The rise of tango in Japan
osé Gobello, president of the Argentine Slang Academy, said that «even though it might seem a joke, Paris is the place from where the tango came to Argentina». This controversial expression could be applied, however to describe the arrival of tango in Japan.
The Baron Tsunayoshi Tsunami Megata, was born in Japan on November 17, 1896. He was the grandson of the samurai Kaishu Katsu —the first noble warrior to travel to the United States—, and the son of a Japanese diplomat.
In 1920 Megata went to Paris to undergo a surgical operation. He remained in the City of Lights until 1926, where he learned and mastered the art of dancing tango while patronizing the cabaret El Garrón.
Upon his return to Japan, Megata brought with him numerous tangos recorded by Le Véritable Orchestre Argentin Tano Genaro (directed by Genaro Espósito), the Orchestre Argentin Manuel Pizarro, the Orchestre Bianco-Bachicha (directed by Eduardo Bianco and Juan Bautista Deambroggio) and by several French orchestras. Initially, the Japanese believed that the tango originated in France due to the French labeling on the records.
Megata later opened a tango academy in Tokyo to teach to the Japanese aristocracy free of charge how to dance the tango. He also published a book entitled A method to dance the argentine tango.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Noriko Awaya and other singers popularized the Japanese style of tango. The tango experienced even greater popularity due to the prohibition of jazz during WW II. Several tango orchestras were formed in Japan, and by the 1950s more than twenty orchestras had embraced this music. The most popular orchestra was the Orchestra Típica Tokyo directed by Shimpei Hayakawa.
The first Argentine orchestra to play in Japan was one directed by Juan Canaro (1954). Other Argentine orchestras soon followed suit, like the ones directed by Osvaldo Pugliese and Francisco Canaro.
Soon thereafter, Ranko Fujisawa arrived in Argentina to sing tangos what she did phonetically as she did not speak Spanish.
The tango continues to enjoy great popularity in Japan. The show Tango Argentino was broadcasted via television in 1987, and the magazine Asahi Graph devoted a complete issue to its commentary. (See Collier, Simon, Artemis Cooper, Maria Susana Azzi and Richard Martin: Tango! The Dance, the Song, the History, Ediciones Odin, Barcelona, Spain, 1997).
In his book, El siglo de oro del tango" (Manrique Zago Publisher, 1998), Horacio Ferrer —president of the Argentine Tango Academy—, describes the tango as a sort of shibui, meaning «the bitter appearance of something that it is positively beautiful».
Luis Alfredo Alposta, an Argentine physician, was the first person to reference the work of Megata as a pioneer in popularizing the tango in Japan. Alposta wrote the lyrics of “A lo Megata” ("The Megata Way") with music composed by Edmundo Rivero, who recorded this tango accompanied by the orchestra of Leopoldo Federico with Yoshinori Yoneyama playing the bandoneon.
“A lo Megata” was played for the first time in Japan on May 29, 1982 —the 14th anniversary of the passing of Baron Megata—. The translation of the lyrics to the piece follow:
In the year 1920, the Baron Megata
embarked en route to Paris,
and among tangos and the sweet idleness,
the Japanese boy became a dancer.
Skinny and genteel,
Even thoug he was a Baron, he dressed like a Duke.
He danced with Pizarro, and one spring
he packed up his records and returned to Japan.
And so he introduced the tango
to Nippon land,
where he taugh to dance it
free of charge.
It's said that Megata
didn't charge a buck,
because he loved the tango
and because he was a playboy.
He taugh to dance the tango,
and gave lessons in righteousness as well;
he watched in the nights and in the daybreaks,
He piloted planes and had more than one flirt.
Perhaps now that he's here,
while a Sony plays “Chiqué”,
someone in Tokyo gracefully dances the Megata Way,
without knowing who Megata was.