Oregon Koto-kai joins women in their love of music, Japan

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Mitsuki Dazai, a Tokyo native who lives in Creswell, first heard Japanese koto music in college. She and friends will perform koto music in Portland on Sunday, Nov. 4.It may be the most relaxing sound you’ve ever heard, a cross between a banjo lightly plucked and a harp gently strummed, evoking the rhythm of a brook or a misty summer rain.

It’s the sound of women gracefully plucking strings of their kotos, traditional 13-stringed Japanese instruments.

Ten women from Oregon, California and Washington make up Oregon Koto-kai (Koto Society) and are rehearsing for their debut show Sunday, Nov. 4, in Epworth United Methodist Church.

Performers include Portland’s Yukiko Vossen, Elena Gustaitis, Yoko Kuroko, Nobuko Chalfen and Michelle Fujii, as well as: Kelli Sum of Cupertino, Calif.; Ariyon Kawai of Brownsville; Keiko Twiss of Vancouver, Wash.; and Noriko Dozono of Oak Grove.

The women are mostly a mix of Japanese immigrants and Americans of Japanese descent, with Gustaitis the sole non-Japanese. Their performance features a variety of solo, duet and ensemble performances, says Mitsuki Dazai, the group’s leader and instructor.

Listening to the women play, it’s striking how they keep near perfect time without percussion.

“In Japan, we’re taught to be in the same boat and breathe the same tempo,” Dazai says.

Sensitivity of sound

A native of Tokyo who lives in Creswell, Dazai has worked with Grammy nominated composer Michael Hoppe on music featured for the short film “Nous Deux Encore,” a winner at the Portland Film Festival in 2009 as well as at the Monte Carlo Film Festival.

A graduate of Japan’s renowned Kunitachi College of Music in Tokyo, Dazai majored in vocal performance in the Western Classical tradition. During her studies, she felt drawn to the musical traditions of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Her interest in these areas eventually led the musician to rediscover her homeland’s sounds.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Because koto players can move bridges beneath strings to reach different scales, Mitsuki Dazai says the music produces a range of clear and crisp to very mellow, deep sounds.“When I was a little girl, it was not so long after World War II, and Japan was trying to rebuild the country to be a better one by following the Western World both culturally and economically,” she says, noting many of her generation grew up less interested in their own country’s music and more interested in that of others. However, in college, her taste in music changed, she says.

“During the winter break, I got a part-time job at the library of the college,” she says. “One day I picked up a record called ‘Japanese Koto Music’ during the lunch break and listened to it. I was almost crying with the beauty and sensitivity of the sound ... I strongly felt that I want to learn this instrument.”

Soon after she knocked on the door of a koto teacher’s house and started learning the instrument. Since then she’s studied both traditional and contemporary approaches to koto and feels deeply attached to it.

“I always jokingly say my DNA knew the instrument way back when I was even not born,” she says.

Koto makes unique sounds, she says, “very crisp, clear sounds to very mellow, deep sounds.”

Traditional Japanese music uses a pentatonic scale, she says, making it sound a bit exotic to Western ears (although such scales can be heard in American folk music). However, since koto has bridges that players can move beneath its strings you can make different scales to create a variety of music.

“Some of the pieces on koto today could be hardly recognized as ‘Japanese music’ because it has almost similar scales as the music we hear today,” Dazai says.

She adds that contemporary koto music often has “clearer forms and rhythm patterns” than traditional Japanese music. The upcoming performance will feature a variety of classic as well as contemporary koto pieces, she says.

“The biggest ensemble piece will be ‘Hanakage Hensoukyoku (Hanakage Variation)’ composed by Seiho Nomura, with first koto, second koto and bass koto,” she says. “It might sound like a koto version of chamber music. The sweet theme melody came from an old children’s song.”

Another piece, “Okoto” by Hikaru Sawai, has three movements like a western classical symphony, she adds.

“This composition is based on unique scale and will sound soothing and cool,” she says.

Connecting with mother

The women in Koto-kai have a range of reasons for playing, from a desire to express their emotions and calm their souls to a need to connect with their cultural roots and family backgrounds. Although there are certainly male koto players, it’s more often played by women, they say, as it was considered one of the feminine arts in Japan like flower arranging. Indeed, Yoko Kuroko notes becoming a mother inspired her to learn koto.

“I have a 4-year-old, so I need to (occasionally) take a break,” she says. “Playing koto makes me happy and makes me relax.”

Kelli Sum also has maternal reasons for playing koto, though it’s because her late mother died before she could teach her how to play.

“I play for her,” she says, tearing up.

The women nod their heads in sympathy. They all understand how much koto can heal the heart, a sentiment expressed by Nobuko Chalfen.

“When I play,” she says, “I forget all the trouble.”

Oregon Koto-kai

2:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4, in Epworth United Methodist Church, 1333 S.E. 28th Ave., Portland.

Tickets are $5. Reservations are recommended via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

For more information, visit or call 541-513-6417.

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