Special feature: FLAMENCO IN JAPAN

Fifteen thousand kilometers around the corner

Kyoko Shikaze. Seville, June 2004


If there's one foreign country whose flamenco following stands out from any other, it has to be Japan. The fifteen thousand kilometers that separate the land of the rising sun from Andalusian soil are no barrier at all to the thousands of Japanese who’ve fallen in love with the flamenco arts. From the time La Argentina danced there in 1929 up until the present day, hardly a single big name flamenco artist has neglected to visit Japan. And this is a country, too, which is increasingly self-sufficient in the provision of flamenco, as local artists - especially dancers - meet the needs of audiences. And thanks to hundreds of dance academies dotted around the country, as well as courses in cities like Madrid and Seville, they just keep coming. And among those responsible for this to-ing and fro-ing two names stand out: Yoko Komatsubara and Shoji Kojima, the driving force behind flamenco on the island. Little by little, flamenco is forging its own history in Japan.


Shoji Kojima
(Photo: Daniel Muñoz)

And Japan isn't just around the corner. But to the thousands of Japanese who've fallen into flamenco's grasp, distance is no obstacle. Nor did it stop San Francisco Xavier, who arrived in Japan in 1549, nor the first Japanese to reach Spanish soil - at Sanlúcar de Barrameda to be precise - in 1614, long before the birth of flamenco. It would be a long time before an ‘ole’ was to be heard in the land of the rising sun. Flamenco arrived in Japan during the 1920s. Initially it was brought over by the Americans, but flamenco artists soon began to take it there themselves. In January and February 1929, La Argentina visited Japan with a program including the productions ‘El Amor Brujo’ and ‘Andalucía’. In the thirties some flamenco 78s began to appear on the market. Around the same time, a Japanese who'd been the finest flamenco guitarist Japan had to offer arrived in Seville, to fulfill his dream of becoming a bullfighter. He never made it out into the bullring, but he did enjoy his evenings at Seville's Alameda and in Granada's zambras.

After the defeat of World War II, more Spanish artists began to arrive in Japan. One such example was the Compañía Flamenca, who arrived in 1955, and whose members included bailaores Manolo Vargas and Roberto Ximénez, and cantaor Rafael Romero. The Pilar López company landed on Japanese soil in 1960, with Antonio Gades in tow. A following for the flamenco arts was gradually swelling in numbers back then, and slowly but surely Japanese flamenco students began to arrive in Spain. Yasuko Nagamine, Yoko Komatsubara, Masami Okada, Shoji Kojima, Akio Mizusawa... these were some of the first bailaores who were put through their paces in Spain. Later on, they began to perform in companies like that of Rafael Córdova or of María Rosa, and at tablaos like Los Gallos de Sevilla.

Then came the time to open venues dedicated to flamenco on home turf. The tablao El Flamenco in Tokyo opened its doors in 1967, with performances by Spanish artists. Many leading flamenco figures have graced the venue with their presence, including Cristina Hoyos, Manolete, Manolo Soler, Joaquín Grilo, Sara Baras, Javier Barón, Eva Yerbabuena, Belén Maya, Rafael Amargo, Pepe Habichuela, Enrique de Melchor, Jarrito, José Mercé and Enrique Ortega.


Flamenco developed such a following that in 1984 a magazine devoted to flamenco was launched in Tokyo, entitled ‘Paseo’ (now ‘Paseo-Flamenco’). This monthly publication began life with a circulation of two hundred copies, and today sells fifteen thousand. But the real flamenco boom in Japan was yet to come. It came in 1986, when the Antonio Gades company brought ‘Carmen’. It was an astounding success. As a direct result, student numbers soared, as did the number of academies, the number of artists and the number of performances; flamenco discs and videos began to fill the shelves, and flamenco dress and dance shoe shops opened up. This following has continued to grow slowly but surely right up to the present day.

Eighty thousand 'aficionados'

A few facts and figures to give a better idea of the current panorama. In Japan there are around eighty thousand people studying at six hundred academies scattered all over the country. And with a total population of 127 million inhabitants, the flamenco following continues to be a minority, less than 0.1 per cent of the population. However, there are few who would still confuse flamenco with, other foreign dance genres popular in Japan such as Hawaiian hula dance. The majority have learned that flamenco is a Spanish artform, although many still imagine that this is a dance that's best performed with a red rose between the teeth.

Toni el Pelao, Shoji Kojima, Paco de Lucía
and La Uchi en Japón (Photo Toni el Pelao's personal archive)

In Japan there are very few fans who make no attempt to learn one of the flamenco disciplines. Most take classes of one kind or another, usually dance classes. There are flamenco courses all over Japan. There are studios dedicated exclusively to flamenco, but there are also many classes given at community cultural centers or in rented studios. You could say flamenco is a pretty popular pastime.

And many of the students come to Spain to complete their studies. That's how the famous flamenco studio Amor de Dios earned the nickname ‘Amor de Buddha’. In the past, almost all of them came to stay in Madrid, but lately more Japanese stay in Seville than in the capital. Just in Miguel Vargas's class, for example, there are 22 Japanese. Most are women, aged between twenty and forty. They often leave their jobs to come here, and some even leave their husbands working in Japan and come out here with their children. They stay anything from a week... to several years. When they return to Japan, some turn their hand to teaching.

Back home it's difficult to survive by dancing alone, so they have to teach to bring in a regular income. Some spend this money they earned teaching at the theater, dancing with their favorite artist. Shoji Kojima, Japan's most famous bailaor, brought over Merche Esmeralda, Cristina Hoyos and Miguel Poveda, for example. And the best-known bailaora, Yoko Komatsubara, who visited Spain several times with her ballet to perform at festivals like the Bienal de Sevilla, or the Festival del Cante de las Minas, invited Enrique el Cojo, Matilde Corral, Tomatito... and even La Paquera de Jerez in January 2002, on what was her first visit to Japan.

The truth is there are few flamenco artists who never visited Japan. In the last fifteen years there have been scores of performances by Spanish artists. Paco de Lucía, Ballet Nacional de España, Cristina Hoyos, Joaquín Cortés, Sara Baras, María Pagés, Manuela Carrasco, Vicente Amigo... these are just some of the top name acts who visit Japan time after time. During May 2004, in the same month, Japanese audiences will get a chance to see tour dates for both bailaor Joaquín Grilo from Jerez and bailaora Sevillana María Pagés - who'll be offering them the première of her new production ‘Canciones antes de una guerra’.

Home-grown flamenco

Yoko Komatsubara
(Photo: Daniel Muñoz)

But Japan is becoming more and more self-sufficient in terms of flamenco. It's probably fair to say that Kojima and Yoko represent the first generation of Japanese bailaores, and are the ones who've done most to help promote flamenco, even though there were others who danced before them.

Now there's plenty of young blood too. Take Eiko Takahashi, for example, winner of the 1983 Premio por Sevillanas award at the Velá de Triana. Then there's Atsuko Kamata, who won the Premio Nacional at the Concurso de Córdoba in 1995, dancing 'por guajiras'. Both give classes in the Japanese capital, although Eiko has a house in Granada, where he gave Sevillanas classes at the Mariquilla academy. Keiko Suzuki, who danced with Eiko and Ami at the Festival Bienal de Sevilla in 1988, was dance partner to both Antonio Canales and Javier Barón in Tokyo. Mayumi Kagita Mami studied Spanish Dance at university, and in 2004 took her production ‘Sonezaki’ to the Festival de Jerez. It's a Japanese tragedy told using flamenco dance as a medium.

And it isn't all baile. Toshi is a Japanese cantaor, married to a Spaniard, who even worked at a Barcelona tablao. He also worked alongside Japanese vocalist Keiko Kawashima; both of them currently reside in Seville. And then there's Jin, the guitarist who recorded with Toshi and who now has a solo album on the market. And guitarist and entrepreneur Teruo Kabaya - who director Paco Millán portrayed in his documentary ‘Around flamenco’ - predicts that “in ten years' time the Japanese will also get to grips with cante.” For the time being, Japan's flamenco offering revolves around dance. No less than seven Japanese bailaoras took part in the 2004 Concurso de Arte Flamenco de Córdoba, to prove to the world that fifteen thousand kilometers is no distance at all.

Further information

An artistic voyage in Tokyo. La Paquera de Jerez triumphs in Japan

Interview with Shoji Kojima, bailaor

Special feature. Flamenco in Canada

Special feature. Flamenco in Argentina



DVD. Carlos Saura & Antonio Gades, 'Carmen'

More information, video, orders


Shoji Kojima
Biography and readers' comments




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