In Japan, many different types of Jew's harps are played. The modern Japanese term for metal instruments is Koukin, which roughly means "mouth zither". Jew's harps made of bamboo are played by the Ainu, an indigenous tribe that has lived in the north of Japan for as long as anyone can recall. For the Ainu, the Jew's harp Mukkuri is an important part of their culture. One of the most recognized Mukkuri manufacturers and Mukkuri players is Kimiyo Suzuki from the city Kushiro in the southeast of Japan's largest island Hokkaido.
The Mukkuri has accompanied Kimiyo for her entire life. Her grandfather had worked as a wood carver and decorated commodities with traditional Ainu designs. It was also he who began to manufacture Jew's harps made of bamboo. He passed the craft on to his son who taught it to his daughter Kimiyo. There has never been a debate whether she as a women could build the Mukkuris herself. It was a natural process that she learned herself the manufacturing of Mukkuris after her marriage, Kimiyo says. At first, economic reasons lead to Kimiyo getting involved in the production of Jew's harps. The sale of Jew's harps helped to support the family. Over the 40 years that Kimiyo produces Mukkuris already, it also increasingly became an spiritual task to manufacture Mukkuris, because through this instrument she is also passing on the culture of the Ainu.
In Hokkaido Kimiyo Suzuki is currently the only woman producing Mukkuris. "There are many people who try to make a Mukkuri. Of course they succeed to produce the form of a Mukkuri, but it is very difficult to make instruments with a really good sound. One has to treat the bamboo for the Jew's harp e.g. by frying it in oil, to make the material stable and resonant. That is something not many can do." Instruments made of Bamboo have the disadvantage that they can break fairly quickly. Therefore Kimiyo is very careful with which instruments leave her workshop. Only top-quality Mukkuris are sold.
Mukkuris are played by the Ainu only on joyfull occasions. Be it for one's own pleasure or for a celebration, the Ainu Mukkuri is above all played collectively: "As a child I always looked forward to the excursions to my grandmother's house. My mother and other women got together there with their children and played Mukkuri together. We children danced to the music. These afternoons are among the nicest memories of my childhood." Suzuki first played the instrument in her youth since it is not easy to produce sounds with a Mukkuri. It requires quite a bit of practice to get the bamboo tongue to vibrate using a cord.
At the International Jew´s Harp Society in Yakutia in 2011 Kimiyo Suzuki received the prize for the best Jew's harp producer. Since then orders and invitations have been coming in huge numbers. "In the last few months I have been working with almost no break at all. I am being invited to talks and presentations and received inquiries for Mukkuris almost every day from all over the world." From time to time Kimiyo also welcomes interested Jew's harp players to Kushiro, to give them an introduction to the art of playing the Mukkuri.
For many years the Mukkuri was played as an attraction for tourists. Now the Ainu culture has grown in confidence in Japanese cities and more and more professional musicians are dedicating their efforts to the instrument. On the Mukkuri the performance is mostly impromptu. As part of this, the sounds of the environment and the landscape of the region are a major inspiration for the pieces. If you ask Kimiyo, how one can imagine Kushiro and Hokkaido, she responds with a song on her Mukkuri: "I live in Kushiro. I am now describing the environment and the nature surrounding Kushiro. I mirror the sound of the water from the river Kushiro and the roaring of the bears that live in the region:"