The “pioneering” Japanese pianist is at home in Budapest


Foreigners around the world may find that they feel happier in their adopted country than in their home country. The explanations are diverse: from the climate to the culture, and from work opportunities to a personal relationship with the locals.

Pianist Hiroko Ishimoto would certainly subscribe to such an explanation for making Budapest her home for the past twenty years.

Originally from Sapporo, Japan, Hiroko began piano lessons with a family acquaintance before the age of five. “I can say now that my teacher was abusing his students,” Hiroko recalls, “with words, with blows – I had to accept it. It was horrible. Japanese at that time.

“And I didn’t fit the traditional girl role. Most of the piano students were girls, the daughters of professional parents, and you had to be obedient. I studied with this teacher until I was 18, then I went to Tokyo.

Hiroko cites her exceptionally open-minded doctor father, whom she was very close to, as a primary influence on her unconventional attitudes and outlook on life.

Still, lessons with a new teacher at Tokyo’s Toho School of Music didn’t improve. “She was even worse! I hated the piano – no, I hated his, not the piano. I loved concerts, symphonies, nothing to do with my piano playing.

It was at this time that Hiroko first met a Hungarian musician. “My first contact with Hungary was the pianist Andre Wattsan African-American pianist with a Hungarian mother,” she recalls, “and his playing was just FAN-TAS-TIC!

Hiroko’s family had Japanese friends in New York, and soon after they began encouraging him to audition for the Juilliard School. Yet Japanese etiquette ruled out insulting leaving one’s teacher. “You hide, you tell lies, it’s too disrespectful to leave,” she explains. “So my mom claimed I ran away to New York!” – that’s exactly what she did.

Hiroko still remembers warnings from his fellow Japanese musicians in New York, telling him that it would take time to acclimate to the levels of violence: “Every day there were gunshots – you heard it; after 8 p.m., I stayed at home. But her eternal memory of arriving in America is the Easter Parade on 5th Avenue, “It was so fun, so open, so free!”

Following her successful audition at the Juilliard School, Hiroko was lucky enough to be accepted to study with György Sándor, a giant in the piano world and a close friend of Bartók. It was he who gave the first performance of Bartók’s Third Concerto at Carnegie Hall in 1946.

“I was very influenced by György Sándor”, recalls Hiroko. “He was fantastic; he had a temper, like many Hungarians. Thanks to him, I learned to love Bartók and Kodály and Hungarian music. And later, after I left America, I went back to New York for a month every summer – I needed it to be me – so I met him every year.

“When I finished at the Juilliard, I stayed in New York as a freelance musician; I was in New York for nine years, until 1989. Then my old school, Toho in Tokyo, asked me to teach there. I was sick of New York at the time – but I was stupid, I should have stayed there,” she sighs.

Hiroko’s return to Japan, after nearly a decade in America, was a profound culture shock. If she hadn’t managed to fit the mold as a child and a student, the middle years in New York had further heightened the friction. “The first year, I had recurrent bouts of fever. The society in Japan freaked me out – I think the life of a woman in Japan is pretty bad, like that of an Arab woman,” she explains.

“I met a lot of international musicians in Tokyo and felt more comfortable talking with them than with Japanese musicians. I was kind of broken, you know; things came to a head, I had professional and personal difficulties.

It was then that Hiroko came into contact with the Women’s Action Network – a feminist organization, mainly supported by professional women like Hiroko herself. “I try not to be loud or pushy, but I have strong feelings about it,” she says.

Hiroko attended meetings that affected her deeply. “Listening to the other women talking, I said to myself: I should do something based on women and music. Then I thought: And if I played composers? This music is universal – I started with Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Amy Beach from America, Tatyana Nikolayeva…. It became my main job because they are fantastic pieces and they are forgotten, neglected.

Hiroko received a scholarship from the Women’s Action Network allowing her to give a series of six concerts in different Japanese cities, which was repeated another year. “I suddenly got recognition for this music,” she says.

In 2002, however, Hiroko decided to move to Europe and continue to develop his playing by taking lessons with Jenő Jandó, Ferenc Rados and Gábor Eckhardt at the Liszt Academy in Budapest. “I knew what I had to develop in me,” she explains.

Hiroko’s exploration of the works of female composers led her to record a CD, “Pioneers”, with Naxos records, in 2020 – unfortunately, just as Covid was emerging, which meant that concerts associated with the works had to be abandoned.

Now, however, the concert originally scheduled for 2020 will take place on friday april 22 at 6:30 p.m. in the Jenő Ádám School of Music (1098 Budapest, Köztelek utca 8) with songs from the CD.

Japanese expatriates in Hungary number less than two thousand, and Hiroko finds few with whom she can easily identify. Assessing her life in Budapest as she approaches her 20th birthday, she says, “I wouldn’t say I love everything about Hungary but I feel comfortable here, I feel I can be myself from a way I couldn’t in Tokyo; there it’s very rigid, you mustn’t talk, you have to be like everyone else. Here, I feel free to be myself.

Please see the flyer for how to purchase tickets for the concert – tickets are also available at the door


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