TOYOAKI SHAMISEN - Legendary "Ozashiki" shamisen music from Toyoaki family.



Tatsu Aoki

"What do you do to connect with your ancestors?"

Tatsu: I was born in Tokyo where my family was part of the geisha culture from the Edo period, close to three hundred years ago. My grandmother taught me shamisen instrumental music. Traditional training is you sit in front of the master and you imitate and you learn everything that way. We had to do flute, then shamisen, then they teach you drumming. You had to understand the song.

Artistic expression is a place we can be honest and pure. When I’m playing my instrument, I can be really sacred.

Just as I was taught from my family members, I wanted to give to kids. I became interested in the community aspect of the next generation, passing on the cultural legacy. We have to teach our kids to play music, but that’s not the essential part. In giving a living culture, a cultural experience, the instrument is the least important part.



Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art & Culture
San Francisco, CA USA
MAR 2015


There's no simple way to describe Tatsu Aoki. He's a composer, multi-instrumentalist, educator and filmmaker working in a variety of genres and traditions. An interdisciplinary practice is common enough among contemporary artists.and it makes particular sense for Aoki, given his early interest in the genre-expanding experimental music and films of the United States and Japan in the 1960s.but to better understand Aoki's unique approach, consider the women who raised him.

In 1957, Aoki was born into the Toyoakimoto clan, a family of artists in Tokyo. For decades, the Toyoakimotos operated several okiya, houses that oversaw the training and booking of geisha in downtown Tokyo. Aoki's maternal grandmother, Aki Aoki, had been managing the business since the 1920s.

Tatsu Aoki grew up in these geisha houses, in the Yotsuya, Fukagawa and Shinbashi districts. One house was run by his mother, Takako Aoki; another by his grandmother. Others were managed by “aunties” or “grannies”.women who, though they were not of blood relation, were considered part of Tatsu Aoki's extended family. “It's like a mob movie,” said Aoki. “Everybody was ‘uncle' or ‘aunt.' They may not be blood related, but they have a long historical association with the family. Depending on how life was going in one house, I would be sent to visit another grandmother or auntie. It was far from an ordinary family. So the question of why we are who we are, or how we become who we are, became very important to me.

“When I began to teach Asian American studies, the idea of dislocation or displacement really resonated with me. As a boy, I always wondered, ‘Which of these homes is really my home? Do I belong here?' I was basically a street kid, with a very different sense of the world, especially sexuality and sensuality, than most. I related more to people who grew up in the gangland or the cabaret business. An ordinary family of ordinary people, that was unimaginable to me.”

Aoki began his performance career at a very young age, stepping in as needed to dance and perform music with his family's geisha crew. “I performed the most around New Year's,” said Aoki. “We would dance and sing and play and do routines for the customers. And this continued until I was a teenager.” As early as age 12, Aoki became interested in the avant-garde artists of the 1960s. Filmmakers like Stan Brakhage.whose work Aoki hadn't seen but had read about.and Hiroshi Teshigahara, as well as Chicago musicians like Sun Ra and Fred Anderson, spoke directly to Aoki's developing rebellious streak.

“By the time I was a teenager,” said Aoki, “my grandmother had passed away and my father was gone. I was taking care of the rest of my family.basically a bunch of nasty ‘grandmothers' and business associates and attractive young geisha ladies who taught me to dance and perform geisha music, mainly because I was looking for an excuse to spend time with them. But it's not a life I would recommend. I finally decided I would come to America to see the experimental movies I was reading about and hear the music I loved. I was 18 and it felt like everything was here. I just wanted to leave.” In 1977, Aoki relocated to the U.S. to study filmmaking at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he is now an adjunct professor teaching film production and history courses. He has since worked with many of his idols, including Fred Anderson and multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell.

“I never dreamt I would play with these people,” said Aoki, “but I did. And I was taught experimental film by Stan Brakhage at the Art Institute, so college was a pretty interesting time for me.”

“Thinking about the work I do today,” said Aoki, “I can really see the influence of how I grew up. I do whatever it takes to represent myself. I multitask and perform on several platforms. It's just like in a geisha house, where you have to talk, sing, dance, have to entertain. So now I make movies, I play music, I talk, teach, dance, and this, all together, is my art.”