Yamaha Torakusu, Samurai Entrepreneur (1): ‘I Can Make a Cheaper One’

Yamaha Torakusu, Samurai Entrepreneur (1): ‘I Can Make a Cheaper One’

In the subsiding summer heat of September 1887, two men continuously placed their steps on the stone pavement of the Tôkaidô East Coast Road to Tokyo. Between them, strung on a pole they carried over their shoulders, they bore what looked like an oblong box. They had walked 90 miles since leaving Hamamatsu three days earlier and had another 30 miles to go, before they would reach Kôzu 国府津駅 (today part of Odawara City) where they would be able to take the new railway for the last 50 miles to Tokyo. Soon the railway would connect all the stations on the Tôkaidô, from Tokyo to Kyoto, but meanwhile the two men would not entrust their precious cargo to a packhorse or a rickshaw.

Old Tokaido, Kanayasaka (Wikimedia)

For the reed matting and wallpaper wrapped around their load protected an extremely rare and valuable object – a reed organ. Moreover, this one was special, and the two men, while their faces showed the strain of their exertion, also had an air of suppressed triumph about them. YAMAHA Torakusu and KAWAI Kisaburô had made this organ themselves, one of the first to be made in Japan by Japanese hands.

Japanese women with reed organ, 1887 (Wkimedia)

The earliest organ to find its way to Japan came with the Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century. But not until the Meiji period did the instrument come into its own in Japan. When Western music was systematically introduced into schools from the early 1880s onwards, it was also decided that Western musical instruments, in particular the piano, the organ and the violin, should be used in musical education. But how could 28,000 primary schools, not to mention middle and higher schools, afford to import Western musical instruments? Most of them could not, least of all a piano which cost a fortune and had to be tuned regularly. A few schools somehow found the money to purchase at least a humble reed organ.

One of them was Hamamatsu primary school. Hamamatsu, a small postal town on the Tôkaidô, had little else to distinguish it, and it must have been a proud moment, when the keeper of the school diary recorded on 13 April 1887: “The organ we bought in Yokohama has arrived.” The baby reed organ from the American firm Mason and Hamlyn cost 45 yen. In 1886, a newly appointed primary school teacher received a basic monthly salary of five yen. The headmaster called a special meeting to discuss arrangements to keep the valuable object safe and decreed that no one must touch it without his express permission. Once a month, on the 16th, the people of Hamamatsu were allowed to admire in an open lesson the precious organ, which had become the talk of the district.

On 15 July, however, less than three months after the organ’s arrival, disaster struck. When the music teacher began to play, he could not get the sound from two or three of the keys. No one could work out what was wrong. It looked as if the school would have to send it back to Yokohama to have it repaired by a foreign expert, most likely at the price it could ill afford. Then someone suggested, “Let’s ask Yamaha who works at the hospital to have a look at it. He repairs their medical instruments and all sorts of foreign gadgets; maybe he can repair the organ too.” We may smile at this naiveté, but the school did ask Yamaha Torakusu, and Yamaha agreed to give it a try. This incident changed his life.

Technical devices had fascinated Yamaha since his childhood. His father Kônosuke, a samurai from Wakayama, worked as an official astronomer, which involved calendars, but also measuring land and drawing maps. Torakusu thus grew up in a family with a tradition of studying science and technology. By all accounts a wild young man, he learnt sword fighting and fought for the shogunate in its final years. For this the lord of Wakayama, who sided with the new government, placed him in confinement in his mother’s home village. Eventually, however, Yamaha Torakusu escaped to Osaka, the big commercial centre, where foreign goods gained increasing popularity. Of these, the pocket watch attracted Yamaha’s attention as a popular accessory for those who wanted to demonstrate their devotion to “civilisation and enlightenment.” He noted the new fashion and saw an opportunity for a business. He found a shop where he could learn to repair them. Then, his fascination kindled, he travelled to Nagasaki to learn to make watches and clocks directly from an English firm. He also learnt to repair medical instruments and picked up a fair general knowledge about business.

Equipped with these new skills, Yamaha returned to Osaka to make his fortune. But he lacked capital. He somehow managed open a repair shop, but after just a year, he had to flee from his creditors. Wandering around as a tradesman, he ended up in Hamamatsu. Dr Fukushima of the local hospital, who had himself studied in Nagasaki, needed a technician to repair the foreign instruments he had imported. Grateful for Yamaha’s expertise and eager to keep him in the area, he and his friend, the tea merchant Higuchi, made sure that orders for other repairs came his way.

Thus it came about that Yamaha found himself standing one summer day in 1887 in front of Hamamatsu primary school’s American organ. Quite possibly, he had never even seen, let alone heard an organ before. Yamada Kunita, the music teacher, demonstrated this one to him. Although in his youth Yamaha had learnt to play the three-stringed shamisen, he had only a limited interest in music. The organ fascinated him as a technical challenge. Together with Kawai Kisaburô, a jeweller whose help he had enlisted, Yamaha investigated how pressing a key caused the valve of a metal tube (the reed) to open and let the wind pass through and make it sound. The two men soon figured out the problem; the reeds that did not sound had come unstuck, and they could easily fix them back into place.

Yamaha however, did not leave it at that. The organ looked simple enough to him; he could see himself building one like it. Schools wanted organs to teach music the modern way, but most could not afford the 45 yen Hamamatsu primary school had paid for an instrument imported from abroad. What if he could make organs and sell them at a much lower price? He talked to Kawai. The two of them visited the music teacher, Yamada, with a gift of beef – a rare delicacy, prized by those who wanted to display their enlightened state by eating meat like the Westerners. “I am sure I could build an organ like this for three yen,” Yamaha told the astonished Yamada. “Please leave the organ to me for a while.” Reluctantly, Yamada gave Yamaha and Kawai permission to examine the organ more closely during the summer holidays. Carefully, they took it apart and made detailed notes and 30 drawings before putting it together again. At last they felt confident that they could build an instrument exactly like it.

They set to work immediately. For two months they toiled in Kawai’s little workshop from early morning until late at night with a couple of Kawai’s helpers. The actual mechanics posed no problem, the two craftsmen thought, but procuring suitable materials for the parts proved a challenge. The reeds they managed to make by cutting brass sheet metal and shaping it with a chisel; for the valves they filed into shape an alloy they had made themselves. For covering the keys, they shaped tracing spatulas used by women in Japanese-style dressmaking. The bellows caused the biggest headache of all: what could they use instead of the rubber cloth for the airbag? In the end they used black paper for weather stripping. Finally, they surveyed their handiwork; it looked just like the organ at Hamamatsu primary school.

Proudly, the two men carried their organ to the school. The headmaster and the music master marvelled at it; it really looked almost like the foreign organ they had bought in Yokohama. But when the music master began to play, their faces fell. It just did not sound right. Even Yamaha’s and Kawai’s untutored ears perceived that the foreign instrument sounded different. But why? Had they not copied the foreign organ exactly in all details? No one could tell them what was wrong; not even at the teacher training college in the prefecture’s capital Shizuoka. The training the music teachers had received was rudimentary to say the least. Still, the prefectural governor, deeply impressed, wrote them an introduction to Izawa Shûji, the head of the government’s music school in Tokyo. Izawa would surely be able to advise them.

(To be continued)

Author Bio

Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen