Now Reports

Doriano Sulis – Chikuzen Biwa Artisan

46 Year Fukuoka Resident Campaigns to Save Local Culture

Doriano Sulis, an Italian-native artisan of Chikuzen biwa (Japanese lute), has launched a crowdfunding project to save the traditional instrument from disappearing due to lack of knowledgeable craftspersons. The Chikuzen biwa, which originated from ancient Persian lutes, enjoyed great popularity during the ages of mid-Meiji to early-Showa. Amongst other traditional lutes in Japan, the instrument embodies particularly complex structures, and therefore requires considerable skills to craft and repair. Doriano came to Fukuoka in 1974 after majoring in classical guitar in Rome. Enchanted by the beautiful sounds of the biwa, he began an apprenticeship under the late Genzaburo Yoshizuka, a prefectural intangible asset and then-last craftsman of the instrument.

Since then, Doriano has dedicated over forty years of his life in Japan to learn and perform Chikuzen biwa until he became the last craftsman in the field. At the age of 72, Doriano strongly feels the importance of passing down the tradition to future generations. While running the Italian Center of Fukuoka (Centro Italiano di Fukuoka), he is preparing to open a new school near Tenjin to train younger bearers of the culture. From October 2020, the new place ‘Biwa-kan’ will provide classes for Chikuzen biwa production. Doriano also hopes to educate young people with musical and tale performances as well as the history of the instrument in the near future. The donations gathered through his crowdfunding project will partially cover the managing costs of including office rents. Contributors to the campaign will receive unique antique Italian tools, art pieces, biwa-related items, and Italian language learning resources as rewards. To introduce the world of Chikuzen biwa to more people, a special exhibition featuring repaired parts will be held in the coming fall (*postponed from April 15 due to the spread of the new coronavirus.) For more information on the project and to offer support, please visit this website.

Chatting with Doriano

Fukuoka Now visited Doriano at the Italian Kaikan in Imaizumi, Chuo-ku to see his Chikuzen biwa and chat with him about his early days in Fukuoka.

Doriano married his wife (a native of Japan) in Italy and lived there for almost three years before moving to Fukuoka in 1974. Back then, a marriage visa had to be renewed every three months, he recalls. If you think foreign nationals in Japan face challenges, imagine forty-six years ago! At the time, as far as he knew, was he the only Italian in Fukuoka. He had very few foreign national friends and was always mistaken for being an American. Sometime within his first six months, he remembers hearing the sound of an unfamiliar instrument in a song on the radio. As a student of classical guitar, it left an impression. Soon after, and by coincidence, he was introduced to a Chikuzen biwa craftsperson. One thing led to another, and Doriano worked alongside the master making instruments for five years, He continued him to research and repair biwa until this day.

Unfortunately, many Japanese associate the sound of biwa with dark or even frightening scenes. But foreign nationals, without such cultural baggage, find the sound modern and the instrument to be aesthetically beautiful. The Chikuzen biwa is constructed using a single carved piece of kuwa no ki (mulberry), and then parts are painstakingly fitted by hand. It looks simple; it’s not. The more common Satsuma biwa is far less complex and made of different wood. Dorian repairs them too, but clearly, his passion is for Chikuzen biwa.

Doriano believes there’s potential for the instrument to become more popular, especially when mixed with other instruments in jazz. He points to the artist Kakushin Nishihara, who plays a Satsuma biwa in modern music such as this.

Doriano hopes that through a school he plans to establish through a crowdfunding project, he’ll find someone to continue to repair these unique instruments. Maybe that someone is you? Feel free to contact him or to support his project.

Published: Jun 9, 2020 / Last Updated: Jun 9, 2020