Most of us tend to think of guitars made in Japan as dating to the 1960s, when Japanese manufacturers began supplying instruments to meet the seemingly inexhaustible demand created by teenaged babyboomers.
Fuelled by trends like the “folk revival” and the “British Invasion,” Japanese guitarmaking took off during the Swinging ’60s. But, in fact, Japan has a much longer relationship to the guitar and its ancestors, and in many ways guitars like the Kawai MoonSault were the culmination of that tradition.
Indeed, lutes – the progenitor of the guitar – developed somewhere in south-central Asia about 4,000 years ago, traveling both southwesterly into Mesopotamia and eastward toward the Pacific. By the second century A.D., lutes were known at the Chinese court as the instrument of “barbarian horsemen.” By the fifth century, at least, lutes had arrived in Japan. Over time, Japan evolved both short-(biwa) and long-necked lutes (shamisen), so stringed instruments were established when western guitars arrived. It should come as no surprise that, whenever guitars arrived, the instrument was well-received!
Just when European-style guitars came to Japan is uncertain. The island empire was “opened” by Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853-’54. Prior to that, the only ships allowed to dock at port were Chinese and Dutch, and the Dutch traders were confined to a small offshore island. It’s even possible that Perry’s sailors themselves brought the first guitars, as certainly by this time they were traveling on various whaling and merchant marine vessels plying the Pacific. Certainly, by the late 19th century, guitars had a toe-hold, and by 1921 Japan had its first European-trained classical guitarist and composer in Morishige Takai, who specialized in wonderful adaptations of Japanese folk melodies. Segovia toured Japan in 1929, the year Hoshino began importing Salvador Ibanez guitars from Spain. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, guitarmaking took hold in Japan to meet growing demand for diversion, but World War II pretty much wiped that out. Still, building guitars was one of the industries that thrived during reconstruction. This eventually led to the Japanese guitar explosion that supplied the babyboomers of the ’60s with beginner guitars, and the successful “copy” strategy of the early 1970s. Which brings us back to this MoonSault!
By the early ’70s, the Japanese had established themselves as cracker-jack guitarmakers. Some of the top guitar people in Japan, including Joe Hoshino (Ibanez), Fritz Katoh (Fuji Gen Gakki), and others, wanted to flex their muscles and create uniquely Japanese guitar designs that weren’t beholden to American Les Pauls and Strats for their appeal. In the close world of Japanese guitarmaking, the idea caught on. In ’75, a bunch of guitar designs were introduced, including what would become the Ibanez (and Greco) Iceman. Another was a “Lucky Cat” guitar, a popular “good luck” icon shaped like a chubby cat, almost never seen in the U.S. Several other candidates were put forward; the Iceman made it here and became the most successful export of this exercise in Japanese pride. The MoonSault became one of the most popular models in Japan, marketed by Kawai. As far as is known, no significant attempt was ever made to market MoonSaults in the U.S.
Just how the celestial lunar iconography fits with Japanese culture remains to be illuminated, but the obvious success of this model means it struck a chord. Whatever the associated meaning, it’s one of the more unique guitar shapes ever created!
Many MoonSault models were produced after ’75. The MS-700 was produced from December of ’82 through April, ’83. The tell-tale blue/silver burst finish clearly dates it to that time – precisely the era when Gibson and other companies were producing similar metallic “sunbursts,” proving the old saw that there’s no accounting for taste!
This is a great-playing, comfortable guitar, extremely well-made, with premium materials. Standing, it gives you a great image, and if you like to play sitting down, the moon shape cradles nicely in your lap. The body and set-in neck are made of mahogany. The ebony fingerboard is bound, and has abalone inlays that track the phases of the moon. The tuners and pickups appear to be Gotohs, which by this time were pretty fine. Gotoh humbuckers tend to be hot and crisp, as are these, very reminiscent of DiMarzios. Like many other Japanese guitars of this time, the electronics are designed to give you a great deal of tonal flexibility. The guitar has a master volume with individual tone controls for each pickup. Each tone pot is push/pull, yielding coil tapping on one and phase reversal on the other. The wide fine-tune bridge was very popular in the early ’80s, and provides easy, stable intonation.
The rage for silverburst guitars was pretty short-lived, lasting only a few years at best, and this MS-700 was soon replaced by other MoonSault models. Sales of MoonSaults, however, were brisk enough to keep the model in production through the 1990s. At the end of the run there was even a clear plexiglass tribute model. Alas, the global economy took its toll on Japanese guitarmakers. By the late ’80s, the dollar/yen conversion rate was so unfavorable that Japanese companies could not afford to export to the U.S., and the age of Korean guitars began. High-end guitarmakers continue to produce guitars in Japan, but for the most part they are for domestic consumption only while budget guitars hail from Korea, China, or elsewhere. The dream of a global Japanese identity, as reflected in Icemen and MoonSaults, pretty much became a victim to the practicalities of doing business. In some ways it’s a shame, but we move on!
How many MoonSaults were made is unknown. Because they weren’t marketed in the U.S., export numbers would be small to nil. And to say the design was popular in Japan is only a relative judgment. It’s not like every band had to play MoonSaults – even in Japan, it’s an acquired taste. If the few that show up on the market are any guide, they’re rare. But they do reflect an interesting time in guitarmaking history, and certainly are quintessentially “Japanese!”
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June 2007 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.