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Japanese bluegrass transplant recovers, with a little help from his friends

Hiroshi Arakawa plays 'Whiskey for Breakfast'

Hiroshi Arakawa came to Raleigh, NC from Hiroshima, Japan on a student visa to learn bluegrass and English, not necessarily in that order.
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Hiroshi Arakawa came to Raleigh, NC from Hiroshima, Japan on a student visa to learn bluegrass and English, not necessarily in that order.

Hiroshi Arakawa may not know it yet, but he has a lot of friends in high places in the bluegrass world.

On Monday, the 25-year-old bluegrass guitarist remained hospitalized in an induced coma at Wake Medical Center while recovering from injuries sustained in a Thanksgiving Day car wreck. His girlfriend, Juana Maria Cardona Alvarez, was driving and died at the scene of the accident on Lynn Road in Raleigh.

To help Arakawa, some friends have set up a “Road to Hiro’s Recovery” crowd-funding campaign. And the bluegrass community has stepped up.

By Monday evening, more than 200 donors from across the globe had given in excess of $13,500 toward a $15,000 goal. Contributors include Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge and Hot Rize banjoist Pete Wernick – plus a notably sizable donation from banjo-playing humorist Steve Martin.

“Steve Martin gave $1,000,” said Hank Smith, a local musician helping coordinate relief efforts. “That’s the silver lining to all of this, the huge community of support around Hiroshi.”

Arakawa was born in Hiroshima, Japan. He discovered bluegrass at age 13, when he heard Japanese singer Masuo Sasabe sing the old Carter Family standard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” at his grandmother’s funeral.

Hiroshi Arakawa embarked on a self-taught bluegrass regimen while studying international economics at Tokyo’s Meiji Gakuin University, before his love of the music brought him to the Triangle in 2015

“I was 13 and had never heard bluegrass before,” Arakawa said in a 2015 News & Observer profile. “I was so impressed when I heard it. I didn’t know the music at all, but bluegrass was very beautiful.”

Arakawa embarked on a self-taught bluegrass regimen while studying international economics at Tokyo’s Meiji Gakuin University, before his love of the music brought him to the Triangle in 2015. He spent a year studying English at Wake Tech while also becoming enmeshed in the local bluegrass community as a regular at Smith’s weekly “Beer and Banjos” show.

After his student visa expired, immigration rules required that Arakawa return to Japan. But he was soon back in the U.S. to enroll this fall at East Tennessee State University’s acclaimed bluegrass program.

He also maintained his ties to Raleigh, hometown of his girlfriend Alvarez, who just turned 22 years old the day before their accident. A crowd-funding page for her funeral expenses had raised around $9,800 toward a $10,000 goal by Monday evening.

Last month found Arakawa back in Raleigh for the annual World of Bluegrass festival, and looking ahead. He talked enthusiastically about taking a guitar class at East Tennessee State from renowned bluegrass musician Tony Rice’s brother, Wyatt Rice, and even learning bluegrass fiddle.

“I hope to be back here next year and have a show,” he said.

Despite the extent of Arakawa’s injuries, that might still be possible. He suffered a concussion, broken ribs and a collapsed lung. But Smith said he’s expected to recover.

Still, recovery won’t be an easy road. With family travel costs and medical expenses mounting, Smith and friends have declared Tuesday night’s weekly “Beer and Banjos” at Raleigh Times to be a benefit for Arakawa’s recovery fund.

“It’s the least we could do,” said Smith. “They’re bringing in a translator from the embassy, who I imagine will be a bridge between the doctors and his parents.

“But there’s still a lot of heartache,” Smith added. “It will take a while to explain to him what happened. I imagine the full weight of that will hit him incrementally.”

Hiroshi Arakawa came to Raleigh, NC from Hiroshima, Japan on a student visa to learn bluegrass and English, not necessarily in that order.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

Banjo benefit

What: “Beer and Banjos” with Swift Creek, Hank Smith and others

When: 7:30-10:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Raleigh Times, 14 E. Hargett St.

Cost: Free, but they’ll pass the hat for Hiroshi Arakawa’s relief fund

Details: raleightimesbar.com

Crowd-funding pages

Hiro’s Road to Recovery: www.gofundme.com/hirorecovery

Juana Maria Cardona Alvarez funeral expenses: www.gofundme.com/30tjwfc

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