Buddhism an inspiration to folk singer

by Jo Iwasa, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 21, 2007

Tokyo, Japan -- Singer-song writer Ryoju Takaoka sang his latest number in mild, deep tones while playing the guitar. "It was long, long ago, beyond eternity, when I joined the world of Buddha," the song went.

Takaoka's latest song is titled "Satori no Hana no Mebuki," meaning "sprouting out of a flower of enlightenment." It is a requiem dedicated to his late wife, Hiroko, who died suddenly last spring.

The lyrics are a translation into modern Japanese of phrases in "Jigage," which forms the core of Hokekyo, a Buddhist sutra.

Recalling the sudden of his wife, Takaoka, 69, said: "She suddenly complained she was in pain and died soon after. I heard it was acute aortic dissection. It was too abrupt a goodbye after having lived together for 43 years."

He said he is just as sad as he was the day she died.

About 50 years ago, Takaoka started singing jazz, performing mainly in clubs for U.S. soldiers in Tokyo. In 1964, he moved his base of musical activity to Chiba, where he had been sent as a student evacuee during World War II. There he performed in schools and welfare facilities "because I wanted to be a musician with deep roots in the local community."

One day he was struck with an idea--perhaps if his lyrics actually had storylines, the audience would connect more deeply with his music.

He thus created his own style of singing, dubbed utamonogatari, or storytelling with singing.

Takaoka delivers various styles of song, including folk songs, children's songs and traditional, rhythmical readings of poems to accompany his folk tales and other stories.

In 1968, he became noted for his Utamonogatari-style number "Ora to Umi" (The Sea and Me), which describes an old fisherman lamenting the dramatic changes in Tokyo Bay.

In 1987, Takaoka received the Cultural Affairs Agency's art festival award for his song, "Toki Zessho" (Singing for Toki), which described his concerns about the ibis birds that were feared to be on the verge of extinction in the country at the time.

Today Takaoka is dubbed a modern troubadour, and in recent years he has been adapting excerpts from Buddhist sutras for his songs.

For his concert tours, he visits temples across the nation. "I'm happy if my latest piece can nurse the souls of people who are in a similar situation to me, even if it's only a little," Takaoka said.