Stephanie Tomiyasu

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Stephanie Tomiyasu

    Main guest

    Stephanie Tomiyasu was born in New York in 1938 and worked as a psychologist for the United States Public Health Service. She married fellow psychologist Yoshikazu Tomiyasu in 1984 and they moved to Japan. While working as a lecturer at a university, her interest in Japanese cultural traditions began with ikebana flower arranging and ink painting. In 2000, she watched a shinnai joruri performance and met Living National Treasure Tsuruga Wakasanojo. She became his apprentice and eventually became the first foreigner to earn accreditation as a shinnai practitioner. Stephanie Tomiyasu remains active as a joruri performer.

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January 23, 2018

Japanophiles: Stephanie Tomiyasu

*You will leave the NHK website.

The long history of Japanese culture is replete with various forms of traditional music and storytelling, many of which have been featured on Japanology Plus. This time our focus is on joruri, one such traditional performing art. Our guide is a unique practitioner of that art: Stephanie Tomiyasu, an American who trains under one of Japan's leading joruri instructors. Tomiyasu's life in Japan and her position as a foreign joruri practitioner are the subject of our latest Japanophiles edition.

What is joruri? Simply put, it is storytelling accompanied by music—or, as Tomiyasu puts it, "musical narrative." There are, of course, many types of musical storytelling in Japan, but part of what makes joruri distinct is the musical contribution of the shamisen. This three-stringed instrument has its origins in China and the Ryukyu Islands (modern-day Okinawa), but became a "Japanese" instrument, in effect, when it was retuned for Japanese-style melodies in the late 1500s. Once the shamisen appeared, joruri was not far behind.

The joruri tradition—which, unlike forms such as gagaku court music, originally found its popularity among the common people—gets its name from a composition called "The Tale of Princess Joruri" (Joruri hime monogatari). The tale was originally written for an older instrument, the biwa. However, it was adapted for shamisen, and become so strongly associated with the new style of musical narration that the form was eventually simply called joruri.

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A shamisen pictured between Stephanie Tomiyasu and Peter Barakan.

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Tomiyasu performs joruri on stage.

Not long after joruri originated, practitioners combined their talents with those of puppeteers to bring a visual element to their storytelling. This version of joruri, accompanied by puppet performances, was first performed at the Imperial Court in 1600. Having thus been officially recognized and sanctioned, it continued to advance as Japan became unified in peace at the beginning of the Edo period. Samurai, whose lives had been devoted to battle, now had time to indulge in the arts and many became joruri performers or puppeteers. As we learn in the program, puppets were a part of the fateful joruri performance that inspired Tomiyasu to study the art—though, as she relates to host Peter Barakan, she was more taken with the music than the puppeteering!

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Tomiyasu in the Tokyo neighborhood of Kagurazaka, where she studies joruri.

The style of joruri introduced in the program, Shinnai, was created around 1760 by Tsuruga Wakasanojo I. Over 200 years later, Stephanie Tomiyasu studies with the eleventh person to have that professional name, Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI. Within the joruri tradition, Shinnai is notable for its sensual, melancholic atmosphere and often tells tragic tales. A common theme is the double suicide of star-crossed lovers, the tragic inspiration for various Edo period works of dramatic art.

Wakasanojo, Tomiyasu's teacher, is actively involved in updating the Shinnai tradition for the modern age. This includes innovations like combining Shinnai with other storytelling forms, performing abroad, and even creating English versions of classic stories under Tomiyasu's guidance. In his early years, these innovative moves did not come without criticism, but his efforts to keep the Shinnai tradition alive and relevant have also earned him great honor: he was designated a Living National Treasure in 2001 and received the Order of the Rising Sun in 2009.

Though Wakasanojo may be taking the form in innovative directions, the stories remain the same. Hundreds of years old, they still evoke strong emotions. Like the best art, joruri has the power to communicate across barriers of language, nationality, and time.

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Tomiyasu practices with Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI.

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Tomiyasu and Wakasanojo perform for Peter Barakan.

*You will leave the NHK website.