The First Band in Japan?

Some important new discoveries were made during this past week regarding John William Fenton (b.1828), who formed what appears to have been Japan's very first band comprised of western musical instruments. Fenton arrived in Yokohama in 1868, just at the start of the Meiji era, where he founded bands and orchestras and even composed the first version of Kimigayo, Japan's national anthem. Over the next 140 years, Japan would enthusiastically embrace western music, eventually becoming a globally significant producer and consumer of European and American genres, ranging from classical to jazz, rock, and more. Until this week, however, the final chapter of Fenton's life had remained completely unknown to music scholars both within and outside of Japan. It was thought that after living in Japan, Fenton had settled somewhere in the rural midwestern United States, where he disappeared.

Suddenly, after more than a century of mystery, there are some new details. On June 16, I was contacted at my Boston University office by a thoughtful genealogical researcher in California who had on that very day obtained records of Fenton’s final years in . . . of all possible places . . . beautiful Santa Cruz, California. It was very kind of her to provide this information, and I was able to help communicate these details to Toshio Akiyama so he could announce them at the Japan Bandmaster’s Association meeting in Kyoto this past Saturday. These findings will be one other new detail included in my book on wind band music in Japan that is scheduled for publication later this year.

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