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Sounding Hope: The ‘Ukulele as a Utopic Instrument in Contemporary Japan

Sat, June 25, 5:00 to 6:50pm, Shikokan (SK), Floor: 1F, 113


In contemporary Japan, the small, four-stringed ‘ukulele with origins in the Portuguese island of Madera joins other pieces of associated Hawaiiana, from hula, steel guitar, and slack key guitar, to surfing, in a continuing Hawai`i boom that began in the 1990s. Within that boom, Hawai`i and its associated arts represent a site of paradisical iyashi (healing) for practitioners, fans, and the general public. Kiwami Inc., the major ukulele manufacturer and distributor in Japan, goes beyond healing to more generalized emotional well-being in dubbing the instrument the “sound of happiness.” That “happiness” comes in a small package, in terms of physical size and sound, prompting some Japanese observers to dub the ‘ukulele as kawaii (cute). This paper asks, how does the ukulele represent such utopic qualities that lend itself as an instrument of healing, happiness, and hope? How does the very materiality of the instrument – sonically, physically – invoke a utopic paradise? And how do issues of scale link utopia in this Japanese context to notions of size? By analyzing multiple dimensions involved in the creation of such a music-based utopia, I bring to bear the tensions, conflicts, and creative possibilities that constitute ‘ukulele in Japan.