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Self-taught fisherman pianist in SW Japan finds inner soul playing 'La Campanella'

Yoshiaki Tokunaga plays "La Campanella" in the city of Saga on April 25, 2021. (Mainichi/Shizuka Takebayashi)

SAGA -- Fishermen are often known to have tough leathery hands like old boots, but in southwest Japan one seaweed fisherman is famous for his talented fingers that play the piano.

    Yoshiaki Tokunaga, 60, the "miracle fisherman pianist" from Kawasoe in the city of Saga, farms "nori" seaweed. He uses his large hands to play Franz Liszt's masterpiece, "La Campanella." Tokunaga is self-taught and has been playing the piano for nine years. When he posted a video on YouTube of himself practicing, he quickly drew attention from all over Japan.

    On April 25 at the Minamikawasoe community center in the city, Tokunaga bowed on the stage, sat down on a chair and gently touched the keys, and the soothing sound spread throughout the venue that held about 40 spectators.

    Tokunaga was born into a family that engaged in nori fishing in the Ariake Sea, and during the closed season from spring to autumn, he spent his days gambling at a pachinko parlor. When he returned home after losing 700,000 yen (about $6,400), his wife Chieko, 59, who was teaching piano lessons at home, got angry with him.

    Then, one day in the spring at the age of 52, when the fisherman was thinking about taking up music, he was struck by "La Campanella" played by Fuzjko Hemming, who is known as the "pianist with a soul." "I want to play this," he thought, and started practicing that day.

    However, Tokunaga could not read musical score, and even if Chieko taught him, he would "get into a fight with her in five minutes," so he decided to learn on his own. Instead of going through the beginner's practice tunes, he placed his smartphone on the music stand and moved his fingers while watching a video of the keys glowing in time with the tune. He learned three or four bars at a time over the course of an hour, and for the first year he practiced an average of eight hours a day, which sometimes left him with tendinitis.

    "La Campanella" is a difficult piece of music that has a wide range of notes and requires a high level of performance technique. When he posted his progress on YouTube, people praised him, saying, "I'm going to practice with Mr. Tokunaga as my goal," and "You gave me courage."

    On April 16, the fisherman performed at a Hemming's concert in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, and received applause from about 1,700 people in the audience.

    According to Chieko, Tokunaga "used to be a shy person who spent time only with fellow fishermen." For Tokunaga, "La Campanella" is "the tune that changed my life." Looking back, he said, "The more I practiced, the more I learned about the depth of music, and the further I felt from completion."

    Tokunaga plans to continue performing in and outside of Saga Prefecture. "I was able to continue playing the piano because of the support of my family, friends, and people who saw my YouTube videos. I want to send a message to people that they can do this starting at any age," he said with a smile.

    (Japanese original by Shizuka Takebayashi, Saga Bureau)

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