Norm Nakamura is arguably the most famous non-Japanese shamisen player in Japan, or even in the world. He is the only foreign apprentice of the Yoshida Brothers (Yoshida Kyodai), masters of the Tsugaru-jamisen, who are also known for combining western musical elements and utilizing modern drums and synthesizers in their repertoire.
Norm has been learning the Tsugaru-jamisen for about seven years, receiving tutelage from the Yoshida Brothers in Asakusa, situated in the northeastern part of Tokyo.
Norm sits down with JAPAN Forward to share his inspiring story on how a disaster steered his life’s course into a new direction, and how he became the apprentice of the famous Yoshida Brothers.
From Toronto to Tokyo
Norm came to Japan from Canada for the first time in 2007 on a working holiday visa. He spent time researching and getting to know the Tokyo metropolitan area prior to his arrival, simulating his commute routine as well as accounting for accommodation options that would be key factors of his life-in-Japan experience.
"I wanted to be able to sit down on the train so I had two options: Shibuya or Asakusa." Norm explains his logic and how he narrowed his selection to the Ginza line. Being in the heart of the city would mean expensive rent, so Norm delightfully decided on Asakusa. "It was convenient for what I wanted to accomplish in Tokyo, surprisingly close to everything, and had an abundance of combini!"
Norm was confident his decision, but at the time he didn’t know Asakusa would mean much more than just a cosy seat on the subway to the office, 100-yen coffee, and on-demand bento at the nearby combini.
First Contact with the Shamisen
Norm’s first contact with shamisen music came after that first stay in Japan, when he had gone back to Canada. A friend gave him a shamisen CD at the end of 2008, when he was 24. With a grandfather who played guitar, Norm explained to us that the music struck something within him, although he wasn’t quite sure what it was at that point. But whatever it was, it was enough to inspire him to decide to go back to Japan.
“I just thought it was amazing and touching,” he says, smiling.
It stirred enough of an interest within him that he drove nine hours to Washington state just to hear a shamisen live concert by the Yoshida Brothers.
That concert changed everything.
Norm goes quiet for a moment when he tries to put into words the feeling he had at the time: "It’s like when you hear a song that you like. All the pieces come together — the way it feels, the way it sounds."
At the end of the concert, Norm had a chance to meet the Yoshida Brothers face-to-face at a signing. The idea of playing the shamisen had not even entered his mind yet, but he knew that he wanted to meet them again.
As they signed his CD, he was overwhelmed with the urge to audaciously tell them that he would someday meet them again in Japan. Little did he know that this would someday become much more than just a "meeting."
Fast Circuit of Life in Japan
Young, full of energy, and living in one of the top cities in the world, Norm was doing what most people his age would — investing a lot of his income and time into his hobby.
One might assume that coming all the way from Toronto, Norm would have easy access to Japanese things, such as anime, manga, gaming consoles, or even electronics. In that case, Norm’s decision to move to Tokyo would make sense.
However, Norm was interested in something else — he had a need for speed and, more specifically, Norm was passionate about drift car racing.
In the 1970s, well before Norm was born, drifting competitions popularized the motorsport discipline worldwide. Being in Japan allowed him to become intimate with the drift scene, the intention behind his move to Japan in the first place.
You couldn’t just go buy any car and drift it. Drift racing isn’t that simple. “A typical car would have about a 100-120 horsepower engine,” Norm says, sharing some details about the differences. That level of horsepower doesn’t scream any level of excitement for drift car drivers.
Norm used his savings to purchase a respectable ride that would get him into the drift community he longed to be part of. With a base of 300+ horsepower, Norm drove a white Nissan Silvia 240SX S14, which was a popular chariot choice in drift car racing, and belonged in the “S” chassis family of cars. Due to its popularity and high demand in the drift car community, the S-chassis price sharply rose, earning it the nickname "Drift Tax."
At this stage of Norm’s life, he was living the life he always wanted. He had a powerful drift car and stable job. His road to happiness was all set, and it was just a matter of staying on track and enjoying the journey. But he’d soon find out that life would put him on a different course.
With the end of the year just around the corner, in November of 2010, Norm totalled his S14 and almost died. He was now at a new crossroad in his life.
A Word of Advice Changes Everything
As it so often happens in life, sometimes we need a little push from a friend. In the case of Norm, this friend was making it his ambition in life to become the apprentice of a notoriously difficult to approach professor in Europe, who had publicly promised to take on one apprentice and teach him everything he knew.
Norm recalls the words of wisdom, as his friend told him: "I don’t care if I get it, it’s the journey along the way that matters. You need to chase something bigger than yourself in order to move forward, otherwise you are only moving backwards."
It was at this point that his friend asked him the pivotal question, "If you could do anything at all in the world, what would you want to do?" Half jokingly, Norm replied: "I would learn shamisen from the Yoshida Brothers."
Becoming an Apprentice
Given his love of Asakusa when he first came to Japan, Norm moved back to this neighborhood at the end of 2010 as he embarked on his new adventure.
Yet, it wasn’t going to be easy trying to approach two of the most important shamisen players in the world. As Norm rightly points out, "Japan is a country which works with introductions. I couldn’t just go up the Yoshida Brothers after a concert and say, 'Make me your apprentice, please?'"
Smiling and with a bubbly personality, Norm explains how he even thought of going through a friend who lived in the same building as the younger Yoshida brother. "But that was a bit creepy, so I thought maybe not," he confesses, laughing.
After several months of investing every day off into searching and introductions, Norm eventually found the shamisen shop which sells instruments to the Yoshida Brothers. In early 2011 he spent his days off over several months visiting the shop to learn about shamisen and build a bond with the shop owners. It was here in July of 2011 that he bought his first shamisen, which cost almost 300,000 JPY (about 2,200 USD).
With the first shamisen, the courtship of the shop owners began to deepen. Finally, Norm found them willing to plead his case to the Yoshida Brothers with the hope that he could realize his greatest ambition: to be the best apprentice the Yoshida Brothers had ever had.
The answer from the Yoshida Brothers, unfortunately, was a resounding "no." After a month or two, he pleaded his case once more, only to be rejected again. Yet he wasn’t deterred. Norm explains how stubbornly he wouldn’t even touch his newly bought shamisen. "I didn’t want to pick up any bad habits, I was either going to get taught by the Yoshida Brothers or not at all."
It was around fall of 2011 when Norm decided to make a third and final push for the year. He asked the shamisen shop to tell the Yoshida Brothers that he had no interest in doing shamisen "for fun," and that if they agreed to take him on, he would take it more seriously than any of their apprentices. He waited for what felt like an eternity with no response. But no news…was good news.
One day in December of 2011 a phone call came from the older of the two Yoshida Brothers, Ryoichiro. He said that he couldn’t make any promises, but he was willing to meet at least once for coffee. He had heard that Norm had purchased a shamisen and asked him to bring it along.
Norm picked up his shamisen and headed out to what would turn into his first ever O-keiko (formal shamisen lesson). After sitting down over coffee, Norm had a chance to finally hold his shamisen in his hands and do what he had been aiming to do from the beginning: start learning from the Yoshida Brothers.
Shamisen Player — and Content Producer
If Norm was aiming to be nothing less than the best apprentice the Yoshida Brothers had ever had, it would mean he’d have to shift gears and drive himself into the ground.
While juggling a corporate job he wasn’t fond of, he religiously practiced between three and seven hours a day.
In 2016, about five years since he started playing the shamisen, the gruelling hours of practice started to get Norm noticed. He entered the National Tsugaru Shamisen competition in Hirosaki, Aomori. He won the "Special Recognition Award" in his category, winning against people who had been practicing for years longer than he had.
While getting recognition in his field, Norm was also dabbling in content production. He started a YouTube channel showcasing shamisen players in Japan. One of the videos even got 4 million views on social media.
The Big Television Break
As the only foreign shamisen player being taught by some of the most famous performers in the world, it wasn’t long before Norm was noticed by Japanese television.
In September 2013 he first performed on Waratteiitomo (It’s OK to Laugh), Japan’s longest running TV variety show. It was a live performance, and Norm had little performing experience under his belt at the time. He was nervous but excited.
The TV producers asked if he would be willing to perform something more modern — in other words, "something a Japanese shamisen player wouldn’t play." But, Norm insisted on performing a proper Tsugaru Shamisen piece.
The next break came in the early summer of 2018, when he was approached by the crew of You wa Nani Shini Nihon e? (Youは何しに日本へ?). This is a popular variety program on TV Tokyo which asks foreigners arriving at Narita Airport why they came to Japan, and subsequently follows them around to find out their life story.
As Norm walked out the arrivals gate at Narita Airport, the TV crew approached him with their catch phrase, “What brings you to Japan?” Norm, disinterested in engaging with the crew, conveniently receives a phone call from one of the Yoshida Brothers. Relentless and refusing to be rejected by Norm, the TV crew noticed that the caller ID was a person holding a shamisen: "Who is calling you?" Norm’s attention was immediately captured by the crew. "My shisho (shamisen teacher)," Norm nonchalantly replied.
After several prying follow-up questions and with Norm eventually answering the call, the crew discovered that Norm was the apprentice of the Yoshida Brothers. The crew was intrigued that this Canadian-born was talking casually on the phone with a famous shamisen performer and asked Norm whether they could follow him around and document his story.
Funnily enough, Norm initially refused to be followed around. He had worked on TV shows before and knew that it would end up being very time consuming. As Norm lives his day hour to hour, initially he wasn’t willing to make the time for the program. He had little to no interest in being on the show.
But, unexpectedly, Norm’s teacher had another idea. "One of the Yoshida Brothers told me, just do it!" explains Norm. In the shamisen world, when the teacher suggests something to the apprentice, they do it. The crew followed around Norm for a month between August and September 2018. The episode was broadcast shortly afterwards, and became one of the most popular episodes of the season.
Due to the popularity of the episode, Norm was again contacted by the television program in November 2018. This time, they wanted to feature him in their New Year special. Again, Norm was skeptical, explaining that, conscious of the hierarchy in the shamisen world, he didn’t want to ruffle too many feathers.
But then came a phone call from his teacher with an offer he couldn’t refuse: a televised performance of himself and the Yoshida Brothers as the opening act of the three-hour New Year special beginning at 5:50 P.M.
The Road Ahead
Talking to Norm at the JAPAN Forward office, it’s hard to believe that this Canadian-born rubs shoulders with world-famous performers, has appeared on national television, and yet still manages to tell his story like he is humbly talking to a friend while sitting in an izakaya.
Humble as he may be, the twinkle in his eye reveals his determination. Now a fulltime performer and content producer, Norm quit his corporate job in July 2018. He divides his time between his personal YouTube channel Tokyo Lens, shooting shamisen concerts, producing music videos, promotional material, and much more for the shamisen world.
He has also taken on the position of international manager and ambassador for Japanese shamisen players to the world. He does this by taking shamisen players overseas for performances and tours, and as well as advising and producing content for artists who want to appeal to a global audience.
Another project is SHAMI FES 2018, a Shamisen performance event which features almost all of the main shamisen players in Japan, for which he is the main video producer (more information here).
Recently Nakamura finally got approval from the Yoshida Brothers to buy a shamisen, a feat so time consuming, it deserves another article.
As Norm Nakamura walked out the door of the JAPAN Forward office, one thought stuck to mind: perhaps everything is possible, even becoming the apprentice of some of the most famous shamisen performers in the world.
The shamisen, also known as the sangen, is a three-stringed traditional Japanese musical instrument derived from the Chinese instrument sanxian. Though the shamisen is categorized as a stringed-instrument because notes and melodies are articulated with a plectrum called a bachi, performers also strike the body, called the dō (胴). The dō is hollow, covered back and front with skin, and resembles a small drum, making the shamisen a versatile dual-type instrument often utilized in dramatizing plays in traditional Japanese musical settings.