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Hozan Yamamoto - The Story Of Japan's National Treasure

Hozan Yamamoto is a legend of Japanese jazz. He is rightly regarded as a true master and was recognised as a "living national treasure" by the Japanese government in 2002. Over five decades he pushed the genre into new directions, absorbing fusion, funk, spiritual jazz and many other sounds, resulting in a discography studded with gems of rare-beauty. Mr Bongo has had the privilege of reissuing two albums from Yamamoto-san, and a third is on its way in October (news to come on that). To truly appreciate his musical legacy we wanted to tell his story, and through Ken Hidaka we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview his son, Hozan Yamamoto 2nd. Ken is a good friend of Mr Bongo, helping us in many ways, and once again he's gone above and beyond with this compelling interview. 


Where did your Father grow up?

HY2: He was born in a city called Otsu in Shiga Prefecture. My father was born in a family of koto (musicians and teachers). My grand mother was a koto teacher and he was brought up in an environment like this. His father (my grand father) was an amateur shakuhachi player so when he was around junior high school, he started playing shakuhachi. Before that, he also played the koto as well. In traditional Japanese music, it is typical for the koto and shakuhachi to play together and around the same time as he started playing the shakuhachi, he was a member and playing in a school brass band club that performed foreign music. Also, he was in the Otsu wind instrument orchestra where he played the flute. Actually, it is all written in his biography that I gave you but when he was young, he was given this opportunity and also for Jazz as well, in the flow of things, opportunities appeared before him. When he first started playing, it was through sheer youthful force but technique wise, he was very careful. But in order for him to introduce the good quality of his instrument, shakuhachi, he dived into the world of Jazz, a genre that he was a fan of from when he was young So, in order to make a living in the world of music, he welcomed any challenges.

Ken: When did he become a professional musician?

HY2: I am not so sure. This is something that an artist announces by himself but when he was 20 years old, he came to Tokyo and…

What can you tell us about his early musical influences? What turned him onto jazz?

HY2: It was probably around Showa 30s (1955~1965) era, before 1960. He enrolled in the newly opened Seiha Music Collage that specialised in koto and as the one of the 1st students to enter this music collage. By entering his school, it was his first step into the world of music and it opened many doors for him and he began to meet many people. At the same time, he taught koto, through many things, he got more and more connected with the music world. And soon after, he met artists such as Helen Merrill and got introduced to the Jazz scene. But this was not his main line of business. Of course, he had his basis as a musician of traditional Japanese music but he also collaborated with other musical genres.

Ken: Was he interested early in his career to collaborate with musicians from other genres?

HY2: I think that that era synchronised with his musical activities. First of all, what happened was traditional Japanese music instruments were incorporated into Jazz and when it was released, it surprised a lot of Americans very much. And soon afterwards, he went to the Newport Jazz Festival 1967 (with The Sharps and Flats and 18 piece orchestra under the direction of Nobuo Hara). My father said time and again, it was like getting reimported back to Japan and then, it was finally recognised in Japan as well.

Ken: It must have so revolutionary at the time, for them to go to Newport Jazz Festival to perform.

HY2: Indeed, it was. So, my father wore a kimono at this American Jazz Festival and performed as a soloist. For him to have this experience, it must have been so exhilarating and it must have given him the confidence to continue playing as a professional shakuhachi player around that time.

For those not familiar with the instrument the Japanese shakuhachi, can you please give a brief description of the instrument, and its relevance in Japanese music?

HY2: A shakuhachi is made of bamboo (matake: a long-jointed bamboo). It was originally descended through the Silk Road. Originally, there were many different type of flutes such as recorder, transverse flute before it was imported into Japan. Before this, the flute for some reason, it developed quite a lot in China. The holes to hold your fingers swelled so that you can play many different kinds of sounds but for the Japanese, on the contrary pursued a more inconvenient way of playing the flute. In a shakuhachi, there is only 5 holes. This is a big difference between a shakuhachi and other flutes. So, when you play a shakuhachi, you operate these 5 holes (in various combinations) with your fingers and play the scales. So, the more rustic the instrument it is, it can play delicate and subtle sounds and in many ways, it is an instrument that has the ability to accommodate (to various changes). You can play semitones cutting it bit by bit so it is built as a highly functional instrument as well. As it has very distinctive timbres due it being made of bamboo, when you listen to a shakuhachi being played, you will instantly know that it is a shakuhachi.

How do you think your Dad would feel about his music been appreciated years after the original recording, in countries all over the world?

HY2: As his son, I realised that our family was quite different to others. I was always seeing what my father was doing. My father frequently listened to the albums that he recorded but he never practiced at home. So, when he was at home, he would listen to his music. So, when he teaches pupils at home, he would play but he would never practice for himself. Before I was born, his technique was already accomplished. Our family for successive generations played and taught the koto and so in this backdrop, my father made a profession out of playing the shakuhachi. This tradition was seen as normal in our family. So, my younger brother and sister both also play the koto. In this way, it was quite natural.

Ken: Your father recorded many albums and there were some that were released worldwide. He collaborated with many foreign artists and he also went on tour overseas as well. What did he think about all of this? Did he want to spread traditional Japanese music throughout the world?

HY2: I think that he did not have that sort of huge ambition of spreading traditional Japanese music worldwide. At anytime throughout his life, he was constantly busy everyday and he was interacting with many people so he was offered to do many projects. Especially when it comes to Jazz, definitely. Of course, there were things that were quite hit and miss and he did not live a musical career where he planned out what he wanted to do in the distant future.

Ken: Was he normally a very busy person?

HY2: Instead of saying he is busy although he was very much so, he was never at home. To explain it in a not so good manner, he wasn’t like he took it in stride but if an opportunity presents itself, he would jump at the chance since he thought that there were infinite possibilities. He did not say, I like this but I don’t want to do this. Different to Japan, when you go abroad, you get the opportunity to meet with so many different kinds of people so if he meets up with some artist, he would say, OK, let’s collaborate. That’s the kind of way he was.

Ken: So, recently, there is an interest for his albums to be reissued by overseas labels such as Mr. Bongo. So, as your father’s son, what do you think your father would have thought about this worldwide re-interest / rediscovery of his works in 2021?

HY2: For me, I think this movement is quite natural. I think all quality things remain (and are bounded to be rediscovered and reappraised in any era). This ethos is something that I always strive for as well. As I inherited his name so I always want to learn from the past. It is great that the music is documented and exists. It is great that one can listen to it now so it is such a learning experience for me. I think it is also such a worthy fortune so I am full of gratitude towards it.

During his active recording years, how popular was his music in Japan?

HY2: In the world of shakuhachi, he was very respected. So, I saw him be at the top of his game for so long, on the contrary, I thought that it was quite natural.

Ken: But if an artist starts not selling his music up to a point, the record companies will not re-sign the artist. Did this sort of thing happen to your father or was he naturally still being courted by a record company to record right before he passed away?

HY2: Yes, he was in a normal way, getting asked to record from a label. For him to continue to be recording music (right up until before his death), was quite extraordinary. He was always in demand.

It was not only his own original music but he also asked to play with other musicians as well.

Did your father tour his music outside of Japan?

HY2: Yes, he did go but it was not like he went frequently. If he was invited, he would definitely not decline it and go. In his later years, I went with him a few times as well.

Ken: Where did he go to and what kind of tour was it?

HY2: Towards the end of his life, I went with him to Singapore, Taiwan. That was what I remember. Individually, he went on tour many times.

Ken: I guess he went on tours to promote Japanese cultural goodwill and I guess he was invited to perform at Newport Jazz Festival or Montreux Jazz Festival.

Did you father enjoy playing live?

HY2: Yes, he loved performing live.


Can you tell us any stories about other musicians such as the koto player Tadao Sawai that your father recorded and collaborated with?

HY2: My father’s master was Shinichi Yuize sensei (koto player) and Tadao Sawai sensei and he greatly indebted to both of them. Tadao Sawai sensei was a classmate of his, the same age and very close friends. He had other friends as well but he never forgot his origins (beginnings, who he was indebted to) and they were always very important to him.

Ken: For instance, can share with us a story of his relationship with Sawai sensei?

HY2: They were great friends for such a long time, from when they were young, from when they were in their 20s. And Sawai sensei passed away very early. He was 57 years old. Around the same age I am now. When he died, my father was so saddened by the loss of his dear friend. When they performed live, they reached quite a high level of musicianship. When Sawai sensei played with my father vis-a-vis, they got so excited, their level of playing went off the charts.

Ken: So, they were really great friends and had performed together so many times, so whenever they performed together, a special kind of chemical reaction happened!

HY2: Yes indeed. Incomparable with anything else, it was extraordinary. For my father and for Sawai sensei as well, the same. And as his son, it was quite amazing seeing all of this happening.

Ken: Did they perform together often and regularly?

HY2: They both thought it necessary to perform together so they did.

Do you think he enjoyed collaborating and being in a ‘band’ / trio / ensemble?

HY2: Without a doubt, he loved to perform with others. Indeed, he liked to perform with musicians from the world of traditional Japanese music but I think, to the contrary, he was also very relaxed when he played together with musicians from western music. The world of traditional Japanese music can be quite rigid, for instance one had to play according to the musical score.

Ken: So, for traditional Japanese music performances, a musician had to play according to the score.

HY2: In a lot of instances, that is how it was. So, if anything, it was very stiff. There is a fixed format that one had to abide by. But inside that confinement, my father did some sort of different arrangement but there must have been a good and bad side to it.

Ken: So, your father was OK to play with both musical styles? Or did he prefer having more freedom to play?

HY2: I think for him, it was great that he was able to do both. It did not work where he did just one. Isn’t all musicians like this?

Which other musicians did he admire? 

HY2: I can not imagine who he respected. I can say which master/ teacher he was indebted to or others who he made an effort with but I never heard from him about other musicians he admired. Definitely, Shinichi Yuize sensei (koto player), his very first teacher.

Do you know anything about the recording of his ‘Beautful Bamboo-Flute’ album?

HY2: I listened to this album quite after it was produced and released so when I listen to it, my father’s playing sounds quite young.

Ken: So, was the performance in this album when he was in his 30s or 40s?

HY2: Yes, I think so. So, whenever I listen to it, I think that this is how he played at this time in his life. So, that is why it is so extraordinary that a recording of that time still exists now.

Ken: So, when you say “young” what do you mean?

HY2: If you listen to it, you will know. The timbre is different as well. From thereon, his sound developed into something different as well. I feel that when I listen to this album, if certain things have a certain order to proceed, it goes that way. And he actually did progress exactly in this way.

Ken: So, are you saying that if you compared your father’s albums that he recorded in the 1960s, 1970 when this album was released and recordings that were released afterwards during the 70s, and listened to all of them, one will recognise how his playing style developed?

HY2: Yes, that’s right. So, right around this period, you can see that his playing has started to show a bit of luster. You can tell how his breathing capacity was quite extraordinary when he was young, his playing was quite energetic.

Ken: So, can you say that the more you age, just like athletes, limitations arise?

HY2: Yes. When my father became 60 and 70, it was different as well. But there are also some musicians who go the opposite. The more they age, the volume that they play goes up. There are some musicians who are like that. There are all types of musicians. But when he released this album and Mai, it was in his prime of his playing. He was at the peak of his playing powers.


Have you seen the 1979 'Devil's Flute (悪魔が来りて笛を吹く) by Kôsei Saitô? If so what can you tell us about the film?

HY2: Yes, I have.

Ken: How did your father get involved in producing this soundtrack?

HY2: I don’t know the details of how he was hired but he was approached directly by the producer of this film, Haruki Kadokawa. It was probably since my father was able to play the shakuhachi and compose music. At the time of when this film was being made, I was in junior high school student and for this work, my father also studied a bit of orchestration. It was not like he was studying from scratch but revising about it and then writing the score.

Ken: This soundtrack is credited as an album by your father and Yu Imai. Do you know how they became to collaborate on this soundtrack?

HY2: Mr. Kadokawa as well hired Imai-san to collaborate with my father. Yu Imai was an assistant producer to my father for this soundtrack. That is what he said to me. So, this soundtrack was composed by my father but there were some tracks produced by Imai-san as well. Imai-san is credited as assistant musical producer in this script book of this film.

Ken: What is this?

HY2: It is the script. I coincidentally found it yesterday at home.

Ken: Wow, they actually print it properly(like a book), incredible.

HY2: They made a lot of posters (for promotions) and at the time, it became so popular, that even young people like junior high students and elementary school kids were whistling the melody of the theme tune of this film. Even my friends all were whistling it. So, when something that happens in front of you (when I was a child and to see it firsthand), I thought the influence of television was so powerful. The film was promoted on television and when the commercial was shown, the theme song would be played as well. So, from this commercial, everyone finds out about it.

Although it was a Kadokawa film but it was released by Toei so my father would go often to the Toei film studios.

For me, I went to see this film but did not find it interesting but when I listened to the music, I thought it was very cool. For me, I really like this soundtrack and find it very interesting. When it came out on CD, I would often listen to it while driving. I think as an album, it is very well produced as well.

How great do you think your father’s influence was on the high-regard that Japanese Jazz has achieved?

HY2: He was also famous for his release of his Jazz albums and it was quite revolutionary at the time, that people would be discovering Hozan Yamamoto from the Jazz scene. So I think he influenced the Jazz scene in many ways. He also astounded Jazz fans as well so.

Ken: In his early years, your father started collaborating with Jazz musicians. At the time, was his collaborations acclaimed for being groundbreaking? Or under the background of a tendency for the Jazz scene in Japan to favor overseas or especially American Jazz over Japanese Jazz musicians although they did support it, was his 60s and 70s collaborations with Jazz artists considered very experimental?

HY2: I agree as well. Jazz was introduced in Japan after the War. After that era, there was a period where big bands became very mainstream so that was when my father discovered Jazz which you could say that now, no one would be able to find out about Jazz in the same way. Jazz in Japan all started with the Japanese copying the US original version. I think it was such a great era for him as there must have been so many possibilities and everything that he did, must have been so interesting.

Ken: All of these Japanese Jazz albums that I have dealt with recently, although the Japanese Jazz was initially copying US Jazz but from around the end of the 60s onwards, Jazz musicians in Japan started doing what they wanted more and more, wanted to experiment more. That is the kind of albums that the curators want to reissue now for Japanese Jazz.

HY2: Yes, I agree. So, just like Jazz, classical music in Japan was also experimental at the time (from the late 60s onwards). Japanese classical music composers would utilise Japanese scales to write music. It would be appealing to both the Japanese and for foreign people who when they listen to it, it would sound all so alien as well so that is why, it is so enchanting. I really think it is something that should be introduced a lot more. There are so much incredible music from here so.

Which work do you think he was most proud of?

HY2: It is Ginkai (Silver World). For my father, he considered it to be a point of origin and it actually sold the most out of all his albums.

Ken: It is an album that still highly acclaimed.

HY2: Yes, it has been reissued numerous times. It is even reissued at a budget price like 1,500 Yen for a reissue series called “100 carefully chosen masterpiece albums”. (While looking at the 10 album CD box set that P-Vine reissued in 2000s of Hozan Yamamoto’s albums) Along with Ginkai, he had fond memories of many of his albums such as Beautiful Bamboo-Flute as well. All of these albums (included in this box set) were released through different record companies.

How did he feel about being recognised as a "living national treasure" by the Japanese government in 2002? What does this mean to the family?

HY2: When he was recognised, it was actually more the people who were close to him who got more excited than him, proposing to organise a party in his honour for this recognition. It was not like he was jumping for joy but just naturally happy to be recognised.

Ken: So, at the time of recognition, for the Japanese record industry and traditional Japanese music world, your father being recognised as living national treasure was considered quite a huge deal.

HY2: I am not so sure. It is not like the ultimate aim in his musical career is to be recognised as such. The government decided somewhat to make this recognition to my father. He was an artist and a musician who consciously strived to refine his art, to continue with his musical activities throughout his life. He probably was thinking, “if you are going to present it to me, well then, I will gladly accept it”.

What does this mean to the family?

HY2: Everyone in our family knew of its existence. My mother was especially so happy that he received it. Of course, there was an awards ceremony party that was held at Tokyo Kaikan. Before that and afterwards, that was it. At the party, everyone came to celebrate his achievement. It was not he who did this but it was everyone around him who were more excited than him for his achievement. He is not that type of person.

His songs have been sampled in Hip-Hop - most notably by DJ Krush and Run The Jewells - what do you think your father would have thought about being sampled?

HY2: He probably did not understand it at all.

Ken: Do you know if he knew that his music was sampled?

HY2: I don’t know. Of course, I presume that sampling of his music would not be done illegally, right? But he passed away so after that, I don’t know.

Were there always music and musicians in your house when you grew up?

HY2: Yes. As I said before, when my father was at home, he would not do his personal practice there and he would listen to his own records. Also, his disciples would sometimes come visit. He would come home late at night and then, he would have dinner. When I was very little, I did not meet him that much (because he was so busy working). He considered home to be somewhere that he can relax. It was not like he would bring back his work at home but he would listen to his own albums there.

Ken: I heard from some artists that after they would produce an album, they would never listen to it. So, when I heard that your father would listen to his own albums, it sounded refreshing.

HY2: What this means is he would never listen to other artist’s music at all. He thought that the quality of his own records were all top notch. For instance, even when he receives an album from his friends, he would never listen to it.

Ken: So, isn’t it like he would listen to it at his workplace?

HY2: No, I don’t think so. Simply, he is not interested in it.

Ken: So, it must have meant that he was very satisfied with what he made.

HY2: Yes. He listened to it so much that I thought, don’t you get bored of it? So, for instance, he would be playing the album that he performed with the Tokyo Cuban Boys so much, I memorised it as well. It was when I was in elementary school. And then, I asked my father that I want to play that as well so that was the catalyst for me to start playing the shakuhachi. When I listened to this album that he played with a big band, I decided that I wanted to play the shakuhachi when I was in 5th grade.

Ken: Did your father coerce you to play the shakuhachi?

HY2: No, not at all.

Do you own copies of all his records?

HY2: Yes, I have all of them.

Do you personally have a favourite?

HY2: It is the album that I was talking about before, the album that my father played with The Tokyo Cuban Boys, Komoromagouta (released in 1974). This is the album that I listened to, that made me want to play the shakuhachi. It is the 2nd piece on the album that I really wanted to play so badly. So, when I told my father that I wanted to play it, he wrote the notes for it and from the very beginning, he started to teach me how to play it. Do you want to listen to it?

Ken: so, we listen to this 2nd piece

HY2: So, this album’s big band was conducted by Norio Maeda and he was such a big fan and supporter of shakuhachi in Jazz. So, my father performed and recorded together with Norio Maeda a lot, as a trio as well. Even when he was old, he would play a lot with Norio Maeda. It is not unlike it is rustic but then again, technique wise, what they are doing is so incredible. You can hear of how amazingly lucid they are with their playing.

Also, he released an album called Bamboo Beatles as well. That was when I was in junior high school and it was at a time when I was heavily listening to the Beatles. He decided to produce this album due to listening to me playing Beatles records. He was vice versa affected by me. He really got into Yesterday first. But then I found out afterwards, that he actually covered many Beatles songs already but he did not know that these songs were by the Beatles. Since his son was heavily into the Beatles, he decided to do this album. This sort of thing, I remember very well. This is another album that I really love as well.


Thank you for your time and participation Hozan Yamamoto 2nd - we are honoured. Also, a huge thank you to Ken for conducting the interview and the transcription. 

You can check the Mr Bongo reissues Hozan Yamamoto's Jazz Rock and Beautiful Bamboo-Flute HERE & HERE.

Note - Photography courtesy of Hozan Yamamoto 2nd.