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Richard Nicole poses with his
treasured bamboo pipe organ.

The Universal Language of Artisanship

Pipe Organ Builder Richard Nicole and Furniture Craftsman Zen'ichi Yoshida

The large wooden box resembling a piece of furniture does not seem at all out of place in the eight-tatami-mat Japanese-style room. When Japanese visitors are told that it is a pipe organ, though, most do a double take. To them, a pipe organ calls to mind a large, solemn-looking object lined against the wall of a church or concert hall. Swiss pipe-organ builder Richard Nicole has different ideas: "In Europe, pipe organs reflect the locality in which they are made and used. Each instrument is a product of its unique environment. That's why, for instance, one would never find a German organ in France. Japanese pipe organs, on the other hand, are all modeled after European designs. To me it's a shame that there are no Japanese-style organs to complement Japan's unique culture, history, and natural landscape."

Nicole's organ is played while seated on the tatami floor in seiza (formal sitting-style) position. The shape of the organ itself recalls images of a Japanese bonsai plant and a Shinto shrine. The bamboo of the pipes and the oak and pine comprising the body are all products of Aichi Prefecture. Embellishing each side of the instrument's front panel are two guard dogs (a Shinto motif), each holding a musical note between their teeth. This decorative addition to the organ is the work of a sculptor of Buddhist images from the city of Toyohashi. In the spirit of traditional Japanese architecture, the organ is assembled without nails or glue. It took four years to make, and 80% of it was constructed by hand.

"All I did was provide the workplace and tools," laughs furniture craftsman Zen'ichi Yoshida. Yoshida has known Nicole since 1992, when the latter moved with his Japanese wife Reiko to her parents' house in Okazaki. During the four years Nicole spent building the pipe organ, Yoshida often came to the workshop to see how the work was progressing.

"At first I had no idea Richard was a pipe-organ builder. I was introduced to him by an acquaintance as a Swiss man who was handy with tools and was looking for carpentry work. Afterward he would sometimes call to say that he was busy with tuning and repair work and couldn't come in. That's how I found out about his real trade."

Yoshida and Nicole inspect a woodwork in Yoshida's workshop.
Recognizing his carpentry skills, Yoshida helped Nicole find a job building shrines and temples. Over a one-year span, Nicole applied himself to constructing Shinto and Buddhist structures all over Japan. The beautiful curved legs of the organ are a result of the skills he acquired during this time. "What Japan's shrines and temples have in common with Europe's churches, pipe organs and all, is that they are places of worship."

Nicole managed an organ manufacturing company in Switzerland. However, he become so entangled with financial and administrative affairs that he found himself unable to devote himself to the building aspect of the trade that he loved. That is when he decided, along with his wife, to come to Japan. He says the move was prompted in part by a long-standing interest in the country.

One aspect about Japan that intrigues Nicole is the manner in which the Japanese relate to their own traditional culture. For instance, he points out that though Japan is the birthplace of the beautiful kimono dress, most Japanese have no use for it in their daily lives. The styles unique to Japan are being forgotten, he laments. Everything is an imitation of Europe—just like its pipe organs.

There are presently some 1,100 pipe organs in Japan, about 700 or so of which are found in churches, schools, and concert halls. While doing organ tuning and repair work throughout the country, Nicole became convinced that an original score befitting his organ was needed. His dream is to compose and play a piece with an orchestra of gagaku (Japanese court-style music) instruments on a noh stage.

"The pipe organ has not been around in Japan for very long, but its Japanese builders are superb. Japanese-style pipe organs should ideally be built by Japanese. Once builders here become so inspired, I probably won't be needed any longer. Even so, that is my sincerest hope. I definitely want them to wake up quickly."

There is a music stand and candlestick fabricated from the same materials as the organ. As Nicole plays, seated in proper seiza-style, the wind from the pipes' bellows gently rocks the candle's flame. "I don't even think of Richard as a foreigner. There are times when very subtle nuances of the language don't come across, but that's about it," quips Yoshida. Says Nicole, "It doesn't matter that I am a foreigner and Zen'ichi is Japanese. The spirit of craftsmanship is the same in every country." Even in their everyday conversation, the bond of trust formed in the process of building the organ is evident.

Artisanship knows no borders.

(Photos by Hans Sautter, Text by Yuka Ogura)