By Scott D. Johnston
One of the most unusual of the army of artists who took over Ocean Shores for the six days of the 14th Annual Celtic Music Festival is Japanese trio O’Jizo. They found enthusiastic audiences in this, their second visit to the U.S., which included their second appearance at the festival produced by the Galway Bay Irish Pub.
The notion of a Japanese-Celtic band is a rare find to start with, and O’Jizo takes it a step further by being one of the few bands in this genre that doesn’t have a fiddle player. That gives founder Kozo Toyota a lot of musical space in which to work with the variety of flutes he plays.
Toyota earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music at Tokyo’s University of the Arts. He and guitarist Koji Nagao began playing together over a decade ago as “Jizo,” a combination of the last syllables of their first names. When fellow student and accordionist Hirofumi Nakamura joined a year later, they added an Irish flavor to their name and have since been “O’Jizo.”
Toyota explained that an appreciation of “western music, country, bluegrass” led him to embrace Irish music, “the base of country music.” Nagao listened to a lot of genres, and “what really stuck was Celtic,” so much so that he learned to play Irish music on guitar by actually going to Ireland to experience it firsthand.
Nakamura played classical piano from a young age and broadened his skills to include accordion, guitar, mandolin and bouzouki. Toyota had started an Irish music club at school and fellow student Nakamura tried it, liked it, and joined the band a year later. Today, all three are making a living as professional musicians and all are members of multiple performing and recording groups.
Toyota said Irish music is not yet “super-popular” in Japan, be he believes O’Jizo has helped the genre grow over the last past decade. Earlier this year, they played as part of a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Tokyo that drew about 3,000 fans.
In addition to playing traditional Irish material, they compose a lot of original music. Toyota said their compositions are not simply “Japanese-style Celtic” music. Rather, they are drawn from their “deep respect for Irish music and experiences we have had as musicians.” Their favorite aspects of performing are “communication with the audience and between each other within the context of a song.”
After the Galway Bay festival, they were headed for Portland and Los Angeles, before returning to Japan. More information including recordings of some of their songs can be found online at www.ojiso.org.