By Shigeo Oguri
I was born and raised in a city called Nagoya, in Aichi prefecture, which lies in the middle of Japan. This whole prefecture is defined by the automobile market, home turf to a world renowned Japanese motor company, Toyota, you may have heard of it. People in Aichi believe it is the centre of the world and seldom leave. One might call them reserved, to put it lightly. From a young age I always saw myself as a bit of a rebel. At school, I would often find myself getting into fights with classmates. I remember my mother having to deal with complaints from other parents about my behaviour. Now, with children of my own, I feel deep regret for the trouble I caused her. It must have been my boundless energy that kept me jumping off the walls. From the age of 2, I started swimming, right up until I graduated high school. I partook in numerous competitions and made quite a name for my young self. My childhood was pleasant and comforting, in a familiar city surrounded by friends and family. One morning, however, I decided it was time to leave the familiar behind, Kyoto was calling.
University in Kyoto
When my acceptance came to go to university in Kyoto, my swimming career ended. It was time for something new and exciting, the motorsports club. Coming a family who owns one of the leading car dealerships in Japan, it might have seemed a little cliché, but I was determined to give it my all. No sooner had I joined the club, did I leave it! Unfortunately, rather than having any relation to one’s driving ability, if you weren’t a third year senior then there was no chance of you actually driving in competitions. Regardless of our results, and however badly we did, we were expected to defer to these seniors in all matters, in true, respectful Japanese fashion. One could say I was overly results oriented, but it made my skin crawl and so I made my grand exit. It was through this experience that I began to develop my own personal philosophy. A mix of my name and ‘ism,’ I called it ‘Ogurhythm.’
The location of my university, Kyoto, ancient and of international fame, is even more conservative than Nagoya. There is feelings of uppityness and arrogance which pervades the area; 3 Japanese phrases come to mind: ikezu (wicked), tatemae (conceal your true intent and let people hear what they want to hear), and ichigensan okotowari (first time customers strictly prohibited). The people of Kyoto see elegance in this culture, ironically improving its peculiar allure. Before Tokyo, Kyoto acted as the capital of Japan. Safe from air-raids, it is still surrounded by shops and houses which are centuries old. Kyoto, in this respect, is truly unique. The people of Kyoto, aware of this fact, hold their heads high; from rich to poor, everyone is cultured.
I lived a carefree existence under the auspices of my grandparents, the founders of our company, until I moved to Kyoto. At first, it was a shock to the system but over time the experience helped me develop and channel my rebellious spirit into a more bushido-like form: honour and philanthropy have had a profound effect upon my Ogurhythm. Comparing my current self to the Oguri who was shocked all those years ago, I have come to adore Kyoto. The unknown can be frightening, but if you sum up the courage and forge it into the void, you will find a brave new world just waiting to be explored.
Currently, I am serving as an ambassador for introducing Japanese sake to a worldwide audience. In the same manner as promoting aspects of Japanese culture, cuisine, cosplay and opera, there are roughly 60 of these officials worldwide of whom 30 are Japanese. So, in the style of Ogurhythm, I would like to introduce some aspects of Japanese traditions in the hopes of giving you a greater understanding of Japanese culture through my lenses.
Ginza Gentlemen Clubs
In Japan, there are certain exclusive, member-only lounges where one can enjoy drinking in a relaxed and friendly environment. These ‘clubs’ are especially famous in Tokyo’s Ginza district and host successful gentlemen from all over the world. It is here that the theme of refined drinking is embodied: high class lounges where guests pay tens of thousands of yen merely to sit down. Of course, there is an abundance of beautiful women in such lounges, but do not get distracted for it is the black-suited attendants that one must look to. Whether a club can truly be labelled as first class all comes down to the actions of these men. Drinking can be pleasurable for oneself, but in order to drink in a manner befitting a Ginza Club, one must acknowledge the presence of these black-suited attendants – often overshadowed by their glamourous staff – make an occasional toast them, offer them a drink or a chat.
When a club is filled with successful people that, alone, is proof of its class. Although, as with everything, those with puffed up pretensions do occasionally wash up here. In the world of drinking, Ginza is a stage and human nature is the player. Behave in a way as to be appreciated by the black-suited attendants and you will be an Ogurhythmic gentleman before you know it! If you ever find yourself in Ginza, I highly recommend spending some time in one of these refined lounges, in conversation with the iconic black-suited gentlemen.
Tokyo is more than just drinking, however, it is also one of the food capitals of the world with Japanese cuisine being more popular than ever. The names sushi, tempura and yakitori are well known by those outside Japan but something a little less known would be Oden. Oden, a Japanese vegetable stew with fish dumplings, is cooked in dashi stock made from fish flakes and seaweed. It may not be one of the great mysteries of Japanese cuisine but, if I do say so myself, eating top quality oden, fills one with nostalgic warmth. When you ask any Japanese person about Oden, they will all grin and say the same thing: “phew!”
It may look simple, but cooking oden correctly is particularly difficult. Low calorie ingredients such as daikon, egg, chikuwa, konnyaku jelly and hanpen fish cakes are all cooked together in the same pot. Each item’s delicate flavour differs depending on their cooking time; important factors are the temperature of the dashi and the positions of the ingredients. Managing this requires a certain level of skill and experience. This deceptively complicated process is representative of Japanese cuisine in general. It is up to the chef to judge, solely based on the customer’s appearance, just how he would like his oden, and then serve it appropriately. This is what I would call real Japanese made-to-order!
When discussing Japanese food, one must be sure to discuss the finely honed knives of the kitchen. It is the hocho (knife) which truly brings the food to life. A weapon kept in prime condition but interestingly shrinking in size over the years, due to use. The craftsman, sharpening and polishing his knives to a sheen each day (an art in itself), handles them with expert care. At the counter of a sushi restaurant, these craftsmen may be reluctant to talk with you but will happily entice you with their swirling, nimble blades. The first rule of a chef’s philosophy: take care of your knife. All food, be it steamed, fried, or raw meats and fish, are prepared with the knife during which the taste is imbued with the craftsman’s skill and spirit. Their philosophy can be seen in the carefully delicate slices and minute severing. It takes years of training for sushi chefs to develop such precision. The Japanese saying, ‘the devil is in the detail,’ ensures every grain of rice is valued, every knife sharpened daily and every minutiae, even if trivial, is fussed over. And thus, perfection is born. Food is automatically judged by customers and by understanding the efforts put into such a fleeting moment, one can truly respect the chef and, only then, begin to eat like a
Good food must be accompanied by good drink, so let us move on to Japanese sake. There exists many breweries or “chateaus” if we were talking of wine, in Japan. Each area boasts its own methodology of brewing sake, depending on philosophy and climate. Beginning with the cultivation of rice and ending with the finished product is, to put it in operatic terms, from the first to the final act. Like opera, the production of sake involves many aspects which must all come together effectively. Fortunately, though, whereas many operas finish with a sad finale, the production of sake ends with a deliciously mellow flavour instead. Due to the recent explosion in popularity of sake, if you contact a brewery in advance, it is possible to arrange a tour. Enjoying sake whilst watching sake being made gives it an exceptional taste.
Japanese can appear to the observer as patient, sensitive and tolerant. In its very foundations, Japan is built upon rice, which, in turn, relies heavily upon the weather. The Japanese disposition, too, derives heavily from culture. Japan has a history of tenement housing, nagaya, which provides very little privacy compared to Western dwellings. The people who lived in such housing had to put up with noisy neighbours and crying babies, but they did their best to maintain peace and avoid troubling those around them. Living in such close quarters developed patience and perseverance. I believe that even modern Japanese sensibilities derive from this history. When talking about Japan, one must consider the background behind the concept of ‘refinement.’ To the discerning eye, Japan may appear in a very different light.
Finally, understanding that Ogurhythm embodies the concept of bushido, I have written about how one can enjoy Japan. I leave you with a word of advice: if you ever visit Japan remember that a bow equals a thank you. You may know of martial arts known as kendo. Japanese kendo practitioners bow before entering and after exiting the dojo, before and after competing and at meal times. To the Japanese, bowing one’s head or bowing oneself is a display of respect.
One of the fundamental concepts of bushido is: ‘begin with a bow, end with a bow.’ If you visit Japan, when you talk with the Japanese or before enjoying a meal, be sure to show respect and there is no doubt you will enjoy your visit and fit in perfectly. Of course, enjoy the delicious food, sake and beautiful sights, but in order to gain a greater understanding of what makes Japan Japan; I would recommend visiting a sake brewery, learning about their brewing methods, and visiting a sushi restaurant, becoming mesmerised by the chef’s dancing blade. It is there that you will find thanks, hospitality and true refinement.
Having taken you on a whistle-stop tour of Japanese food, drink and leisure, I would like to leave you with a more personal story about my great passions. I have a great appreciation for the arts and, in particular, opera. Music is a universal language. Regardless of nationality, gender, political affiliation or class, music can overcome any barrier. To succeed in music takes a great deal of belief in oneself, a major tenet of Ogurhythm. The world is full of people with huge potential, but those who treasure each second and take advantage of their opportunities are few in number. I had the chance, several years ago, to speak with a well known conductor. As we chatted away, she commented on the quality of my voice and asked me if I sang. Frankly, I had never considered it before, but she told me I had potential. Potential. That is key. Her words struck a chord with me and, as I never do things in half measures, I decided to pursue opera professionally. My situation was not ideal. I had never learned a classical instrument, had no singing experience and I could not read music. But to top it all off, whereas many opera singers undergo vigorous voice training from a young age, I was 50.
And so I return to that word: ‘potential.’I firmly believe that one should always aim high, and aim concretely. Consequently, I set myself the goal of giving an opera concert in New York’s Carneige Hall in 2019, a mere 3 years away. With such a high bar, it would seem easy to panic. The key here, however, is strategy. Samurai would never enter battle without a plan and co-ordination. Spearmen, archers, musketeers, cavalry, artillery, if all are co-ordinated successfully then even the harshest of odds can be overcome. In the same manner, conductors, attendants, musicians, planners, public relations managers, to name but a few are all essential to put on a concert. Of course, though, one cannot forget the singer, and his tool: the voice. I threw myself into practice with all the more vigour than usual. At home, at the office, in the car, even during this very interview!
Opera is a fantastic outlet that trains not just the mind, but the body. In order to project your voice clearly, you must strictly regulate your breathing and employ your whole frame, centering around the diaphragm. Pronunciation is crucial. Aside from Japanese opera, I also sing Italian which, naturally, is a problem because I do not speak it! However, enunciation is a crucial skill in both opera and business in general; I often stress this to my staff. I am able to draw on my business experience in opera, and vice-versa. Professionally, I sing tenor and perform under the name “各멱勳” or “Sekai.” One of the beauties of the Japanese language is that each character holds its own conceptual meaning. The three I chose (world, sing, action) reflect precisely that: my desire to proactively bring my music to a worldwide audience. Last year I made my professional debut in my hometown of Nagoya in front of a large audience, which led to invitations to perform elsewhere, one of which was in New York at a concert of my own. I believe it was a great success.
Throughout my life I have always strived to break the mould. Human nature is not a defined path and we are all free to choose our own direction. In a time of increasing specialisation, I still maintain my principles of the importance of being a gentleman or, as it were, a modern Renaissance man. As I stand today, a businessman-come-opera singer, I would hope that my audience, even for a second, would think, ‘he achieved his dreams, why can’t I?’