Growing up in the ancient capital city of Kamakura, Takamasa Yamamura was expected to follow tradition and take over his family business, which stretched back 24 generations into Japan’s feudal past.
“My father was a tosho (swordsmith), and I was expected to be the 25th generation to take up the mantle. But you need passion to make katana (sword), and I didn’t have it.”
Instead, Yamamura gravitated to music. His earliest memories as a boy were filled with the eclectic sounds of American standards and pop melodies drifting through the family home. “Both my mother and I loved Frank Sinatra, and I remember singing along to songs like ‘Summer Wind’ and ‘Strangers in the Night.’” As Takamasa grew older, he began listening to other American artists such as Elvis Presley, which opened up a whole new world that he couldn’t resist. “I particularly liked Elvis’ gospel music, like ‘How Great Thou Art,’ but I also enjoyed his more commercial songs like ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love.’ There was an emotional power there that I really loved.”
Yamamura’s life changed one day in elementary school when a teacher overheard him singing in class and complimented his voice as something special. “It was as if she opened a door for me and gave me permission to pursue what I really loved.” From that point on, Yamamura dedicated his life to music and singing, and at the age of 18, he enrolled at Showa University College of Music.
“The hardest part was to tell my father that I wasn’t going to carry on the family legacy. I knew he was disappointed, but he is Japanese and can’t show emotion, so he let me go. But I had to choose my own way, and I chose music.”
At Showa, Yamamura met his first important mentor, the acclaimed baritone Kuribayashi Yoshinobu, who suggested he become an opera singer. Takamasa had never listened to opera before and was hesitant. However, the older man insisted, so Yamamura began his operatic training under Kuribayashi’s strict tutelage.
“He saw something in me that I didn’t see, but I trusted him.” For the next six years, Yamamura studied Italian, German, stage presentation, musical theory, singing, acting and even ballet to understand movement.
“Kuribayashi taught me a lot about music — how to make a melody and understand the sense of music.” Yamamura studied at Showa until he was 24 years old. In 2002, he debuted at the Tokyo New National Opera Theatre in the difficult role of Elvino in “La Sonnambula.”
“Afterwards, I sang in many small and big theaters, but I still couldn’t find my own technique as a singer. In opera, you really have to control your voice, and sometimes I couldn’t sing well because of my technique. It was at that point I decided to go to Italy.”
Yamamura accepted a two-year Rotary Foundation scholarship to study music in Rome, and in 2004, he started a new life in the birthplace of opera.
“I was very excited to go, but when I arrived it was a constant challenge because Italy is very different from Japan. Italian people are much more free, while the Japanese are much more conservative. We Japanese hide our feelings, while the Italians express everything.”
Takamasa struggled with the language and initially wondered if he had made a mistake leaving Japan. “I couldn’t express what I felt to my teachers because everything was in Italian, and they had their own style. But I had to find a way that was good for me. So, little by little, I began to talk with them and make little advances.”
Yamamura had enrolled in the Conservatorio di Musica Santa Cecilia, one of the elite national schools of music in Italy. The school’s roots stretched all the way back to the Renaissance. “In Showa, it was only Japanese people, but in Italy, my classes were international. I could listen to the voices of people from around the world, and there were so many great singers. In Japan, I thought I was special, but in Italy I learned I had to study harder and learn more. This was especially true of the language. I had to sing Italian opera as an Italian, not as a Japanese.”
The turning point for Yamamura came when he met Mirella Freni, a legendary Italian soprano, who agreed to tutor him for one week. “Because of her, I found my voice. The technique she taught me is called bel canto, and it centers on how to use the body to vibrate and project the voice to create a more elegant, light and beautiful sound. She also taught me how to control my breath more precisely. Without her, I probably would have continued to struggle.”
About the same time, Yamamura accepted a friend’s invitation to attend an opera in Bologna during a free weekend. “It was a production of Donizetti’s ‘La Favorite,’ and I had never seen anything like it before: the music, the singing, the acting, and how it all came together so naturally. When I was in Japan, opera was very technical, but this was something very different. It touched a deep chord within me, and I spent most of the performance in tears.”
Yamamura returned to Rome filled with more questions for his teachers back at the conservatory. “I didn’t understand why I felt such big emotion with opera. After all, I am Japanese and grew up in Japan. But my professor explained that good art can transcend nationality, because we are all human.”
At that point, Yamamura intended to live out his life in Italy. But, once again, his life would take an unexpected turn. At the time, Yamamura’s only goal was to become a world-class opera singer . . . until he met Shoryo Tarabini, an Italian Jewish monk who supervised a Nichiren Buddhist temple in Milan.
“My family had followed Nichiren Buddhism for over several hundred years, and my grandmother and I would go to the temple together to pray and meditate. Since I was a child, I had chanted the sutras daily, so even when I was studying opera, a part of me had never left the temple.” Tarabini introduced Yamamura to other Japanese Nichiren Buddhist monks. With their support, he began to build a deeper spiritual practice that would change his ultimate career goals.
“When I turned 29, I had to make a choice about what direction my life was going to take. Opera, in the end, is a business, and a singer is a commodity with little human value. After meeting Tarabini and the other monks, I realized I had to contribute something more to the world than just singing.”
Eventually, Japanese monks suggested that Yamamura become an overseas minister who could help spread Nichiren Buddhism globally. So, in 2008, after four years in Italy, Yamamura returned to Japan to train at Mt. Minobu, the home of Nichiren Buddhism, near Mt. Fuji.
“It was at this point that I gave up opera completely to devote my life to Nichiren Buddhism,” he said. “I still have a passion to sing, but I have no regrets.”
Rev. Yamamura arrived in Hawai‘i on Aug. 24, 2009. He still remembers the date. He said he came for six months of English study at the Nichiren Mission of Hawai‘i on Pali Highway. At that point, he could speak only Italian and Japanese. Learning English wasn’t as easy as he thought it would be due to the many people in the temple community who spoke Japanese, he said.
It wasn’t Yamamura’s first time in Hawai‘i. As a child, he had vacationed here several times with his family. He remembers the sadness he felt when it was time to return to Japan at the end of his first visit. “Maybe Hawai‘i and me, we have an invisible relationship in the deep of our mind,” he said.
In June 2010, after a month of assisting the retiring Rev. Eijo Ikenaga, then-head minister of the Honolulu Myohoji Mission, a Nichiren temple, Yamamura was appointed to succeed Rev. Ikenaga.
Today, Yamamura is responsible for overseeing a variety of duties that range from the sacred to the secular. His days begin early and end late six days a week, and the challenges of his job are both demanding and inspiring. Yamamura’s ultimate dream is to lead a revival of Buddhism in Hawai‘i, which he admits will take engaging the local community more closely, educating more people about Buddhism and working with all religions for the common good.
“People think Buddhism is so complex, but, in reality, it is very clear,” he concludes. “As a young man, I believed for a long time that happiness was something that had to be pursued and acquired externally, but true happiness begins on the inside first. My life’s goal now is to help as many people as I can understand this simple truth.”
And if singing can help clear the path to that understanding, Yamamura is happy to share his passion for singing. He considers it part of his mission. “Music,” he explains, “is a tool for creating world peace.”
Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.