RealVoice#1 A Japanese craftsman thinks of the current classical music industry in Japan.
Would you like to know a real voice from people who are doing own business in Japan?
This is an interview style article. I started a new plan to meet people who already established own business, to share business experiences with new people before they come to Japan.
Today, I will introduce how a Japanese craftsman honestly thinks of his business and the industry where he belongs to.
I visited Nakashima String Instrument Workshop, which first opened in 2016 in the Hakata ward of Fukuoka city. It is now in its 5th year. The workshop is owned and managed by Suguru Nakashima. He makes and repairs string instruments such as violins and contrabasses. He also deals with other baroque instruments.
Mr. Nakashima’s workshop is currently located in Iizuka city, a city near Fukuoka city. Mr. Nakashima has also expanded and opened a second workshop. In addition to his work at his workshop, Mr. Nakashima is also actively involved in planning concerts to support young musicians and give them the chance to perform.
- How long has Nakashima String Instrument Workshop been open? Why did you choose to move to Iizuka city?
I started this business in 2016, so it’s currently in its 5th year of operation. I moved to Iizuka city three years ago. Well, rather than Iizuka I’d say I moved back to the Chikuho area, which is where I’m originally from. Thanks to my new location, my rent is lower than before and I’m able to use a bigger space for my workshop.
Nowadays people buy instruments online without trying them first. It's the age of buying musical instruments online.
Around seven or eight years ago I happened to find some people on Yahoo! Auction selling Chinese made violins, usually worth 200 to 300 U.S. dollars, for 1,000 to 2,000 U.S. dollars. The sellers took very nice photos of the violins and sold them under the pretense of them being old instruments. I also took notice of the people who purchased these violins and the whole thing caught my interest as a craftsman. I realized that people buy musical instruments online nowadays. I thought that if people are buying online nowadays then it might be good to sell handmade instruments there too. By selling online I would be able to continue working even if I wasn't in the center of a city.
(What is considered an “Old” instrument? Instruments made by hand before the 1800s are referred to as “old” instruments. Before the 1800s the process of making an instrument varied by country and each individual artisan so each instrument had a unique sound depending on where it was made and who made it. Among old instruments there are violins referred to as “Old Italian” violins which come from the birthplace of violins, a small Italian city named “Cremona”. Cremona is where the master luthier Antonio Stradivari was active. The violins produced by master luthiers like Stradivari are said to have a “silver tone.” These concert violins are evaluated as having a beautiful timbre, a rich volume, and a colorful expressive power. These violins are valued as works of art and are very highly priced.)
- At Nakashima String Instrument workshop, it says customers can order violins, violas, cellos, contrabasses, and other baroque instruments. Do you make all of these yourself?
Yes, I do everything myself. If a customer asks to test an instrument, I can send one to them and have them check what kind of sound it produces and decide how to proceed from there. Once I’ve heard their opinion, I begin to apply the varnish to the instrument. I have yet to have anyone cancel their order.
- How long does it take to complete an order once one has been placed?
It takes 20 days to create the unfinished base for the instrument and then another 20 to 30 days to apply the varnish. I usually price my violins around 2,500 to 5,000 dollars. I try to work within a customer’s budget to create something fitting. I wouldn’t recommend a 6,000 dollar violin to someone who only had a 3,000 dollar budget.
Such pricing is not that odd in the world. In Europe they often sell fully handmade violins for around 3,000 dollars but if you import those into Japan through vendors the price becomes 2 to 3 times more expensive resulting in a 6,000-dollar price tag. Luthiers in Japan use that pricing as a base and so a handmade instrument can cost at least 6,000 dollars. Isn’t that a bit weird? I’d like to bring Europe’s style of pricing to Japan.
- When I think of violins, I think of the Italian city of Cremona as being famous for them. What makes “Made in Japan” violins appealing?
Hmm...even if asked, I’m not sure about the advantages of “Made in Japan” products. It depends on the person but I guess the prevailing opinion is that “Made in Japan” means a product will have a beauty to it or it will have been made with precision. If you apply that opinion to instruments, there are people who think of instruments only as a possession and that it's perfectly fine if they can use them purely as a tool.
It’s the same with cars, some think that a cheap 10,000 dollar Japanese microcar is good enough while others may want a luxury car so that they can show of their status. Rather than making a “Made in Japan” product, I’d like to make popular and accessible instruments that are known firstly as a Nakashima instrument. Of course, if I’m given 10,000 dollars and told to make an excellent instrument, I will but fundamentally I want to create the best instrument possible within a customer’s budget.
I want to make good choices that will also benefit other young craftsman. If somebody doesn't do it, we won’t be able to continue.
If I price my instruments at this cheap price then after 5 or 10 years if some young craftsman can’t seem to sell their instruments they can see mine and say with confidence that “Oh, it’s fine to sell an instrument for 2,500 dollars.” It’s probably the same in any industry but basically, any pricing that only serves to cause a sudden widespread price drop is taboo. However, if you take care not to completely destroy the market and price logically I think its ok to offer lower prices. I think the price of Japanese made instruments is too high. I think it’s unforgivable if someone were to just put varnish over some cheap wood and say “Alright that’ll be 2,000 dollars.” However, if they made everything themselves, included the cost of labor, and then charged 2,000 to 3,000 dollars then it would be fine.
- You seem to prefer using Romanian wood but what are you careful about when selecting wood?
Romanian wood is good quality and is relatively inexpensive. In Europe, wood from Germany is considered to create a hard sound and Italian has become somewhat of a brand good. Even considering its cons, Romanian wood’s inexpensive price and balanced sound make it a good choice. I import the wood directly and then test the sound of each piece that arrives. Without paying any mind to the original price, I sort the wood based on my own standards. I work to find a balance between the cost and the quality of the wood in my system.
- There are many craftsmen who want to make a good product but what made you want to create affordable instruments that prioritized accessibility to musicians?
I think it came from my own experiences as a musician. Everyone wants a good instrument but their prices are very high so people usually buy one a grade lower. I thought “Would it be possible to deliver a good instrument to people who choose the lower grade instrument?”
I wanted to make instruments that were in a price range those people could afford and that they would not need to replace afterwards. In the current business model for instruments in Japan, people usually think “I’ll buy a cheap mass produced instrument for now and later I’ll buy a professional model for 10 to 20 thousand dollars”. Making people get cheap instruments as their first one. I wondered if this system was really ok.
An instrument that is carefully created with a lot of consideration by hand can be used for a long time even it can be cheap. In the age when machines couldn't be use to make instruments, there were only instruments that existed were ones that could be used for a long time. Nowadays there are too many cheap mass produced machine made instruments that are treated like disposable goods.
No matter how much or how long they’re used, even if a hundred years pass, those kinds of instruments will never become good. This means that after 50 years when you want to use an old and affordable instrument, you won’t be able to find any. I consider the many problems the stringed instrument world currently has when pricing my instruments.
Cheap mass produced instruments make sounds differently than good ones. When a musician upgrades to a new instrument they must get used to that new instrument. They have to learn how to do everything all over again. Upgrading from a mass produced instrument is a hindrance to a musician’s technique.
- Do you have a goal for the future?
I’ve already decided on my path in life and I’m in the middle of working on it. When asked about a goal it's difficult to think of one. Rather than a goal of “I want to do things this way”, I want to do things that should be done. In addition to making instruments I also organize concerts for young musicians and create opportunities for them to perform. I don’t think of it as part of my job, rather I do it because I think it is something that should be done.
- How are you supporting young musicians?
For instance, a musician who has been active for ten years or so has already built a foundation so I don’t need to support them. Speaking of support in the music world often people do things like invite youths to perform or give lessons to children. I have a problem with that kind of thing support.
People pull new musicians into the industry and then tell them “ok now try your best on your own.” I think that's an incredibly irresponsible thing to do. I don't think it is good to pull someone into the music industry and then if they fail to just tell them to “Try your best again.”
Firstly, for artists, they need support when they’re young and just starting out. Primarily they need money and opportunities to perform. If they don't have money then they will become mentally exhausted, even if they are able to eat a little, not knowing whether or not they will have a job the next day is scary. After money, the thing needed is opportunities. Opportunities means that one will be able to get used to being a musician to some extent and that they are able to do things like get work and form an ensemble with friends. This is hard to accomplish for young people. There are lessons to improve your skills, but just like with baseball there is a first-string and a second-string, having practical experience is always important. We must give young people more opportunity to gain practical experience. So to support young musicians I focus my efforts toward giving them opportunities.
- Personally, what would you like the classical music world to be like in the future?
I’m just one amateur musician in the musical world. It’s difficult to answer. I don't know what path the industry should take. I only know how I should be involved in the industry.
- For example?
I think lineups at concerts aren’t balanced. First of all, they don't really play any contemporary music and only play famous songs. I don't mean that people should play some obscure piece of music, I just think that they should play a variety of songs.
When it comes to things that must be done in addition to playing music, this is something generally said everywhere in the fine arts world, but as a first step a person must cultivate and audience.
This is true for music and art, well people nowadays, regardless of age, have given up thinking for themselves. That's because information is really forthcoming. This isn’t something I should really say to someone working in media though haha. People quickly seek out an opinion they think is correct and if there is something that seems good they go with that. I really don't think that’s good, especially concerning art. You can’t really say you’ve experienced a piece of art if you can’t think and share your thoughts about it. That's why I endeavor to create a program that can cultivate an audience capable of doing that.
For example, I try to make sure the program of songs for a concert have a certain uniformity and I make sure to include songs the audience wouldn't know, well they’re contemporary songs. When creating a program, I try to keep in mind what the audience will feel when listening to the songs or what questions it will raise. It’s difficult to do this though.
- It’s often said that Classical music is hard to get into and that to be a musician means that one won’t be able to eat. What do you think?
Fundamentally, any field or practice is hard to get into. If one doesn't realize that then they will definitely not be able to enter that world. Think about it, for us being able to read sentences is a given but if one doesn't gain knowledge about letters then reading is a domain that definitely cannot be entered; it's the same with music. It’s the same with art as well, you can’t truly see the value of a painting if you don't have any background knowledge about the painting, who the artist was and how they lived, or why they painted that picture. Of course, the superficial feelings one feels when looking at a piece of art aren’t something wrong but, just like with music, I want people to immerse themselves deeper into the art. If it’s reading you need to know language or if its art you need to know about the artist’s background. with music it's a bit complicated, it’s not simply about the composer, the narrative of the time when the song was composed is also important. On the other hand, there’s pieces of music like those from Mozart or symphonies. Up until his time there were composers like Haydn whose music would follow a harmonic sequence, the music would progress into a harmony. It would be like this part is this so the next flows into this. Mozart’s music is said to be like an opera, within the music there’s a story. With that music there’s a difference between listening while fully perceiving it and simply listening to it to feel satisfied. When I create a program for a concert, I always make sure to include one piece of music that the audience will wonder about or question. Contemporary music is perfect for this. If possible, I want the audience to come up with an answer to their question about the music during the performance.
- Do you have any advice for people who want to start their own business in Japan nowadays?
It depends on what kind of business a person wants to start but in Japan, unless something very unusual happens, a business won’t lead to a huge failure. It won’t lead to a situation that one can’t recover from and where death is the only option so a person should start their business without fear. A person should conduct business honestly. Japanese people are kind so instead of trying to deceive people, they should try to run their business with sincerity.
- What do you mean by conduct business honestly?
Of course, I don’t mean it literally as the kanji reads, where one should do what is right. “Conduct business honestly” is a very Japanese expression isn’t it? To put it another way “Don't do evil things”. Isn’t it evil if, for example, you deceive a customer and force them to buy an expensive instrument? So what I mean is, don’t take advantage of your customers. If a person is having trouble getting food every day, it’s easy for such a way of thinking to surface; it’s only human. When a person is in trouble, there are endless ways of earning money at the expense of others. But this is something a person definitely shouldn't do. Maintaining this principal is something that I think is more important than doing business. This is what I think it means to “do things honestly”.
- Do you have any advice for those who’d like to try and enter the classical music world?
First of all, if there are any young people who have just graduated from some local college and want to come to Japan to make a name for themselves, I’d advise against doing that. Unless you have a lot of connections and have acquaintances in Japan who will help you at the start, I’d recommend not trying to enter the classical music world in Japan. If you’ve already passed an audition and been accepted into an orchestra then that's fine though. The classical music industry in Japan is a meritocracy, one’s background is very important, to make it in that world you need to have contacts in addition to being talented. If a person has held a position in an orchestra in Europe and has gained experience there, then I think it is possible to leverage that experience to get a foot in the door. I think once a person has gained experience there are a number of paths they could take. It is better to try to enter Japan’s classical music industry once a person is at a point where they have some connections in it. The classical music world in Japan is a harsh world if a person doesn’t have any connections.
Mr. Nakashima has played cello since he was a teenager. He learned how to craft string instruments in Tokyo and in 2016 he opened a workshop in Hakata, Fukuoka city. He has since moved his workshop to Iizuka city. He deals with a variety of string instruments from violins to contrabasses and handles all of the orders and repairs himself. He has expanded his business and now runs two workshops. In addition to his usual work, he also puts together concerts to help support young musicians.
To get to his workshop, it takes around 50 minutes by train, from Hakata station which is located in the central area of Fukuoka city. Take Fukuhokuyutaka Line from Hakata station and get off at Keisen station. From there it takes around 20 minutes on foot or 5 minutes by car to get to the workshop. It is located in a small residential area and the building will have a blue name plate that reads “Nakashima String Instrument Workshop”.
If you would like to know more about Mr. Nakashima or would like to order an instrument, please visit the link above.