feature: FLAMENCO IN JAPAN
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
(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
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.
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
Toni el Pelao, Shoji Kojima,
Paco de Lucía
and La Uchi en Japón (Photo Toni el Pelao's
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’.
(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
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.