Discover Nikkei

12th Ukraine and Japan

Interview with Igarashi Kenta, a saxophonist who fled Ukraine

Saxophonist Kenta Igarashi, who fled from Ukraine

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24th of this year, many people fled to other countries for refuge. Refugees continue to arrive in faraway Japan, with the number reaching 1,565 as of July 18th. Among them is the young saxophonist Igarashi Kenta. Born to a Japanese father and a Ukrainian mother, Igarashi had been living in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, but fled to his father's homeland, Japan, to escape the destruction of the war.

While in Ukraine, Igarashi attended the Kyiv Conservatory of Music, and won numerous prizes in international competitions. After evacuation to Japan, he transferred to Tokyo University of the Arts, where he studied saxophone as a third-year instrumental student, and also began to actively perform in concerts.

She was invited to perform a recital by violinist Chie Sawada, who serves as the representative of the Japan-Ukraine Arts Association, which supports Ukraine through classical music, on the stage of Midori Art Park in Midori Ward, Yokohama, and has also appeared in charity concerts to support Ukraine held at the Tokyo College of Music's TCM Hall (Meguro Ward, Tokyo), where she performed not only famous classical pieces but also traditional Ukrainian songs and the Japanese song "Furusato."

The emotional performance of "Furusato" seemed to capture the longing of the Ukrainian people and the audience for their faraway homeland, and many were moved to tears.

We asked Igarashi, who is expected to play an active role based in Japan in the future, about the differences between Japan and Ukraine, his own identity, etc. (*The interview was conducted in English via email and has been translated into Japanese below.)

* * * * *

Proud of our roots

Q. What kind of life are you currently living? Have you gotten used to life in Tokyo?

Igarashi: I've basically gotten used to life in Japan, but there are still things that surprise me.

Q. Could you tell us about your parents? How did you meet? Where in Japan were you born and raised? Why did you move to Ukraine?

Igarashi: My parents met in Japan, but he passed away before I was one year old. I was born in Isesaki, Gunma Prefecture, but we moved to Ukraine when I was five. My mother missed Ukraine so much that she wanted to go back to her homeland.

Q. When you lived in Japan, did you attend kindergarten or nursery school? Did you receive Japanese language education? Were you taught about Japanese or Ukrainian culture? Did you learn about the cultures of both countries in your daily life? For example, what were some of these things?

Igarashi: In Japan, I went to kindergarten and could only speak Japanese until I was 5. However, after I went to Ukraine, I forgot Japanese, so I learned it at school.

I then studied at Kyiv Lysenko Secondary Specialized School and then entered the National Music Academy of Ukraine.

Of course, I learned about Japanese and Ukrainian cultures - in Japanese culture, I was taught to be polite, punctual, etc. But I would say that I am more familiar with European culture.

Q. You have Japanese nationality, but how do you feel about your identity? Do you feel like a Ukrainian of Japanese descent or a Japanese of Ukrainian descent?

Igarashi: I consider myself to be a Japanese who grew up in Ukraine. I am proud to be Japanese, and in Ukraine I considered myself to be Japanese. I don't like being told that I look European. Maybe I am a Japanese Ukrainian.

Q. Are there any communities of Japanese Ukrainians in Ukraine? What is the Japanese presence in Ukraine?

Igarashi: I have never heard of the community, and I have never looked into this. Ukraine is far away from Japan, so there are not many Japanese people in Ukraine, and they rarely come to Ukraine. But Ukrainians love Japanese culture and anime.

Q. Have you ever felt uncomfortable about having a Ukrainian mother and a Japanese father? On the other hand, have you ever gained anything from it or felt proud of it?

Igarashi: I don't feel uncomfortable. I'm proud. I've always stood out. In Ukraine I was Asian, and in Japan I'm European. But it makes me special, and I know that.

Q. Are there any similarities between Japan and Ukraine? And where is the biggest difference? Igarashi-san's performance of "Furusato" moved many audience members. Do Ukrainians and Japanese people have anything in common emotionally? Please tell us your favorite Japanese songs or tunes.

Igarashi: That's a difficult question. We have very little in common. The difference is that Japanese people are very strict and serious. Music is also different. Japanese music sounds happy, but the lyrics can be sad. Ukrainian music usually sounds sad if the lyrics are sad. I don't know much about Japanese music, but I like the composer Takashi Yoshimatsu and I love his work. Of course I like "Furusato".

Q. Have you ever listened to Japanese saxophonists? What did you notice about their performances compared to Ukrainian saxophone players, including the way they learn to play?

Igarashi: Of course, I have heard Japanese saxophonists play, but it's different from European style playing and teaching. The way of thinking is completely different, as are the musical phrases and sounds.

Q. The war with Russia seems to be dragging on, so what kind of musical activities do you plan to do in the future? What does the future hold for your mother and siblings?

Igarashi: I want to continue making music and giving concerts. My younger brother is studying at university, and my mother will live in Ukraine for now. No one knows what will happen tomorrow, and I don't know what will happen next. We can't plan for the future, but we are certainly living in the present. (end)

*If the above interview questions and answers to Mr. Igarashi's questions did not fully capture his intentions, then this is the responsibility of the author (Kawai), who asked the questions.

© 2022 Ryusuke Kawai

Japanese Ukrainians Kenta Igarashi music refugees saxophones
About this series

What is Nikkei? Ryusuke Kawai, a non-fiction writer who translated "No-No Boy," covers a variety of topics related to Nikkei, including people, history, books, movies, and music, focusing on his own involvement with Nikkei.

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About the Author

Journalist and non-fiction writer. Born in Kanagawa Prefecture. Graduated from the Faculty of Law at Keio University, he worked as a reporter for the Mainichi Shimbun before going independent. His books include "Yamato Colony: The Men Who Left Japan in Florida" (Shunpousha). He translated the monumental work of Japanese American literature, "No-No Boy" (Shunpousha). The English version of "Yamato Colony," won the 2021 Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Award for the best book on ethnic groups or social issues from the Florida Historical Society.

(Updated November 2021)

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