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Biwa and the Tale of Heike
Yoko Hiraoka, senior master performer of biwa, koto, shamisen and jiuta voice in classical Japanese music.

Biwa and the Tale of Heike

Yoko Hiraoka recites portions of the Tale of Heike, accompanying herself on the biwa, and discusses the history of the poem and the instrument alike. Listen to a podcast of her performance and talk.

Vincent Lim Email VincentLim

Scholars, students, and classical Japanese music enthusiasts filled a small lounge in the UCLA Faculty Center on Oct. 29, 2007, to hear Yoko Hiraoka play the biwa and explain the string instrument's historical connection to the Tale of Heike. The event was sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies.

The Tale of the Heike is a long, episodic narrative about a 90-year span of medieval Japanese history (1131 to 1221) culminating in the fall of the Taira clan and the victory of the Minamoto clan. It was recited and passed down by biwa-hoshi, blind monks who memorized the tale and told it while strumming the biwa. Hiraoka not only told and performed some of the stories from the Tale of the Heike, but she also explained the relationship between the instrument and the narrative.

The biwa is pear-shaped with four or five strings that is played with a large plectrum. The instrument is similar to a lute and was brought from China to Japan in the late 7th century. It is normally used as a solo instrument accompanied by vocals.

The Tale of Heike is believed to be compiled from various oral sources, and Hiraoka said the story is based on verifiable historical events that are sometimes exaggerated for dramatic effect. The tale is sympathetic to the Taira clan but also celebrates the courage of the Minamoto clan, who prevail in the Genpei War (1180–85) to gain control over Japan.

A native of Kyoto, Hiraoka is a senior master performer of the biwa, koto, shamisen and jiuta voice singing style. She specializes in classical koto music, Kyushu-ryu jiuta shamisen and the Chikuzen biwa repertoire. Her professional performance career has spanned close to 30 years, and she has lived in the United States since 1993. She has taught at the University of Colorado and, since 1995, at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo.

A podcast of the Oct. 29 lecture and performance is available online.

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