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THE JAPANESE UKULELES -THE BRANDS of KIWAYA SHOKAI
Japanese Ukuleles reached their heydays in the 1950's. It was a time when musicians such as Katsuhiko Haida, Buckie Shirakata and Setsuo Ohashi established what is sometimes referred to as "Japanese Hawaiian Music."
The most popular brand was the Luna that was manufactured by Luna Gakki (working out of Okayama prefecture) and distributed through Kamano Gakki. However, there were also many other Japanese brands that contributed to the Hawaiian craze in Japan.
BIRTH of the KIWAYA "FAMOUS" BRAND and the DAYS of WINTER-LIKE HARDSHIP
By 1955, the ukulele was the main product of Kiwaya Shokai. They were a little late in entering the market. In fact, the one explosive Hawaiian craze was already beginning to cool down with the guitar becoming more popular.
Under these adverse circumstances, however, Ryoji Okamoto, at that time the President of Kiwaya Shokai, decided to stick with the ukulele and launched his "Famous" brand. As the name implies, it was Okamoto's dream to make his product famous. Unfortunately, this was in mid-60's and at a time that Rockabilly craze was beginning to sweep across Japan. People no longer bought ukuleles, and most makers either went out of business or ceased production. Even Luna, the best known Japanese brand, eventually disappeared. The days of winter-like hardship were about to begin.
"FAMOUS" and the REVIVAL OF THE UKULELE
At one point, the recession was so severe that "Famous" was the only domestic brand being produced. Despite these tough conditions, Okamoto did his best to remain in business while trying to boost up sales and improve the quality of his ukuleles. He solicited advice from various professional musician and even personally inspected every one of his ukuleles prior to delivery.
Herb Ohta "Ukulele Virtuoso" was deeply impressed by Okamoto's effort that he wrote a letter recommending the "Famous" brand of ukuleles (on display at Ukulele Museum "RAKU"). After many years, Okamoto's commitment slowly began to bear fruit. First came the revival of the renowned "Luna", followed by the launch of the "Nakanishi" high-end brand model. As demand grew, new models were introduced.
The ukulele again become poplar in the mid 90's as young musicians, such as Kazuyuki Sekiguchi, a bassist with the Southern All Stars, began to play this instrument. Boo Takagi, formerly a member of a comic group called the "Drifters", also helped to promote the ukulele. Kiwaya Shokai's products suddenly found themselves in the limelight, and "Famous" become the most renowned ukulele brand in Japan.
In order to meet a growing demand, various limited production models were added to the lineup including the Curly Koa, the baby-size and painted art model. More recently, Kiwaya Shokai launched a low-priced "K-Wave" model. And as s result of a joint venture with T's Guitar, a manufacturer based in Nagano prefecture, some unique and outstanding ukuleles are now being produced. You can see the very first "Raku" models on display at Ukulele Museum "Raku".
Today, the ukulele is not only for Hawaiian music. Many musicians have been convinced that anything can be played on a ukulele. Alongside Hawaiian ukulele giants such as Herb Ohta (Ohta-san), Jake Shimabukuro and Herb Ohta Jr., artist of various background can be seen playing this little instrument.
Copyright 2004 KIWAYA Ukulele Museum "Raku"
Kiwaya Shokai web site in Japanese: www.kiwaya.com