By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo
After 40-plus years of concerts, touring, and recording, June Kuramoto and Dan Kuramoto of the smooth jazz group Hiroshima recently announced that their Domo Tour in 2022 will likely be the band’s last.
The revelation that Hiroshima is planning to step back comes as the band released its latest album, “2020.” With songs bearing titles like “Someday Soon,” “Brighter Days,” and “Álways Tomorrow,” the post-pandemic feel-good message is clear. For Hiroshima devotees, this may be the band’s best and most uplifting collection yet.
In the late 1960s, Hiroshima introduced a new, uniquely Japanese American vibe featuring June’s jazz-infused koto, representing a fresh new musical form. Around the same time, a political movement was gaining traction among young Sansei, who were bringing issues like Vietnam, civil rights, and ethnic studies to public consciousness. As Hiroshima grew in popularity, their music became the Asian American movement’s de facto soundtrack.
We asked Dan and June to take us back to the beginning.
Rafu: What do you remember most about those early days?
June: I only had classical koto training. I didn’t know how to make it gel. I really didn’t have Western music education. Like in high school, I couldn’t join the band. They didn’t know what to do with (a koto). Koto is a revered instrument…so a lot of people were offended or called me vulgar for (playing non-classical music). But my best memory, especially at the beginning, is the warm reception from the community itself to be open and supportive of what we were doing because no one else was doing it.
Dan: The entire notion of what Hiroshima became was from June. She played koto, She loved the koto. No one understood that. None of her peers understood that. My brother John and I started an art school band at Cal State Long Beach. June thought, “Maybe they’ll do something with me on koto.” It was her idea.
Rafu: Was there a turning point for you?
June: When I wrote my first song. Actually, Derek Nakamoto is the one who encouraged me and helped me. When I started writing, knowing that I could, it gave me a voice, my voice. Up until then, I was playing whatever someone else wrote. It was an incredible and, in many ways, a freeing experience. It’s something no one can take away from you. That was the most incredible feeling, and then to hear it on the radio, not expecting to hear it.
Dan: I had no intention of starting a band. I was staying in school so as not to be drafted. There was no way I would fight in a war against people that looked like me and (who) didn’t do anything against my family. The whole thing to me was illegal and racist. Even in elementary school, I was aware of the persecution of our entire culture, our entire JA community. I was seven or eight years old, and I was bitter because they put Baachan and Jiichan in a prison camp. I was pissed, and I wanted to exact my revenge on this country some way. After we started the Asian American Studies program, I was teaching at Cal State Long Beach and decided to put my emphasis on making sure people understood how illegal and immoral (the wartime camps) were.
Rafu: To what do you attribute the band’s success?
June: It’s the African American community that has been behind all this. I truly believe they related to us in the sense of searching for your roots, identity, and how much that means. Jazz is so relatable. We’re so honored to be classified in the same category as true jazz artists. It’s a humbling experience.
Dan: June, having grown up listening to R&B, soul music, and Latin music, can play jazz and American swing. She has played on over 50 other artists’ records. Nobuko Miyamoto, Charlie Chin, and Chris Iijima, a close friend of June’s, really broke the ice for us. They showed us they had faith that there was a purpose to doing this. Our base audience is the black audience. The black community has supported us because they get it. In many ways, we’re struggling with the same battles. From the beginning, Hiroshima has been multiracial.
Rafu: Do you think you will miss touring?
June: The band has been a great priority. I loved it. Sometimes, I think I devoted the best of my years, but then I think the best of my years are now. I don’t want to be younger. I’m fine where I am. I have grandchildren (ages 2½ and 6) that I am so in love with. When I come home, I come back to my family…I miss being connected with them all the time. I guess COVID has shown me that. I hated (COVID) because of the conditions, but I loved being home.
Dan: Next year (2022) will be the last of our regular tours. We’re going to take a break but will consider (performing) if it’s for a special reason.
Rafu: What do you hope people will take away from the new album?
June: Well, positivity and hope. Let’s learn from (the year) 2020, how we treat people, how we treated the disease. What happened to humanity? We must make do with what we have, do the best we can, have hope, be positive, and move, keep moving.