October Newsletter -Thursday, October 9, 2014
Muramatsu Inc. Japan
The Muramatsu flute company has been making professional flutes for nearly a century, and is still family owned.
The founder of the Muramatsu company was an artist, who became enamored when he heard a Boehm system flute for the first time. This sound was new to Japan, and inspired the young Koichi Muramatsu. He had recently acquired engineering skills while repairing instruments for the army music school, and he resolved himself to creating such flutes himself. This young artist and flute maker did not realize at that time, in 1923, the legacy he would be creating. He was to become the founder of modern day flute making in Japan.
At first he could not support himself just by making flutes, so he took a job painting theater signs. He liked the schedule, as it allowed him time to make flutes. He writes, “When I played my flute for other employees at the theater, they wanted me to play more. This different flute sound was very intriguing to them.”
These were difficult times, he writes in his memoirs. “I spent all the money I earned from painting to buy new machinery. My number one priority was to constantly improve my flutes.” Muramatsu worked long hours and once told friends, “Work is reliable, but not the schedule.”
Five years after he started making Muramatsu flutes, he was contacted by a large musical instrument distributor in Japan. They were very impressed with his flutes, and signed a contract to distribute them. Over a period of time, Koichi Muramatsu‘s flute making shop grew. He had to add more and more employees. He encouraged all his employees to learn to play the flute, a tradition which is carried on by Muramatsu Inc today.
Koichi Muramatsu took great pleasure in making people happy through music. He writes in his memoirs, “I believe at this time, as I’m writing this essay, many people are playing and enjoying my flutes.”
In 1962 Koichi Muramatsu died. His legacy was continued by his son, Osamu Muramatsu, into the twenty-first century. Today Muramatsu Inc is still family owned and is led by Koichi Muramatsu’s grandson, Akio Muramatsu. Muramatsu produces more professional flutes than any other maker in the world. They are sold on every continent.
Family traditions continue in the Muramatsu company, which warmly greets traveling flutists to Japan and maintains friendly relationships with flutists worldwide. Flutists are always welcomed to visit the Tokyo Flute Shop and the company sometimes allows visitors to the factory in Tokorozawa.
By the 1970s, the Muramatsu flute was well known by flutists in Europe and was considered to be the mainstay by flutists in Japan. Muramatsu was selling flutes worldwide, but the Muramatsu flute was virtually unknown in America.
In 1974, I was approached by an importer of musical instruments who asked me to help him find a flute worthy of importing. I was unfamiliar with the Muramatsu flute at that time. The importer invited me to accompany him to a number of international manufacturing trade shows, but I was unable to find any flutes that met the standards to which American flutists were accustomed. One day I was teaching a student from New York City who was traveling around the country taking lessons from different flutists, collecting material for a dissertation about approaches to pedagogue and teaching styles. I noticed that the flute he was playing was not one of the familiar brands. Out of curiosity, I asked if I could try the instrument and found that it was pleasing to play. I was impressed.
After talking to the importer about my experience with this flute, we tried to contact the Muramatsu company. To no avail. We eventually learned that all musical instrument sales in Japan at that time went through what they called, “trading companies.” After finally making contact, several Muramatsu flutes were shipped to America and the marketing of Muramatsu flutes in America began to evolve.
In 1975, I was invited to join the importer for a visit to the Muramatsu factory in Japan. The experience was unforgettable.
Their approach to business was different than I expected. They did not want to “talk shop” at all during the first days of our visit. Instead, they insisted that we join them for four days of sightseeing, dining, and getting to know each other. I will never forget the mountain spa where we wore kimonos and sandals the entire time, took hot baths, drank lots of sake, tried to tell stories and jokes through a translator, and eventually fell soundly asleep upon straw floor mats. I felt as if I knew the members of the executive board very well upon our return to the modern hotel in Tokyo.
We spent the remaining days of our trip at the factory in Tokorozawa, playing flutes of many different metals and flavors, in many different settings. We discussed our observations and shared our opinions about tone, mechanics, and intonation. I found the factory engineers to be open-minded and receptive to new and different ideas. Hiroshi Aoki, one of the world’s distinguished flute engineers told me, “We want to always know what today’s flutists like. We are not making Muramatsu flutes for ourselves.”
I was surprised to learn that the Muramatsu factory manufactured virtually every part of the flute. This continues today. When I later visited the factory in 2002, I was invited into the Research and Development room. I was shown a big machine that had a digital readout at the top. The numbers flew by and the machine produced a number of different whirring sounds. Finally, a tiny screw fell out of the bottom tray. It was part of a new flute being built. Muramatsu even makes its own pads.
The Muramatsu company is very traditional. They only implement changes to the Muramatsu flute after much research, testing and study. Everyone at the factory is included in discussions regarding new plans, and eventually issues are passed to an executive committee and ultimately to the president of the company, Akio Muramatsu.
Another thing I learned about the company was their loyalty to their workers. Muramatsu strives to keep quality high by employing the same workers for their entire careers.They also take all personnel and their families for a week long vacation every year. The company makes a strong effort not to release employees during lean times, nor to expand their employee base too quickly during times of high instrument demand. I recall Osamu Muramatsu telling me on one occasion, “We prefer steady growth to ups and downs.” That philosophy has served them well. Their family of workers return the loyalty in kind.
After returning from our trip in 1975, a new company was formed in America called Muramatsu USA, and I was appointed American consultant. It took only a few years to establish the Muramatsu flute in the United States, as it met quick approval and acceptance by a number of distinguished American flutists.
In 1995, I was appointed by Osamu Muramatsu to become the official representative for Muramatsu flutes in America. The name for the new distributorship is Muramatsu America.
Muramatsu America’s early initiative was to increase the number of dealerships throughout North America and to make sure that professional flutists everywhere had opportunities to test Muramatsu flutes. Of course, by this time, there were many flute clubs, flute festivals, and even flute specialty shops, and the Muramatsu America expansion fit well into the mold of the developing flute community throughout the country.
Recently, Muramatsu America has opened a new office called the Flute House in downtown Royal Oak, Michigan, where we invite customers to come and try instruments from a very large inventory. Though there is a waiting list for Muramatsu flutes from the factory, Muramatsu America orders flutes many months in advance to have ample inventory at all times for American dealerships and flutists.
Muramatsu takes great pride in training talented technicians to work on the Muramatsu flutes here in America. Among some of the earliest people to receive training was Robert Johnson, who studied Muramatsu repair at the factory in Japan and has carried on his expertise at his own company, Flute Specialist, in Clawson, Michigan.
Muramatsu does not pay individuals to play their flute, nor does it give away instruments to famous flutists. The philosophy has always been that the flute will stand on its own merits and the quality speaks for itself. It must be working, Muramatsu sells more professional flutes worldwide than any other flute maker.
© 2014 Ervin Monroe