Minyo Station’s Uniquely Japanese American Music

Photo courtesy of Minyo Station.
Photo courtesy of Minyo Station


Established in 2008, the band Minyo Station blends traditional Japanese folk music with contemporary genres to create a unique sound. Minyo Station is one of the featured performers at JANM’s upcoming Natsumatsuri Family Festival. JANM production intern Amy Matsushita-Beal helped to conduct the following email interview with band leader Yu Ooka to learn more about the group.

JANM: Can you explain what minyo is and what it sounds like, for people who don’t know?

Yu Ooka: For people who have never heard it before, it might be easiest to describe minyo as “the blues of Japan.” Many centuries ago, people sang songs while farming or fishing; doing so made the time pass and encouraged the workers to keep going until the job was done. There is a famous minyo song called “Tanko Bushi” that is played during bon odori dances, which honor ancestors as part of Japan’s annual Obon festivities. The song was originally sung by coal miners; tanko means coal mine and bushi means melody or tune. At some point, musical instruments like taiko drums and shamisen (traditional Japanese three-stringed lute) were added to the mix.

JANM: What does “contemporary Japanese folk music” mean to you? What other genres do you incorporate into your act besides minyo?

YO: Unfortunately, minyo sometimes has a reputation for being “old music” that’s “not for young people.” We decided to mix minyo with different Western genres like R&B, pop, rock, funk, and jazz to make it more listener-friendly and more appealing to younger generations—in other words, more contemporary. Our band uses guitar, bass, keyboards, and percussion in addition to vocals and shamisen. Some of LA’s finest musicians, who have worked for major artists like Aretha Franklin and Al Jarreau, contribute on the Western side, while the Eastern side has classically trained minyo artists. At its heart though, our music is still very much minyo music—it just might have some jazz chords or rock rhythms in it.

Photo courtesy of Minyo Station.
Photo courtesy of Minyo Station


JANM: You wear traditional Japanese garments in your performances. Is this important to you, and why?

YO: Minyo Station’s mission is to keep this beautiful traditional music alive and pass it on to the next generation. We represent Japanese tradition, which we must never forget. That is why we wear kimonos instead of fancy leather jackets!

JANM: Yu, you have a background as a jazz guitarist. How did you get involved with minyo? Are the two styles complementary?

YO: Yes, I was a guitarist first. I knew about minyo, but I never played it while I was living in Japan. After I moved to the U.S., I came across many Japanese cultural activities, including minyo, which was introduced to me by a friend. I started learning how to play the shamisen, and it became a great honor for me to work with this kind of music.

Minyo and jazz do share some similarities. For instance, when you play jazz, you have to “swing” in order to make a rhythm; this means not following the metronome precisely but rather, listening to and responding to the musicians around you. It’s the same with minyo—you have to communicate with the other musicians through your music.

JANM: Your band plays at a variety of venues, including museums and festivals. What are your favorite places to perform, and why?

YO: Every place where we perform is special for us. We play from the bottom of our hearts and we sincerely enjoy sharing minyo with every audience we encounter. We believe people can feel the spirit of the music even if they can’t understand the words. We look forward to performing at JANM and hope people enjoy it.

Minyo Station will perform at 3 p.m. this Saturday, August 15; they will also provide the music for our community bon odori dance at 12:30. Both events take place in JANM’s Aratani Central Hall. For a complete schedule of Natsumari Family Festival activities, click here.