Following in the Footsteps of a Master: The Accomplishments of Harry Seisho Nakasone

Since both of the main musicians of the Kabudan are also students of Nakasone-sensei, we’re posting this. Though Nakasone-sensei has the highest national honors in both the US and Japan, he has a very poor web presence. Hopefully this post will help others who want information on the master.


Harry Seisho Nakasone Nakasone-sensei at the University of Hawaii Manoa Nakasone-sensei receives the Order of the Rising Sun

Uta nu michi – “the path of the singer” – is an endless road to musical perfection. The longer one travels, the farther he realizes he must go, perpetually encountering trials and obstacles, but always discovering new insights into his art and, ultimately, his soul. Few have treaded this path as long or as faithfully as uta-sanshin grand master Harry Seishō Nakasone. Through a career that continues after more than eight decades, Nakasone-sensei’s journey has earned him countless commendations and a following of faithful cultural enthusiasts. More importantly, he has built a legacy that future generations of Okinawan musicians can proudly build upon.

Harry Seishō Nakasone was born in He‘eia on the island of O‘ahu on February 12, 1912, the eldest son of Kamasuke and Naeko Nakasone. As an infant of only three months, Nakasone was taken to live with his grandparents in the village of Goya in central Okinawa. As with many kibei, he was sent to his parents’ homeland to be raised and schooled as a Japanese citizen; however, growing up in an economically depressed land under foster care meant immense hardship for young Nakasone. Nonetheless, these burdens were eased by the music that filled and surrounded the Goya village home. Both of Nakasone’s grandmothers were well-acclaimed singers and his uncle was considered one of the best musicians in the village. Nakasone recalls his uncle Matsu’s musical passion:

He always wait for the rainy day…when it’s good day, clear day, nice day, you cannot stay home and play music [or else] the neighbor[s] will [say] you [are] lazy…so he wait for the rainy day. He so happy, he come home and he start plucking the samisen and singing[1].

All of the memories of his early years in Okinawa, good and bad, would shape the master’s musical career.

By the time he was nine, Nakasone had taught himself to play the sanshin by ear. Whenever his uncle stepped out of the house, Nakasone would sneak and play the prized instrument he was forbidden to handle. Though he would berate young Nakasone for playing his sanshin, Matsu recognized his nephew’s talent and love for music. When Nakasone was ready to return to Hawai‘i in 1925, his uncle presented him with a sanshin as a parting gift—an instrument he still cherishes until today.

Life in Hawai‘i was not much easier for Nakasone upon his return. Like most Okinawan families in the 1920s, the Nakasones struggled to make ends meet. Nakasone, now in his teens, became a delivery boy for a plantation store in Waimanalo. As the oldest son, he was obligated to contribute to the family’s income, but at the price of his education – unfortunate circumstances that Nakasone regrets to this day.

The family fortune eventually improved and by 1938, Kamasuke and Naeko opened a produce store in Honolulu. With the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the growing public suspicion of Japanese aliens, the business was handed over to Nakasone who renamed the company Asahi Produce. He successfully ran the business until his retirement in 1967.

Even after returning to Hawai‘i, Nakasone continued to be surrounded by music. His mother was an Okinawan koto instructor and his father was a founding member of their village club, Goeku Sonjinkai. The Nakasones’ Mō’ili’ili residence was often used for club parties and was frequently visited by well-known musicians from Okinawa. It was not until 1933, however, that Nakasone began formal training in classical uta-sanshin. By Nakasone’s own account, his mother overheard him plucking a tune on the sanshin in their living room one day:

My mother was cooking in the kitchen and when she heard somebody playing samisen she thought it was okyakusan (guest) came so she ran out to the palour, she look and I was playing.[2]

Pleasantly surprised at his interest and prowess, Naeko introduced her son to his first teacher, Ryōkin Nakama, and thus Nakasone’s formal study of Nomura Ryū classical music began. Over the next 20 years, Nakasone-sensei would supplement his study under several great Nomura Ryū masters including Seisei Okuma, Sōjirō Nishijima, and Kīki Ikemiya.

In 1954, Nakasone sponsored the renowned master Kamechiyo Kōchi to live with him for six months of intensive study. Of all of his teachers, Nakasone cites Kōchi-sensei as his greatest mentor and inspiration. “He treated me just like his son,” Nakasone often remarks when fondly remembering Kōchi-sensei. Even after Kōchi-sensei returned to Okinawa, Nakasone made frequent trips to continue his study until the master’s death. Nakasone recounts the grand master’s words on his deathbed:

Sensei told me just before he died (in 1973), he said he was so happy I was better than him now… [I told him] “Please sensei, don’t say that.”[3]

Today, a picture of Kōchi-sensei hangs in a high place of respect in Nakasone-sensei’s studio.

Indeed, Nakasone lived up to his mentor’s praise. His diligent study and remarkable talent earned him the distinction of being one of the most celebrated uta-sanshin masters in the world. In 1952, Nakasone became the first non-Japanese citizen ever to be awarded an instructor’s license from the Nomura Ryū Ongaku Kyō Kai. Six years later, he was presented the title of shihan or “master”. In 1963, Nakasone earned Okinawan music’s highest honor, the Ryūgaku Saikōshō.

In recognition of his top honors and contributions to Okinawan music, five of the top traditional music organizations in Okinawa sponsored a special concert for Nakasone-sensei in1988. “Furusato nite Utau” (“Singing in the Homeland”) was held in Urasoe City, Okinawa and featured a cast of almost 200 musicians and dance masters performing to feature and pay tribute to Nakasone’s musical mastery. Never before had any musician born outside of Okinawa received such an honor.

Nakasone-sensei’s recognition would not cease at the borders of the Okinawan performing arts circles. After more than four decades of study, mentoring, and performing, the uta-sanshin master received national recognition in both the United States and Japan for his life’s work. In 1991, Harry Seishō Nakasone was named to the National Endowment for the Arts Folk Heritage Fellowship, making him a national living treasure in the United States and becoming the first Asian-American musician to receive such a distinction. Three years later in 1994, he received the Fifth-class Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays from the Emperor of Japan – one of the highest national honors in Japan, and the highest attainable honor for a non-Japanese citizen.

In spite of his national and international recognition and countless commendations, probably the greatest legacy Nakasone-sensei has built has been as a teacher. Shortly after receiving his teaching credentials, Nakasone founded his own school, the Nakasone Seifū Kai in 1953. In 1966, he extended his teaching to the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa where he became a lecturer in the Music Department’s Ethnomusicology Program until his retirement in 2002. The grand master would reach beyond Hawai‘i’s shores and became the musical director of the Kariyushi Kai in San Francisco in 1990. Meanwhile, between 1991 and 2004, Nakasone-sensei mentored several key students with intensive individual lessons through the Hawai‘i State Foundation for Culture and Art’s Master-Apprenticeship Program. Throughout his career, Nakasone-sensei has produced more than a dozen instructors and has literally touched hundreds of students of all generations and ethnicities with his gift of music.

Nakasone-sensei’s legacy goes beyond his own students. In 1967, he played an integral part in founding the Hawai‘i chapter of the Nomura Ryū Ongaku Kyō Kai to organize the many scattered schools of classical Okinawan music in Hawai‘i. He became the first president for the organization and is today its only remaining founding father. Since its formation, the Nomura Ryū Ongaku Kyō Kai Hawai‘i Shibu has played a vital role in preserving classical uta-sanshin in Hawai‘i, especially for the latter-generation descendants of the original Okinawan immigrants. On April 22, 2007, on the occasion of the organization’s fortieth anniversary, Nakasone-sensei will be honored for all of his achievements and his contributions to keeping Okinawa koten ongaku (“classical music”) alive.

Harry Seishō Nakasone’s journey is truly remarkable. Indeed, only a few pages of text cannot fully do justice to the achievements of this great musician and his importance to the community. His own words probably describe the journey best:

Koten [music] is hard…You may think you get ‘em already, but you don’t. You have to go and then go some more. Everyday I’m learning.[4]

The walls of his Mō‘ili‘ili studio are lined with photos and certificates that attest to those words. It is here that the grand master, now 95 years old, still spends most of his evenings passing on his art to others, paving new roads for those who wish to follow in his footsteps. Though those shoes will be very difficult to fill, the path that Nakasone-sensei has cleared and illuminated for us all has ensured that generations of musicians will follow on the uta nu michi.





[1] State Foundation for Culture and Arts audio interview, 1993 (Honolulu)

[2] Video interview by Koki Tamashiro and Andre Ajimine, September 2001 (Maui)

[3] Honolulu Star-Bulletin article, May 24, 1991

[4] SFCA interview, 1993

4 thoughts on “Following in the Footsteps of a Master: The Accomplishments of Harry Seisho Nakasone

  1. Pingback: In memoriam « Center for Japanese Studies

  2. Pingback: Center for Okinawan Studies

  3. Ronald Y. Nakasone


    I am a researcher affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. I enjoyed reading your article. I am interested reading/viewing the entire interview. Can you direct me to the source?

  4. Norman Kaneshiro Post author

    Dear Dr. Nakasone,

    Thank you for reading our blog. I am actually the author of the article on Nakasone-sensei. The piece was written citing a few published quotes, but largely from recollections of things Sensei had told me over the years. I was his student for 23 years. With all of his accomplishments, it is sad that his web presence is very minimal. If you have any specific questions on Nakasone-sensei, please let me know. You may also email at Thank you.

    Norman Kaneshiro

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