Discover Nikkei

https://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2023/2/23/yoshie-fujiwara-1/

Yoshie Fujiwara and Japanese Americans I: A Night at the Opera

Yoshie (AKA Yosie) Fujiwara, a legendary tenor and impresario whose career spanned decades, was the biggest name in grand opera in Japan over the 20th century. For much of that period, he served as director of the Fujiwara Opera Company. Through his activities as singer, director, and teacher, Fujiwara “almost singlehandedly…kept opera alive in Japan,” in Newsweek magazine’s phrase. His North American tours aroused great excitement among Japanese Americans, who dubbed Fujiwara “Our Tenor,” and helped inspire their interest in classical music.

Yoshie Fujiwara

Fujiwara was born in Japan on December 5, 1898, the son of Neil Brodie Reid, a Scottish merchant, and Kiku Sakata, a geisha and biwa player who worked in Shimonoseki. His parents did not stay together. Though Reid did eventually help finance his son’s education, the two did not meet until years later. As a boy Yoshie was adopted by Tokuzaburō Fujiwara, and took the family name "Fujiwara".

According to one source, as a teenager Fujiwara joined the Koshu Theater and Nobuko Hara’s opera company, singing under the stage name Toyama. Another states that he joined the Shin-Kokugeki Theater Company of Shojiro Sawada in 1918. Whatever the case, Fujiwara decided to become a Western-style operatic tenor and concert singer, which meant studying in Europe.

In 1919, shortly after World War I ended, the young Fujiwara sailed to Italy to study singing in Milan. By 1921 he was living and studying in England. (Years later Fujiwara and fellow tenor Yoshinori Matsuyama reminisced about their struggles to support themselves during their days in England, and how they patronized the same London pawnbroker for loans during slack periods!). Fujiwara made rapid progress—in September 1922 he performed a concert at London’s well-known Wigmore Hall (daringly, he included in his program Stravinsky’s modernist composition “Three Japanese Lyrics”).

In January 1923 Fujiwara travelled to New York, where he attracted press attention both for his singing and his striking looks—reporters trumpeted his resemblance to Hollywood film idol Rudolph Valentino. He made his recital debut at Carnegie Hall, then sang to a largely Nikkei audience at Aeolian Hall, on a program with dancers Sei Hara and Masao Takata.

The New York Tribune’s critic stated, “His evident experience, good appearance and pleasant manner did much to supplement his clear, appealing, but rather small tonal powers.” The New York Times added, “He has a lyric tenor voice of many commendable qualities and his use and control of it displayed natural ability and careful training.”

In fall 1923, Fujiwara returned to the United States. (He later claimed melodramatically to have departed Japan right after the great Kanto earthquake and arrived as a penniless refugee in Los Angeles. In fact, he left seven weeks after the disaster, and first arrived in Hawaii).

In Honolulu he performed three concerts for local Japanese audiences at the Nuuanu Y.M.C.A., then performed a recital at Walter Dillingham’s home. His farewell concert, sponsored by three local Japanese dailies, was held at Chugakko Hall. There he sang for a reported audience of 600, predominantly Nikkei. He performed Japanese songs such as Ryutaro Hirota’s “Shikararete,” plus Western opera arias in Japanese translation.

Honolulu Star Bulletin, October 29, 1923

Fujiwara spent the fall 1923 season in California. In San Francisco, he sang a Sunday concert at the Fairmont Hotel attended by 1000 listeners, and retransmitted by radio. A reviewer in Variety called Fujiwara “the John McCormack of Japan.” In January 1924 he sang a radio recital in Los Angeles. Soon after, he gave a free concert in Fresno under the auspices of the local YMBA, to thank Americans who had contributed to earthquake relief efforts in Japan.

In the following years, Fujiwara divided his time between Italy, Japan, and the United States. In April 1925 he returned to Honolulu to perform concerts. That September, he again performed in Honolulu, at a YMBA benefit concert for Okinawan relief. In October, he performed at International House in New York with piano accompaniment by Masako Nakayama. In November 1925, when Japan’s Prince Yasuhiko Asaka visited America, Fujiwara sang at receptions at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the Japanese embassy in Washington.

In January 1926, Fujiwara returned to London and sang again at Wigmore Hall. That summer, he visited the Soviet Union, then closed to many westerners. He performed in Moscow, before returning to Japan via Siberia and Manchuria. In Fall 1926, he performed a public concert at Tokyo’s Hibiya Park for a reported audience of 8000.

In October 1926, Fujiwara returned to Honolulu, where he offered a recital in the house of John Erdman, then a concert at the Mission Memorial Hall, a performance praised by the Honolulu Advertiser as “a matchless voice, faultless in its culture”. Over winter 1926-27, he made another mainland tour, including appearances in Los Angeles, El Centro (sponsored by the Japanese Christian Women’s Society), San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Stockton, Fresno, Salt Lake City, Ogden, Chicago, and New York.

In Spring 1927, Fujiwara traveled to Great Britain and France. His concert at the Salle des Agriculteurs in Paris in May drew plaudits from Lyrica magazine: “M. Fujiwara has a charming tenor voice, almost a tenorino above all at ease in those demi-shades that are pretty and harmonious.” In August, he presented a well-received program in Vancouver, then sang a notable concert at the Scottish Rite Temple in San Francisco, an event that was sponsored jointly by the city’s two Japanese dailies, New World and Nichi Bei Shimbun.

Just before New Year’s 1928, Fujiwara undertook another concert tour of the United States and Europe, accompanied by the Italian-Japanese pianist Yolanda Hikabe. He first remained a month in Honolulu, during which he performed at the Empire Theater in Hilo and presented a pair of concerts at Honolulu’s Mission Memorial Hall. The Honolulu Advertiser remarked on the packed house.

Fujiwara’s program featured German lieder, including Schubert’s “Du Bist die Ruh” and “Wiegenlied,” plus Japanese songs and opera arias. The concert was a fundraiser to support Japanese aviators planning a transpacific flight. Fujiwara’s gift of 1000 yen from the proceeds attracted widespread coverage in American newspapers.

After leaving Hawaii, Fujiwara toured the United States and Europe. During a stop in Los Angeles, he sang in Pasadena High School’s auditorium. In Seattle he sang at Nippon Kan. In New York, he presented a recital at the Gallo Theater.

In April 1928 Fujiwara returned to London. There he sang a solo concert at Aeolian Hall, then appeared at the Albert Hall alongside soprano Louise Loring. The Times, reviewing the former, commented, “He has a light tenor voice of pleasing quality but of no great volume, and he was, not unnaturally, handicapped in his singing of Italian. In the songs by modern Japanese composers the voice came more freely and the phrasing consequently improved.” The Times critic praised his rendition of Nakayama’s “Boatman’s Song.” While in Italy, Fujiwara reportedly sang for the King of Italy. That fall, he starred in a production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in Budapest.

In addition to his international concertizing during these years, Fujiwara performed on the radio, notably over station KHJ in Los Angeles (on a broadcast in 1925, for example, he sang “Song of the Volga Boatmen,” one of his signature songs) and became a notable recording artist. In 1925, he signed a contract with RCA Victor. Over the next three years, he recorded 24 sides, singing solo with piano accompaniment. All but two of these were Japanese songs.

Fujiwara’s life and career took a turn in early 1928. First, he became embroiled in an international scandal when he met and romanced Aki Nakakamigawa, a wealthy married woman. She filed for divorce, but the decree was slow to be finalized. There were repercussions for his reputation in Japan. Rafu Shimpo reported in 1929 that members of a prefectural teachers’ association in Wakayama designated him a “corrupter of youth” and protested an invitation for him to sing at a local girls’ school.

Ultimately Aki left Japan to join Fujiwara, and the two were married in Venice. Curiously, once in Europe, the two did not at first live together. Fujiwara sang and studied in Milan, while Aki settled across the border in France.

In a pair of articles published in Nichi Bei, Yoshiwara explained that that he needed to stay in Milan for his art, but that the climate was too unhealthy for his spouse, and he complained of toxic gossip over his marriage. In early1929 he contracted jaundice, and moved to Nice to be with Aki. However, he soon set out on a solo concert tour of the United States, so presumably health considerations were not their only concern.

Fujiwara arrived in the United States in February 1929. Although he travelled without his wife, he feared being shunned by American audiences, especially Japanese Americans, because of his scandalous marriage. In addition to performing in Los Angeles and San Francisco, he was featured in concert in Hanford (sponsored by the Japanese American Educational Society), and sang a recital in Pasadena as a benefit for the local Japanese church.

He publicly asserted that he was as popular as ever. However, on the excuse of an appendicitis attack, he soon left the country and did not return until 1932.

Yoshie Fujiwara and Fujiko Hamaguchi in Furusato, 1930

In early 1930. Fujiwara returned to Tokyo. In the period that followed, he was recruited to star as actor and singer in the first sound film made in Japan. The film, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, was called Hometown (AKA “Fujiwara Yoshie no furusato”) The plot, which bore a certain resemblance to Fujiwara’s own story, tells of a young singer, Yoshio Fujimura, who abandons his faithful girlfriend for an erratic relationship with a rich female patron. The film was a financial success, even in Depression-era Japan.

In the next years, Fujiwara continued to spend most of his time in Europe, where he was reunited with his wife (and where their son, Yosiaki, was born to them). In mid-1930 he recorded a set of 24 operatic arias and Japanese songs with the Orchestra of La Scala for the Kelly label.

In 1931, he reached a new career height when he played Rodolfo in a production of Puccini’s opera La Bohéme at the Opera-Comique in Paris. At the same time, he presented a recital at Paris’s renowned concert hall Salle Gaveau. He following year, he was awarded the Order of Merit by the government of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini for his role as interpreter of the cultures of Italy and Japan.

In May 1932, while en route from Italy to Japan, Fujiwara returned briefly to the United States. He appeared at a concert in Los Angeles’s Trinity Auditorium—his first US appearance in 3 years—under the auspices of the Japanese daily Kashu Mainichi, which referred to him as “our tenor.” He was joined in the concert by legendary dancer Michio Ito (who may conceivably have offered his collaboration to help Fujiwara regain his tarnished reputation).

Yoshie Fujiwara with his wife Aki and son, probably on the way to the United States. 

In mid-1933, Fujiwara was once again invited to perform in North America. He stopped in Hawaii and sang a concert at the Honolulu YMCA, accompanied by the distinguished pianist Maxim Schapiro, then performed a benefit recital at Nuuanu Christian church. In San Francisco, he was guest of honor at a reception offered by the Japanese consul-general, Kaname Wakasugi—the official invitation bespeaking the rehabilitation of his reputation. There he sang an informal program, impressing his listeners by the beauty of his voice and the variety of his expression.

After he performed at the Japanese Hall in Vancouver, The Vancouver Sun described him as a “vocalist of astonishing powers and Operatic training.” He travelled to Los Angeles, where he sang two recitals to capacity crowds at Nishi Hongwanji Temple, together with showings of his movie Sakebu Ajia (The Call of Asia). One highlight of his tour was a performance in the lead male role in Pietro Mascagni’s “Japanese” opera Iris with the Chicago Civic Opera Company at the New York Hippodrome in November 1933. Another was his appearance in September on crooner Rudy Vallee’s nationally broadcast NBC radio program.

Part 2 >>

 

© 2023 Greg Robinson

California England Europe hapa Italy Los Angeles New York (state) opera racially mixed people Scots singers tenors United Kingdom United States Yoshie Fujiwara
About the Author

Greg Robinson, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at l'Université du Québec À Montréal, a French-language institution in Montreal, Canada. He is the author of the books By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Harvard University Press, 2001), A Tragedy of Democracy; Japanese Confinement in North America (Columbia University Press, 2009), After Camp: Portraits in Postwar Japanese Life and Politics (University of California Press, 2012), Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era (University of Illinois Press, 2012), and The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches (University Press of Colorado, 2016), as well as coeditor of the anthology Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road (University of Washington Press, 2008). Robinson is also coeditor of the volume John Okada - The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (University of Washington Press, 2018).

His historical column “The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great,” is a well-known feature of the Nichi Bei Weekly newspaper. Robinson’s latest book is an anthology of his Nichi Bei columns and stories published on Discover Nikkei, The Unsung Great: Portraits of Extraordinary Japanese Americans (University of Washington Press, 2020). It was recognized with an Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for Outstanding Achievement in History Honorable Mention in 2022. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.


Updated March 2022

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