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Koto Musician and Teacher Madame Kazue Kudo Passes at 91

Madame Kazue Kudo (Photos courtesy of Richard Kudo)

Madame Kazue Kudo, a renowned koto musician and teacher, passed away peacefully on Oct. 9, surrounded by her family. She was 91.

She played the koto every day for almost 70 years and taught koto in the U.S. for more than 40 years. Many of her students went on to become teachers in their own right.

One of her protégés is June Okida Kuramoto, a founding member of the band Hiroshima, who told The Rafu Shimpo: “Kudo Sensei was a woman, a mother, a musician, an artist, and teacher with struggles and challenges being an immigrant from a foreign country, but kept high standards and paved towards her dreams and vision with her artistry, devotion, passion, determination, strength and courage.

“I could not have had a better sensei, a better role model. I am truly blessed, lucky and grateful and will forever love her, appreciate her and respect her deeply. I already miss her.”

In her final public appearance, Kudo come out of a nearly 10-year retirement in November 1997 at the Japan America Theatre (now known as the Aratani) in Little Tokyo to perform with Kuramoto.

Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto, a Bay Area koto performer and teacher, recalled, “When I wanted to learn how to play shamisen with classical koto (jiuta shamisen), Kudo Sensei agreed to teach me, even though I’m from a different koto school. She taught me how to sing classical music, and even introduced me to the music of Tadao Sawai.

“I’m grateful for June Kuramoto … who introduced me to her sensei. I owe Kudo Sensei so much, and have wonderful memories of the shamisen and koto lessons I had with her. I’m so fortunate to have been able to know her. Kazue Kudo left a great legacy of koto music in the SoCal area, which continues through her students today …

“She played traditional Japanese, jazz, Latin, Bach and Beethoven. Kudo Sensei was well versed in many genres on the koto, and a great inspiration to American koto players.”

Kudo was the daughter of Masakazu and Chiyo Tosa of Shizuoka and had two older brothers. Her father was the last in a line of artists of the Tosa School of Kyoto, which traces its history back over 1,000 years and whose paintings were commissioned by the Imperial Court and shrines throughout Japan. Until the 20th century, these paintings were not viewed by the general public; they can now be found in museums throughout the world.

Leadership of the Tosa School was passed down from father to son or, under special circumstances, with the marriage of the top student to one of the Tosa daughters. Kudo was fearful that this might be her fate, as her brothers were not interested in painting.

Inspired by watching her father paint, Kudo produced her own works, but was surprised when many people refused to believe those works were hers, despite her lineage. These negative comments discouraged her from continuing to paint.

Her musical career began when she was 3 years old. She was carried on her mother’s back to her first lessons, which were about a 30-minute walk from home. As a child, Kudo performed in community concerts sponsored by local music teachers. Eventually she received her teaching credential from Yamada-Ryu Koto School, but her career was interrupted by World War II.

When the U.S. began bombing Japanese cities, the family was forced to retreat to the mountains. When they returned, they found that everything had been destroyed — precious paintings, valuable art supplies, the official Tosa School records, and Kudo’s koto. With her brothers in the army and her father unable to find work, Kudo left for Tokyo to find employment so that she could support her family. She found a job as a typist and also did domestic work.

She decided to study with Michio Miyagi, known as the father of modern koto music and the “Japanese Schubert” because he pioneered changes in the traditional Japanese music world. His school, which taught the Ikuta-Ryu style, was headquartered in Tokyo. Coming from a different school with a different style, she had to start from the beginning. Kudo took private lessons from Miyagi’s sister-in-law, practicing long hours. When she could play the pieces well, she performed in front of the master for his critique.

After studying and performing in Tokyo for a few years, Kudo got married. Although the marriage did not last, it did bring her to Los Angeles in the early 1950s. In Japan, Miyagi School students were limited to learning pieces composed by Miyagi, but Kudo now had the freedom to compose, arrange and develop specialized koto techniques.

After attending a concert by Kimio Eto, a blind koto master who had broken away from the Miyagi School so that he could compose and perform his own style of music, she began her studies with him. Her first performance in Los Angeles was at one of his concerts.

Through Eto, Kudo met Tak Shindo, an arranger and composer, who offered her a job to perform with his orchestra during a live broadcast on CBS. Soon thereafter, she was contacted to perform for the soundtrack of the movie “Sayonara” (1957), which starred Marlon Brando, Miiko Taka, Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki.

Her other credits include music for films such as “Teahouse of the August Moon,” “Cry for Happy,” “Dr. Zhivago,” “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and “The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark,” and for such TV programs as “Wagon Train,” “The Barbara Streisand Special,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Kung Fu,” “Happy Days,” and “Shogun.”

Musicians, conductors and music arrangers who either approached her or were approached by her to perform in her biannual Kazue Kudo Koto Music Conservatory concerts included Academy Award winners John Green and Maurice Jarre; guitarist Laurindo Almeida; flutists Bud Shank, Kazue Frances Asawa and Shirley Yamamoto; shakuhachi masters Kazu Matsui, Mitsuru Yuge and Masakazu Yoshizawa; pianist Gary Kudo (her son); Suenobu Togi and Ikuko Yuge of UCLA Gagaku Group; conductors Masatoshi Mitsumoto, Akira Endo, Akira Kikukawa, Stephen Gothold (Whittier College) and James Vail (USC).

Kudo and Asawa recorded “Music for Koto and Flute,” released by Crystal Records.

Symphonies she has performed with include the Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra, Austin Symphony, Irvine Symphony Orchestra, San Jose Symphony, Redlands Symphony, San Francisco Philharmonic, and Los Angeles Philharmonic, with whom she appeared at the Hollywood Bowl.

Kudo also collaborated with Pasadena City College Concert Choir, USC Concert Choir, Concordia Orchestra, Zendeko Taiko, Chorale Bel Canto of Whittier College, and members of Hiroshima, including Kuramoto.

Kudo and Kuramoto met when the teacher was asked to perform at a Sakura Kai meeting at the Okida family’s home. At the meeting, Kudo signed up three students, including Kuramoto. Weekly lessons led to the establishment of the Kazue Kudo Koto Music Conservatory.

Madame Kazue Kudo performing with one of her students, June Kuramoto of the band Hiroshima.

As noted in Kuramoto’s biography on Hiroshima’s website, “Almost by destiny, a renowned koto master … began teaching koto in June’s family home. Using her grandmother’s koto, June, only 6 years old, found a ‘connection’ for her life in the instrument and Japanese music. June has subsequently received all the classical degrees of koto through Kudo Sensei and authorized by the Miyagi School of Koto in Japan.”

As her conservatory grew, Kudo began teaching out of her home in South Pasadena and later moved to the Sun Building in Little Tokyo, where many other teachers of Japanese culture had studios. Forced out of the building by redevelopment, she relocated to the old Union Church (now Union Center for the Arts) and later the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, where she remained until her retirement in 1988. She also maintained a studio in Gardena, and later gave lessons at her home in Torrance.

Noting that very few children play koto in Japan because they are more interested in Western instruments, Kudo once said that it may be Japanese American kids, Yonsei and Gosei, who carry on the tradition.

Kudo is survived by three children, Richard, Jeffrey and Gary; four grandchildren, Jennifer, Brandon, Marissa and Nickolas; and a brother, Mitsuaki Tosa. A celebration of her life was held on Oct. 21 at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.

(Background information from November 1997 article by Cindy Tomita, one of Kudo’s students, in Tozai Times.)

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