Yasukatsu Oshima

The crossing at Roppongi is one of Tokyo’s busiest and seediest places. Men in black suits and women in red mini-skirts hand out leaflets for the strip shows, hostess bars and night clubs. On one corner is the Almond coffee shop, famed as a location for any meeting with a dubious agenda. Opposite, tucked away on the eighth floor of a building is “Wonderful Tonight”, a small Eric Clapton tribute bar.

It was here, surrounded by Clapton memorabilia that Yasukatsu Oshima, the man being touted as the young bright hope for traditional Okinawan music, got his professional start in music. Soon after I arrived in Tokyo in 1993, a friend had coerced me down to Wonderful Tonight- this was, after all, during Clapton’s rather annoying “MTV Unplugged” phase. Still, I was going to hear Okinawan music, or sort of. Oshima played acoustic guitar as well as sanshin (the Okinawan lute) and was joined by another acoustic guitarist. Aside to Okinawan tunes, they played what the Japanese call “folk” songs (anything from the 70s that featured an acoustic guitar), and a few western covers, probably Layla or something. Oshima had an infectious appeal; a likeable demeanour, a good voice and some excellent original songs. The gig left a lasting impression that would draw me to him a few years later.


Almost exactly eight years on, and we’re once again in a slightly dodgy bar, this time attached to a London hotel. Today is Yasukatsu Oshima’s last day of a UK tour and tonight his last gig in London at the Spitz. “Wonderful Tonight was my start in music” muses Oshima. “I hadn’t played live before and didn’t really know what I was doing. In fact, I didn’t know anything.” Nevertheless, his first album was just about to come out, and on a major record company at that. “That was just lucky” he says with an embarrassed laugh. “I’d never played live before I released a record and before I recorded I’d never written a song. I once played at a gig in Tokyo with some friends of mine from back home in a band called Begin. Someone from a record company saw me and offered me a deal, just like that. So I did it. I’d come to Tokyo when I was twenty but only to work as a ‘salary man’ in a computer company, not to play music.”

Even allowing for Oshima’s modesty and self depreciation there has to be more to it to it than this. There is, although he did somewhat stumble upon the choice of music for a living. He grew up immersed in traditional music and his typically laid back Okinawan attitude belies a studious and respectful approach to that tradition and other music too.

Yasukatsu Oshima is from Shiraho on Ishigaki island, the biggest of the Yaeyama chain, the westernmost of the Okinawan islands. “Ever since I can remember I heard the sound of the sanshin. My grandfather and father would play every night in our house and at festivals. They are my biggest influences. From them I got to know all the Okinawan songs. My grandfather made sanshins and he gave one to me when I was about 10 years old. He was a farmer and a carpenter, one of those people who can do anything. Even now the sanshin I use was made by him. I never played it much though. I did try and study once but soon gave it up. I didn’t know much about music, not even the Beatles. I never had any records, never listened to the radio and was more interested in playing around on my bicycle. I wanted to be a hairdresser actually, and would cut my friends hair in return for a cigarette.”

Shiraho is an anonymous sort of village by the sea. It has however gained international attention in recent years, for the unique species of blue coral found off it’s coast. The WWF (the wildlife one) has had a boat moored there, researching the coral and supporting the local campaign against building an airport that would destroy it. Seeing the blue coral for yourself has become one of the main tourist activities in Ishigaki.

Shiraho is becoming equally known as a unique breeding ground for musicians. One of Okinawa’s greatest musicians, Yukichi Yamazato is from here, as is another young artist Yukito Ara, who with his band Parsha Club were once labeled leaders of the “new wave of Okinawan music”, but never quite realised their early promise.

“My friends, such as Ara were all into music” says Oshima. “Ara lived near me, but was one year older. I was in the same class at school as the people in Begin, so I learnt to play guitar a bit and played together with them for fun.”

After leaving school Oshima went to Naha, the biggest city on the main island of Okinawa, where he studied computers. He then got a job in Tokyo. “I worked for two years in a company. My only friends from home who were living in Tokyo were Begin, which is why I played music as well. I got more interested in sanshin at this time and traditional music. I didn’t have a teacher though, I just taught myself from tapes or CDs. I also saw lots of good players and studied from watching. At first I just copied the greats like Rinsho Kadekaru or Seijin Noborikawa. Gradually I developed my own style. The trouble with having a teacher is that it’s possible you end up playing too much like your teacher.”

Japanese traditional music is usually taught within a strict code by certified teachers. Self expression is not usually encouraged. Is Okinawa different? “Yes I think it is” says Oshima. “It’s not strict or laid down. Everyone has their own style. Kadekaru and Noborikawa are really different to each other.”

It was also at this time that Oshima says he began to develop his style of singing. In contrast to the essentially Western style vocals of say Shokichi Kina or Takashi Hirayasu, Oshima’s voice seems to be heavily rooted in the min’yo (original folk) tradition. “I think my voice is quite different from the old singers though” says Oshima. “I’m as much influenced by Kiyoshiro Imawano (a legend from that 70s Japanese “folk” scene). I started off copying everyone and from there developed my own style.”

According to Oshima, the musician I saw at Wonderful Tonight, was still very much in a period of transition. “When I listen to that first album now it’s a bit embarrassing, I’m playing guitar which I don’t do now, my way of singing is totally different. It’s not bad though, I was young and it has a certain power to it.”

That first album was called “Nishi Kaji Hai Kaji”, and given a long winded English translation “After the North Wind Comes the Fall, the Summer Comes after the South Wind”. The album gained a select band of admirers in the UK. One of the standout tracks was one of those first songs that Oshima had ever written, together with his old friend Eisho Higa from Begin, ” Irayoi Tsuki Yo Hama”. This song was admired by the head of a world music label in London, who described it as “one of those ‘We Are Sailing’ type Okinawan ballads.” Any link between Rod Stewart and Okinawan min’yo had escaped me, but he was dead right.

In major record company terms the album bombed. Oshima was eventually dropped and finished his residency at Wonderful Tonight. For the next few years he mostly disappeared from the scene.

Four years later I played that album to another major record company, JVC Victor, when asked to recommend an Okinawan musician to record. They liked what they heard and for a few months I tried contacting him, but all leads lead nowhere. Finally I tracked him down to Osaka, to where he had moved a year before.

I wasn’t the only one searching for him. Coincidentally so too were Off Note, an independent label responsible for some of Japan and Okinawa’s most creative roots releases , including the albums by another Ishigaki musician, Tetsuhiro Daiku. They wanted him to sing with a Japanese brass band, Orquesta Bore. The resulting album, “Ima du Wakari’ with the English title, “Now O Now, I Need Must Part” was a departure for Oshima. He didn’t do much more than just sing and play sanshin, it being fair to say it was the band (some of whom have recorded with Cicala Mvta, Tetsuhiro Daiku and others) and their arrangements that made it an extraordinary album.

Apart from this project, Oshima had been keeping a low profile, playing on the odd occasions, mostly at small bars. When I was to next see him, in front of a dozen or so people in a Tokyo suburb, his music had changed quite considerably. Gone was the guitar, and the ‘folk’ elements with it. Instead he sat alone, playing sanshin, singing mostly traditional songs with a voice to match and telling stories and the history of each song.

Most Okinawan musicians I’d known had started off playing traditional songs by themselves, then later had played with others and expanded their horizons. Oshima had done the opposite. “Yes, that’s because it’s the hardest thing I think to play by yourself, and once you can do it, it’s very satisfying. Once I’ve built that base then I can start playing with others, and it will then sound the better for it. The traditional tunes are the most fantastic music there is. I learn how to write my own songs from knowing those traditional songs. ”

Oshima’s first album for JVC Victor was called Ari Nu Tou. He was joined by three musicians, including Yukito Ara. It was roughly divided between traditional Yaeyama tunes and ones penned by Oshima himself, the two pretty much indistinguishable. Was this somehow his goal, to make what might be called the “traditional” songs of the future? ” That’s my absolute goal, the purpose of what I’m doing. That would make me happier than anything. There are so many songs in Okinawa, but there are only a few songs that everyone knows. Only the best songs become regarded as part of the traditional repertoire.”

Oshima’s latest, “Wagashima nu Uta” or “Songs of My Islands” features just Ohshima’s sanshin and voice and purely Yaeyama traditional tunes. The great elders of Okinawan music such as Seijin Noborikawa or Syoei Kina (Shokichi’s father) are now in their 70s. Shokichi Kina, Sadao China, Teruya Rinken or Takashi Hiraysu are either past or approaching 50. Oshima is just about the only musician in his 30s to be playing traditional Okinawan music. Is he on some kind of crusade to keep the real tradition going?


“Not really, I don’t have the power to do that but as I’ve studied from those people above me, I would like to pass on the tradition to those below. Years ago there was only traditional music and nothing else which is why it has survived. Nowadays, there’s so many types of music. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and there’s still lots of people who like traditional min’yo, so it will survive.” And does he envisage ever going back to Okinawa one day to teach, as for example Tetsuhiro Daiku does? “Never, I can’t do that. I think it’s great that people do teach, but I didn’t study formally, so I can’t teach formally. Anyway, I’m still studying.”

On returning to Japan, Oshima was to start work on a new album. Earlier in 200I he had performed in Tokyo with a group called Chorro Club, featuring guitar, mandolin, violin, accordion and percussion. It seemed a natural combination, with Oshima totally at ease, and his repertoire given fresh and inspired arrangements. “For me this is the best group to play with.” he says. “Instead of accordion I’ll include a friend from Begin on piano who I’m writing the new songs with. It’s not that I don’t want to play only sanshin, but just that I find playing guitar and sanshin too difficult, especially live. I need to concentrate on just the sanshin, and then have someone else play guitar.”

Oshima is equally happy to perform solo wherever and whenever he can. “Playing live is the most enjoyable thing for me. Whether it’s in Tokyo, Osaka or Okinawa. I want to play abroad again and come back to England. This is the second time I’ve been to England. The first time was the Japanorama tour, with about 12 artists. then I only played about three or four songs for about twenty minutes. This time there’s just two of us, so I can relax. Here people don’t know Okinawan music at all so it’s so interesting gauging their reactions. Now I wish I could only explain the background of the songs. I’d better learn some English as well.” If the apparent speed with which he mastered traditional Okinawan music is anything to go by, expect him to be fluent.

Originally published in fRoots magazine April 2002

Go to the Shopping Page for Yasukatsu Oshima


Top 10 Greatest Ever Songs from Asia

A Top 10 that started out as a Far Side Radio show. You can listen to the two programmes here.

Originally on the morning of the first show, I was planning on playing 10 of my personal favourite tunes in one programme. Soon, however, I realised I had numerous versions of many of the songs that came to mind. Then, instead of playing just my personal favourites, it got me wondering just what are, truly, the most popular songs in the region. I wanted to choose songs that were not just massively popular in their own country, but were popular in other countries in Asia, or in some cases around the world. They also have had to stand the test of time, and be popular today. Hopefully these criteria meant I could exclude Gangnam Style!

Eventually, I settled on this list, which is a mixture of some of my favourites and songs that somehow I thought couldn’t be left out. I hadn’t begun by putting them in order, but the more I got engrossed in the theme, the more, even sub-consciously it did become a kind of countdown. However, ranking the songs is purely subjective and wasn’t intended to be definitive. More a bit of fun. So, here we go. The Top 10 Greatest Asian Songs are:


(music: Chen Re Jing lyrics : Yen Huan)

I first heard this song over 20 years ago on some old EMI box sets released in Hong Kong of Shanghai music from the 1930s and 40s. I liked the atmosphere, repetitiveness, the sense of yearning of the song, and also the slightly deeper voice of the singer, compared to other tracks. I didn’t know anything about Bai Kwong (or Bai Guang as she is also known) at the time, but the song stuck in my memory. Years later, the late BBC DJ Charlie Gillett played a version on an album by American guitarist Gary Lucas. I bought the album and later interviewed Gary Lucas for BBC Radio 3 about how he discovered this music. Some time after this, when DJ’ing at a club in London, someone gave me a CDR of some remixes of these old Chinese tunes by the music producer Ian Widgery, who had renamed the track Waiting 4U. These are the three versions on the radio show.

I’m waiting for your return (x2)
I’m thinking of your return (x2)

I wait for your return to make me happy (x2)
Why don’t you return (x2)
I want you to return (x2)

If you don’t return there will be no spring light
If you don’t return hot tears will be all over my face
Up in the rafters the swallows have already returned
In the courtyard spring flowers have already opened up for you
Why don’t you return (x2)
I want you to return (x2)

(usually credited as ‘traditional’ but sometimes credited to Ros Sereysothea)

Travelling around Cambodia about 15 years ago, I became a bit obsessed (as I usually do) with finding local record shops. I was attracted to some great looking covers on a series of CDs and soon got to recognise the faces and names; Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea were both particularly omnipresent. Back in the UK I spent hours listening to the 30 or 40 titles I’d bought, and this is one of the songs I liked. At the time there wasn’t much information about them, although that subsequently changed with in-depth articles appearing in the Observer Music Monthly and elsewhere. This song was featured in the Matt Dillon film City of Ghosts, and when Dengue Fever from Los Angeles released their first record, this was one of the tracks they covered. You can hear both on the radio show.

This year, I’m 16… This year I’m 16
There are no worries
fa la la la
Life is like flowers,
giving off a nice scent
fa la la la la la la la

This year, I’m 16… This year I’m 16
There are no worries
fa la la la
What is love?
Is it bitter, sour, or sweet?
fa la la la la la la la


(traditional Korean folk song)
I can’t remember when I first heard Arirang, but it was in Japan where it is also a well known song. Some Japanese minyo or folk singers, like Takio Ito, used to sing it in Japanese, as did Soul Flower Union and Mononoke Summit, that you can hear on the radio show. I once had an album called Arirang in North and South Korea with about ten different versions. It seems this folk song is one of the few things that unites North and South Korea. There are hundreds of versions of it, it’s like the unofficial national anthem of Korea. Arirang is a mountain pass, although different versions place it in different geographical locations. This video is by the singer I played on the radio, Ja Sa Ik.

Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo
Crossing over Arirang Pass
You who abandoned me here
Will not walk even ten li before your feet hurt

Just as there are many stars in the clear sky
There are also many dreams in our heart

There, over there that mountain is Baekdu Mountain
Where, even in the middle of winter days, flowers bloom


(music and lyrics, Gesang)

This is another song I first heard in Japan where it is also well known. I was lucky enough to see the singer and composer, Gesang, perform it live in Tokyo. It’s about the Solo river that flows through Gesang’s hometown of Surakarta. I was working at JVC in Tokyo when Gesang recorded his album in the Victor Studio although at the time, 1994, I didn’t realise the significance. It’s the song I probably have most versions of. Just a quick look through my CD racks and iTunes library I came across about 20 different ones, and a whole album of covers. It’s also well known in China and an English language version of it (sometimes called By the River of Love) was sung by Hong Kong singer Rebecca Pan and was included in the Wong Kar Wai film, In the Mood for Love.

Bengawan Solo, this is a song of your history
People have been fascinated with this great river since ancient times
In the dry season, your waters are shallow, and in the rainy season, your water overflows till far
Around the source of the Solo River, there are a thousand mountains
And the river flows all the way to the sea

There are always many merchants on board ships going up and down the river
These ships also show your history


(music and lyrics, Shoukichi Kina)

I first became aware of this song, or to be precise, the album it was on when I was living in London at the end of the 80s. That’s because Ry Cooder had played on the album Bloodline by Shoukichi Kina from Okinawa, but virtually no one had actually heard it. One of the first things I did when I went to Japan for the first time in 1989 was to go and buy it. Immediately this track stood out. Apart from the melody, it was the heartbreakingly beautiful vocals by Tomoko Kina. I soon went to Okinawa to meet and interview Shoukichi, a memorable experience in itself. Around this time in the early 90s, the popularity of Hana (the full title is Subete no Kokoro ni Hana o, in English A Flower for Everyone’s Heart) started to spread more within Japan and around the world. Numerous covers appeared in Japan, Asia and Malagasy group Tarika Sammy recorded it on the Henry Kaiser, David Lindley project, A World Out of Time. It’s today an Okinawan staple. Kina has recorded numerous versions and just about every Okinawan musician seems to have recorded it. An insider on the Bloodline album once told me that Kina based it on Peter, Paul and Mary’s Where Have All the Flower’s Gone? That kind of makes sense, but I prefer to think it as having a bit more of Okinawa at its heart.

Rivers are flowing, where oh where do they go?
People are flowing too, where oh where do they go?
About the time when flow arrives somewhere
As flowers, as flowers I want to let them bloom

Cry as much as you can, laugh all you want
Someday, one day, someday, one day, the flowers will be made to bloom


(traditional Malay folk song)

Rasa Sayang is a song I feel like I’ve heard forever. I wanted to include a song from Malaysia and I’m a big fan of P.Ramlee and Saloma but couldn’t really settle on one particular song. Rasa Sayang is popular throughout the region, particularly Indonesia and Singapore. So much so, that there is dispute as to the origins of the song, with much consternation caused in Indonesia when the Malaysian Tourist Board used it in a TV commercial. With that in mind, on the radio I played an old version from Indonesia, Singaporean Dick Lee’s version from 1989 and a recent version by Hanie Soraya from Malaysia.

I’ve got that loving feeling, hey!
I’ve got that loving feeling, hey!
See that girl in the distance
I’ve got that loving feeling hey!

The cempedak fruit is outside the fence
Take a pole and poke it down
I’m just a new guy trying to learn
So if I’m wrong then please tell me

Pandan Island far in midst
With the three peaked Mount Daik
While the body decomposes in earth
Good deeds remain to be remembered

Two or three cats are running around
With the striped one which can vie
Two or three I can find
Which man can compare with you

Pisang emas brought on a sailing trip
One ripens on a box
If gold is owed, it can be repaid
But if it is gratitude, it is carried to the grave


(music; Weng Ching-hsi, lyrics; Sun Yi)

The most famous version of this song, is sung by Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng. If there is one artist who was popular throughout Eastern Asia it would be her. Personally I prefer some of her other songs, but this one is probably her most popular. It’s also one of the most popular songs in China, Chinese speaking countries and communities around the world. There’s something about these sentimental ballads that appeals in most countries in Asia; Japanese enka, Korean trot and Thai lukthung. This song is one of the ultimate examples.

You ask me how deep my love for you is
How much I really love you
My affection is real
My love is real
The moon represents my heart

You ask me how deep my love for you is
How much I really love you
My affection does not waver
My love will not change.
The moon represents my heart

Just one soft kiss
is enough to move my heart
A period of time when our affection was deep
Has made me miss you until now

You ask me how deep my love for you is
How much I really love you

Go think about it
Go and have a look
The moon represents my heart


(music and lyrics, Kazufumi Miyazawa)

I can remember quite clearly when I first heard this song. I was in Okinawa, at the house of local musician Shoukichi Kina, and Kazufumi Miyazawa of the Boom and his manager came to see Shoukichi. The Boom’s Okinawan inspired song, Shima Uta was a hit in Okinawa at the time and the band had arrived to play a concert that night. The manager played it on a little CD player. I thought it was good but didn’t realise it’s greatness and significance at the time. It was only a few months later when I started hearing it in convenience stores or in the public bath, it dawned that the song had reached the mainstream and had entered the public consciousness as well as mine. It went on to sell 1.5 million copies and brought Okinawan music to the masses. It’s since been covered numerous times, including several overseas versions. The most significant of these was probably in Argentina by rock musician Alfredo Casero. It was adopted by the Argentina football team for the World Cup song in 2002 when it was staged in Japan/Korea.

The deigo flowers began to bloom, and the wind began to blow, and the storm came

The deigo flowers were in full bloom, and the wind was blowing, and the storm had come
My recurring sadness is like a wave that crosses the islands

I met you in a forest of sugarcane
Under the sugarcane, we parted forever

Island song, ride the wind, with the birds, cross the sea
Island song, ride the wind, and carry with you my tears

The deigo flowers blossoms have fallen, and there is only the rippling of the sea
Our small happiness was a momentary flower on the foamy waves

Oh, my friend, who sang in the forest of sugarcane!
Under the sugarcane, we parted forever

Island song, ride the wind, with the birds, cross the sea
Island song, ride the wind, and carry with you my love

Oh sea, oh universe, oh God, oh life
let this evening calm continue forever!

Island song, ride the wind, with the birds, cross the sea
Island song, ride the wind, and carry with you my tears
Island song, ride the wind, with the birds, cross the sea
Island song, ride the wind, and carry with you my love

La, la, la…



I probably first heard this song on a Surapol Sumbatcharoen compilation but it didn’t register at the time. I took notice when it was in the wonderful film Monrak Transistor, and then would hear it on other albums of Lukthung. It’s a genre of music I love, and while personally there are other songs I probably like a bit more, I can’t argue with the popularity and influence of this song. It was later featured in the Danish / French film, Only God Forgives.

Won’t forget, won’t forget and won’t fade; like the moon that paired up with the sky
Won’t forget the flavour of the love that you’d ever entrust upon me
Won’t forget the past that we had ever passed through
Till the end of life, I would also not forget

(Won’t forget, won’t forget, won’t forget, won’t forget, won’t forget, won’t forget.)

Won’t forget, won’t forget and won’t fade, throughout the months and years
Won’t forget our love that was ever happy
Won’t forget the dreams we had before this
No matter how many months or years, I’ll also not forget

(Won’t forget, won’t forget, won’t forget.)


(music; Hachidai Nakamura, lyrics; Rokusuke Ei)

I don’t know about now, but when I was living in Japan in the 1990s, the holy grail for some Japanese artists was to have a Number 1 record in the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. A lot of the big J-pop stars of the day, such as Seiko Matsuda, Dreams Come True, Utada Hikaru, were all promoted by their record companies in the US at different times,sometimes with an ill-advised English language version of an album, a big budget video or a big name American producer. More often that not, these attempts ended in failure. Why they failed was a question I was often asked as a British music journalist working in Japan. Perhaps they should have learnt from Kyu Sakamoto’s Sukiyaki that still remains today, the only Japanese record to have been a US Number 1, in 1963. Firstly, it’s a great song Secondly, it was brilliantly recorded. Thirdly, it’s sung in Japanese. Contrary to popular belief that doesn’t mean it can’t be a hit. What did make a difference however, was calling it Sukiyaki (by a British record company), a title that had no connection to the song at all. In Japanese it’s called Ue o Muite Aruko (I Look Up as I Walk). There’s been load of cover versions over the years. On the radio show is a little known version by the US group Brave Combo. Sukiyaki remains as probably the most famous song to come out of Japan.

I look up as I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Remembering those spring days
But I am all alone tonight
I look up as I walk
Counting the stars with tears in my eyes
Remembering those summer days
But I am all alone tonight

Happiness lies beyond the clouds
Happiness lies up above the sky

I look up as I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Though the tears well up as I walk
For tonight I’m all alone

Remembering those autumn days
But I am all alone tonight

Sadness lies in the shadow of the stars
Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon

I look up as I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Though the tears well up as I walk
For tonight I’m all alone

Rinsho Kadekaru

Rinsho Kadekaru was born at Nakahara in Goeku Village in the centre of Okinawa on July 4th 1920. He began playing sanshin at the age of seven, and by the time he was 15 started to participate in his village’s all night revelries known as mo-ashibi. These were outdoor parties that took place in open spaces on the outskirts of farming villages. Young people would sing, dance and drink, often until dawn, then do a full days hard labor in the fields, and party again the next night. The highest musical standards were maintained and Kadekaru soon gained a reputation for his sanshin playing and was often invited to perform at other village’s jamborees.

Successive authorities attempted to ban the mo-ashibi, these unruly gatherings were thought to be immoral, but they flourished until just before the second world war. In the pre-war years there are stories of parents encouraging their children to take part in the mo-ashibi every night, in the hope they would fail the medical for military conscription due to exhaustion.

Rinsho Kadekaru

Rinsho Kadekaru

After the war, and the US occupation, the mo-ashibi was outlawed for good. Kadekaru stayed on the islands of Saipan and Tinian returning to Okinawa in 1949. His reputation had not been forgotten and he became one of the pivotal figures in the post-war Okinawa folk boom. He recorded nearly 250 songs for local record labels, more than any other musician.

His reputation and prolific output earned him the title of “The Godfather of Shima Uta”. He continued to perform until his death in October 1999.

Go to the Shopping Page for Rinsho Kadekaru