Kazue Sawai

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Music (jazz)
Asia, Eastern
created on:
July 15, 2003
last changed on:
Please note: This page has not been updated since October 31, 2005. We decided to keep it online because we think the information is still valuable.
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Kazue Sawai
Kazue Sawai © Photo by Morten Skeldal


Soul of Japanese Strings

Kazue Sawai plays the 17-string bass Koto as well as the standard 13-string one - with a wide repertoire ranging from Koto classics to contemporary commissioned works as well as collaborations with jazz musicians.
This is new Japanese music played on instruments with a more than thousand-year story behind them, and with centuries of the Japanese Sokyoku music tradition.
As one of the leading Koto-players in Japan, Kazue Saw is director of the Kazue Saw Coot Ensemble. The group consists of seven Japanese Koto-players and a single shakunachi-flautist. The music arriving from the traditional citarin-instrument Koto sounds like neatly worked rice paper.

Since 1978, Kazue Sawai has toured widely as a soloist, with her Koto Ensemble and in coperation with other musicians. She has appeared at major festivals in Brazil, France, Germany, England, Switzerland, Yogoslavia, Australia and US.


The story of Koto in Japan dates back to the Nara-period around year 700 - a century where art and literature flourished in Japan - the country where the sun goes up. The Koto was apparently brought in from China as many other cultures and was for years an instrument, which was part of the ceremonial gagaku-music of the court as well as an instrument, which had the same status as the piano in the West for many years.
The Koto-ensemble normally also contains the song of the lute-instrument - called the shamise - and the flute shakuhachi, which was also brought in from China in the 8th century.

In Japan old and new music forms co-exist with each other. A special example of an integration of those is the Koto-ensembles, which play new music from composers, which knows both the Japanese and the Western tradition.

Unfortunately, the Japanese market for any Koto music which is unsuitable for background use in stores or Japanese restaurants is so small that most CDs go out of print soon after publishing, so enthusiasts are encouraged to obtain any recordings when available.

In the contemporary Koto world, a handful of great players and composers stand out. One of those until recently was Tadao Sawai, generally recognised as a top composer and possibly the most technically accomplished performer ever on the standard 13-string Koto. His untimely death in 1997 was a great loss to the Koto world.


Tadao Sawai - her husband - was recognised as possibly the most accomplished performer ever on the standard 13-string Koto. After the founding of the Sawai Koto Academy some 15 years ago, his teaching spread far and wide throughout Japan and is gaining a following in various countries spread across four continents. Perhaps his most significant contribution was a technical one: he brought Western levels of precision to tuning and rhythm, popularised a range of innovative techniques which increased significantly the tonal possibilities of the Koto, and raised the bar in the training and evaluation of teachers of the instrument.


Kazue Sawai has made her own unique contribution to the instrument´s development, bringing a stage presence and passion (and controversy) previously unknown to the rather sedate Koto world. Her speciality is the 17-string bass Koto, hitherto considered as an accompaniment to the 13-string standard Koto, which she has forged into a major solo instrument in its own right. She has encouraged many composers to create works that push the boundaries of the 13-string and 17-string Koto ever further. As well as functioning as the spark in the creation of imaginative new works, her groundbreaking reinterpretations of ancient Koto classics have attracted much attention.

Since the untimely death of her husband, Tadao Sawai, in 1997, she has taken almost all her husband´s work upon herself, teaching his students, performing in his place, and popularising his large body of works.
Author: Karin Bergquist


Kazue Sawai began her studies at the age of eight and later graduated from Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music.

She made debut at joint recital with her husband, Tada Sawai. She is a co-founder with husband of the Sawai Koto Institute in Tokyo.

In 1988 she spent a year in New York on ACC grant collaborationg with American composers and players, and gave lecture-concerts at many universities in US.


Kazue Sawai has received numerous awards and grants, including grants from Japan Foundation, Art Festival Excellent Performance Prize (1979) and USA RCA recording incentive award (1972).


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

Images of Asia

(08 August 03 - 26 September 03)


Sawai Kazue´s official website