Nobushige Yanagisawa, President of Yanagisawa Wind Instruments Co., Ltd.
The wind instrument “saxophone” is known widely as “sax”. It is used in various music genres as classic, pops, rock and jazz and indispensable in brass bands as well as big bands. Do you know there are the “world’s top three makers” and two of them are Japanese? We introduce here one of the two, Yanagisawa Wind Instruments Co., Ltd. Its distinctive rich sound created by craftsmen’s hand-working has been gaining deep trust of global players. We interviewed the third president Nobushige Yanagisawa.
Photo: About 30m-long bronze (front) and brass (back); materials are rolled for stocks
Saxophone was invented by a Belgian Adolph Sax about 170 years ago. Although saxophones had already been made in Japan before the War, they were like children's toys compared to the imports from abroad. President Yanagisawa’s father, the late Takanobu, started manufacturing in 1951, wishing to materialize the instrument comparable to the imports.
Woodwind manufacturing in Japan including saxophones had its origin in 1894 when President Yanagisawa’s grandfather Tokutaro began repairing instruments imported by the then-army for its military band. This means the Yanagisawa Family pioneered in Japan’s manufacturing of wind instrument saxophones.
“At the beginning, manufacturing of saxophone started by copying foreign products. Instruments similar in shape were made soon but sound, the very key, was poor and their quality was far from satisfactory. I think our products started nearing to true instrument levels around 20 years ago after having experienced a lot of trials and errors.
Around that time, we have become counted as one of the world’s top three makers along with Selmer Henri Paris based in France, and Yamaha Corporation based in Japan. What was behind this success?
Photo: Forming shapes unable to be done by machines, but by manually pushing different paddles to rotating tubes
“More than 25 years ago, our saxophones were mainly purchased for practices of Japanese students. Then, we started to enter US and European markets to develop our sales channels. What we realized at the time was foreign players tended to have strong physical power and play instruments in their own ways. On the other hand, Japanese played in weaker sounds due possibly to their weaker power, but many of them expressed their emotions very elegantly. We found our saxophones not well-received by foreign players as they were made of thin metals in order to make sounds easily for Japanese players. The answer to what we should do was to pursue saxophones with thicker metals but still easy to emit sounds, allowing players to express their emotions.
That meant we tried to achieve contradictory challenges of using thicker metals and realizing more powerful sounds at the same time. With this success, Yanagisawa Wind Instruments’ saxophones had gradually gained appraisals and increased its market shares both in Japan and globally.
Photo: Soldering post parts to the tube with a temperature of about 400 degrees
One of the reasons why Yanagisawa has become a global maker is the whole manufacturing process is operated manually, and every craftsman at each process adoringly makes a product, wishing it to “be an excellent instrument.”
“Producing instruments is not for mimicking shapes but for creating impressive sounds. We believe instruments are really living creatures, and without manufacturer’s passions they would be mere industrial products having only shapes.”
Craftsmen’s instincts and strong curiosities for yet better instruments are another feature of Yanagisawa Wind Instruments to pursue proprietary saxophones.
“A good example for this is the Japan’s first curved soprano saxophone launched in 1979. This type was originally made in Italy, but because of its poor sounds should not be deemed as an instrument at all in our view. We thought we could make it better and finally materialized after intense research and development. Also in 1985, we successfully introduced the world’s first soprano saxophone with a detachable neck.
Our other creative trials include making a saxophone with mild sound effects by employing bronze material and pink gold plate on surface.
“We first make a prototype when we think it a good idea or it would be a fine product, and then draw the design only when an excellent instrument is born. Ordinarily the order should be reverse and a request for approval might be a must at a large firm but our style is to move first anyway when we feel it right.”
Photo: Assembling instruments using protection tapes to avoid scratches. Final checks follow next.
“Everybody knows Tokyo is at the forefront of Japanese trends. It is also true in the world of saxophones. Many good players of classic, pops, rock or jazz gather here, and there are also a plenty of opportunities for concerts and lives where we can experience their impressive performances. Craftsmen of saxophones must reside in such a place. I believe we can enjoy the greatest benefit as our company locates in Tokyo.”
By the way, according to the company, its name Yanagisawa Wind Instrument was derived from a desire to produce a wide variety of instruments once its saxophones reach certain levels of perfection.
“However, there is much room for refinements and evolution as the history of saxophones is yet short. We would continue to make only saxophones for the time being.”