Photo credit: Chris Bennion
Photo credit: Chris Bennion

This past spring, Michiko Urita, a PhD candidate in Ethnomusicology at the University of Washington, spearheaded a unique series of gagaku events (Japanese Imperial court music and dance) for general audiences in Seattle.  It was thanks to her background and commitment to documenting Japan’s indigenous music traditions that such a unique program was realized.


Following many months of coordination by Ms. Urita, gagaku came to Seattle in the first week of May 2015. Various performances by Maestro Tohgi of the Japanese Imperial Court musicians were held around Seattle to academic groups, the general public, and schoolchildren. These presentations constituted a collaboration between Maestro Tohgi who generously contributed his goodwill performances, the University of Washington’s School of Music, the Seattle Asian Art Museum and the UW Japan Faculty of Humanities and the Arts. Thanks to their financial and logistical support and additional funding from Japan Arts Connection Lab (JACLab), ArtsFund through its power2give fundraising platform, and the Japan Foundation as well as numerous donors such as Vijay and Sitha Vashee and the Japan Business Association (JBA), all performances were free of charge to the public.  The cultural importance of this remarkable series was underscored by the Japanese Consulate General in Seattle’s sponsorship of the event.


The following is an interview with her regarding this special introduction to a little known area of Japan’s cultural traditions.




JACLab: Urita-san, can you tell us a bit about your background in Japanese Imperial court music? We’re curious about how such a unique occurrence like the gagaku series of events you spearheaded came about.



Michiko Urita: Gladly! I’ve received training to be an ethnomusicologist, but I did not know much about the ritual music of gagaku until recently.  There are two main categories in gagaku: gagaku of foreign origin and that of native Japanese origin.  I was exposed to the latter, which is practiced primarily as Shinto ceremonial vocal music and dance, when I went to Ise Grand Shrine in Japan for the first time in 2008.  There, I came to know that one of the highest forms of gagaku of native origin is sacred ritual music called mikagura, and it is performed annually by shrine musicians. However, once every twenty years, at the special rite of the Ise Grand Shrine reconstruction, it is performed by Imperial court musicians.  I was fascinated by this ritual music and did extensive ethnographic and archival research at Ise Grand Shrine over the next several years following that first experience.  As a result, when the 62nd rite of reconstruction was held at Ise Grand Shrine in 2013, I humbly witnessed the rite at Ise Grand Shrine as a temporary staff member.  I also learned that mikagura had been adopted into the Ise Grand Shrine from the Imperial Court during the Meiji period.  Naturally, I expanded my research on mikagura performed at the Ise Grand Shrine to that performed at the Imperial Palace Shrine.  


JACLab: What motivated you to organize the gagaku events here in Seattle?


Michiko Urita: While I was doing research on Shinto ceremonial music, I realized that while Shinto is Japanese primal indigenous tradition, research on the highest form of Shinto ritual music has been very sporadic.  I wanted to introduce this beautiful music and dance, deeply connected to Japanese culture yet unknown, to academic and local communities in Seattle.  Thus, the main purpose of organizing the gagaku events in Seattle is cultural and educational, not commercial at all.  All events were free.  


JACLab: What do you think are the essential or unique elements of gagaku? To the layman, it seems esoteric.


Michiko Urita: In fact, gagaku of foreign origin such as “tōgaku” or “komagaku” is not esoteric.  This is the type of gagaku that consists of dance and instrumental music transmitted from the Asian Continent and features colorful costumes that recall their Silk Route origins. By contrast, gagaku of native origin does have aspects of secrecy, and its costumes are more austere, following the simplicity or purity of the Shinto aesthetics.  In particular, the vocal music and dance of mikagura (sacred music ritual) is hidden from public viewing.  Even today, no one but performers and priests are allowed to be present at the site of performing mikagura.  Furthermore, one private song is sung at the very selected rites at the Imperial Palace Shrine and Ise Grand Shrine.  During performance of the private song, five actual performers remain at the site of the performance while the rest of the musicians and priests have to leave the site.  I understand that the private performance is important as the music and dance is exclusively offered to the Shinto deities.  Again, this type of gagaku is hardly known even in Japan. So I think what is essential in mikagura is its conception and continued performance from more than 1,000years ago to the present as a divine offering to the gods.  It’s “sacred music” in a sense quite different from the Christian definition in which religious music is performed for the public albeit in religious settings. In that sense, each performance of court musicians is unique and aims at offering perfection.  An entire life’s training goes into each of these offered performances.


JACLab: That’s fascinating.  How many lectures and demonstrations did Maestro Tohgi give in Seattle, and why were those venues chosen?  


Michiko Urita: The entire series of lectures and demonstrations on gagaku were held at five venues.  Three out of five were officially advertised events.  The first event was aimed at the Japanese Studies community at University of Washington.  The second one was aimed at the School of Music community at UW.  The third one was aimed at a general audience at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.  All events were open to the public with free admission.  This was made possible by generous financial support of various local organizations in addition to the University of Washington.  It was also a great privilege for me to have received title sponsorship for the events from the Consulate General of Japan in Seattle.  


Besides these events, the maestro was invited as a guest lecturer to Professor Christina Sunardi’s class at School of Music, the University of Washington.  Also, the maestro visited John Stanford International School, which is an elementary school in Seattle, to give a talk and demonstrate gagaku to nearly 200 local students who are studying Japanese language and culture.  I wanted to reach out to the academic community, local community, and children.


JACLab:  How did the program for the gagaku events in Seattle develop?  It must have been difficult to choose what parts of this ancient tradition to highlight for an audience completely unfamiliar with gagaku.  


Michiko Urita: There were three main objectives of this gagaku project in my mind: 1) sustaining learning and appreciating gagaku at School of Music at University of Washington, which has unique links to gagaku; 2) deepening understanding gagaku through an interdisciplinary approach for students of Japanese culture; and 3) contributing to Japan-U.S. friendship and appreciation through an exchange of this kind. 


With regard to the first objective, a gagaku ensemble actually used to exist at the University of Washington in the 1960s.  Professor Shigeo Kishibe served on the faculty as visiting professor of music at UW and arranged the entire gagau instruments.  The gagaku ensemble was led by Professor Robert Garfias, who had studied gagaku from court musicians of the Imperial Household Agency in the 1950s.  In fact, Professor Garfias’ teachers include Maestro Tohgi’s father and uncle.  Professor Garfias's contribution to understanding Japanese culture in U.S. was noted, and he received the Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese government in 2005.   Professor Garfias attended the Seattle gagaku events, flying in from California, thus lending a special touch to the revival of this gagaku connection at the University of Washington.  


While all of the gagaku instruments had been kept untouched for a half century in the ethnomusicology archives of the UW, the gagaku instruments were revived, most notably the Japanese zither or wagon, which received new strings from Japan and tuning from Maestro Tohgi himself. The wagon is an essential instrument to perform ritual music and I hope that all the Seattle events enhanced understanding of this ancient part of native Japanese culture. 


I am also grateful that Professor Hiromi Lorraine Sakata came to attend the events.  Professor Sakata was a member of the gagaku ensemble under the leadership of Professor Garfias in the early 1960s.  She said that "Having the experience of playing in the gagaku ensemble in the beginning of my ethnomusicology studies taught me to respect and appreciate different aesthetic values and to understand the historical significance of transportation routes such as the Silk Road and realize the religious and musical connections between different music cultures of the world.”  


As for making it relevant to contemporary and general audiences, it was truly gratifying to see the enthusiastic support and interest in this aspect of Japan’s native performance arts. I am especially grateful to Professor Patricia Campbell of the UW School of Music for her generous and enthusiastic championing of this project, and to Professor Paul Atkins of the UW Faculty of Asian Languages and Literature.  His ability to take in the specialized information about Gagaku directly from Maestro Tohgi in Japanese, and then translate it into English and in a way that is accessible and engaging for general audiences was, I’ve been told, key to helping them enjoy and appreciate the performances.  It was a true pleasure working with them both on this project.


JACLab:  An interesting part of the demonstrations was the costume change.  People loved the color and sumptuousness of the robes.  How did Toyama-san find this experience?


Mitsuko Toyama: Maestro Tohgi brought a couple of the traditional gagaku costumes for Seattle performance with him from Japan in a specially constructed box.  The costume I helped with was the ninjōmai costume, and it took at least 30 minutes to put the costume and the accessories on Maestro Tohgi if everything worked right.  There are strict rules on how to handle the costume and how to put three layers of the costume which has been kept for 1,000 years.  It is very expensive to clean the silk costumes if they get stained, so I was instructed to not wear any make-up and to wear white clothes to the costume rehearsal sessions and on stage.   For the first performance at UW, we had to redo the costume change routine three times because first the first layer of the bottom portion was missed, and second, the tail of the costume was either too short or too long.   It took two of us as assistants nearly two hours to get it right.    Even though it was my first time helping with such a special costume, I found to my delight that my experience of handling Hinamatsuri dolls (Girls’s Day dolls) every Spring for display in my home helped a great deal. In fact, putting on and taking off kimono or gagaku costume is like carefully folding origami paper.  If you don’t fold the material exactly in line at the beginning, the end result doesn’t come out right. I was thrilled to experience this rare opportunity to see the costumes from inside out.    


JACLab: Who were the major sponsors or collaborators who helped make this remarkable series of events happen? 


Michiko Urita: The total budget was significantly above $10,000 and would not have been possible without the generous financial and logistical support of various groups here in Seattle and the US.   Most of the direct expenses were borne by the Japan Foundation LA, JACLAB (Japan Arts Connection Lab, a local group), UW Ethnomusicology Program, UW Japan Faculty of Humanities and the Arts, and the Gardner Center for Asian Arts and Ideas.  The Consulate General of Japan in Seattle lent its invaluable support to the project.  Also, more than 30 individual donors contributed to the project through the “power2give” fundraising platform of ArtsFund, which brought us the generous matching contribution of Vijay and Sita Vashee.  It was also wonderful to have received a donation from UW Comparative Religion and the Japanese Business Association here in Seattle, along with donations at the door from attendees.  Thanks to the university, local arts nonprofits, and generous individuals, we could keep all the events free.  This was quite amazing!

I am especially grateful for the full support of JACLab. It was not easy at all to make the gagaku events happen.  I faced a series of challenges -- one after another for months leading up to the events -- including unexpected huge expenses to bring the entire set of traditional gagaku costumes from Japan.   From the early stage of planning the gagaku project, I worked with the volunteer board members of JACLab.  Their mission is to support classical and traditional Japanese performers in sharing their mastery with the Seattle public.  I share the same mission with them as a Japanologist and ethnomusicologist.  


JACLab: Toyama-san, why did JACLab decide to support and contribute to this gagaku project? It's not commercial at all.  Did you find there was a lot of interest in this ancient music / dance form from Japan? 


Mitsuko Toyama: Ms. Urita contacted us by email in December, 2014 and she told us that she already has an agreement from a couple of professors at UW to help her to bring Maestro Tohgi to Seattle.  None of us on the board of JACLab had ever seen gagaku live before and had very little knowledge about it because it is the court music of Imperial Household and it is not performed for the general public.  We agreed that it was squarely within JACLab’s mission to help introduce gagaku to a different range of audiences to our local community.   At the very beginning, we were moved by Ms. Urita’s passion for the project and we knew we could work well together.  Ms. Urita took a role of the executive director for the project, and JACLab supported her, primarily through fundraising as a 501c3 and assisting in the logistics of the various performances.  It was a wonderful and worthwhile experience for all of us, and it was gratifying to receive the positive responses from those who attended the performances.  In addition to Ms. Urita, we had the great pleasure of working with Ms. Michiko Sakai of the UW School of Music, who organized a wonderful Japanese reception following the UW performance at which Professor Garfias and his former gagaku ensemble members were present.


As for the level of interest in gagaku, we were really delighted to see that all the performances and demonstrations were “sold out.”  We hope it will heighten their interest not just in gagaku but other ancient, historical rituals that are a part of Japan’s cultural identity.



Thanks to the collaboration of local community members and organizations, and the persistence of an ethnomusicology scholar, nearly 700 residents of Seattle, young and old alike, now have an awareness of this age-old performance ritual that even residents of Japan may never get to experience in their lifetime.  Our sincerest thanks to Michiko Urita.