Harue Momoyama and Ryojin Hishyo

“Ultimately, we have become a race without its own ‘song’-”

Harue Momoyama, born 1939 in Tokyo, was a musician and seeker of what would be true Japanese art. She was a soul who cannot be compared to anybody else. This acclaimed shamisen player and singer was one of the few and last to learn the Miyazono-bushi art of Jyoruri storytelling from master Senju the Fourth, as a boarding apprentice. Yet, Harue left the tradition in search of true and alive Japanese music that is not separate from modern Japanese life and heart. One of her major works is of Ryojin Hishyo, a compilation of popular song-poems in twelfth century Japan. She was the partner of Toshi Tsuchitori, the music director of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata and many other plays, also involved in reviving of the ancient music of Jomon Japan and stone age. Harue has also performed in Paris, where she met Toshi, and worked with Peter Brooks. She worked for the research and enlivening of Japanese songs till her demise in 2008.

Here, we will have a glimpse of her life and work by listening to her voices in her book Ryojin Hishyo: Journey of songs (2006, Tokyo). All the summaries and translations are made by this author.

Early life

Any child loves drawing and singing. I was another one of those who just loved singing—in fact, I could not help singing impromptu whatever I saw or heard. My mother used to scold me when even a casual conversation was turned into singing. In the seashore village where we moved to from Tokyo in the mid-1940s, there were mesmerising traditional festivals, theatres and many other art forms in each area that all the villagers would take part in, even in those times of poverty during and after the World War II. … It was a time when village life had a beautiful kind of dignity and the art forms reflected the total integrity of human life in nature. It is perhaps this experience of art in the villages that has shaped my entire life.

We were to move to Nagoya city soon; it is hard to even think of now, but we used to use cow or horse carts whenever we moved houses. Cows and horses were also the ones who helped harvesting the rice fields, and perhaps there were as many of them as cats and dogs. (They were living with humans by participating in daily lives, which was different from pets.) Whenever a horse passed by our house, I would run out to pick up the still-steaming dung to use it as fertiliser. (p15-16)

Harue grew up learning traditional songs and instruments from her father and other masters. She recalls that it was a time full of hope, a time when the nation was trying to rise from the terrible loss of the last war. Many styles of traditional storytelling were popular and could be listened to on radio programs. Deciding that her interest could not be fulfilled at school, she did not join school after the compulsory education till fifteen years of age.

Harue’s father Daiji Kashima hailed from a family of traditional artists and scientists. He was a Western painter graduated from Tokyo University, the best educational institution in Japan, and a connoisseur of Japanese traditional music, involved in reviving old songs. “An ardent follower of Tagore, who won India’s independence through culture, he declared that he himself would take care and teach me French and shamisen. But this had to stop when the family was split apart due to poverty” (p17). In this chaotic time, Harue questioned herself deeply, coming to the inspiration to ‘start from Japan’ and work on the theme of ‘daily life and art’. “Father had no sense of living. The higher ideal he was pursuing, his living and art, seemed to contradict to each other. However, the more I faced the society, I could see that this was not the problem of my father alone. Art and studies were no doubt far apart from  reality. It was even considered to be more cultural by being far from mundane life. This trend has not changed to this day.” (p18)

Harue started teaching shamisen songs to help the family financially at nineteen years of age. While she had never intended to make music her career, her lessons became popular and the number of classes and teaching venues increased. Harue founded Momoyama-ryu school at the age of twenty-one with the support of her father. At the same time, she formed a supporting group Oharu-kai, which consisted of some of the best cultural people of the time.

As she became popular as a musician through TV and magazine exposure, the family’s finances became dependent on her thin shoulders. Harue often had fights with her father, who wished to achieve his own dream and ideal through his daughter. During this period, her mother became ill, which lasted over ten years.

Harue was feeling that she had to reflect deep inside herself, and reconstruct her whole life. She had lots of doubts about the situation of Japanese music.

I attended almost all the concerts of Japanese music those days. The classical kind was only self-satisfactory, and the new-classical did not sit well, perhaps because the songs were made in Western music theory with Western notes, it seemed to be going away from the source.

I wanted something that would become the core of my music. The kind of music with finer, solid skills, which could be my basis; Miyazono-bushi felt to be the only possibility. (p20-21)



Harue started learning from Senju the Fourth when she was twenty-four. Miyazono-bushi is one of the Jyoruri tradition of storytelling with shamisen, and was appointed as an important intangible cultural property of Japan in 1993. Senju’s classroom was a reflection of her life in dignity. Many known masters, artists and amateur aristocrats used to come and learn from her.

At first, Harue rented a room nearby and went for lessons, but soon she was in the classroom every day. After half a year, she was living there as an ‘inner disciple’, an apprentice who was meant to “take care of all the household chores, to follow her everywhere, write letters in her place, and to manage organising arrangements.” (p23) Senju was known to be so particular that none of the girls sent by her relatives could stay more than half a year. Harue stayed for ten years.

Fortunate for me, Senju hated any Western notations or tape recordings, so I used to sit almost ten hours a day on my knees, also listening to others’ lessons. Senju gave me opportunities to play shamisen in vocal classes, and to sing in shamisen classes, so I could sing and play so many times a day. At students’ recitals, she would give me the work of assisting accompanying musicians, so I could get some income through it. She also sent me for some lessons to teach herstudents new songs in her place.

The master gave me opportunities whenever possible, letting me witness the creative process, so she could transmit to me the essence of art from different perspectives. (p23)

Harue saw the best masters of the time through Senju. She recalls one of the gatherings of Senju’s community, writing “That saturation point of songs and plays that happened here and there, covering all the best peaks of Japanese music, appears still so lively in my eyes, along with the transparent and peaceful air of Hakone mountains. It was a dream-like time, which the transformed Japan has completely lost.” (p24-25)

Nonetheless, even Miyazono-bushi could not become her final destination. After all, even this brilliant art could not ‘live’ and vibrate with the modern and general population of Japan. Miyazono-bushi used to be an extremely popular art form at one point in history, and it used to be the people’s art. But not any more. Modernisation since the nineteenth-century Meiji restoration began with destroying its own culture, and music had become commercial goods.

 There is no song that the race can share among themselves. There was nothing I could call contemporary music. I did not have any ‘uta (songs)’ that I could sing. (p25) 

After dedicating ten years to earnestly studying Miyazono-bushi, she followed the calling that led her to leave it and create her own music. Her days of research and travelling started. Oharukai, her supporting group, helped developing her music in this process. Harue worked with them to organise a few landmark concerts. In 1977, she closed the Momoyama school of shamisen. Harue made two CDs around this time, one of which features Ryuichi Sakamoto, who later became a Grammy and Academy awardee.

Harue came to know of Ryojin Hishyo from an audience who came to one of these concerts; and it became her lifework.


Ryojin Hishyo

Ryojin Hishyo is a collection of popular song-poems from the twelfth century. It was compiled and written by a retired emperor, Go-shirakawa-yin, who was not only an energetic politician, but also an imayo (popular songs) fan. The book consists of ten volumes of poetry collections, and ten volumes of instructions for singing, though only a small portion of it is found. While the title was mentioned in several classical texts, it was not discovered until 1911.

Ryojin means ‘dusts on beams’; it is explained in the book that the title comes from an old Chinese story.

There was a singer called Gukou-Kanga, whose voice was so beautiful that nobody could match it. When he sang, the audiences could not help their tears falling. The echo of their songs made the dusts on the beams flout and dance, which would not settle again for three days. So this work is named the treasure book of the dusts on the beam. (p29)

Traditionally, any forms of poetry in Japan consist of lines of five or seven syllables. So it was a surprise for many when Ryojin Hishyo was found, that the song-poems did not comply to this format.

I was not in fond of five-seven-syllabled poems, feeling that they are too neatly shaped they are not so fit for singing. I felt it goes away from musicality. I had worked on some poetry/lyrics writings, so when I found out Ryojin Hishyoo’s poems to be so free and light, not bound by certain numbers of syllables, I was so happy, I could have danced from joy.

… Some songs seem as if a conversation had turned into a song. Full of unconventional ideas and rich in expressions. Coming to think about it, what I was looking for was not decorative songs or grand vocal music. Free and unbound, not separate from daily life, universal expressions that anybody can relate to; while it emerged from the lower part of the society, it also enchanted emperors and aristocrats. Ryojin Hishyoo were our own songs of high standard, open and free. They were no doubt the songs I was looking for. (p205-206)

In order to give tunes to Ryojin Hishyo song-poems, Harue made the best effort to bring herself close to the senses of the time of Ryojin Hishyo. She had already moved out of urban city. She stopped driving cars, and started working on farming. (She took great inspiration from Masanobu Fukuoka’s book on natural farming, whose bestseller book had just been published.) “My thighs became so thick that I had difficulties wearing jeans. I was able to climb cliffs higher than my height quite easily. My eyes, nose, and ears became much stronger and sharper. Maybe not up to the level of the ancient people, but I would say I came closer to them.” (p211-212) Historical and anthropological studies were being published indicating the worldview of the people living at the time of Ryojin Hishyo. Yoshihiko Amino had published a series of innovative studies suggesting that there was a radical shift in the social structures of Japan around thirteenth to fourteenth century.

Harue did not intend to restore the original melodies of how Ryojin Hishyo was sung, although that could have been possible. What she was interested in was how to bring it back to life. Ryojin Hishyo felt too fresh to be kept it in the arena of literature and historical research. Finding much influence from Silk Road in the twelfth century Japan, Harue’s Ryojin Hishyo incorporated flavours of Silk Road culture.

Women’s voice

Another thing Harue found in Ryojin Hishyo was women’s voice.

As I went through Ryojin Hishyo, I understood that women are singing women’s songs, in women’s voice. 

… What is common in these songs is their independence and autonomy. As commonly known, Japanese language considers it beautiful to leave out the grammatical subject of sentences. But in these songs, they sing ‘my love…’ ‘my child…’ and ‘you are not good…’ ‘you loved…’ suggesting the equal relationship between ‘I’ and ‘you’. … [in one of the songs,] she would even call the other person ‘the man’, throwing the burst of emotions directly. (This usage of ‘man’ is never seen in traditional poetry, and neither have I seen it in traditional song lyrics.) (p53)

In pursuit of the song of my dream, I travelled back and forth between fourteenth to nineteenth century. The discovery of such ‘women’s songs’ was such a happy incident that could have turned my whole life upside down. When I went back as far as the ancient, women were singing, as we would expect. (p54)

From the thirteenth century onwards, Japanese society shifted to a more male dominant society. It was a time when people related to art, religion, sex, and works considered impure became the object of discrimination. Women were also marginalised as more ‘impure’ being. When we look at the song-poems of Kanginshu compiled in 1518, this shift is already evident. Harue writes that she does like some of the songs, but “somehow you can smell the eyes of dilettantes. The difference from Ryojin Hishyo is so apparent and it could never hook me from the heart.” (p57) After that, the songs of women were made by men and sung by men, reflecting their ideal of women.

When Harue first started the journey into her own Japanese music with her shamisen, people gave her cold eyes and comments like “You are not a courtesan. What are you doing?” (p59)

String instruments are considered to have developed from the sound of bow made at the time of hunting. The sound of shamisen seems to sit at the edge of its wild origin and musicality. Much of shamisem music—Japanese music—is a part of theatre and dance performances and predominantly male. (Even North-Eastern jongara, Okinawa’s sanshin, and Chinese Yunnan tribes’ similar instrument are all played by men.) But at the same time, strangely enough, the ‘common sense’ says that this is an instrument of prostitutes.

 However, then, why does Japanese music require low manly voice? When we sing, the highlight often has sequences of low pitch, making it hard for women to sing, which confirms that it is originally meant for men. (p60)

Tradition and Japanese modernity

Another struggle she had to face was people’s misconception about their own traditions. Tradition was often mixed up with nationalism. Harue considers at the root of this entangled situation lies the experience of Meiji restoration in late nineteenth century.

Meiji government, in its attempt to modernisation, aimed ‘leaving Asia and into Europe,’ deciding to follow Western ways entirely, cutting off the old customs as something behind and worthless. Taliban’s destroying of the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan was reported as a barbaric act to the world. When I read the records of anti-Buddhist movement in Japan that time, or heard the stories of the survivor witnesses, I see it to be equally barbaric. It was also unprecedented in the sense that Japanese people themselves destroyed their own religious symbols so badly into pieces. I have visited local temples to check the records of the time, but many of them were burned around 1878. (p62)

Further, the introduction of music into education system with Western music notes caused serious damage to the transmission of songs in Japan.

Although the importance of tradition became re-valued at the beginning of the twenty-first century, much was already lost, and many of the studies and thoughts lacked music, while “it was so many kinds of songs that used to tie the community.” (p61) While the time of Ryojin Hishyo was also a time of chaos and anxiety, “the difference was that the imayo songs, which were born out of the people and had become the unique music of Japan, were loved and sung among people regardless of caste. That century was full of singing voice springing out from the source of life.” (p64)

Through her research of Japanese songs, Harue found a rich variety of rhythms and speeds uncontaminated by the centralisation of ‘traditional’ ‘folk’ music. They were incorporated to Harue’s composition of Ryojin Hishyo. “Japanese people used to love music, and everybody was ‘high hands’ in singing. And how those who exceeded them all used to be recognised as professional was a unique way that Japan had. We can find examples from Ryojin Hishyo indicating that this was the case in their time too.” (p227)

Harue concludes her book as following.

Language cannot be separated from rhythm and musical expressions.

A language that takes hearty trouble in trying to express the subtlety and the cycle of the invisible world can be said to be naturally musical. The musicality has the system to directly reflect such characteristics of the language and the multi-layered nature that connects in itself in complexly rich variety of ways.

Industry, economy, and natural environment. The way to form human relationships, and the way of the community. The physicality and rhythm produced from daily life.

Japanese music is all these coming into one.

Uta (songs), Japan’s unique music, does not have compositions without vocals. ‘Words’ and ‘voice’ are the main actors, because voice has the freedom to change itself into anything, allowing freer expressions than any instruments.

And this freedom is not bound by any manmade theories or rules. Though it follows the rule of nature, this freedom is big-hearted and unlimited.

In this ‘beautiful land’, there was always the eternal echo of ‘songs’, as the cycle of life and death was piled up from the time ancient. It was the ‘praise of life’ of the people who lived with nature, and ‘food of soul’ for the contemporary people of the time.

Nowadays, everybody is aware of the huge loss that has happened with modernisation, and the reconstruction of human society is urgently required. I hope the people who will be leading the coming age will win back the ‘Japanese songs’ with the wholeness of how it used to be when alive. (p231)



References (All readings in Japanese):

Ryojin Hishyo: Journey of songs by Harue Momoyama (2006, Tokyo)

Toshi Tsuchitori’s Blog – http://d.hatena.ne.jp/tsuchino-oto/touch

YouTube Channel of Harue Momoyama and Toshi Tsuchitori – https://m.youtube.com/channel/UCi_TM37bdC9xMZWLujLxCJg

Harue Momoyama’s Ryojin Hishyo – https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=vzyIwdZBOnQ

By: Tomomi Sato (Paromita)

Tomomi has studied Sanskrit, linguistics, martial arts and paintings among other things. She is a gifted writer and a painter, she was inspired by Baul path and has been practicing Baul under the guidance of Parvathy Baul since 2013. She has been the core team in organising all the retreats. She divides her time between India and Japan. You can follow her work at https://www.tomomiparomita.com/

Photographs by Ryuko Gakusha