By Philip J. Kass | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Those who remember the slow development of international trade with Japan during the 1960s remember Toyotas, Sony transistor radios, a variety of toys, and eventually fine electronics of all sorts. These imports all seemed to be in heavy industries or sophisticated technologies, and they grabbed all the headlines. Meanwhile, beneath the surface, a movement every bit as interesting was building in the fine arts. The beginning of today’s flood of ubiquitous Chinese violins might have started in 1969, with an unheralded, though ultimately unsuccessful, experiment in violins and bows made in Japan.
In those days, Japanese violins were thought to be cheap student instruments, produced on factory lines by Suzuki and others. But there was a depth of craft behind these cheap fiddles. Japanese makers had studied in Europe and were increasingly making violins and bows of the finest quality, thus following in the footsteps of the generations of Japanese craftsmen and women whose devotion to detail, exquisite handling of tools, and impeccable understanding of materials had distinguished the arts in Japan for generations.
The instigator of this event was violin maker Sadanori Kasakawa. The son of a highly distinguished violin maker, he had gone to study in Cremona, earning a diploma in 1967. In these studies he met S.F. Sacconi, who was advising the school in those years. With Sacconi’s encouragement, Kasakawa visited the Wurlitzer shop, which resulted in employment there until 1970, when he chose to return to Tokyo. However, he had also shown Sacconi a bow that caught his fancy and which started a process that resulted in these bows being sold by the Wurlitzer firm in New York.
The bow in question was made by a Japanese maker named Kazuto Fukuda. Fukuda had worked on violins for Kasakawa’s father in the 1950s but chose to devote himself to bows when he opened his own workshop. Sacconi and the staff were so impressed that they decided to begin offering Fukuda’s bows to their clientele. In response, Fukuda provided the bow that started the process moving forward.
Marianne Wurlitzer made the formal proposal, in correspondence of early 1969, that Fukuda produce two bows a month for the Wurlitzer firm, for a total of 24 per year. The contract would be for a year, with renewal options, and during that period Fukuda’s bows would be sold exclusively by Wurlitzer. The quantity produced could be increased if Fukuda was able to make more. They hoped to also stock viola and cello bows. Interestingly, the initial order was for bows mounted in gold and tortoise, premium materials that could command a premium price but which also would attract a clientele impressed by them. So far as one can tell, this represents the first time a leading American dealer contracted with a Japanese bow maker for exclusive distribution rights.
It was taking a chance, of course. The Wurlitzer staff was aware that the bows were exquisite. They were also aware that there was some residual prejudice against Japanese manufacturers and that the violin world was virtually unaware that there had been any tradition of the craft there. Perhaps it was with this in mind that Wurlitzer planned to sell all the bows under its own brand, Rembert Wurlitzer Inc., rather than the maker’s own, as a way of persuading buyers to judge the bow, not its nation of origin.
A possible warning of trouble also appeared in that letter. Sacconi had not liked the quality of the wood and felt that the best pernambuco was available through the Germans, whose imports for their own trade were immense. Fukuda was advised to contact the German Embassy to arrange for importing this wood.
It is not clear just how well this agreement functioned, or how many bows were actually delivered. Ken Jacobs, who worked at Wurlitzer during those years, did not recall that there had ever been more than a dozen delivered. However, he also recalled that there were aesthetic issues between Fukuda and Sacconi regarding finish as well as materials that ultimately proved insuperable.
In early 1970, a year into the agreement, Dario D’Attili wrote Fukuda regarding the three bows that had just been delivered. They were felt to have a dark stain that discolored the wood, and thus all three were being returned. D’Attili stressed that the previous selection had been perfect and hoped that the returned bows could be replaced with others of that appearance and finish. Fukuda tersely replied that the wood used had been provided by Wurlitzer the previous summer, and that he would replace them with bows made from his own stocks of pernambuco. It is not clear what Wurlitzer’s reaction to the replacement bows might have been, but the contract was not renewed, and further commercial contacts ceased later that year. Wurlitzer resumed contracts with its traditional sources. As for Fukuda, he returned to his traditional methods and soon found an avid client in Emil Hjorth and Sons of Copenhagen.
Those familiar with German bow making know that there is a long tradition in some workshops of staining and varnishing bow sticks, and it was this practice, and perhaps specific tastes in colors and textures, that caused the friction. Wurlitzer subsequently began ordering bows in quantity from Siegfried Finkel, whose own finishing procedure followed the French manner. When we examine the Fukuda bows today, it is clear that they have a varnished surface, but the oxidation has turned them an attractive color. Anecdotally, the colors were originally brighter and more like a lacquer, but hardly in a way that is unappealing.
Most all of the bows that Wurlitzer bought were branded Rembert Wurlitzer Inc., except for a cello bow that Ken Jacobs bought directly, which was left unstamped. Most were sold through Wurlitzer, and a few came to William Moennig & Son when they acquired Wurlitzer’s inventory after the firm closed in 1974. There was also a gold/tortoise viola bow taken in trade and subsequently sold as by “Fukado.”
Today these bows have almost disappeared. Just as troubling is the problem that the story remained in-house and was hardly divulged outside of Wurlitzer, so the memory of Kazuto Fukuda and his effort to break into the American market is almost forgotten. There will be many bow experts puzzling over these bows and struggling to identify their maker. However, if we retell the story and keep it fresh, a small but distinguished number of bows might be able to retain their, and their maker’s, identity.
The collapse of the Fukuda agreement was only a momentary setback for Japanese violin and bow makers gaining acknowledgement and respect in the American violin world. In June 1975, Koji Yamamoto of Tokyo entered the very first Violin Society of America competition, one held for violas at the Viola Congress in Ypsilanti, Michigan. His viola received a second prize for tone. Another entrant at that event was Yoshio Morino, a student of Gunter Hellwig in Lubeck who was a restorer for William Moennig & Son.
The following year, the VSA held its international competition in Philadelphia, in which a number of prominent Japanese violin makers entered. They garnered a significant number of awards. The greatest number of prizes was won by Chang Heyern Jin, a Japanese maker of Chinese ancestry, but other winners included Soroku Murata, who had an instrument-making school in Tokyo; Hiroshi Iizuka (a pupil of Josef Kantuscher in Mittenwald), who settled in the Philadelphia area and achieved a worldwide reputation for his violas; and Hirotomo Motegi and Nasakazu Otake, both of whom studied at the Murata school, and both of whom had excellent careers in Tokyo.