Japan: The Colorful History of the Ukulele’s Second Home

From the Winter 2016 issue of Ukulele | BY KEVIN C. CROWELL

You may have seen the bumper sticker with a picture of a ukulele and the words “I’m Huge in Japan.” Well, it’s true. Totally true.

Why is the ukulele so huge in Japan? The small ukulele just fits in crowded Japan. It’s cute—maybe not Hello Kitty cute—but for an instrument, definitely cute. Then there’s its sound and playability. There’s something about the uke’s reentrant tuning that makes people smile. It’s easy to chord and meets you at whatever level you’re willing to rise to. So what’s not to like?

Hobbies are important in Japan, so much so that when getting to know a Japanese person, one of the first questions you’re asked is, “What’s your hobby?” It’s a question that often flusters Americans because we tend to think of hobbies as being mundane pursuits like, well, stamp collecting. The Japanese don’t. They invest a lot of time, money, and effort into their hobbies and they become really good at them. It becomes an extension of who they are.

Pick any amateur endeavor and there’s an entire industry devoted to it in Japan. The number of excellent ukulele instructional books, songbooks, recordings, videos, performances, instruments, and accessories is astounding.

For those who can speak, read, and write Japanese, it’s easy to tap into Japan’s wealth of ukulele materials. Five years ago, I was new to the ukulele and was totally blown away by the number of excellent instructional books I found when I went into a Tokyo bookstore. Most books are arranged in tab, so they are easy to understand even for non-Japanese speakers, and most come with CDs so you can more easily understand a difficult passage when you listen to the track.

Japan’s uke community is different from the American ukulele scene, too. It’s not centered on club meetings, as America’s ukulele scene is—instead, playing an instrument is all about technique in Japan. As a result, uke gatherings tend to focus on instruction more than singing together.

Contemporary uke performer and educator Kiyoshi Kobayashi says, “In Japan, each region has its own way of playing that was influenced by a famous local player.” The Japanese tendency to focus on technique leads to what performer and teacher Takashi Nakamura says is playing that is “too formulaic. For example, a lot of players imitate Jake Shimabukuro, but it’s necessary to be more individualistic in performing.” Maybe so, but by looking at how the ukulele came to Japan will help to understand why individual artists have always played such an outsized role there.


The humble ukulele has been a goodwill ambassador between America and Japan for generations and is a thread that weaves together the best of American, Hawaiian, and Japanese cultures.

Japanese emigration to Hawaii began in 1885, and by 1924 about 200,000 Japanese had moved to Hawaii to work in the sugarcane fields. But because it was difficult for Japanese-Americans to integrate fully into American society at that time, many families sent their children back to Japan to complete their education. And many of those kids carried a ukulele with them. The ukulele’s first big wave of popularity in Japan came in the 1920s, as the children of those immigrants came of age.

The first ukulele ambassadors to Japan were Yukihiko Haida (1909–1986) and his brother Katsuhiko, both nisei (second generation Japanese–Americans). Born in Hawaii, they returned to Japan as young men after their father died. Yukihiko is often credited as being the first to popularize the ukulele in Japan when he and Katsuhiko began performing as the Moana Glee Club in 1928. Later, Yukihiko established the Nippon Ukulele Association (NUA), which played an important role in popularizing the uke and still holds monthly meetings outside Tokyo.

Yukihiko Haida (left) and his brother Katsuhiko

Another nisei, Buckie Shirakata (1912–1994), born and raised in Honolulu by his immigrant parents, went to Japan in the early-’30s, graduated from Doshisha University, married, and played Hawaiian music. Along with Haida’s band, Shirakata’s band—the Aloha Hawaiians—was among the first-wave of performers of Hawaiian music in Japan. Though best known in Japan as a steel-guitar player, Buckie also played ukulele, which he featured prominently in most of his 200 or so recordings.

The war years were not kind to Hawaiian music or nisei living in Japan. Caught between two cultures for the duration of the war, nisei performers in particular had a difficult time, especially once Western music was banned in 1943. To survive the wartime changes, Shirakata’s Aloha Hawaiians became “The Music Group,” and Haida’s Moana Glee Club became “The Southern Band.”

Kiwaya KTS-7 soprano ukulele.
Kiwaya KTS-7 soprano ukulele.


Japan needed to reinvent itself after the war. Life was hard, money was scarce, and materials were hard to find. Still, Hawaii’s exotic lure captivated the imagination of post-war Japan: One source claims there were over 4,500 bands playing Hawaiian music in Japan during the ’50s. Demand for ukuleles was so strong that even the conglomerate Toshiba had its own line. Numerous manufacturers popped up, and in 1957, the gramophone service company Kiwaya reinvented itself and introduced its “Famous” brand of ukuleles. Kiwaya has kept the ukulele flame burning strong in Japan ever since and is now its oldest and most respected ukulele manufacturer.

Another Japanese-American raised in Hawaii by ethnic Japanese parents was the next to pick up the cross-cultural thread. Born in Hawaii in 1934, Herb Ohta studied with ethnic Hawaiian ukulele player Eddie Kamae, who was considered the most accomplished ukulele player in the Islands (he founded the Sons of Hawaii in 1960). Growing up in Hawaii during this time exposed Ohta to American pop, jazz, and Hawaiian music, all of which found expression in his transformational musical style. But it was Ohta’s ten years of service in the US Marines that changed his life and the ukulele scene in Japan. Ohta served in the US Marines translator in Japan and Korea between 1953 and 1963, and his influence grew so seminal that he is now widely known as “Ohta-san.” (Adding the honorific “-san” to a surname indicates honor and respect.)


When fellow nisei Yukihiko Haida of the Moana Glee Club founded the Nippon Ukulele Association in 1959, he began inviting Ohta-san to meetings to teach club members solo ukulele styles. It was through Haida’s connections at electronics manufacturer JVC that he and Ohta-san released an album of ukulele solos. Until then, the ukulele was played only with Hawaiian music, but Ohta-san broke the mold by playing jazz-inspired solos. That album, and others Ohta-san subsequently recorded, inspired the next great wave of Japanese performers.


By the late ’60s and ’70s Japan’s music scene, like the rest of the world’s, was a hodgepodge of musical styles and experimentation. Rock ’n’ roll was the undisputed king and American and British bands set the pace. It’s not surprising then that this next wave of performers came to ukulele first through the guitar.

Kiyoshi Kobayashi began his musical career as a classical guitarist and taught jazz guitar for eight years at the Musashino Academy of Music. In 1985, Kobayashi joined the Tokyo Hot Club Band and in 1988 he became the first Japanese to perform at the Django Reinhardt festival in France. But it wasn’t until 1995 that Kobayashi’s ukulele career began. Perhaps due to their shared love of jazz, Kobayashi cites Ohta-san as having most influenced his playing: “He has his own sound. It’s a splendid thing!”

Kobayashi’s recordings cut a broad swath across the musical universe. From classical (Ukulele Adagio, 2007), to jazz and swing (Daydream Believer, 2006), and most recently Hawaiian (Wonderful Life Vol 1., 2015). Kobayashi is also a prolific author, having written 31 books with arrangements of jazz, film, pop, and classical pieces, as well as a ukulele method. Kobayashi spreads his love of the ukulele by conducting the Ukulele Orchestra of Japan and teaching at the Kiwaya Ukulele School in Tokyo.

Iwao Yamaguchi, who goes by the stage name Iwao, is another extremely talented member of this group of artists. Iwao first learned of the ukulele in his mid-20s after seeing a famous Japanese guitarist carry a Kamaka uke into a recording session. He fell in love as soon as he heard it, and made a quick trip to a local music shop to buy a Kamaka of his own. A year later, he traveled to Hawaii and began listening to Ohta-san. “I realized you could make the ukulele sound just as jazzy as a Joe Pass piece and I really wanted to be able to do that myself.”

With 27 recordings to his credit, Iwao is a tireless performer spanning jazz, swing, and pop. He frequently posts clips to YouTube and even teaches via Internet (Iwao’s Ukulele Dojo) and in person.

Ohta-san also influenced Takashi Nakamura, who with Tatsuko Kaneda, form the duo T.T. Café. He says, “Jake Shimabukuro’s strumming is amazing, but high-G tuning’s single-note melody is really very beautiful, isn’t it?” Kaneda frequently plays banjo-uke and sings.

Bridging the gap between the generations that take their cues from Ohta-san and Jake Shimabukuro and vintage Hawaiian music from the acoustic era, the Sweet Hollywaiians play anything from jug band to Dixieland, with stops at all points in between. The quartet, which includes “Masked” Mario Takada (ukulele/vocals), Tomotaka Matsui (steel guitar, ukulele), Tak Nakayama (guitar, ukulele), and Kohichi Tsutsumishita (bass), are more traditional in their repertoire and don’t rely exclusively on instrumentals. The group’s vocals are especially good.


As it is here in the U.S., Jake Shimabukuro is the most cited influence for many of today’s rising Japanese ukulele stars. You can hear the influence immediately, but listen more closely, particularly to the more recent recordings, and you’ll begin to hear these players branching out into new territory.

Hailing from Okinawa, Ryo Natoyama first traveled with his family to Hawaii as a sixth grader and returned home with a ukulele. By the time he was 14, he was opening for Bruce Shimabukuro, Jody Kamisato, and other top Hawaiian players. In 2010, Natoyama was the opening act for Jake Shimabukuro’s Japan tour. Now, at 23, he’s just released Made in Japan, To the World.

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Though he’s still a teenager, Rio Saito has already captured the attention of some of Japan’s top players. Rio began playing ukulele after his father transferred to Hawaii for work, and he soon started studying with Herb Ohta Jr. Rio has won numerous awards, performed with in concert with Jake and for TEDxTokyo in 2014. Rio has tremendous energy, technique, and personality. Jake’s influence is heavy in Rio’s early tunes, but on recent work with violinist Aska Kaneko—like “Co-Co-Me-Ro” on his latest album, I ~Around~—you’ll hear many different influences, including avant-garde jazz, classical, and swing.

Kevin C. Crowell has long personal and professional ties to Japan and runs ukulelejapan.com from his Chicago home.




Some recordings of the artists mentioned can be found searching the usual online services like Spotify, Pandora, and iTunes, though finding a comprehensive catalog of recordings is difficult. Amazon won’t allow users to download music purchases without a Japanese issued bankcard and the Japanese version of iTunes is unavailable to those outside the country. YouTube can be helpful, but you will find only a fraction of the recordings, even if you search in Japanese. I’ve had the best luck with CDJapan.com, though some of the older albums are no longer available and shipping fees can be prohibitive.

Books are even harder to get. CDJapan.co.jp carries many titles and you can occasionally you can find some titles on eBay, but they can be pricey.

Traveling to Japan is the most reliable way to find this music and certainly the most fun! If you go, I strongly encourage a visit to Kiyawa’s retail store, which with its shop, showroom, and ukulele museum, is an immersion in ukulele heaven. Tokyo’s Ochanomizu district is home to tens of music stores, is easy to get to, and offers a very enjoyable way to spend a few hours. Most shops carry a large line of ukuleles, with an emphasis on entry-level ukes. Elsewhere in Tokyo, Ukulele Mania in Ikebukuro is another worthy stop and is not far from Junkudo, a large well-stocked bookstore with a great collection of ukulele books.