Part I - Family Origins and Childhood

Akira Ifukube, 1928

The distinguished Ifukube family has ancient roots in western Japan, particularly in the (now defunct) provinces of Inaba and Izumo. Known as Ihokibe in antiquity, the origins of this family can be traced back to at least the 7th century with the birth of Ihokibe-no-Tokotarihime. This female ancestor was born in Inaba, which is known today as the Iwami District of Tottori Prefecture, a hilly agricultural area and the least populated prefecture in modern Japan. Tokotarihime served in the court of Japan's 42nd emperor, Mommu (683-707), as a lady-in-waiting. In this capacity she achieved the official court rank of Jushichii-ge (low seventh) for her service on February 25, 707. Tokotarihime died on July 1, 710. A little over two years later in October 710, her remains were cremated and her ashes were put into cast copper urn, which itself was encased in a granite container. The urn was buried on Mount Ube in Inaba and, in 1774, during the Edo Period, Tokotarihime's remains were discovered and excavated. Engraved on the lid of the urn is a 16-line description of Tokotarihime's rank and date of death. The valuable artifact now resides in the National Museum of Tokyo. [1]

Due to the prestige of Ihokibe-no-Tokotarihime, the Ihokibe clan was able to build a palace in Inaba, a base from which members of the family could serve as very influential local administrators.

Though the Ihokibe family can very tangibly be traced back to Ihokibe-no-Tokotarihime, family legend claims decidedly divine origins as well. These origins have their basis in a Shinto fable known as The White Rabbit of Inaba. (Shinto is the native religion of Japan.) In this story, a suffering rabbit is relieved from his pain by the kindly Okunisushi-no-Mikoto. As a reward for his kindness, the rabbit helps Okunisushi marry the beautiful princess Yakami. Today, the tale of the White Rabbit of Inaba is famous all over Japan.

Okunishushi-no-Mikoto holds a very important position in Shinto mythology. He is the son of Susanô, the god of sea and storms. Susanô is the brother of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, who is considered one of the most important deities in all of Shinto.

When Susanô descended from the heavens to earth, he landed in Izumo Province (now known as the eastern part of Shimane Prefecture), which was part of the ancestral homeland of the Ihokibes. Ihokibe family tradition stated that they were related to Susanô. This means, then, the Ihokibe family asserted to be directly related to the most important line of deities in Shinto.

The spirit of Okunisushi-no-Mikoto resides today, according to custom, in the Izumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture, which neighbors modern-day Tottori Prefecture. Okunisushi is known as the kami (deity) of marriage.

The Ihokibe family established their own shrine, the Ube Shrine, at some point in the 7th century, but the exact date is not known. With the establishment of the shrine started a tradition in which generations of the first-born males of the family would grow up to serve priests of the shrine.

Though the Ube Shrine existed in Inaba for centuries, the structure that currently resides at the site was completed in 1898. The shrine is considered one of the oldest in Japan.

Ube Shrine, Tottori (formerly Inaba) (1907)

Over time, the name Ihokibe changed to Ifukube. The 65th generation of this family was Nobuyo Ifukube, who was born on September 15, 1843 in Tottori. As a young man he was an admirer or the arts and, at one point, tried to learn the shamisen, a traditional 3-stringed instrument [2]. His ultimate destiny, however, was to carry on the family tradition of priesthood. He married a woman named Suzu, born January 14 1848, who was a member of a very old and respected family in Tottori. Arranged marriages were customary in Japan during this period and it was Nobuyo's father who selected Suzu to marry his son.

Nobuyo and Suzu's son Toshizo was born in Tottori in 1866.

A scroll showing the Ifukube family tree. Image courtesy of Tohru Ifukube.

Two years after the birth of Toshizo in 1868, Japan saw the start of the Meiji Restoration, a period in which imperial rule returned to the archipelago nation after over two centuries of control by an isolationist military dictatorship known as the Tokugawa shogunate. With the newly reestablished imperial government came sweeping efforts to open Japan to the rest of the world and modernize by embracing Western technology.

In all of Japan, Shinto priesthood was a hereditary vocation transferred from father to son, as was the case at the Ube Shrine. However, on May 14 1871, Emperor Meiji ended this practice and initiated state-controlled Shinto in order to consolidate the religion and further unify the country. Consequently, existing priests were removed from their posts and replaced by government appointments. Nobuyo Ifukube was forcibly retired, which he strongly regretted, and thus ended the Ifukube family's centuries old administration of the Ube Shrine.

Nobuyo and Suzu Ifukube

Even if Toshizo were eventually eligible to take over the shrine in his father's stead, it is likely that he would not have. The forward-thinking and practical young man believed that the priesthood was "old fashioned" and that he should embrace Emperor Meiji's ideal to "enrich the country and strengthen the military." To that end, Toshizo joined the Imperial Japanese Army in 1894. During his military career, Toshizo served in both the Sino-Japanese (1894-1895) and Russo-Japanese (1904-1905) Wars. After having achieved the rank of sergeant, Toshizo retired from the military in December 1905.

Toshizo and Kiwa Ifukube

Toshizo and his wife Kiwa (née Suzuki, born 1877) had their first child, a daughter named Sayoko, in 1901. Tragically, Sayoko died 5 years later in April 1906. Three more daughter followed (Kikuyo, Katsuko and Fukiko Ifukube), each of which survived into adulthood.

After serving in the Japanese military, Toshizo moved his family to the town of Odawara (Kanagawa Prefecture) where he would begin a long career of service in law enforcement. He was hired as a police officer and, after some time in his town, the Ifukubes decided to transfer to the northern island of Hokkaido in May 1907.

Mountainous Hokkaido was a sparsely populated "northern frontier" known for vast forests and a cold and wet climate. Starting in the late 19th century, the Japanese government encouraged its citizens to move to Hokkaido to exploit its agricultural potential and avoid overpopulation on the other islands of the archipelago. Also, the Japanese government figured that increasing Hokkaido's population would prevent invasion from the nearby Russians. Toshizo was not particularly interested in farming but his military service and police experience fostered a need to serve the public. As workers and their families from "mainland Japan" began to colonize Hokkaido, there was an increased need for regional law enforcement. Having the necessary experience, Toshizo moved his family from Odawara to the remote north to find work as an officer of the law.

Upon their arrival to Hokkaido, Toshizo and his wife settled in Kushiro, a small coastal town situated on the flat Tokachi Plain on the eastern side of the island. Toshizo was promptly employed as a police officer in this town.

In Kushiro, Toshizo and Kiwa produced two more children, this time two sons. Muneo Ifukube was born in 1909 and Isao Ifukube in 1912.

In March 1914 Toshizo became Kushiro's chief of police.

Kushiro, Hokkaido

Police station, Kushiro

The third son and final child, Akira Ifukube, was born on May 31, 1914 at 6:30 PM in Kushiro, Hokkaido in the family home. The home was located on a hill called Shussezaka Slope, which had a completely unobstructed view to the harbor. (Shussezaka Slope is today home to the Nusamai Park. There are no traces of the Ifukube home that once stood on the grounds and, curiously, no mention is made on the park's signs of the Ifukube family's connection to the location.)

She Shussezaka Slope/Nusamai Park today
(Photo by the webmaster)

Akira Ifukube at two years of age

Toshizo had long been an avid scholar of the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (570 - 490 BC), the founder of Taoism. Certainly, Taoism's emphasis on pragmatism, humility and intellectual growth struck a personal chord with the civil servant and, when the time came to name his newest son, he referenced the 20th chapter of the Tao Te Ching, the classical texts of Taoism:

A classic 1947 translation by R. B. Blakney reveals the meaning of the text accordingly:

Be done with rote learning and its attendant vexations; for is there distinction of a “yes” from a “yea” comparable now to the gulf between evil and good? What all men fear, I too must fear... how barren and pointless a thought!

The reveling of multitudes at the feast of Great Sacrifice, or up on the terrace at carnival in spring, leave me, alas, unmoved, alone, like a child that has never smiled. Lazily, I drift as though I had no home. All others have enough to spare; I am the one left out. I have the mind of a fool, muddled and confused! When common people scintillate I alone make shadows. Vulgar folks are sharp and knowing: Only I am melancholy. Restless like the ocean, blown about, I cannot stop. Other men can find employment, but I am stubborn; I am mean. Alone I am and different, because I prize and seek my sustenance from the mother!

Though this somewhat mystical text is quite difficult to understand, the overall theme can possibly be summed up in the first line: Be done with rote learning. In other words, it is preferable to learn and become smart without traditional, orthodox learning.

In one of the lines of the original Chinese text we see the character: . This character from the text also happens to represent the name "Akira" in modern Japanese kanji. (Kanji is one of the primary "alphabets" used in the written Japanese language. It is directly adapted from written Chinese.) Because Toshizo was particularly impressed by the wisdom contained in this 20th chapter of one of his favorite philosophical texts, he chose to use the character to represent the name "Akira" for his newest son.

In October 1914, several months after Akira was born, the Ifukubes transferred to the town of Nemuro, which is located on the extreme eastern tip of Hokkaido. Toshizo had served as Nemuro's chief of police for nearly four years when, in June 1918, the family moved north to the village of Abashiri, which is located on the frigid waters of the Sea of Okhotsk. In Abashiri, Toshizo again served as police chief.

Akira Ifukube (left) and Isao Ifukube (right). The two girls are unknown.

In September 1920, little Akira began his schooling at the Abashiri Elementary school at the age of 6. Toshizo was concerned that Akira might have been considered too young to be accepted into the school for the new year so he doctored his youngest son's birth records to show a slightly earlier birth date of March 5, 1914, which placed his son's age closer to 7. (Certainly, this was a very brazen action for the local police chief!) Akira was enrolled, but his time at the school would be short-lived. Very quickly after his enrollment, Toshizo was offered a position to become the head of a police school in Sapporo, the largest city and capital of Hokkaido. Toshizo accepted the position and moved his family yet again. His tenure as the head of the school lasted a mere few weeks; another, more alluring opportunity presented itself in the town of Obihiro, located near Kushiro, and the family relocated in November 1920. Toshizo was hired as police chief of the town.

Obihiro, Hokkaido

Muneo (left) and Akira (right) Ifukube, Obihiro

Akira (fourth row from the front, sixth from the left) and his Obihiro classmates.

By this time, Toshizo Ifukube had gained a very favorable regional reputation as a tireless civil servant, having served as police chief in several towns. The village of Otofuke was aware of Toshizo's renown and its town assembly offered him the post of mayor. Feeling that this opportunity represented a step forward for his career, Toshizo accepted the post and moved to Otofuke in May 1923 with his wife Kiwa and his two youngest children, Isao and Akira. The eldest daughter Kikuyo was already married by this time and the other children, Katsuko, Tokiko and Muneo, were pursuing their studies in Sapporo under the adult supervision of their paternal grandmother, Suzu, and a maidservant named Hama Wakazuki.

Akira and Isao

There was no train service between Obihiro and the more rural Otofuke (train service was limited in general in Hokkaido). Consequently, the Ifukubes rode a horse-drawn carriage to their new destination. During this ride, young Akira, aged 9, received his first substantive glimpse into the world of the Ainu, northern Japan's indigenous population. Just outside of the town limits, the carriage passed through an Ainu village, known in their language as a kotan. Akira was at once fascinated and a little frightened by the exotic features and dress of these people as they milled about in front of their strange grass structures. Once the carriage arrived in the center of the village and he saw Japanese people and modern buildings, Akira felt a sense of relief that he and his family had not moved to some completely alien world. The boy would soon discover, however, that these peculiar Ainu people, who made up about 50% of Otofuke's population, would play an important role in the development of his persona.

Ainu Man and woman from Hokkaido

The Ainu are an animist, hunter-gatherer people indigenous to northern Japan (Hokkaido and northern Honshu, Japan's "main island") and the Russian Far East (Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands, and southern Kamchatka).

The exact origins of the Ainu are not known, but it had long been believed that they are of Caucasian/European origin due to their decidedly "non-Asian" features and thick body hair. More recent theories suggest that the Ainu are modern-day ancestors of the prehistoric Jomon Japanese (who lived from about 14000 BC until about 300 BC) or perhaps a genetic offshoot of the ancient Okinawan people. Probably the most accurate clue pertaining to the origins of the Ainu comes from modern DNA research; this shows that the Ainu have genetic commonalties with peoples from Tibet and the Adaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.

Whatever their origins, the Ainu have probably lived in northern Japan since 1200 AD. The hub of their activities in the Japanese archipelago had always been Hokkaido, or Ezo, as the island was known until it was officially annexed by Japan in 1868 at the start of the Meiji Restoration. Prior to the annexation, the ethnic Japanese (or wajin, as they call themselves in Japanese) enjoyed centuries of trade and commerce with their northern Ainu neighbors. With the absorption of Hokkaido, however, came the redistribution of land to Japanese farmers to kick-start Japan's agricultural infrastructure. Also, the Japanese government proclaimed that living on Japanese soil meant you were Japanese regardless of your ethnic origin; this inaugurated a policy of banning the use of the Ainu language and forcing the Ainu to attend Japanese schools. Even Ainu names were forbidden in favor of Japanese ones.

This policy of forced and complete assimilation came to its apex in 1899 when the government passed an act which decreed that the Ainu were "former aborigines." With the passage of this act, Japan could proclaim that there were no ethnic minorities in Japan and thus anything representative or attached to traditional Ainu culture was severely repressed. (It was not until 1997 that the Japanese government began taking measures to overturn the act of 1899 and recognize the Ainu as a separate ethnic group whose culture should be acknowledged and preserved.)

Regardless of the severe restrictions imposed by the act of 1899, the Ainu of Hokkaido continued to practice their culture rather vigorously and openly. Traditional dress was proudly worn, the men grew their trademark thick beards and the women continued to customarily tattoo their lips. Of course, Ainu song and dance were overtly performed as well as the ritual bear sacrifice ceremony, one of the cornerstones of Ainu culture.

Because of a perceived ethnic superiority, it was not uncommon for the local wajin to discriminate against their Ainu neighbors and voluntarily segregate themselves from them. Despite this rather unfortunate and common practice by many of Hokkaido's ethnic Japanese, the Ifukube family enjoyed a very warm association with the Ainu from the moment they arrived in Otofuke.

This attitude of tolerance can be attributed to the progressive, humanist ideals that Toshizo absorbed through his lifelong studies of Taoism; his personal philosophy filled him with a sense of duty to fairly represent every citizen of his town, regardless of their ethnicity. Coincidentally and interestingly, Toshizo even resembled an Ainu man with his full beard!

The bearded Toshizo

The mayor of Otofuke actively encouraged his family to socialize with the Ainu as much as possible. Local Ainu residents were often welcome dinner guests (an Ainu guest once tried to convince Toshizo that he was actually one of them and not Japanese!) and young Akira played with many Ainu friends.

In an article Ifukube wrote in 1953 entitled The Beauty of Everyday Life, the composer described an episode in which his Ainu playmates desired to give the young wajin honorary Ainu status. The Ainu children prepared a "beverage," kanancho water as it is referred to in the Ainu language, by placing a frog, a lizard and earthworms into a bottle. These "ingredients" are then crushed and liquified by repeatedly jamming a stick into the bottle opening. Ifukube, sincerely wanting to be considered at least partially Ainu, readily partook of this "strange holy water," as he described it, and attained, it seems, his honoray Ainu status.

With his Ainu "bretheren," Akira was enrolled in the Tsunehiro elementary school in Otofuke. Probably due to the ever-present influence of the earth-conscious Ainu, Ifukube began to develope great curiosity for several subjects, including science and nature. The youngster loved being outside among the numerous trees, rivers and lakes of Hokkaido and he took to collecting various reptiles and insects; he referred to these pets as his "best friends!"

Tsunehiro Elementary School, Otofuke

Another subject that was quick to captivate young Akira's mind was music. Otofuke afforded the boy the unique opportunity to be exposed to an unexpectedly rich variety of folk song. Since the annexation of Hokkaido into the Japanese empire in the mid-19th century, the pioneers who trekked to the northern island from the Japanese "mainland," particularly from the Tôhoku region of northeastern Honshu, brought with them their regional folk melodies. Akira heard much of this everywhere in the village from the local workers and their families and even from his own father; when drunk, Toshizo had the habit of singing Yasuki-Bushi, a folk song from the Shimane region that he learned in his youth. [3] And of course, traditional Ainu music surrounded the young student just as much. Ifukube marveled at the strange repetitive chanting and odd rhythms of the Ainu sound world; the extraordinary mixture of this tribal weirdness with the sentimental lyricism of Japanese song instilled within Akira a fierce desire to become a musician himself.

One day Akira was thrilled to discover an abandoned violin behind the barber shop in Otofuke. He began to play with it and he decided that he should have a violin of his own. He ran home to tell his parents.

Toshizo, the ever-pragmatic father, believed that musical pursuits were frivolous and certainly not to be taken up by young men. He initially refused to buy a violin for his son. Akira pleaded incessantly until his father gave in and purchased the instrument. Despite Akira's small victory, his father did not allow him to take music lessons. This left the would-be violinist no recourse but to attempt to learn the instrument on his own. Although Akira was allowed to play with the instrument Toshizo made the the situation even more difficult by allowing his son only one hour per day to make noise.

With the help of Isao, who was already familiar with Western classical music and was proficient on the guitar, Akira was able to find and purchase 78 RPM records of classical violin music in local shops, which he studied very intently and learned to play the pieces (as best he could) by ear. He was particularly enthralled by a series of recording by the famed Austrian virtuoso Fritz Kreisler in which he performed pieces by Antonin Dvorak, Cesar Cui and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Through these recordings of Western classical music, Akira discovered yet another type of music that captured his imagination just as much as the local folk material that he already adored. His tastes, then, began to widen considerably and the more he heard, the better he was able to teach himself the nuances of violin technique. Despite such seemingly impossible conditions, Akira became increasingly capable on the violin and, with much confidence, he decided he should also branch out to the guitar. With his knowledge of the violin, and certainly with Isao's guidance, Akira's skills on the instrument progressed rapidly.

In the summer of 1926 Akira, aged 12, transferred to his grandmother's house in Sapporo to begin studies at the Hokkaido Sapporo Nishi Junior High School; Isao had already been studying at the same school since 1924. This environment offered much to satisfy Akira's artistic proclivities and he enthusiastically joined the school's art club. Ifukube dabbled in painting and thought for a while that he might want to become painter like Picasso, whose audaciously modernism he admired.

By imbedding himself in such an environment, Akira was afforded the opportunity to meet another artistically-minded student, Atsushi Miura. Born in 1913, the somewhat frail and introverted Miura came from a highly educated family; his father was a professor of Metallurgy in the Faculty of Engineering at Hokkaido Imperial University. From an early age, Miura was taught to appreciate art, culture and language; he was even proficient in English and French. Being interested in painting at the time, Ifukube found much in common with Miura and a friendship quickly developed between them.

Ifukube was not initially aware, however, that Miura was also heavily interested in music. During a visit to Miura's home, Ifukube noted that his friend had an unusually varied collection of classical music recordings and scores. Discovering that Miura was just as passionate about music as he was, the primary focus of their friendship quickly shifted from the graphic arts to the aural.

Miura regularly hosted the Ifukube brothers at his home. The three would pore over specially ordered musical scores and listen to recordings of famous European composers. Akira and Isao were not extensively aware of music outside of the German/Austrian tradition; in Japan at the time, the most popular and well respected Western classical music was by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, et cetera. (Of the German composers Ifukube especially loved Bach and, while listening to his works, he was often brought to tears.) Miura, though, had an uncommonly wide-ranging collection of French, Spanish and Russian music and he took great pleasure in expanding the brothers' musical horizons by introducing them to the likes of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky and others.

Miura sensed great potential in Akira and continuously attempted to convince his violinist friend to become a composer. Young Ifukube previously had fleeting thoughts about writing his own music but he had yet to make any real attempt at composition. The free and flexible aesthetic of the French and Russian composers (as opposed to the more rigid style of the Germans) greatly appealed to his latent creativity and, one day, he was exposed to a recording of a work that made his inner wheels turn like never before: Petrushka (1911) by Igor Stravinsky.

By the early 1930s Stravinsky (1888 - 1971) was already a world-famous Russian composer who, early in his career, had written works based on traditional Russian themes and endowed his scores with melodies directly influenced by Russian folk music. Stravinsky's Petrushka takes its inspiration from Russian folk puppetry. The score employs colorfully dissonant and energetically rhythmic music to tell the fanciful story of the puppet-come-to-life and his misadventures during the Shrovetide Fair.

Hearing music like this for the first time, Ifukube was floored. He was overwhelmed by Stravinsky's ethnically-tinged sonorities and the exciting rhythmic drive. The acerbic exoticism of Petrushka convinced Ifukube that music could (and should) strongly evoke a national and cultural character. Thus, should he compose himself, his music would be rooted in Japanese and even Ainu aestehtics. In a moment of inspiration, he proclaimed "Yes, I can do that!" [4]

Having devoured Petrushka, Ifukube sought out more of Stravinsky's work. This led him to hear a recording of The Rite of Spring, music that was so modern and violent that it caused a riot at its Paris première in 1913. Hearing The Rite cemented Ifukube's deep admiration for the wildly innovative Russian. "I got an electric shock when I listened to The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, " Ifukube once explained. "I felt that Stravinsky's musical vision was not European but close to ours. My afterthought was that this was because of the aesthetic sympathy coming from the [shared] blood." (A popular belief in Japan is that the Japanese are decendants from the Mongols. The Mongols invaded and conquered Russia in 1237. During their rule, the Mongols interbred [often forcibly] with the Russians and consequently produced the "shared blood" Ifukube references; therefore, in Ifukube's thinking, the Japanese and the Russians were related by way of the Mongols and thus shared, among other things, aesthetic values. The Mongols were eventually expelled from Russia 200 years later in 1480 under the leadership of Ivan III of Moscow.) "Stravinsky appealed to me directly. I felt sympathy because I already had it. Rather than receiving inspiration from him, I found him doing exactly what I wanted. Stravinsky let me know an alternative form of European music." [5]

Akira and Isao, 1928

Also, Ifukube was becoming better acquainted with recordings of the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876 - 1946). Falla's music, like early Stravinsky, was founded in the folk music of his native country. Ifukube was thoroughly beguiled by the sumptuous Iberian textures of Falla's sound and this further emboldened him to compose in a venturesome ethnic style. Ifukube would not begin composing right away, however, as the school year was coming to an end and he was caught up in his studies.

Akira, Isao and Muneo Ifukube in Sapporo, 1930

In March1931, the 16-year old Akira graduated from junior high school. After his graduation, the young man was not certain what he wanted to do with his life. Becoming a professional musician seemed out of the question as Japanese cultural attitudes at the time considered music-making frivolous and even "un-masculine." Nationalism and militarism were widespread, however, and it was common...perhaps even expected...that healthy young men should join the military.

Just as Toshizo was against following in his father's footsteps to a career in the priesthood, Akira had no interest in going down the military career path of his father. Although Akira was certain he did not want to join the military, he had premonitions that he would eventually have no choice but to enlist and he would be killed in battle within a short period of time. Feeling that he needed to whatever he could to trick fate, he decided that he should study at Hokkaido Imperial University. Being a lover of nature, he determined that he could major in forestry, a discipline that would hold his interest and could offer real-world, practical use.

Perhaps feeling a sense of calm that the military was not to be a part of his immediate future after all, Ifukube took advantage of his mental clarity and free time before starting his university studies to try his hand, finally, at music composition. Remembering his ambitions to write in an ethnic style, he began writing sketches for an original piano work based on the music he had heard at various Japanese festivals, including the summertime Bon Festival. Though he started this enetrprising project, the next phase of his education as the university was drawing nearer. And, possibly, the neophyte composer found that he lacked the initial confidence and skill to write original piano music in a Japanese style. Therefore, he abandoned the piano piece to prepare himself for the next phase of his education.

[1] Godziszewski, Ed, Ifukube on Ifukube, G-Fan Magazine November/December 1995, page 29
[2] Ibid., page 32
[3] Ibid., page 31
[4] Ibid., page 31
[5] Hosokawa, Shuhei. Off the Planet: Music, Sound and Science Fiction Cinema. Page 51. Indiana University Press. Bloomington, IN. 2004.

© Erik Homenick. All rights reserved.