but golf.
I entered the picture somewhere along the way. I had a fairly typical Midwest American childhood, growing up in St. Louis, skateboarding a lot but not really knowing anything about Japanese culture except through playing taiko recreationally. I ended up studying that quintessentially “American” music of jazz at a conservatory in New York City during my college years, and without going into too much detail, what followed was then a huge left turn that took me to Japan for a decade of playing taiko and shinobue professionally in my 20s and early 30s.
My move to Japan was a sort of mirror image of what my parents had done decades before. We uprooted ourselves, heading overseas to fulfill our desires for a deeper musical experience.
After moving back to New York City from Japan a few years ago, I now find myself playing music in one of the most diverse and competitive artistic communities in the world. I’m interacting with brilliant musicians and artists who are constantly challenging, questioning, inspiring and pushing me to think, feel and create beyond what I think of as my limits.
I try to absorb all that feeling and sympathy of all the great master musicians I’ve had the honor of working with, combining the sounds of Japanese music and culture, both old and new, somehow connecting that with all the other cultures I love, that surround me here within the vibrant tapestry of New York.
In Japanese, there is the phrase oyakoukou or filial piety. For the last few years, I’ve even had the great pleasure of performing a few times with my parents. Together, my mother, father and I bring to the table an interesting twist of Western classical and Japanese music, an aural summary of our identities as artists and as a family.
The whole process of making music together – when we’re performing on a stage together or even when we’re arguing about the music in rehearsal—is one of the ways I’ve found great joy in expressing oyakoukou.
My phenomenal mother has recently decided to learn taiko drumming, taking classes with a local taiko group in St. Louis. This is a group that I helped start in 1986 as an 11-year-old. The way things interconnect in this world never cease to amaze.
Mari Nakano can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.