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'One Lifetime Is Not Enough' For Japanese American Piano Player

Ed Ronco
Michi Hirata North stands in front of the picture of her debut in 1939. She was 8. A special box was used to help her reach the piano pedals.

The photo of MichiHirata North’s professional debut is in black and white. She’s 8 years old, sitting at a piano on a concert stage in Tokyo with an orchestra behind her.

“I couldn’t even reach the pedals,” she said.

The photograph suggests that this little girl is about to become something big – a professional musician whose talents as a performer and teacher are still respected, 75 years later.

But missing from the picture is an indication of what’s to come: World War II, rationing, fire bombing and a performance for one of the most famous generals in U.S. history.

North will commemorate her debut in a concert Sunday at Meany Hall on the University of Washington campus in Seattle.

It’s a benefit for the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington.

When a young Michi Hirata began her career in 1939, life in Tokyo was about to change drastically.

“We had visitors every night,” she recalls, using “visitors” as a euphemism for American bombers. One plane would fly overhead during the day, which residents took as a signal that there would be bombing that night.

She and her family slept with clothing at the ready, in case of a hasty evacuation. During the day they carried helmets and pads. Fire from the bombings burned as close as a block away. A last-minute shift in the wind spared the Hirata family home.

Public performances were banned in the later years of the war. It was too risky to get that many people together in one place. But North found ways to keep practicing and performing. She once spent a week in Tokyo on an elaborate Hollywood-style film set, playing with an orchestra for a documentary on Japanese cultural life.

The night after filming concluded, the studio was bombed.

“The whole thing burned,” North said. The documentary never saw the light of day.

North remembers those days vividly, but she says she was young enough at the time not to be fully traumatized by what was going on around her. And her family helped put things in perspective.

“For a child, I didn’t really comprehend,” she said. “My dad was in the United States when he was a young man, and he went to Europe to study, so he knew something about the world besides Japan. He was always doubting about this war – one of the very few people who thought that way.”

After the war, public performances returned, and North’s talents caught the attention of American military headquarters. She was invited to perform George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for U.S. General Douglas MacArthur.

“I said, ‘Who is Gershwin?’ I didn’t know,” she said. “I’d never heard of him.”

She learned. And she played beautifully enough that MacArthur thanked her for her performance.

It's been 76 years since North made her debut. She married an American -- Murray North, who died in 2010. Now in her early 80s, Michi Hirata North still teaches students in Bellevue and in Japan and Taiwan. A mother of five grown sons, she says they ask from time to time when she plans to retire.

"I don't know," she always tells them. "One lifetime is not enough. In music, the learning doesn't end."

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.
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