Harry Seisho Nakasone, a Honolulu resident who studied in Japan and became a master of classical Okinawan music, died March 19 in Honolulu. He was 99.
Nakasone was a grand master of classical uta-sanshin, in which the artist sings and plays the three-string instrument that is Okinawa’s version of the shamisen.
Japanese Emperor Akihito in 1994 awarded him the 5th-Class Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays, the highest attainable honors for a non-Japanese citizen.
Nakasone was named in 1991 to the National Endowment for the Arts Folk Heritage Fellowship.
He owned Asahi Produce Co. In 1966, Nakasone was hired as a lecturer in the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Ethnomusicology program, where he taught until retiring in 2002.
"He is well-respected even in this day for his (sanshin-playing) ability, technical in a lot of ways, but he was able to balance the technicality of the music with the artistry," said Norman Kaneshiro, director of Nakasone Seifu Kai, the Moiliili sanshin school Nakasone founded.
Nakasone possessed "a really warm vocal style … tied together all in a seamless, fluid way," Kaneshiro said.
Nakasone taught hundreds of students in Hawaii, some of whom became teachers themselves. Eight, including Kaneshiro, continue to teach.
He became the first foreign-born student of classical Okinawan music to become a certified instructor. He also helped found the Hawaii chapter of the Nomura Ryu Ongaku Kyo Kai, the world’s largest association of Okinawan classical musicians. He also received the Ryugaku Saikosho, the Okinawan musical award for excellence.
Born Feb. 12, 1912, in Heeia, Nakasone was 3 months old when he was taken to Goya, Okinawa, where he was raised by his grandparents.
In Hawaii, his mother, Naeko, was a well-known koto teacher.
Nakasone returned to Hawaii at age 13 with only an elementary school education, and had to go straight to work at a plantation store, Kaneshiro said.
He began a lifetime of learning the sanshin at age 21, under local sensei Nakama Ryokin and four other local teachers.
In 1954, he sought out Kochi Kamechiyo, a prominent Okinawa master, calling him to Hawaii to live with and mentor him for six months, Kaneshiro said. Nakasone continued to study with Kochi, returning periodically to Okinawa until Kochi’s death in 1973.
He is survived by his wife Mitsuko; daughters Janet Ito, Jean Bennett, Susan Hill and Karen Nakasone; brothers Harold and Richard "Joe"; stepchildren Kazue Miyano, Cindy Toguchi-Gourlay, Takenobu Toguchi and Roy Toguchi; eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Services will be held at 4 p.m. tomorrow at Hosoi Garden Mortuary. Visitation begins at 2 p.m.