Marisa Kosugi (in white), daughter of Matsutoyo Sato, sings at the Nisei Week closing ceremonies with her band, Minyo Station.

When performers began to dance to strains of “Tokyo Ondo” in Olympic Stadium on Sunday, it called to mind Nisei Week and summer Obon festivals across America, where minyo music signals a jubilant call to get up and odori.

Indeed, 150 years of assimilation has failed to diminish the influence of traditional folk musicamong Nikkei in the United States. Minyo (folk music) and shigin (chanted poems) essentially served as the soundtrack to early Japanese immigration.  

Marisa Kosugi, an original member of Minyo Station and daughter of minyo master Madame Matsutoyo Sato, explains that folk songs are passed down from one generation to the next. “While Japan had been a maritime country, it was also an agricultural country centered on rice farming. Folk song lyrics often started with a prayer for a good harvest and prosperity. The prayers of true hearts and old emotions have survived.”  

Madame Matsutoyo Sato

Trained in minyo and shamisen by Matsuko Sato in Okinawa, Mme. Matsutoyo came to California in 1966 while in her 20s and established Matsutoyo Kai to provide instruction in singing, shamisen, taiko and kane andpresent public performances and workshops.

Established in 2008, Minyo Station blends traditional Japanese folk music with jazz and other contemporary genres to create a unique sound. The band has performed for the Nisei Week Festival, Tanabata, and the Japanese American National Museum’s Natsumatsuri Family Festival.

Kosugi says that folk songs are a form of “encyclopedia” for understanding Japan. She studies the music of specific artists for a better understanding of the song, timing, beat, music, then the feeling, the nami or “wave” of the artist. “I will look up the furusato, origin of the song or history of the region where it began, so when I sing, it allows to me to go back and envision myself in that time.” 

As an example, she cites “Tanko Bushi” (“The Coalminer’s Song”), which is popular among Japanese and Japanese Americans. “It is a song that brings back memories of one’s childhood. I feel the beautiful energy of ‘togetherness’ by everyone at the festivals without judgment towards anyone. Minyo songs give me hope (that) Japan’s history and culture will be respected and remembered.”

She acknowledges that we may never know what these poetic songs meant to the people when they were composed, but the lyrics tell us that the songs helped pass the time until they could be with their loved ones, their families again. “This is what I see.” 

Kosugi adds, “What’s cool is we are able to create a world from these songs for the generations now as we create our own minyo. One thing is for sure. These songs were formed from the earth, and this is humbling. 

Members of Matsutoyo Kai perform in Montebello.

“I think about those times when there was no electricity, gas, showers, cars, computers, phones, cell phones, etc. I think about what I would do if I lived back then and wonder how I would survive. 

“But, as times have changed, we still wake up to the sun rising and sleep under the moon. Nature is a very powerful source. Personally, minyo is a part of me. It is a world I was born into, and it is what keeps my mother and me connected.

Minyo teaches me patience and discipline. To listen to Matsutoyo Sensei play, it confirms that being a good player takes a lifetime. As I watch her from afar, even at 80 years old, she still practices and will always remind me that once I become an arrogant player, I will stop learning.

“And that is a very scary thought.”

Singing and dancing at the Nisei Week closing ceremonies.

Rafu Shimpo photos by MARIO GERSHOM REYES and


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