Japanese Singer of Tales:
Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI

Enjoy the first-ever English version of Japan’s beloved Yaji and Kita stories told in classical shinnai style through the vocal artistry of Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI, named a National Living Treasure by the Japanese government in 2001. He provides all the narration, dialogue, and songs, accompanied by two shamisen players, for tales of this famous bumbling duo as they travel along the road to Kyoto. He begins the program with another classic of the shinnai (narrative song) repertoire in Japanese: Kurokami (Black Hair), a meditation on mortality originally written for the kabuki theater. This performance was recorded in 2008 in conjunction with the exhibition Patterned Feathers, Piercing Eyes: Edo Masters from the Price Collection.


Shinnai Narrative and Song

Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI, shinnai joruri (vocal)
Tsuruga Isejiro, shamisen
Tsuruga Iseyoshi, uwajoshi (shamisen)

Kurokami (Black Hair)
Performed in Japanese
Music by Koide Ichijuro (d. 1800)
Lyrics by Rennyo Shonin (1414–1499)

  • Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI, shinnai joruri (vocal)
  • Nishikawa Koryu V, Hachioji kuruma ningyo (puppetry)
  • Tsuruga Isejiro, shamisen
  • Tsuruga Iseyoshi, uwajoshi (shamisen)
Yaji Kita (Yaji and Kita)
Performed in English

  • Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI, shinnai joruri (vocal)
  • Tsuruga Isejiro, shamisen
  • Tsuruga Iseyoshi, uwajoshi (shamisen)
  • Nishikawa Koryu V, Hachioji kuruma ningyo (puppetry)


Kurokami (Black Hair)

Music by Koide Ichijuro (d. 1800)
Lyrics by Rennyo Shonin (1414–1499)

This jiuta (folk song) is one of most popular and widely performed works in the tradition of narrative song. Another version exists in the repertoire of the nagauta (long song) genre. In this story, a woman muses on her loneliness and the changes that accompany the inevitable passage of time. The source of the lyric is a meriyasu, a type of folk song named after meias, the Portuguese word for knit fabric. In kabuki drama it is used as background or mood music. This particular meriyasu was written for the play Oakinai Hiru no Kojima (1784). In that context the last couplet­ is meant both literally, as snow is falling, and figuratively: the singer is aware of the white threads beginning to appear amongst the black of her hair. The tolling bell is thus like the bell of the Buddhist Jetavana temple, calling listeners to enlightenment and to awareness of the evanescence of human affairs.

—notes provided by the artists


Kurokami points out that human passion can also rob a person from enjoying life. The lyrics, attributed to the eighth patriarch of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, tells us that human suffering arises from excessive attachment. In the lyrics, a woman longs for her lover and relives her complicated relationship represented by her layered and tied, black hair. At the end, the temple bell awakens her from her musing, but she missed the beauty of falling snow—or life.

Kurokami no
Musubore taru
Omoi oba
Tokete neta yo no
Makura koso
Hitori neru yo no
Ada makura
Sode wa katashiku
Tsuma jya to yute
Guchi na onago no
Kokoro wo shirade
Shin to fuketaru
Kane no koe
Yube no yume
Kesa samete.
Yukashi natsukashi
Yarusena ya
Tsumoru to shirade
sumoru shira yuki.
Black hair
layered and tied
like memories—
A night together
on a pillow—
to be alone is with
a wretched pillow lying on
kimono folded sleeve's width.
You call me your love—!
No one knows the heart
of a dejected woman!
Quietly night deepens—
The temple bell calls!
Last night's dreams
fade with the dawn—
those wistful
melancholy dreams
mindlessly layered
like white snow.


“kimono folded sleeve’s width” is about fourteen inches, wide enough for a person sleeping alone.
“The temple bell calls” signifies morning and that time has passed without her being aware.

—translation and additional notes © Miyuki Yoshikami, 1979

Yaji Kita (Yaji and Kita)

Yajirōbei and Kitahachi, a pair of good-for-nothings, are two of the most beloved characters of Edo-era Japanese literature. Their hilarious mishaps along the Tokaido Road, between Edo and Kyoto, were the subject of a serialized bestseller written by Jippensha Ikku and published in twelve parts from 1802 to 1822. The escapades and misadventures of these two travel companions became so well-known and so well loved that parodies and spin-offs abounded in a wide range of art forms, from woodblock prints to puppet theater (bunraku) and kabuki theater. This performance of Yaji Kita is set to the narration of Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI, a Living National Treasure in Japan. It marked a world premiere event as he presented the story entirely in English for the first time.

—notes provided by the artists

About Shinnai and Kuruma Ningyo

Shinnai is a form of Japanese narrative song, or joruri, that dates to the eighteenth century. Traditionally, it was performed independently with only a singer and two accompanying shamisen players. The origin of shinnai can be traced to itchu music (itchu bushi), a style of narrative singing begun in Kyoto by Miyako Itchu. One of Itchu’s students moved to Edo (present-day Tokyo), where he took the name Miyakoji Bungo and originated bungo bushi around 1730. This style of narrative song, distinct for its sensuality and decadence, became extremely popular among the people of Edo. Many of the stories told in bungo bushi are about lovers’ double suicides. At that time, an epidemic of lovers’ suicides plagued Edo. The government, already concerned that public morals were deteriorating, decided that bungo bushi was the cause of this increase in double suicides and implemented an absolute prohibition. The music could not be sung or played nor could the stories be told. To survive, followers of Miyakoji Bungo gave up their professional names that were associated with bungo bushi, and each started his own style of music.

Tsuruga Wakasanojo I, the originator of shinnai, was a follower of Bungo, but unlike the others, he did not perform at the famous theaters in Edo. Although shinnai was never associated with any other performing art form, it did become popular with people employed in the Yoshiwara pleasure district of Edo. It can be distinguished from the theatrical forms of narrative singing by its more sensual and emotional style. The music is not written down or fixed, but instead it is left, within limits, to the individual performer.

Shinnai has always been a kind of salon music, independent from the better-known performing art forms of kabuki and bunraku. Consequently, it lacks the broad audience recognition enjoyed by forms of music and narrative associated with traditional performing arts. Although growing somewhat due to the efforts of Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI and others, awareness of shinnai remains limited even in Japan. Tsuruga Wakasanojo’s designation as a Living National Treasure in 2001 marked a major step not only in the artist’s personal career but also in terms of official recognition of shinnai as a vital traditional art form that should be preserved for future generations.

As a stand-alone art form, shinnai poses challenges for most audiences unfamiliar with this style of narrative singing. Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI has welcomed collaborations with artists of other traditional and contemporary performing art forms to make shinnai more accessible and publicly recognized. In his effort to link shinnai with visual performing arts, he has collaborated with Matsui Akira, a Noh actor from the Kitagawa School, with classical and modern ballet dancers, and of course, with kuruma ningyo puppetry master Nishikawa Koryu V and his father, Nishikawa Koryu IV. These collaborations with kuruma ningyo puppetry are one of his longest­ running and most successful presentations.

Kuruma ningyo, a unique style of Japanese puppetry, developed in the nineteenth century with the innovation of using the rokuro kuruma, a wooden block with wheels. In contrast to bunraku, the well-known style of Japanese puppetry that requires three people to manage a single puppet, the use of the kuruma cart in kuruma ningyo puppetry enables one person to manage a puppet alone. This innovation also allows for a faster paced, highly realistic, and livelier form of performance, one perfectly suited to the romping adventures of Yajirōbei and Kitahachi.

The intense realism of this puppetry works particularly well with the highly poignant mode of expression characteristic of shinnai. In providing the narrative accompaniment for the puppetry, Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI supplies the individual voices of all the protagonists as well as the narrator’s voice, thus demonstrating his stunning range of expression and tone. Even amid these new directions and efforts to reach new audiences, Wakasanojo’s careful choice of collaborators and performance material always serve to preserve and highlight the key aspects of shinnai singing and the particular style of shamisen that have defined it since its beginnings in the mid-eighteenth century.

— notes provided by the artists


Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI was born in Kagurazaka, Tokyo, in 1938. He studied shinnai-style musical storytelling with his father, Tsuruga Isetayu, and received his first stage name in 1958 at the age of twenty. In 1973, following his father’s death, he succeeded to the name Isetayu, and in 2000 he became the eleventh holder of the name Tsuruga Wakasanojo, which is the premier professional name in the shinnai world. The first Tsuruga Wakasanojo was the originator of the art form of shinnai. As president of the Shinnai Association of Japan, Wakasanojo-sensei stands as the leader of the shinnai world. He is active in educational and promotional activities that preserve, expand, and ensure the future vitality of the shinnai art form. In recognition of the emotional depth he brings to his performances and his exceptional vocal range and skill, the Japanese Ministry of Culture designated him a Living National Treasure in 2001. He was made an honorary citizen of Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, the following year. The author and composer of many works, Tsuruga Wakasanojo has performed overseas in more than thirty cities in North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Through innovative collaborations with kuruma ningyo puppetry, Noh theater, and dance, he has tirelessly pursued his goal of making shinnai enjoyable to the eyes as well as to the ears. He regularly appears on television and radio, and he presents recital performances of traditional as well as new works.

Tsuruga Isejiro, a pupil of Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI for the last twenty years, accompanies him regularly on national and international tours. Specializing in shinnai shamisen, Isejiro-san actively promotes awareness and appreciation of shinnai by conducting workshops and giving private lessons.

Nishikawa Koryu V is the fifth-generation headmaster of the Hachioji kuruma ningyo tradition of Japanese puppetry. Born in 1953 in Hachioji, Tokyo, he is the oldest son of headmaster Nishikawa Koryu IV, who taught him puppetry. In 1966, at the age of thirteen, he was given his first stage name, Nishikawa Ryuji. After learning bunraku puppetry for two years at the National Theatre Bunraku study center, he gave performances and conducted workshops in Stockholm. In 1996, he succeeded to the headmastership of the school and took the name Nishikawa Koryu V. That same year, his style of puppetry, Hachioji kuruma ningyo, was designated an Intangible Folk Custom Cultural Asset by the Japanese national government. He was named Cultural Ambassador of Hachioji City in 2004. Nishikawa Koryu’s studies of traditional Japanese dance and bunraku puppetry add depth and versatility to his art, and he is involved in traditional performances and productions as well as new collaborations, including work with shinnai, noh theater, and other dramatic forms. He also experiments with puppetry in non - traditional formats, such as flamenco and other Western dance forms. Active in promoting awareness and understanding of kuruma ningyo throughout Japan and overseas, he provides performances, demonstrations, and after-school programs for children to expand and preserve the traditional arts of Japan.


This podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording and editing by Andy Finch and Suraya Mohamed. Web production by Gio Camozzi. Curatorial contributions by Kit Brooks. Copyediting by Ian Fry. Thanks to Miyuki Yoshikami for the translation of Kurokami. Special thanks to Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI for granting permission for the museum to utilize this recording for educational non-profit purposes. This performance was recorded live in concert at the Meyer Auditorium, Freer Gallery of Art, on April 12, 2008, in conjunction with the exhibition Patterned Feathers, Piercing Eyes: Edo Masters from the Price Collection, which was made possible, in part, through support from the Information Development Group, Tokyo.

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