The Fourth String: A Memoir of Sensei and Me
By Janet Pocorobba (Albany, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2019. 228 pages, ISBN 978-1611720464, Paperback)
Reviewed by Anne Prescott
A young native English speaker goes to Japan to earn money to pay her debts. This is not an unusual
beginning for the “foreigner discovers Japan” memoir. But shortly after Janet Pocorobba settles into her new life, it takes a surprising turn when a friend points out an ad in an English-language publication: “Free lesson in shamisen and singing! Take something home with you from your stay in Japan!” (60). In September 1996, Pocorobba responds to that ad and meets Sensei, as she calls the woman who becomes her teacher. “She was in full Japanese gear, which I later learned she donned for first meetings. They expected kimono, didn’t they? ‘Very Japanese-y,’ she said and laughed” (14–15). Little by little in the course of this book, Sensei’s story, and her place in Japanese society, becomes clearer to Janet, much in the same way that Janet’s understanding of nagauta, shamisen, and Japan—and herself—do.
Sensei is a conservatory-trained musician in nagauta, a style of shamisen music associated with the kabuki theater. Nagauta is also performed as a standalone art outside of kabuki, primarily by amateurs and often by women whose primary motivation for taking lessons is for “wife training.”
Advice given to Sensei by her professional teacher has sent her down this road. “‘You don’t have the heart for this,’ Kikuoka-sensei told her one day and advised her to remain an amateur” (29).
In the course of this book, we learn that Sensei operates on the outer perimeter of the traditional nagauta world, in part because of her amateur status and in part because of her pessimism about the future of nagauta in Japan. Sensei feels that foreigners eager to experience Japanese culture are the key to countering a declining interest in the traditional arts among Japanese.
Some of Sensei’s teaching methods are unconventional. In a musical culture that values long-term bonds between teachers and students, such relationships are taken very seriously. A student generally stays with a single teacher for life; it is very difficult to move from one teacher to another. Decisions to stop studying are also not acted upon lightly. This dedication and loyalty is difficult for foreigners to adhere to, particularly those who are apt to be in a highly transient population. But Sensei willingly accepts students who are not likely to stick around for long, which means that this lifetime of dedication is not expected.