A world apart from the Beatles' hometown of Liverpool, England, Beatlemania continues to endure nearly 6,000 miles away in Japan. Though the Beatles toured Japan only once, playing the first-ever rock concerts held at the Budokan, it was enough to spawn a lasting affinity for the group and a plethora of tribute bands.
When the Beatles arrived in Japan on June 29, 1966, Heritage Hall Lower School Music teacher and Toyko native Katsumi Hagiwara was a young boy who knew nothing about the English rock band other than the chaos surrounding their visit. A few years later, everything changed.
“I got hooked on Beatles music when I was in middle school. The first time I heard it was at my aunt’s house. Back then, having your own stereo system was a big deal, so I took advantage of every opportunity to listen. The music and beat really got me, and it was a great way to learn English; I was singing their songs way before I actually spoke the language or understood their meaning,” Hagiwara said.
By the time he was in seventh grade, Hagiwara was playing keyboard and guitar in a Beatles cover band and knew the words to nearly every song.
Though music continued to play a significant role in his life, at age 21, Hagiwara decided to relocate to Oklahoma to attend college at Oklahoma Christian University and pursue a different path. Hagiwara tried his hand at communications, social studies, psychology, and art before finally returning to his true passion, music, which he has taught since graduating from the University of Central Oklahoma in 1990.
While Hagiwara loves many genres of music, the Beatles still hold a special place in his heart. In fact, this past summer, Hagiwara spent six weeks in Japan “jamming” with members of the ビートルズ友の会
(The Beatles Friends) Facebook group, consisting of 10,000+ superfans who have mastered the band’s instruments and songs.
“Every night, different people would show up at small venues throughout Tokyo and play with whoever was there. You didn’t practice beforehand; you just took the stage and hit it. If you weren’t playing, you were part of the audience cheering for whoever was on stage,” explained Hagiwara.
According to Hagiwara, the participants were primarily amateurs who came from all walks of life – from barbers to cab drivers to sewing machine repairmen to retirees. They paid to play at the Beatles jam sessions to support the venues which had been struggling to stay open in recent years under COVID-19. A typical session lasted five to six hours with anywhere from 20 to 50 participants taking turns singing and playing the instruments, four at a time as "John, Paul, George, and Ringo," on the fly. Though most participants had never met, everyone knew their part because they had practiced independently at home.
While Hagiwara enjoys the entire Beatles catalog, he noted that “Let It Be,” “Yesterday,” and “Hey Jude” are among his favorite tunes. As for Hagiwara’s favorite Beatle, Paul McCartney tops the list. “People used to say I sound like him,” he joked.
Reflecting on the experience, Hagiwara stated, “What was so amazing was the impact of the Beatles among these Japanese fans. Their love of the group inspired them to pick up an instrument and learn to play the part and sing in the English language, which is foreign to them. I know of no other musical groups that motivate grown, hard-working people to practice at home in their spare time, then get on trains after a long day at work to go to a venue and pay fees to blind date in the jam sessions. It was incredibly fun and gratifying.”
Another memorable moment for Hagiwara came on June 25, thousands of miles away in Edmond, Okla., when a video of one of his jam sessions was played during the Cure FA Soirée fundraising event hosted by the Gehr family. “Michael ’18 and Thomas ’20 were both my students, so it meant a lot for me to be able to participate in their event and connect with the Heritage Hall community in this meaningful way,” Hagiwara said.
Hagiwara’s journey with the Beatles has indeed been a “Long and Winding Road,” but he continues to share his passion for their music, both through the venues of Japan and in the classrooms of Heritage Hall.