Hiroshima, whose music shaped Asian American identity, plans hiatus

The record companies didn’t know what to do with Hiroshima.

The band, led by Japanese-American Boyle Heights native Dan Kuramoto, defied easy categorization. It featured Japanese instruments like taiko drums and koto, but played jazz and rhythm and blues interspersed with pop and funk.

Hiroshima had gained a foothold in places like the Baby Lion Supper Club on the outskirts of Koreatown in the 1970s — a big part of the burgeoning Japanese-American dance scene. It also drew enthusiastic cheers from a mostly black crowd at Howard University.

Larkin Arnold, a black record executive at Arista Records, jumped at the chance by signing the band to their first recording deal in 1979. This fueled a decade-long streak spanning nearly 20 albums and millions of records sold.

As part of his “Domo” or “Thank You” tour – a “slow down” or break, but perhaps not a definitive farewell – Hiroshima is playing Saturday night’s Aratani Theater in Little Tokyo. Fans reflect on the band’s legacy as a pioneer who helped establish what it means to be Asian American and forged connections with other people of color.

Hiroshima leader Dan Kuramoto performs in August 2005.

Hiroshima leader Dan Kuramoto performs during the Long Beach Jazz Festival at Rainbow Lagoon Park in Long Beach in August 2005.

(Steve Grayson / WireImage)

“How do we strengthen our community connection?” said Kuramoto, 76, who normally plays the saxophone and flute, including the Japanese shakuhachi. “We’re trying to do that with music right now.”

When Kuramoto was growing up in Boyle Heights and graduating from Roosevelt High in 1963, the concept of a pan-Asian identity didn’t exist. People considered themselves exclusively Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, or Korean Americans.

In the late 1960s, the movement to create an Asian-American identity based on the theory that unity would create greater political power exploded. Kuramoto became the first chair of Cal State Long Beach’s Asian American Studies program while still in his early 20s. Besides that, he made music.

At a large Asian-American community picnic in Griffith Park in the early 1970s, Kuramoto spotted June Okida playing the koto, a zither-like instrument that typically has 13 strings.

She found pleasure in his “crazy art school band,” which played everything from rock to “experimental, sassy stuff,” Kuramoto said.

Shortly thereafter, Kuramoto quit his job at Cal State Long Beach, and the two, who married and later divorced, became the cornerstones of the band they eventually dubbed Hiroshima — and rose “from the ashes,” as the Japanese city did , after being hit by a US atomic bomb during World War II.

“There has to be a way to show who we are,” Kuramoto said. “I wanted to try to reach and create that voice, that image of who we are.”

At the Baby Lion Supper Club, the band initially drew a small audience but developed a loyal following, with hundreds filling the room. They grooved to the music in bell-bottoms, billowing shirts and platform shoes, said Harry Manaka, author of Chronicles of a Sansei Rocker and former owner of the bar.

“We were looking for our own identity,” Manaka said. “[Hiroshima] found a niche of people wanting to hear their music. It was a different kind of music. It was like a combination of jazz and fusion, and it was a different Asian-American sound.”

Record companies tried to force Hiroshima into a box. An executive wanted them to wear Asian conical hats. Another wanted them to sound like funk singer Rick James.

But the band members refused to budge. They wanted all of their components, from June’s koto to Dan’s saxophone, to stand out and still be part of the whole.

“Any black band can play funk better than us.” Dan Kuramoto told The Times in 1988.

Much of Hiroshima’s music was instrumental. But in songs like “Thousand Cranes,” about the Japanese tradition of folding paper cranes to grant a wish, the lyrics conveyed the band’s self-image.

In “Roomful of Mirrors” the band sang:

In a room full of mirrors we can pretend who we could be
A dancer with a top hat or a sea captain
We might make funny faces, but we’re not just what you see
There is much within us that we hope will grow and be
Because I just want to be, look and sound like me
I just want to be myself for all to see.

This refusal to conform made Hiroshima attractive to many Asian Americans, especially at a time when activists were successfully campaigning for Asian American study programs at universities and pushing for reparations for Japanese Americans imprisoned by the US government during World War II became.

Mitchell Maki, who was raised Japanese-American in Monterey Park in the 1970s, viewed the koto and taiko as ancient instruments played at cultural festivals such as Nisei Week.

But “when you play Hiroshima, you hear Koto in a very different way,” said Maki, executive director of the Go for Broke National Education Center.

The band and their music became a source of pride and a reminder of what Asian-American music can sound like, Maki said.

“‘Cruisin’ J-Town,’ when you hear that song, it just brings back memories and feelings,” he said.

Hiroshima’s distinctive sound had crossover appeal, especially among the black community. Black radio stations are often the only ones playing the band’s music, Kuramoto said.

Maki recalled having lunch in St. Louis about a year ago with black clergy and business leaders who said the members of Hiroshima were among the first Asian-American musicians they had ever seen or heard from.

As the band rose in popularity, with hits like “One Wish” and albums topping the Billboard jazz chart, Hiroshima toured the nation while staying true to its roots.

There were frequent shifts in band membership. But Johnny Mori led taiko into the early 2000s, and Dan and June Kuramoto and Danny Yamamoto on drums, taiko and synths have been fixtures for more than 40 years.

Japanese-American journalist Ellen Endo recalled Hiroshima appearing at a fundraiser for Wendy Yoshimura, a roommate of Patty Hearst and a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army who was arrested in the 1970s for allegedly running a bomb factory. Yoshimura became a symbol for many Japanese Americans, who thought she was damaged by her family’s experiences in a World War II prison camp.

“Hiroshima never hesitated,” Endo said.

The band drew crowds to community events and fundraisers, and served as what Rev. Ken Fong called the “soundtrack and awareness” for a burgeoning Asian-American movement.

“Those of us who aren’t white Americans are ashamed of ‘our own’ instruments,” Fong said. “But [Dan Kuramoto] says we’ve chosen to truly embrace our own instruments… and even our own messages, our own narrative, our own stories.”

Hiroshima’s songs can still be heard throughout the community, from a ceremony dedicating a street corner in Sawtelle, LA to Japanese-American college leader Jack Fujimoto to “Paper Chase,” a recently released documentary about Japanese-Americans newspapers.

The band drew criticism from people in Japan, who disapproved of using Japanese instruments outside of traditional music. In a 1998 interview in Japan, June Kuramoto first cried when asked about the criticism. But after she composed herself, she told the reporter, “I love this instrument. I respect this tool. i love the culture … You can say what you want, but that’s what I have to do and that’s what I love to do and that’s what I have to do.”

Dan Kuramoto recalled a student at Tokyo University approaching the band after a concert and wondering about the use of the koto.

“This Japanese kid…because they want to be so American or so European, they forget their own culture. So in a way we can mirror both directions. ‘Don’t give that up, there’s so much beauty here,'” Kuramoto said. “On the American side, we can say, ‘Now that’s another palette, another element of this country’s music and culture that we’re adding.”

As the music industry changes, Kuramoto said the band faces an uncertain future. That, along with June wanting a break, led to the break – which he insists isn’t a final goodbye.

“Hopefully we’ll learn some things, and hopefully we’ll come back and have something to say, both musically and otherwise,” he said. “Hopefully we can make a contribution by also being socially active and helping our communities.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-29/hiroshima-a-band-that-helped-define-asian-american-identity-hits-a-pause Hiroshima, whose music shaped Asian American identity, plans hiatus

Alley Einstein

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