Shakuhachi Player Finds Peace in Chaos

Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Weary after a four-hour trek from the mountains of Kyoto Prefecture to check on friends in the Great Hanshin Earthquake zone, Uwe Walter stumbled upon a sight that jolted his senses: a Japanese man in Nada Ward, Kobe, sitting alone with his head in his hands, despondent after having watched everything he owned go up in flames.

So Walter did the one thing he knows best — soothing the soul with the sound of the Japanese shakuhachi bamboo flute. Silently, he walked up to the quake victim and played him a song.

“I felt this was my job,” said the 41-year-old native of former East Germany, who carries the flute wherever he goes. “I could meet people and talk to them, or just listen to them. Playing the shakuhachi in the
komuso (Zen Buddhist) style makes you empty. And it’s good to be empty — then you can listen.”

Walter finished playing, and the man forced a smile. They shrugged as they asked each other in Japanese, “Now what?”

The man said what he and the other local merchants needed was to rebuild their lives as soon as possible. Within days, Walter had arranged for a four-ton and two-ton truck full of lumber from his neighborhood of Miyama-cho, eastern Kyoto Prefecture, to be delivered to his new friend in Kobe. He did this knowing there is some possibility the area will be razed later under the city of Kobe’s redevelopment plans.

That episode is typical of Walter’s philosophy of triggering what he has come to call the “personal
jishin” — the personal earthquake — in himself and the people around him. It is a philosophy of confronting complacency, of pushing oneself to the limit, that he has tried to live by during his 15 years in Japan and, indeed, his whole career as a professional actor and musician.

“I don’t want only to cheer people up and overplay the actual situation,” he said, during a break from some of his Kobe-area gigs. “I think it’s important to face the actual situation, to go through it. I think there is no easy way in life. The real problem is when you cannot face it, when you try to get around the problem…especially here in this materialistic, high-tech Japan.”

Walter was busy enough before the earthquake giving his own blend of shakuhachi and dance performances in theaters, festivals, dinner clubs, schools, shrines and temples around Japan.

Since the earthquake, his unpredictable shows have included shakuhachi playing and tightrope walking, sometimes simultaneously, and other assorted entertainment for audiences affected by the earthquake. One day, for example, he might perform for a group of children and the next for some public servants.

Often he simply plants himself at a crowded spot somewhere in the true spirit of street performing and plays to total strangers. He is even known to go into an impromptu pantomime routine on crowded trains to break the tension.

Walter has psychologically thrived on tension in one form or another long before he came to Japan, most noticeably during stints in the 1970s in “people’s theater” and a circus theater troupe that toured Germany, France and Italy.

While training in Grotowskian and acrobatic theater, he learned to “go to the edge” of his mental and physical limits with each performance.

But like many professional entertainers, he says, he kept stumbling over his own ego. He was tormented by the need to somehow “empty” himself of the egotistical drive that was draining much of his psychic energy. Then one night he found the answer.

“We had this last project in southern Germany, and the tent was full of people. We had a great performance and good reviews in the newspapers and TV and stuff. We had a long closing show, and later at 4 o’clock in the morning the cast had a bottle of wine open. They made me listen to a tape, shakuhachi on one side and on the other, noh music. And that was it. I said, ‘This music is from Japan?’”

Up to that point, Walter says, he was unimpressed with what little he knew of postwar Japan and its people. But upon hearing the sound of the shakuhachi, he dropped his plan to roam the Andes mountains of Peru and instead came to Kyoto, searching for that elusive spiritual “emptiness” that had obsessed him.

He arrived with about ¥20,000 in his pocket, and gave his first performance in this country — a fire-breathing act — in front of Kyoto’s Hankyu department store at the busy Shijo-Kawaramachi avenue intersection. The local crowds loved it and donated generously, but the police soon chased him off. Walter was hooked.

He met plenty of shakuhachi players in Japan and later a teacher under whom he studied for four years. Walter had studied cello as a child, but it was the shakuhachi’s resonant, universal tone that kept him searching for “the sound.”

So how long did it take him to find it? “I’m still working on it,” he says, chuckling. “Let’s say 10 years — it takes that long for a musician to listen to himself.”

Though Walter was close at one point to attaining the level of “shihan” or master, on the shakuhachi and in noh, he rejected the notion of becoming a teacher.

“I tried not to become a shihan. Why? Because it would have pushed me into the corner of being a sensei. And I think a performer should perform and not be a sensei, that’s why.”

Yet he is quick to credit the strict discipline required in learning noh, which he no longer performs, and the shakuhachi as having given him a sense of freedom within the established art forms.

“I think it’s not good to destroy the basic concept you have in Greek theater and in mystery plays and Shakespeare,” he says, “but to build on it and use it as a tool and move freely in those old forms. And know about the traditions. Then, get out of the form a little step at a time. I think this is the
tamashii, the spirit.

“And this is what I could do in Japan. In Japan, I could feel the energy going to the first chakra between the genitals and — it goes here (inward),” he says, with a gesture and a laugh. “You concentrate on that point in noh chanting, for instance. In that small point you understand the whole world. This is the Japanese manner. In India, it’s more going out, it’s the other way around. Here in this country, it all goes down (inside). That’s what I like.”

When he’s not in the Hanshin area playing for earthquake victims these days, he is out working the fields around his rural Kyoto home or spending quiet days with his wife Mitsuyo and their three sons Kai, Yo and Gen.

Walter organizes a local mountaintop music festival every year to keep himself rooted in his love of theater and music. He has also released “Tauta,” a CD recording of his solo shakuhachi playing — a milestone of sorts for a performer still as bent on living on the edge as ever.

“There’s the danger of not being aware of what you are doing, I think. It’s always easy to get busy, to get caught up in your preoccupations, which then fill up your life,” he says. “But what should fill up your life? I think a life without a philosophy, without your personal concept, is dangerous.”