Yupei Guo: Koto Lessons

Right from the beginning, I knew that I wanted to involve myself in Japanese music – I had always held an interest for traditional Japanese music, yet always lacked the time and energy to serious pursue it. I was soon lucky enough to be introduced to Iwazaki-sensei’s Japanese music studio, and thus began my CIP playing the Japanese koto.

Having played the Chinese equivalent of the koto for ten years, I began my lessons expecting somewhat of an easy ride. However, the differences between the two instruments were far more pronounced than I had thought. Japanese music tend to follow an entirely different scale, standing in sharp contrast to the major scale that is omnipresent in the Chinese music I was used to playing. The minor scale that I encountered so much in my koto pieces was what gave Japanese music its unique “sound” – a sentiment of reserved melancholy; furthermore, the octaves are not set and I was astounded by just how many notes can be played on merely thirteen strings, and for the first few weeks I struggled painfully, even with words of encouragement from my kind sensei.

My classmates are all seniors above the age of sixty, and upon my first session I was intimidated, assuming that they would not be interested in talking with me, or would despise a foreigner. Nevertheless, throughout our interactions I was able to pick up some confidence and practice my newly-acquired skills of keigo and aisatsu. For instance, for the first few weeks, I made the mistake of saying “soudeshouka” when trying to acknowledge someone, and was promptly met with friendly laughter by my fellow classmates – it took me several weeks (and a lot of blunders!) to realize that the correct response, to show interest in someone’s conversation, would be “sou nandesuka” – “soudesuka” or “soudeshouka” actually implies disinterest (rather like the English “interesting”) – and is terribly rude. Having thoroughly embarrassed myself, I nevertheless actively used my newly acquired skills in our next conversation, much to the delight of my sensei. In another time, my sensei said “otsukaresama” to me, congratulating me after several hours of hard work, and I, in a panic, did not know what to say – I’ve learnt in class that saying “otsukaresama” to a senior is terribly rude, but I also wanted to demonstrate my appreciation of her tireless instructions – again, observation of classmates taught me that in this case, “arigatou gozaimasu” or even “kochira koso” might be considered socially acceptable responses. It is through instances like these that I finally put my keigo to use, and finally gain footing in sounding like a real Japanese person immersed in a Japanese society.

Outside of classes, we often have dinner together. Initially, I have considered my classmates to be worlds apart from me, yet throughout conversations, I realized that we may have a lot more in common. Surprisingly, even if we share difference surface level cultural traits -such as language, food, customs, history – deep down, we share similar ways of thinking. I have been surprised constantly at just how contemporary, liberal, and open-minded my classmates are – my previous stereotypes of Japanese people being conservative, reserved, and almost xenophobic have been completely shattered. In other words, koto lessons are far more than just music classes – they have guided me into a fascinating community and have shattered stereotypes I didn’t even realize I held.

6 thoughts on “Yupei Guo: Koto Lessons

  1. Hi, Yupei– I’m so glad that you were able to learn so much in your CIP! Not only did you learn koto (which sounds super awesome, btw), but you were able to challenge some of the stereotypes that you held about Japanese people, which I think is probably one of the most valuable lessons studying abroad can give you. Also, now I really want to start using ‘soudeshouka.’ A couple of questions I have: Is playing koto mostly considered an older-person activity in Japan, or is it popular with young people as well? How about in China? How long does one have to learn koto to be a teacher–is it kind of hereditary like noh schools are?

    • Thank you for your comment! My classmates are usually older people, but on other days young college students come in as well. Iwazaki-sensei is a mentor for various “hougaku” (Japanese traditional music) clubs and circles in different universities, and I have made friends with these students my age or younger than me. However, my impression is that it is considered somewhat archaic and “traditional”, perhaps even anachronistic, in Japan – it is certainly considered very “traditional” and even “stuck in time” in China, with more and more young people opting for European musical instruments. However, recently there has been a resurgence of popularity of koto, thanks to young koto players who have become internet famous through their koto covers of J-pop songs.
      I’m not entirely sure if koto teachers are supposed to be hereditary, although I’m sure many musicians chose to be professional koto players at least partly due to influence from their families. As for Iwazaki-sensei, her lovely husband is also a renowned musician (of shakuhachi), and the two run the studio together; we don’t know if her daughter is also a musician, although I wouldn’t be surprised if she were.

  2. Yupei! It’s so awesome that you got to experience playing an instrument you already know…but with a Japanese twist! Ah, having to interact with seniors and navigating the gloriously confusing keigo is so impressive. I’m also glad to hear that you have found common ground with your classmates despite the generational and cultural differences! know nothing about the koto or its Chinese equivalent so excuse my musical ignorance here for a bit but, do you mostly just play traditional Japanese music during class? Or is it possible you can play modern songs too? And how did practice sessions usually go?
    Also – we will hear some of your koto music at the graduation ceremony right? I can’t wait to hear it~

    • Thank you so much Laurie for your comment! I usually practice pieces sensei has prepared for me, which are mostly traditional Japanese pieces, although I have also been playing a modern piece by a modern Japanese composer. In addition, I sometimes improvise Chinese pieces, and even Hatsune Miku pop music on the koto, sometimes with very surprising results.
      The practice sessions are very casual, and sensei decides which pieces to practice next based on who is present…we usually play together, and sensei may stop us in the middle to offer further instruction for individuals. There are also times when she would shove a piece I’ve never seen before into my hands…and ask me to play it! However, the atmosphere is very casual, and everyone is very friendly, so even when I was initially embarrassed for making mistakes, I quickly got over it. Finally, after practices, we usually head out to dinner together before going our separate ways. 🙂

  3. Hi Yupei,
    I’m glad you were able to find a way to pursue your love of music while here in Japan! I play a couple of instruments very casually so I know a little bit about music and it’s so interesting to me that between the two countries, the koto is tuned to a completely scale. I’m sure you were able to adapt quickly though knowing you!
    Also it’s really great that you were able to form friendships with your fellow classmates (even if they were all in their 60s!) Age is but a number!

    • Aww thank you so much for your comment! I too cherish the friendships I’ve made and am looking forward to our rehearsals next year (although I still struggle with the tuning…). I wonder if you were able to quickly adapt to and navigate new musical instruments based on your existing knowledge – all of this is very fascinating to me. 🙂