July 23, 2020

The music of Japanese poetry

Over the centuries, poetry has often been set to music. Indeed, Tomoko’s brother Hidehiko became a composer who would draw upon Japanese nature poetry to inspire his own compositions. On May 5, 1997, at the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor, Tomoko and a handful of other instrumentalists performed music based on the poetry of Hojo Nakajima.

Hojo Nakajima is a contemporary of Tomoko. He was born in Fukuoka, Japan, and was educated at Kyushu University. The first anthology of his poetry was published in 1990, and that decade was his more productive one. He rose to become a Chamberlain to the Crown Prince of Japan, taking charge of the royal family’s daily life. In particular, he was responsible for music and ceremonies.

One of his most important duties was serving as special assistant of the New Year Poetry Recitation Commission (KyuchuKtakai Hajime), one the most popular and famous imperial ceremonies. This annual event is a legacy of Japanese courtly literature, dating back to the eighth century. Each year the Emperor chooses a theme, and anyone can submit an original poem. Specialists perform the winning poems performed in a traditional manner. The defining Japanese poetry form is tanka, a short poem of 31 syllables arranged in lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables each. Not surprisingly, Hojo Nakajima is a master of this form.

 On the international scene, Hojo Nakajima has been honored in Brazil, Finland, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the United States.  

Tomoko appreciates the importance of lyrics in musical compositions. She advises her students to study the words of a piece before launching into the musical notes because that exercise helps her students understand and interpret the music. Tomoko knows: “The power of words is made stronger by music.”

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