Japanese pianist Hiroko Ishimoto’s interview is part of a series of in-depth reports by Marion Merrick about some surprising members of the Hungarian community. She writes:
“Foreigners the world over may find they feel happier in their adoptive countries than they did in their homelands. The explanations are various: from climate to culture, and from work opportunities to a personal rapport with the locals.”
Hiroko Ishimoto would certainly give this as explanation for having made her home in Budapest over the past 20 years.
Hiroko started playing the piano at the tender ago of five and had terrible experiences with the various piano teachers, as she didn’t fit into the traditional Japanese girl’s role. Students were meant to be totally obedient. Hiroko ascribes her unconventional attitudes and outlook on life to her unusually open-minded doctor father.
It was at Tokyo’s Toho School of Music, where she started at 18, that Hiroko first came across a Hungarian musician.
She explains: “My first contact with Hungary was the pianist André Watts, an African-American pianist with a Hungarian mother,” she recalls, “and his playing was just FAN-TAS-TIC!”
From Tokyo, through Japanese friends in New York, Hiroko successfully auditioned for the Juilliard school there. Her first memory of New York was the Easter parade on 5th Avenue, “It was such fun, so open, so free!” Hiroko was accepted then to study with György Sándor, a “giant of the piano world and a close friend of Bartók”, who had given the first performance of Bartók’s third concerto at Carnegie Hall in 1946.
“I was very much influenced by György Sándor,” remembers Hiroko. “He was fantastic; he had temperament, like many Hungarians. Through him I came to like Bartók and Kodály and Hungarian music. And later, after I’d left America, I went back to New York for a month every summer – I needed that to be myself – so I met him every year.”
Once Hiroko finished at the Juilliard, she worked in New York for nine years until 1989 as a freelance musician. Then her old school, Toho in Tokyo, asked her to teach there. By then she was tired of New York and she returned to Japan. She regretted that decision as life there came as a huge shock.
Marion Merrick writes:
“Hiroko’s return to Japan, following almost a decade in America, came as a profound culture shock. If she had failed to fit the mould as a child and student, the intervening years in New York had further exacerbated the friction.
“‘In the first year I had recurring bouts of fever. Society in Japan panicked me – I think a woman’s life in Japan is quite bad, like an Arab woman’s,’ she explains.”
A pianist and a feminist
Even though she met international musicians in Tokyo who she could relate to, she had both professional and personal difficulties.
“It was at this juncture that Hiroko came into contact with the Women’s Action Network (WAN) – a feminist organisation, mainly supported by professional women like Hiroko herself. ‘I try not to be loud or pushy, but I have strong feelings about this,’ she says.”
After attending WAN meetings, Hiroko decided that she wanted to do something linking women and music. It gave her the idea to play pieces by women composers. Her main job became playing nearly forgotten pieces by Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Amy Beach from America, Tatyana Nikolayeva.
A grant by the Women’s Action Network enabled Hiroko to give a series of six concerts two years running in various Japanese cities.
“‘I suddenly got recognition for this music,’ she says.”
But as she felt that she needed to develop further, in 2002 she decided to move to Europe. She felt she could develop her playing better and took lessons at the Budapest Liszt Academy from well-known pianists Jenő Jandó, Ferenc Radis and Gábor Eckhardt.
“Hiroko’s exploration of the works of women composers led to her recording a
CD “Pioneers” with Naxos records, in 2020 – [available from Amazon] sadly, just as Covid was emerging, meaning that the associated concert performances of the works had to be abandoned.”
On International Women’s day, 8 March, Hiroko is following up this first concert with a second one.
Maybe British in Hungary want to know the details: it is at 7pm, at the Marczibányi tér Cultural Centre, and will showcase pieces from her CD.
Hiroko finds that she can relate to very few of the under 2,000 Japanese who live in Hungary. She says of her life in Budapest, which now approaches her 20th anniversary:
“I wouldn’t say I love everything in Hungary but I feel comfortable here, I feel I can be myself in a way I couldn’t in Tokyo; there it’s very rigid, you mustn’t speak up, you have to be the same as everyone else. Here, I feel a freedom to be myself.”
“Tickets for Hiroko Ishimoto’s concert on 8 March at 7pm, at Marczibányi Cultural centre may be purchased online here or at the concert venue.
Marion Merrick is author of Now You See It, Now You Don’t and House of Cards and the website Budapest Retro.
Author’s note: I spent my early childhood in Budapest amongst classical musicians, as my father played in the Budapest Radio and the Opera Symphony Orchestras. Amongst the 80-plus members of the Philharmonia Hungarica, made up of Hungarian musicians who had fled Communism and USSR rule, there were only around six women. Even though Communist dogma declared equality of the sexes, in practice patriarchal principles ruled in working life and at home. Children, kitchen and house chores were still considered the women’s domain.
Even today, as in most European countries, women’s wages lag behind those of men. In Hungary, women earn just 90% of men. https://www.kavosz.hu/uzleti-bulvar/ferfi-es-noi-fizetesek-magyarorszagon-meg-nem-divat-az-egyenlosdi/ (only in Hungarian).