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Koichi Kawai

From Koichi the Boy Inventor, to Musical Instrument King.The Genius Engineer with an Artist’s Spirit.

Koichi Kawai

This photo of Koichi Kawai seems to have been taken after the World War II, but even in the photos of his earlier days taken before the war, he has the same serious look on his face wearing horn-rim glasses. His remarkable talent for invention and his deep attachment to the musical instruments were supported by his sincere and earnest attitude toward a craftsmanship in manufacturing.

Place of origin:Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture

Now Hamamatsu city is well-known as a center of the musical instruments manufacturing industry. It was thanks to not only Torakusu Yamaha, the founder of Nippon Gakki Co., Ltd. (current Yamaha Corporation), but also the great achievements of Koichi Kawai, the founder of Kawai Musical Inst. Mfg. Co., Ltd. They established rival companies in later years, but their master-pupil relationship began in 1897, when Koichi entered “Yamaha Musical Instrument Manufacturing Factory” established by Torakusu Yamaha. Koichi was only 11 years old at that time. Koichi Kawai was born on January 5, 1886 in the family of an old wagon maker “Surugaya” started in Edo period. His father, Tanikichi was a genius for invention and created the spinning wheel rope winder used to fly the famous Hamamatsu giant kites. Though he passed away at the age of 31 and Koichi was brought up only by his mother after that, his ability was surely inherited by Koichi. Koichi had a lot of interest in the structure or origin of various things, and this specific character was remarkable from his childhood. There is an anecdote showing us his genius in manufacturing and his strong inquiring mind. One day shortly after Koichi graduated from his four year elementary school, he was interested in the horse-drawn carriages running outside. Then he collected pieces of wood and successfully built a child-sized carriage. He rode around on this small carriage drawn by dogs, and this really surprised the adults around him. Hamamatsu city has produced many pioneers of manufacturing machine products such as motorcycles, cars, musical instruments and so on. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the creativity about the mechanical devices is a characteristic nature of people growing up in this part of Japan.

produce organs in Japan after repairing a broken American organ

When his inherited abilities began to bloom, Koichi started to lead a life single-mindedly devoted to making musical instruments under Torakusu Yamaha, who had succeeded in making the first organ in Japan and opened small organ factory after he repaired a broken American organ and learned its structure. When a person, who knew Koichi’s abilities and recommended him to Torakusu, said to him, “Why don’t you make machines that produce sounds?,” Koichi’s eyes were shining with curiosity. Koichi’s talents were polished by Torakusu's spirit of enterprise and his guidance, while Torakusu was inspired by Koichi’s inquiring mind in manufacturing. Since their friendly rivalry brought various distinguished inventions and technological innovations to the musical instruments manufacturing in Japan, it can be said that the meeting of Koichi and Torakusu was a wonderfully fateful event.

At the factory main gate in the early days.

In 1927, Koichi and his fellow workers built a factory which is 12 meters wide and 8 meters deep at 200 Terajima-cho, Naka-ku, Hamamatsu City (site of the present head office).

photo:At the factory main gate in the early days.

Upright piano (A-gou)

The first standard type upright piano produced in 1928, the year after the Kawai Musical Instrument Research Laboratory was established. The price was 550 yen.

photo:Upright piano (A model)

Upright Piano (Showa Gata)

The first Kawai upright piano released in 1927. It caused a great sensation because it was made by Koichi Kawai and could be sold at the extraordinary price of only 350 yen.

photo:Upright Piano (Showa model)

e soon became well-known as“Inventor Koichi.”

Koichi’s performance was outstanding among the workers, and he soon became well-known as “Koichi the Inventor.”
The first domestic piano in Japan was produced at Yamaha Musical Instrument Factory back in 1900, but it was equipped with imported action parts.
Action parts are the heart of the mechanism of the piano which strikes the strings when keys are pressed, but this foreign technology was not public knowledge in those days. So Yamaha had a great need to find a way to make these parts domestically, and Torakusu expected Koichi to develop them. Koichi wrestled with this difficult problem day and night, and finally completed the action parts on his own. Torakusu was deeply impressed by the efforts made by Koichi. Finally, the first pure domestic piano equipped with Koichi’s action parts was produced in 1903.
This concluded a major step forward not only for Yamaha but also for musical instrument production in Japan.
Torakusu Yamaha, whom Koichi adored like a master or a father, passed away in 1916. Koichi overcame his sadness and went abroad to visit foreign piano factories. After receiving further inspiration from his study tour, Koichi became a chief engineer of the technical division of the company which was renamed Nippon Gakki Co., Ltd. But, the company faced a turning point just after this. It became embroiled in a historic labor dispute which is still remembered in Hamamatsu. The new company president who had succeeded Torakusu soon resigned from office. Koichi also left the company at this time, thinking that he had to take responsibility for the situation. In 1927, Koichi and engineers who followed him established Kawai Musical Instrument Research Laboratory. The production of grand piano was started next year, and two years later the name of the company was changed to Kawai Musical Instruments Manufacturing Company. As musical instrument sales outlets began to recognize Koichi’s reputation for fine quality, sales results improved year by year.
Since then, Kawai has continued to produce high quality musical instruments, competing along with Yamaha as the two major musical instruments manufacturers in Japan.
Koichi Kawai was a genius with anything mechanical. At the beginning, he precisely drew the designs for his various inventions using only pencils and rulers without any knowledge of drafting or machinery.
Working hard at things with persistent effort, and holding to his never-say-die spirit brought him success in the end.

The First Grand Piano “No. 1”

The first grand piano released in 1928 for 950 yen.

  • photo:The First Grand Piano

A commemorative photo taken when Koichi was awarded the Ranju Hosho (Medal with Blue Ribbon).
At this time, he said to all of his employees, “This medal was given not only to me but also to all of you. I received it on behalf of everyone here.”

photo:A commemorative photo taken when Koichi Kawai won the Ranju Hosho (Medal with Blue Ribbon of Japan).

so was often called “the king of musical instruments”.

Once Torakusu Yamaha brought a drilling machine back from America but couldn’t operate it even after reading the manual. Despite a lack of English skill, Koichi brought his bedding into the factory and struggled from morning to night to operate the machine. At last he could do it. We have plenty of stories telling about his talent and tenacity. As soon as he got a hint for solving problem, he devoted all his time to it whether in the factory or other places. He was a man who was enthusiastic about the machinery and captivated by the musical instruments. Koichi was also excellent at tuning the pianos. He acquired the principles of the tuning by himself with great effort. This demonstrates that he had a distinguished ear for music. There is an anecdote as below. When Prince Takamatsunomiya visited the factory, Koichi performed several pieces on the piano that he learned by himself. Prince was impressed with Koichi’s performance and said to him, “You are not just an engineer but a musician.” Koichi Kawai was an inventor, an engineer and a craftsman with a burning desire to make things. He devoted himself to making musical instruments and so was called “The Musical Instruments Magnate.” And, in his soul, the spirit of an artist was living.