Harry Minoru Urata

Photo courtesy of the Mid-Pacific Institute

Japanese American Musician, Educator, and Ethnomusicologist

Harry Minoru Urata (浦田ハリー實)


Harry Urata was born in 1917 in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. Drawn to music from an early age, he was responsible for preserving and perpetuating holehole bushi, a folk song tradition of Japanese immigrant sugar plantation workers in Hawaiʻi. Holehole bushi is a hybrid term that combines the Japanese word for tune (bushi) with a Hawaiian term describing the stripping the leaves off of cut sugar cane (holehole). In these songs, workers expressed their hardships, disappointments, and hopes.

Harry Urata spent part of his childhood with relatives in Kumamoto, Japan, and Seoul, Korea, before returning to Hawaiʻi when he graduated from high school. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Urata was arrested and confined at Honouliuli concentration camp, along with several hundred Americans of Japanese ancestry living in Hawaiʻi, whose loyalty was questioned not for any crime or specific action, but rather for their involvement in Japanese culture. It was here that he met Kawazoe Kenpu, a journalist who nurtured Urata’s interest in Japanese culture and popular music, encouraging him to study and collect holehole bushi. After the war, Urata worked as a Japanese language instructor and sold ads for a Japanese-language newspaper before diving back into his true love: music. He led music programming at the Japanese-language radio station KULA; performed popular Japanese music with his orchestra Shinko Gengakudan; travelled to Japan to study with composer Koga Masao; and opened a music studio in Honolulu, where he taught guitar and voice. In the mid-1960s, Urata travelled around the Islands, recording songs and interviews with an aging generation of former workers who could still sing holehole bushi. He continued this fieldwork until the 1980s.

Starting in the 1970s, Harry Urata began collaborating with Dr. Franklin Odo (who later served as director of Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Programs) on publications and documentaries about the holehole bushi tradition. Urata later bequeathed his collection to Dr. Odo, who published a book on the topic, Voices from the Canefields. At the request of Urata, Dr. Odo presented Urata’s collection, which consists of 20 open-reel tapes recorded between 1960–80, to the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

Harry Urata is credited with being responsible for the recovery of the holehole bushi folk songs. Not only did he document the songs from the original singers, he also developed models and methodology for teaching these songs to generations of young students, ensuring that the music is preserved not only in archives or cited in scholarship, but also persists in community life through live performance. Information about Urata’s research on the holehole tradition can be found in:

Odo, Franklin. Voices from the Canefields (2013)

Hole Hole Bushi: Song of the Cane Fields. Produced by Chris Conybeare with the assistance of Franklin Odo. 30 min. KHET-TV. Part of “Rice and Roses” series on immigrant life on the plantations. (1984)

Sojin Kim

Odo, Franklin. 2013. Voices from the Canefields. Oxford University Press.  

Urata, Harry Minoru. 1960-1980. Harry Urata recordings between 1960-1980. Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage, archives.  

Urata, Harry Minoru and Franklin Odo. 1981. “Hole Hole Bushi: Songs of Hawaii’s Japanese Immigrants.” Mana.  6, no. 1 (1981): 69–75, esp. 70.  

Urata, Harry Minoru. 2008. Oral History Interview with Harry Urata by Jim Tanabe & Yoshie Tanabe. Oral History on Hawai’i’s WWII Japanese Internment Camps.  

Urata, Harry Minoru. 1984. Hole Hole Bushi: Song of the Cane Fields. Produced by Chris Conybeare with the assistance of Franklin Odo. 30 min. KHET-TV. Part of “Rice and Roses” series on immigrant life on the plantations.