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Torakusu Yamaha

The king of musical instruments who laid the foundations of “Hamamatsu:  City of Music”

Torakusu Yamaha

Torakusu, who was fond of martial arts from his boyhood and became especially skilled in Japanese swordsmanship (kendo), left his hometown when he was 16 and improved his skills under a master of the Onoha Ittoryu school in Yamato (today’s Nara Prefecture). It is said that he gave lessons in martial arts to his employees even after he established Nippon Gakki Co.,Ltd., and became its president. He regarded courtesy very highly and placed emphasis on vertical relationships, perhaps the result of his rigorous training.

a place remembered in connection:Hamamatsu Jinjo elementary school (today’s Hamamatsu Motoshiro elementary school)

Hamamatsu City, where the musical instrument industry, including piano building, is prospering, is home to many musical instrument manufacturers and is Japan’s leader in the industry. Host to several international music competitions, Hamamatsu is known as a “City of Music” these days. So why has the musical instrument industry developed in Hamamatsu? An encounter between one engineer and a broken reed organ can explain the start of this industry.
The engineer’s name was Torakusu Yamaha. Torakusu, who visited Hamamatsu to repair medical equipment, was asked to repair a broken reed organ by the principal of Hamamatsu Jinjo elementary school (today’s Hamamatsu Motoshiro elementary school). This was in 1887 and Torakusu was 35 years old. The seeds of “Hamamatsu: City of Music” were planted at this time.

Moving to Hamamatsu

In 1851 Torakusu was born as the third son into the family of a Kishu Tokugawa (today’s Wakayama Prefecture) clansman. His father was an astronomer for the Kishu clan, so there were many books and pieces of equipment for astronomical observation and land surveys. In such an environment, Torakusu was naturally captivated by machines and technology. He was also naturally good with his hands. The groundwork to become “the king of musical instruments” was fortuitously laid at this time.
Society suddenly started to change with the arrival of the Meiji Restoration, and Torakusu was stimulated by the signs of this new era of cultural enlightenment. In 1871 he went to Nagasaki and began to study watch making under an English engineer. A few years’ training made him an expert in watch making and next Torakusu became interested in medical equipment. He moved to Osaka and studied hard, living behind a medical equipment shop. Moreover in 1884 he walked up the Tokaido Road to Hamamatsu to repair medical equipment. Because Hamamatsu was much smaller than the big cities of Tokyo or Osaka, Torakusu couldn’t make a living here only by repairing medical equipment, so he had to take side jobs as a repairer of watches and as rickshaw man for a hospital director.

Domestic production of reed organs in the national interest

“I don’t know what to do.” The principal of Jinjo elementary school was at a loss looking at a broken organ from which no sound would come. This reed organ was imported from America and donated by a trading company man who was from Hamamatsu when a singing class was set up at the elementary school in 1887. The organ was rare and famous not only in Hamamatsu but also in Shizuoka Prefecture. At that time, 20 kg of rice cost 1 yen and the organ cost no less than 45 yen. It had been carefully kept in a locked classroom and permission was needed to see the organ. But suddenly it had stopped producing sounds.
The principal did everything he could do to repair the organ without success, so he finally asked Torakusu to repair it. Entrusted with the task, Torakusu tried to find out what was wrong, loosening the screws carefully. In a short while he had pinpointed the cause of the trouble and he began to create a blueprint of the inside structure of the organ. The principal pushed Torakusu to finish the repair but Torakusu talked about his ideas. “I feel confident I can build a reed organ like this for 3 yen. In the future reed organs will be placed in all the elementary schools in Japan. Japan will have to continue importing these expensive foreign products unless we produce them ourselves. Domestic production of reed organs would be in the national interest.” In those days many descendants of the samurai felt the desire to make themselves useful for their country. And Torakusu was no exception.

This organ is said to be the first one Torakusu repaired.

The American-model reed organ repaired by Torakusu
The trouble was caused by damage of only two springs, so he could repair it successfully. (The photograph is of a later replicated organ.)

photo:This organ is said to be the first one Torakusu repaired.

The first domestic organ, carried over Hakone Pass

Immediately afterwards, Torakusu asked Kisaburo Kawai, a jewelry craftsman, to join forces with him and start to build an experimental organ. Two months later they completed it after repeated trial and error. They rushed to bring it to an elementary school in Hamamatsu and to a teachers college in Shizuoka to be appraised, but their work was given a low evaluation. They weren’t satisfied with this, so they decided to bring for examination to the Ongaku Torishirabejo (the Institute of Music, now the Tokyo University of the Arts, Department of Music) in Tokyo. At that time the Tokaido Line ran only between Shinbashi (Tokyo) and Kozu (Odawara City), so they had to hand-carry their organ slung on a pole over their shoulders, and even cross the mountains of Hakone, well-known as the most precipitous in the country.

Relief Sculpture of Torakusu crossing Hakone Pass carrying the Organ

photo:Relief Sculpture of Torakusu and Kawai crossing Hakone Pass carrying the Organ

Soon after getting to Tokyo, they called on Shuji Izawa, the principal of Ongaku Torishirabejo. He examined it and told them: “This organ looks good, but it’s not worth playing it because its tuning is inaccurate. You need to study music theory here.”
Torakusu stayed there for a month and mastered music theory and then returned to Hamamatsu. He struggled to build a proper organ while living with Kisaburo’s family. He worked from 5:00 am in the morning till late at night, devoting every minute, sparing little time for sleep. Finally the second organ was completed after much trouble. With a feeling of confidence mingled with anxiety, they asked Principal Izawa for another examination. He said “The former problem are all cleared away. This organ can now take the place of imported ones.”
Hearing his opinion, Torakusu and Kisaburo shed speechless tears of joy. This is the moment when the domestic organ was born.

The start of piano production

In 1888 Torakusu started his business in Sugawara-cho, Hamamatsu. Converting the kitchen of a deserted temple into a workshop, he hung out his signboard for Yamaha Fukin Seizojo (Yamaha Organ Factory). After many twists and turns, the company matured to the point of exporting organs to Southeast Asia in 1892. And in 1897 , when people were feeling enthusiasm after the Sino-Japanese War, he established Nippon Gakki Co., Ltd., and he was installed as the first president.

The main factory in Itayamachi, Hamamatsu (1898)

That year the company decided to use a tuning fork as its corporate logo, and a design featuring a “Chinese phoenix holding a tuning fork in its mouth” as the trademark.

photo:The main factory in Itayamachi, Hamamatsu (1898)

While the company went on producing organs in this way, Torakusu couldn’t give up his dream of manufacturing domestic pianos. But the structure of a piano is much more complicated than an organ. So in 1899 Torakusu went to the USA alone and enthusiastically visited piano factories to learn in detail the method of production and the required tools. Obtaining parts and machines, he began manufacturing upright pianos the next year. In 1902 he finally completed a grand piano, and his piano and organ were awarded an honorary grand prize at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.

Torakusu Yamaha, who planted the seeds of the musical instrument industry in Hamamatsu, after devoting his life to research and work, passed away at the age of 65.

History of the company (Nippon Gakki Co., Ltd.,)
100 year-history of Yamaha (Yamaha Co., Ltd.,)