Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Story of Yasuto Kono and Naoto Kono

I had enlisted in the US Air Force in 1961. My first assignment as a weather observer after basic and technical training was to a US Army airfield in Heidelberg, Germany. One of the more senior people in the unit was a Master Sergeant named Dale Hall, who was a forecaster.

In the spring or summer of 1963, Dale Hall called the weather station from his home in Schriesheim, a village outside of Heidelberg, and told the observer on duty to go to our barracks and to tell anybody there to come to his house, he had a case of beer and a “Japanese fiddle player” at his house. Since two or three of us happened to be sitting around the barracks, we went to Dale's house. This was the beginning of my association with a Japanese violinist.

A next door neighbor, Herr Münch, had approached Dale Hall one day and stated that he had a visitor who spoke better English than German and asked if Dale would help him to talk to the visitor. This visitor was a Japanese man who had come with a letter of recommendation from a school friend of Herr Münch. The school friend had been living in Tokyo for many years and operated a German restaurant there. The letter asked Herr Münch to help the Japanese gentleman to get situated in Germany and to help him do what he came to do - to play German music.

The name of the Japanese man was Yasuto Kono, and he was an accomplished violinist. Kono, as he came to be known, had studied classical violin, but to earn a living while studying the violin he played in bands in US Army and US Air Force clubs in Japan. They mostly played Country and Western music. Then, Kono landed a job in the German restaurant of Herr Münch's friend, called “Bei Rudi,” and started to play German traditional music. He liked the music so much that he decided to make a career out of playing German-style music. The owner of the restaurant encouraged Kono to go to Germany to study the music firsthand and gave him two letters of introduction, one to another school friend in Hamburg and one to Herr Münch in Schriesheim, who owned a large printing establishment. The school friend in Hamburg didn't know what to do with Kono and put him to work in his import-export business, packing boxes for shipment. This is not what Kono came to Germany for, so he decided to try his luck with the second letter of introduction and landed in Schriesheim. Since Herr Münch did not know what to do with Kono either, he called Dale Hall to the rescue.

Characteristically, Dale sprang into action, invited Kono to his house, and provided an audience for him by luring two or three of us airmen with the promise of “a case of beer and a Japanese fiddle player” to his house. Except, Kono wouldn't play, or maybe he played one piece: We were not the kind of audience he had hoped for. We had a good time anyway. However, thus began my association with Kono and it deepened my relationship with Dale and Doris Hall. Initially because I spoke German and we were trying to help Kono. We spent many hours together trying to get Kono established in Germany so that he could do what he came for - to play German music.

Kono's main problem was that he came to Germany on a tourist visa which allowed him to stay one year, but which did not allow him to work in Germany. Coming from a non-European country it was nearly impossible to get a work permit, we were told. Only two types of occupations from Japan were eligible for residence and work permits: People studying nursing and automotive engineers who were working with German engine developers in developing the so called “Wankel” motor (which was later use by Mazda).

Dale, being an eternal optimist, never would be daunted by a “turn-down.” He managed to glean a glimmer of hope from almost any negative answer. Whenever someone at one of the offices we contacted made some remark which sparked this glimmer of hope for a positive solution, we would break out a bottle of Sekt (the German equivalent of Champagne) and celebrate. After every celebration came another setback, but then invariably came another glimmer of hope, and so on.

Kono traveled to the city of Kassel to play in an orchestra - a sort of audition. We hoped that if he were offered a job by the orchestra that that would facilitate getting a work permit, but no such luck. Kono didn't get hired (or didn't want to get hired because he didn't like the music they were playing).

Because of some remark some official made, we thought that if Kono had a “residence” in Germany he might be able to get a work permit. Although Kono did not have a “residence permit,” we proceeded to establish a “residence” for him. Since he could not live forever in the Münch's guest room anyway, it was natural to look for some other living arrangements for him. At first he stayed in a sort of hotel, called a “Pension,” but the conditions there were not very pleasant. I would pick Kono up whenever I was off duty and drive him to the Halls and he and I would spend most of our time at their house, being fed and “entertained.” So, it came naturally that we decided to move Kono's “residence” closer to the Halls in Schriesheim, since he spent most of his time there. I'm sure Dale inquired about a room for Kono in Schriesheim and found none, but I know for a fact that we then went to the neighboring town of Dossenheim, where we found a nice room with a balcony on two sides, in a private home. Dosssenheim is on the way to Schriesheim, so it was easier for me to pick Kono up along the way. In addition to having only a tourist visa, Kono was only allowed to take a certain amount of money with him out of Japan. Therefore, his means were limited. Whatever the rent for the room was, it was too much for Kono, so I volunteered to pay for the room and to live there with him, since the room was big enough for two. I was tired of the barracks life anyway.
Our rooming together didn't last long, because, in our optimism, now that the “residence” was established, he would get the work permit (after all, he would have to make a living), Kono sent for his wife and small son to come join him in Germany. His wife, Misato, and Naoto, his son of three or four years of age, arrived one day in late 1963. I moved back into the barracks, I had never officially moved out anyway.

Somewhere along the line when the work permit was not forthcoming, Dale came up with the idea, since Kono had played in US military clubs in Japan, why couldn't he do that here in Germany. The American clubs didn't care about work permits. The only drawback was, he couldn't do it alone, he needed accompaniment, a violin alone was not very marketable. Doris suggested that I accompany him on the drums, since I was forever drumming with my fingers on the table, the chair, etc. I had also mentioned the fact that I had taken drum lessons and that I had played in the band during High School. I think it must have been during one of those “interim success celebrations” that I agreed, and Dale and I went to a local music store and I bought a set of drums. Since I didn't have enough money to pay for them, I took out a loan at the bank, which Dale co-signed. At the same time, because of our sudden interest in music and to facilitate practicing, Dale and Doris bought a small upright piano. Drums and violin don't make a very pleasing combination by themselves, so we looked for at least one more member of the combo called “The Consorts,” a name created by Dale Hall who was going to be our manager. We tried out several candidates, one played the guitar and his name was Harry, one other time we played with a bass player (actually for pay at the officers club), I seem to remember that there also was an accordion player, but am not sure. I do remember an evening in some village away from Schriesheim where a group of local amateurs gathered to make music. We joined them in the hope of finding a suitable member for our combo. They were not what we were looking for and when one of them asked Kono if he could follow along and play second violin, Dale almost died laughing - Kono was an accomplished soloist. We made a demo tape with the guitarist named Harry and sent it to Chet Atkins in Nashville. We thought maybe Chet Atkins would find a “Japanese fiddle player” playing Country and Western music interesting. We got a polite response – thank you, but no thank you.

We never made enough money to pay for my drum set. As far as I can recall, we only played three times for money, once with the bass player and twice more only Kono and I played. My favorite song was the “Hawaiian War Chant,” when Kono would strum his violin like a ukulele and I could really beat the drums. Unfortunately, during one session at the NCO Club one of my drumsticks flew out of my hand during the height of the war chant and into the audience. I pretended that flinging a drumstick is normal, grabbed a substitute stick, which I luckily had at hand, and continued on. All in all, I found my playing with Kono embarrassing. Kono was an accomplished musician, I was a rank amateur. The combination of drum and violin left something to be desired. Kono kept a straight face through it all.

Some time during his stay in Germany, Kono expressed the desire to learn to play the zither. So, one day Dale (and I believe I chipped in, but could be mistaken, given my financial situation at the time) bought him a zither. We managed to get hold of some sheet music for zither and Kono taught himself, literally over night, to play the zither. When he went back to Japan he became the only zither player in Japan and quite famous, until his son Naoto later on took up the same instrument and now there are two famous zither players in Japan (unless someone else has taken it up too).

When I had to fly to the States from Germany in 1964 because my mother was hospitalized, Misato and Kono made 2000 “Happy Birds,” as they called them, birds made out of folded paper, which I now know as Origami. The birds were to bring health, luck, and happiness to my mother. Unfortunately, since there were so many, I could only take a fraction of the birds to my mother - they helped, she recovered. I took the Konos to Munich and around Heidelberg and we had great times at the Halls', but finally we all came to realize that Kono was not going to get a work permit, his one year visa was expiring and his wife Misato was very homesick for Japan. Therefore, in the summer of 1964 the Konos went home to Japan.