Other than the United States, Japan has long been home to one of the largest bases of bluegrass fans. American bluegrass groups have been touring the country for decades, and several Japanese bluegrass instrumentalists have become well-known around the world. For those reasons, the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music, part of Hazard Community and Technical College in Hyden, Kentucky, has been trying to recruit Japanese students for several years.
According to Assistant Professor J.P. Mathes, the sheer distance between Japan and Kentucky has always been the main obstacle. However, the school has recently begun to offer online courses, including a new audio recording program and instrument lessons, which make bluegrass music more accessible and affordable for students everywhere. Thanks to these new technologies, they were able to welcome Dr. Hironobu Oda, a physician and surgeon from Kochi, Japan, as their first international student.
Oda first became acquainted with the KSBTM program through Mathes, who tours Japan annually with various musicians. Mathes says that he met Oda in 2003 during a tour with David Grier and Japanese mandolinists Taro Inoue and the late Katsu Miyazaki. More recently, Oda has hosted Mathes and his wife and musical partner Leona during their Japanese tours. Mathes says that Oda has perfomed with them as a special guest, and they have also joined in with his band, Longing for the Southland. A few years ago, upon Mathes’ invitation, Oda visited the KSBTM campus in Hyden.
According to Mathes, Oda is not only a musician but also a regional leader for bluegrass music in Japan. “He works tirelessly, as do many others, to keep the American art form alive in Japan,” he says. “Oda Sensei spends most of his vacation time in Japan promoting concerts, festivals, and hosting international performers such as Sammy Shelor, Don Rigsby, Terry Baucom, and many others.”
Oda currently takes mandolin lessons from instructor Scott Napier (who is also the longtime mandolin player for the Lost & Found) for one hour each week using Skype. KSBTM Director Dean Osborne says that the incorporation of Skype and other new technologies is creating an exciting time for college-level bluegrass music education.
“With roots going back thousands of years, it seems impossible that one of the newer technologies available to us is used to help perpetuate and further mandolin and traditional bluegrass music,” he says. “We look forward to having students from around the globe share this opportunity with us.”