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No Longer One Need for Speed: Sanshin Master Kenton Odo on mastering da moment


Kenton Odo, sanshin sensei for Ryukyu Koten Afuso Ryu Ongaku Kenkyu Choichi Kai Hawai‘i.

It’s kinda funny how growing up Kenton Odo always wanted for be da fastest. Like da fastest for ride his bike around Pacific Palisades on O‘ahu. Da fastest for hike down Heart Attack Hill. Even when he started learning songs on top da sanshin [Okinawan three-stringed instrument], he mostly only wanted for play da fastest of da songs. Nowdays dis 54 year old, ’88 Maryknoll grad finds himself no longer in such one rush.

His journey to mastering da moment started way back in 1989 when he first took up da sanshin. From dea he got one Okinawa Prefectural Scholarship for study sanshin in 1993. That wuz how he got for go Okinawa for study directly under Grand Master Choichi Terukina Sensei. In 2007, Braddah Kenton wen go pass his Saikosho, das da top-level certification exam wea he got first place, making him along with June Nakama and Calvin Nakama da first foreign-born buggahs for pass dis test in Okinawa. An’den in 2010 he finally got his Shihan [masters] sanshin certificate for teaching. Today Braddah Kenton teaches sanshin for Ryukyu Koten Afuso Ryu Ongaku Kenkyu Choichi Kai Hawai‘i. 

* * * * *

What village you from?

l’m half Japanese, half Okinawan. On my Dad’s side, I’m from this village called Tanna in Hiroshima. So I’m a yonsei on my Dad’s side. And on my Mom’s side, I’m from Agari Takushigwa in Oroku. And I’m a sansei on the Okinawan side.

You identify as Local? Uchinānchu? Japanese American? Nikkei? What?

Uh... I always just say I’m half Japanese, half Okinawan (laughing).

It kinda boddahs me when people mix up da Okinawan sanshin and Japanese shamisen. Can you explain da difference?

When I was in Okinawa in the 90’s, I was there at a really good time. Japan actually kind of apologized to the Okinawans for the Battle of Okinawa and there was an Okinawan boom all over Japan. Like restaurants and souvenir shops started popping up. A lot more young people started to play sanshin.

At that time we used to always have to say Okinawan shamisen. Because sanshin wasn’t a commonly used word yet. It got accepted into the Japanese dictionary when I was there in Okinawa.

The thing that bothers me the most is before when I used to talk to Japanese nationals in Hawai‘i and I would tell them I play sanshin and then they would attempt to correct me and say, “Oh you play the jamisen?” I only learned later on what jamisen meant. So apparently they would change the kanji for san. San is three, right? Cause you got three strings on the sanshin. So they say jamisen because they changed that san kanji to snake. So when you change it to snake, it becomes jamisen. So I say, “Well, if that’s the case, then yours should be called ‘nekosen’ then because they use cat skin on yours!”

But that was when I first started playing. Nowdays sanshin is the more accepted word, even when you go to Japan, you say sanshin and people understand.

Uh, you still nevah tell what da difference between da two instruments?

The difference between the two instruments is that the sanshin came from China. And what many people don’t know is that the Japanese shamisen came from Okinawa. Not the other way around because everybody thinks it’s the other way around.

And then the other part is the sanshin to me is more ergonomic. It’s shorter than the Japanese shamisen. For the real skinned instruments, the Okinawan sanshin has snake skin and the Japanese one has cat skin. Although many people have fake ones nowadays.

Another thing is it depends where you are in Japan, but the closest you are to like the Tokyo area you’re gonna see the shamisen is always tuned in the key of C. And then you always have a separate singer. But the further south you go, you start to see shamisen players sing.

In Okinawa the sanshin is always the main instrument; all other instruments accompanying. In Japan, the koto is the main instrument. Also, the sanshin is called uta sanshin. Every time you look at the program for performances, it always says uta sanshin because the uta [song] is more important. So it’s always the song first and then the sanshin. And so for uta sanshin the key is tuned to the singer.

If you both Japanese and Okinawan how come you think you gravitated to playing Okinawan kine music?

Small kid time Kenton. It's not easy being a kid.

In school we always learned things about Japanese history, but not once did Okinawa even come up in any of our lessons. That’s why my first year in college [at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa], I all of a sudden wanted to learn the other half of myself.

My thing with Okinawan music is I stumbled upon it. I had a friend, Grace Kaneshiro who played sanshin and she invited me to come learn too from Grant Murata who we called “Sandaa” Sensei. He now goes by “Masanduu.”

And then as if by fate, soon after my first lesson I visited my Grandma. And I didn’t visit her often. But for whatever reason I went and she just handed me my Grandfather’s sanshin. And that was significant because I didn’t even know that my Grandfather, Ushi Takara used to play. It was chicken skin [goosebumps].

Who you grateful to in helping you on your journey to becoming one sanshin master?

I would have to say God because there were too many right people I met at just the right time who helped me. There were so many that you cannot call it coincidence.

Of course I’m grateful to my teacher, Grant Murata for being my sensei. Because if I didn’t have a sensei who pushed me like him, I would never have gone to Okinawa. And with help from Choichi Terukina, who was my sensei there, I was able to extend my initial one year stay to learn for an additional two and a half years.

The Three Sanshin Masters (left to right): Grant Murata, Choichi Terukina, and Kenton Odo.

Da way your group learns is you no need know how read music. Is that some new-fangled way of learning?

So I learned both ways. Because, “Sandaa” Sensei would teach like that too, where we just follow him. But he would also give the notes. At the time, I was picking it up pretty quick, but I wanted to play faster songs like everybody in Hawai‘i does. So I got my hands on the music and I taught myself how to read the notes. So I teach my students the same way. I don’t give them the notes. Notes are for reference, not for learning the song.

I learned that the songs I remember is the songs where I just watched and learned. The songs I forget are the ones where I learned from the notes. I found that out early on. Terukina Sensei says you memorize not with your mind, but with your body. He said, if you want to use your mind, your mind is no good. You can forget. But if you memorize the way he teaches, where you memorize with your body and you use your senses, you use your eyes, your ears, your voice, and you follow the hand motions, then it becomes like muscle memory, like second nature.

Was it a radical way of teaching? No. And this is my own theory, but a long time ago, they didn’t have notes, right? The notes came way later. Sanshin, especially koten [classical] music was only for the samurai class. So it was only a select few that got taught sanshin. And so it got passed down from teacher to student, teacher to student. For generations. And then it was only later that they created this notation system. And my theory is the Battle of Okinawa played a big part in the booming of sanshin because we almost lost the art. I think having the notes helped keep it alive for new players and it was a tool to help teachers to teach, especially outside of Okinawa. I think having it written played a huge part in keeping the culture alive.

You can you speak fluent Uchināguchi [Okinawan language]? And do you tink all sanshin players should learn Uchināguchi or what?

No, I’m not fluent. But it’s definitely a benefit. Rarely does anybody know anything word for word, especially koten music, because they’re poems. So they’re not meant to be translated word for word. It’s the meaning behind the literal words. So just like in Hawaiian music there’s double meanings.

What’s da biggest obstacles to growing more sanshin players in Hawai‘i?

The first obstacle is getting sanshin because nobody makes sanshin in Hawai‘i. So you got to get it from Okinawa. We’ve been finding old sanshin in Hawai‘i where people were going to throw them away so then we were lucky enough to get some of those and then pass them on to our students.

We got over the hump of reskinning with the invention of fake skin. So “Sandaa” Sensei can do that maintenance in Hawai‘i. We got all the equipment for fake skin. But still yet, if you have an antique sanshin with real snake skin that’s of great value, to get it repaired, you gotta send it back to Okinawa.

Sanshin is a family affair! Left to right: Kayla, Kolby, Kenton, Kris, and Kassie Odo. Kenton was so happy his family played sanshin with him in the finale of his solo concert on July 9, 2022. Photo by Jessica Lane.

You had one big solo concert couple years ago in Pearl City called “Wachimugukuru Utati Katayabira” or “Sharing My Heart Through Song.” You can try talk about what wuz da significance of dis particular performance?

So in Okinawa, it’s kind of a tradition, a rite of passage because after you’ve become a Shihan [master] there’s nothing further as far as licenses when you reach the master level. But one of the things they do is they do this dokuenkai, or solo concert thing. So it was just my time already to do it since I had gotten my Shihan certification in 2010.

I used this chance as my opportunity to promote classical music, because that’s how I found my passion. The meanings in these classical songs, they’re so deep and so relevant today.

Kenton Odo mastering the sanshin moment. Photo by Jessica Lane.

You remembah what wuz da one Okinawan classical song that had da most impact on you?

“Kajadifu.” It was one of the first harder koten (classic) songs that I learned. Terukina Sensei explained to me how in this song the guy is asked, “How happy are you?” Then the guy says, “I’m as happy as a flower bud blooming in the morning dew.” So that’s how you’re supposed to be able to sing “Kajadifu,” according to the feeling of that flower.

So I wanted to hurry up and master that song, but then Terukina Sensei explained how it isn’t so easy. He said, “You know you’re not going to be the best until the day you die, right? Because it’s all about life experience and the more life experiences we have, that’s going to make the song sound richer and richer.” He said my thinking was an American way of thinking.


See, Okinawans are always like, “Ah, tomorrow, right?” That’s even the way they take their sanshin exams. They go, “Ah, next year I can take them.” So I always thought that’s so lazy. But no, it’s not that. It’s because to Okinawans everything is a lifelong study. Whereas as Americans, we want to hurry up and get to the next level and move on to the next thing or whatever.

And so that one little lesson changed everything for me. Every single time I sing now, I think about how I can sing it better, how I can play it better to come closer to capturing that feeling I’m supposed to capture. My hope is maybe one day I’ll do the song in such a way that I’ll do the song justice.

(Laughing) Never happen yet.


© 2024 Lee A. Tonouchi

Hawaii Japan Lee Tonouchi music musical instruments Okinawa Okinawans Okinawa Prefecture Ryukyu Islands sanshin Uchinanchu United States uta-sanshin
About this series

In this series, acclaimed author "Da Pidgin Guerrilla" Lee A. Tonouchi uses the language of Hawai‘i Creole, a.k.a. Pidgin, to talk story with accomplished and up-and coming Japanese/Okinawan Americans from Hawai‘i. Interviewees discuss their passions, their triumphs, as well as their struggles as they reflect and express their gratitude to those who have helped them on their journeys to success.

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About the Author

Lee A. Tonouchi, Okinawan Yonsei, stay known as “Da Pidgin Guerrilla” for his activism in campaigning for Pidgin a.k.a. Hawai‘i Creole for be accepted as one legitimate language. Tonouchi stay da recipient of da 2023 American Association for Applied Linguistics Distinguished Public Service Award for his work in raising public awareness of important language-related issues and promoting linguistic social justice.

His Pidgin poetry collection Significant Moments in da Life of Oriental Faddah and Son: One Hawai‘i Okinawan Journal won da Association for Asian-American Studies Book Award. His Pidgin children’s picture book Okinawan Princess: Da Legend of Hajichi Tattoos won one Skipping Stones Honor Award. And his latest book stay Chiburu: Anthology of Hawai‘i Okinawan Literature.

Updated September 2023

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