Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Those 1950 California Concert Recordings by Misora Hibari and Others

Posted in Current Events,J-Pop,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the July 6th, 2012

In the last few days, the Japanese press have been reporting on a discovery I was involved in of a set of previously unknown recordings made in Sacramento, California around 1950 of a number of Japanese singers in concert. You can see the story in Japanese in the Yomiuri, Nikkei and Asahi newspapers, among others. In English it’s run in the Japan Times and the Mainichi.

The press coverage has understandably focused on the recording of the June, 1950 concert by then thirteen-year-old Misora Hibari and her mentor, Kawada Haruhisa. It’s a remarkably clear recording of the full concert, almost ninety minutes long. But the collection also includes recordings of concerts by a remarkable range of popular musicians from the day: Yamaguchi Yoshiko (known during the war as “Ri Koran”); the “Queen of Boogie Woogie” Kasagi Shizuko together with her mentor, composer Hattori Ryoichi and his sister, singer Hattori Tomiko; Watanabe Hamako together with Kouta Katsutaro; and the Akireta Boys in their postwar incarnation. There are also a number of recordings of performances by local Japanese-American musicians from the Sacramento area. The quality of the recordings vary from concert to concert (unfortunately, the Kasagi/Hattori concert recording has the lowest quality), but most are in remarkably good shape.

The recordings were actually discovered by a retired Bell Canada sound technician who collects old recording devices. In August, 2008, he purchased two boxes of wire recordings in an online auction from a seller in California, without knowing what the contents were. When he received the reels (twelve in all), he digitized them and began to figure out that they were concert recordings of Japanese performers. Although he speaks no Japanese, he was able to figure out the names of most of the performers and that the concerts themselves were held in Sacramento. Through an Internet search, he found my name because of a paper I delivered at a conference several years ago on the 1950 American concert tours by Misora Hibari and Kasagi Shizuko.

He contacted me in the summer of 2009 and described his discovery. To be honest, I was a first highly doubtful–I thought perhaps he had discovered recordings of concerts made in Japan that somehow happened to fall into the hands of someone in California. But he was kind enough to send me copies of the recordings. When I started listening to them, it was clear within minutes that these were indeed recordings of Sacramento concerts. It’s still not clear who made the recordings or for what purpose, but since they were clearly recorded directly off the stage microphone, it seems likely that it was someone connected with the Nichibei Theater, the venue in Sacramento that is mentioned in many of the recordings.

I’ve been working with the owner and other colleagues since (notably, Loren Kajikawa of the University of Oregon and Christine Yano of the University of Hawaii) to try to figure out how best to present this archive to the world. We did a roundtable panel at the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting in Toronto this past March and had a very good reception. The owner has since decided to donate the entire collection of recordings to the UCLA library. We have also sent a copy of the Misora Hibari concert to her management office in Tokyo, and I am currently working to find contact information for representatives of the other performers who appear on the recordings so that we can send them the files, as well.

I’m still in a state of disbelief about the discovery. I’d spent a good deal of time thinking about the 1950 concert tours. The U.S. Occupation lifted the ban on overseas travel by Japanese citizens in late 1949, and Japanese musicians scrambled to arrange American tours. Misora Hibari was invited to Hawaii by veterans of the 442nd Infantry Regiment and 100th Combat Battalion, the famous Japanese-American U.S. army units, for a charity show. From Hawaii, she traveled to the mainland for a concert tour on the West Coast. (More information about the Misora Hibari and Kawada Haruhisa 1950 tour can be found in a very helpful Japanese-language book,『川田晴久と美空ひばり―アメリカ公演』). The other performers crossed the Pacific shortly thereafter for their own tours.

Incidentally, I recently attended a dinner at UCLA where Senator Daniel Inouye was a guest of honor. Knowing that Sen. Inouye was a veteran of the 442nd, I asked him if he remembered the 1950 Hibari visit to Hawaii. He confirmed not only that he remembered it, but that he had been at concerts.

The recordings are significant in a number of ways. They give a remarkable snapshot of the state of popular music in Japan, circa 1950. To my knowledge, there are very few similar concert recordings from the period in existence. Moreover, they give a very palpable sense of the rapidity by which Japan was converted in the American imaginary from wartime enemy into Cold War friend. To my mind, the most intriguing aspect of the recordings is their significance for Japanese-American cultural history. I find it astonishing that a mere five years after their release from wartime internment camps, Japanese-American audiences in Sacramento and elsewhere were able to indulge so publicly and so gleefully in their cultural ties to Japan.

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