During my recent trip to Japan, I had the pleasure of speaking with Nobushige Yanagisawa, the President of Yanagisawa. He gave me a wonderfully detailed look at the history of Yanagisawa and how it has evolved over the years. This is a translation of our conversation, in his own words.
How was Yanagisawa started?
It’s been 70 years since we started making saxophones. During the Edo (samurai) period and the Meiji period (before 1900), there were no western musical instruments in Japan. As Japan went to war with foreign countries, such as Russia (around 1900), the style of the Japanese military changed to the Western way.
Around that time, Western musical instruments entered Japan. However, there was no one who could repair them. In order to repair these instruments, craftsmen who repaired decorations such as shrines started to learn instrument repair. One of these craftsmen was Tokutaro Yanagisawa (grandfather of Nobushige Yanagisawa), and together with Sentaro Egawa, they founded Egawa Seisakusho, which was the first musical instrument repair company in Japan.
As Japan went to war, Egawa Seisakusho developed as a munitions industry with Nikkan. [Mr. Yanagisawa then shows a Nikkan saxophone to us]. Since this is an instrument from around the 1960’s, the quality is not bad. However, since it is an instrument from 60 years ago, this horn still had some problems to fix.
At that time, Selmer had completed the SBA (Super Balanced Action) and the Mark VI, and my father founded Yanagisawa to try to make even better instruments. His father was in Manchuria (China) at the end of World War II. It took him six years to come back to Japan, and in the meantime, his social reintegration was delayed as Japan’s reconstruction began.
Even at the company his grandfather founded, my father couldn’t do what he wanted to do. So he decided to create an instrument that could compete with Selmer, Conn, and King, and founded his own company with Mr. Sakano 73 years ago and started to make saxophones. I am the second generation, and I am responsible for further evolving the instrument that my father made from scratch. Nikkan (made by my grandfather), which had been a munitions industry, went down because the war was over, and with the help of Nippon Gakki, Yamaha absorbed Nikkan.
Since Nikkan was able to make a variety of wind instruments, Yamaha was able to do so as well, including saxophones. In that sense, Yamaha and Yanagisawa have the same roots. My grandfather and these two companies are like brothers. They have built a good relationship while still competing with each other. Musical instruments are tools, and I’m doing my best to create good tools for musicians to make good music.
What is the story behind flute making at Yanagisawa?
My father used to play the flute as a hobby. Muramatsu used to come to his grandfather’s company Egawa Seisakusho for his studies. My father remembers that he learned a lot from his grandfather. Later my father found out that it was Mr. Muramatsu.
When my father started making musical instruments, he went to consult Mr. Muramatsu, who was very successful at the time. At that time, he was given a subcontract job (making some small parts )for Muramatsu to raise funds. With Mr. Muramatsu’s help, he was able to establish his company. When Mr. Muramatsu asked my father what kind of instrument he wanted to make when the company was ready to be established, my father immediately answered saxophone. Shortly after he started making saxophones (around 1960), he tried to make flutes as well, but he eventually decided to concentrate on the saxophone with the advice of those around him.
What was the starting point for Yanagisawa saxophones?
My father started by imitating other brands. He started to try to create a combination of a Buescher and a Conn at first. It just wasn’t satisfying. Even if they were made in exactly the same shape, they would not have the same quality, so it was very difficult to improve.
Is there another Series coming at some point?
Sure, we have to keep improving our saxophones. We will never stop that. I still feel that we have a lot of things to fix, and we have some new ideas for developing our next series of saxophones. But we have no idea when new ones will come out.
We are sure that we still have to improve intonation all the time. Instruments need to be easy to play for anyone. I think the most important aspect for developing saxophone is flexibility. The saxophone is a tool to help players to express themselves. I try to develop saxophones in that way so that players can play exactly as they want to play.
Also, Yanagisawa saxophone should be played by players of any style. Selmer was made more for playing French modern music in the last 30 years as Series 2 & 3. We try to do things differently to develop saxophones that are suited for any situation and style, like classical, jazz, & pop. I think that old horns such as the SBA, Mark VI, Conn, and King were played by various styles of players. Yanagisawa saxophones should be suited for any style.