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Hawaiian Instrument Strikes a Chord with Japanese Hearts

September 7, 1999

For Boo Takagi, the amiable guru of ukulele, this little instrument stands close to his heart. (SME Records)

As a part of Japan's current love affair with all things Hawaiian, a growing number of people are learning to play the ukulele. The instrument first became popular in Japan just after World War II, when some 3,000 to 4,000 student Hawaiian music bands sprang up. But at that time the ukulele was viewed strictly as part of the ensemble. The current craze is broader in scope, with people--particularly young people--being attracted to the ukulele not only as a musical instrument, but also as a fashion item or an objet d'art.

Easy, Hip, and Fun
The ukulele--a small, guitar-like instrument with four strings--is popular mainly because it is easy to play; anyone can produce a tune just by learning three chords. The music sections of bookstores are crammed with how-to books along the lines of "Master the Ukulele in Just One Hour."

Many ukulele players, and many of the growing number of ukulele instructors nationwide, come out of the Nihon Ukulele Association, which marks its fortieth anniversary in 1999. The association holds monthly lectures and gatherings to promote interest in the instrument. One association leader extols the merits of the ukulele as follows: "In the process of tuning the instrument, you sharpen your ears. Once you've learned just three chords, you've mastered the basics of harmony. And by accompanying a singer on the ukulele, you hone your sense of rhythm. The ukulele is very accessible, and it's an excellent instrument for musical education."

There are also those who buy the ukulele because it "looks cute." These people would carry it around as part of their fashion or use it to spice up their room decor. Some shops will give colorful paint jobs on request, and one company even manufactures colored ukuleles. When 800 of these handcrafted instruments hit the shelves in spring 1999, they quickly sold out. The company is now being deluged with orders and is shipping 500 ukuleles every month, but it still cannot keep up with the demand.

Comedian cum Uke Virtuoso
One of the leaders of the current ukulele mania is Boo Takagi, a comedian who is best known as a member of the comedy group The Drifters, which was immensely popular in the 1970s and 80s. Takagi--whose name is familiar to most everyone in Japan from their late twenties to forties--is also known as a skilled ukulele player with a 40-odd-year career. NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), Japan's public TV network, currently features Takagi as ukulele instructor for a program on its educational channel. Fans view the plump, ukelele-strumming Takagi clad in a colorful Hawaiian shirt as "cute."

In recent years, Japanese consumers have been gravitating toward products designed to soothe people and help them unwind. The ukulele, with its adorable shape and warm musical tones, seems to have struck a chord with today's comfort-seeking Japanese.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.