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I’m so Glad I Took My Violin to Japan!

December 22, 2011 at 1:59 PM

‘Why don’t you leave it at home,’ said my friend. Somewhat surprisingly, I thought, coming from a music graduate who had once performed professionally. I get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t play my violin for more than a couple of weeks and I planned to be in Japan for a month. Still, travelling with an instrument in the post-9/11 world can be a pain. My new Bam Cabin case may prevent arguments with airline staff, but the bow is in a separate tube which has to fit into an enormous suitcase. Enormous suitcases are not a good idea on public transport in Japan – least of all on the bullet train with which I intended to travel to Morioka in the north. Moreover, in Tokyo I’d be staying in a hotel and in Miyako in Iwate prefecture, I had no idea where. I was planning to join the team of OMF’s Iwate relief project for 2 weeks:
On the other hand, the trip, as well as being work-related, was in part a birthday present to myself, and why should I deprive myself of my favorite companion on such an occasion? Maybe there’d be opportunities to make music, even if ACMP (Amateur Chamber Music Players) don’t have a presence in Miyako.

So I arrived at Miyako station shouldering my fiddle. At first sight Miyako looked an unlikely place to have suffered the destructive power of the 3/11 tsunami. It’s partly surrounded by mountains, the sea not visible from the town centre. In fact though, the water had reached the area where I got off the bus from Morioka and flooded the shops along the main shopping street. Nine months later, most of them had re-opened, but the in area around the town hall by the harbor the scale of the destruction was all too evident. Smaller towns and villages along the coast have been virtually wiped out. Many of their surviving inhabitants live in temporary housing complexes or ‘kasetsu’ (short for ‘kasetsu jutaku’). According to the prefecture’s website, there are 13,984 households in Iwate prefecture alone, in housing complexes of only a handful to over 200 units. They are built on high ground wherever there was space, which can mean quite isolated spots.

Among the present activities of the OMF team – now that the basic clearing up has been completed and people have moved from emergency shelters into temporary housing – is organizing cafes in the ‘kasetsu’ in Miyako and the neighboring town of Yamada in order to give the people the chance to socialize and forget about their situation for a short time; or else to talk about it, if that’s what they wish, and voice needs and concerns the team can try to address. Another activity is distributing donated goods (while I was there these included electric lap blankets, 2012 calendars and Aomori apples). Since we were at the beginning of Advent, the team wanted to bring some seasonal cheer with Christmas tree decorations (the trees had been provided by the Japan Forestry Service), gifts and carol singing.

And this is where the violin came in useful. I wasn’t so sure at first. Japan has an abundance of fine violinists and several of them have performed for those affected by the disaster. But they did not necessarily reach those living in the more isolated ‘kasetsu.’ ‘This is the back and beyond,’ I was told, ‘hearing a violin live will be a novelty for the people here.’ So was singing carols. The people of Iwate seemed to love singing, but most of the tunes were unfamiliar – unlike the big cities, where department stores send out a constant stream of Christmas muzak from as soon as Halloween is over. The only ones we could count on people knowing where ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Silent Night’, the latter a favorite in Japan since at least the early 20th century, and sometimes ‘Joy to the World’, one of the first Christian songs to become popular in Japan in the 19th century.

My ‘Iwate debut’ was in the devastated town of Yamada, 30 min drive from Miyako, in a ‘kasetsu’ with 35 housing units built in the grounds of a primary school which had served as a place of refuge in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. About 26 people, most of them elderly ladies, gathered around the low tables in the common room. Despite their hardships they obviously intended to have a good time and the gathering was quite merry. After chatting tea, coffee and homemade cookies, Rowena McGinty started to play the portable Yamaha keyboard the team had brought along and I tuned my violin. We played and sang “Angels from the Realm of Glory” and ”Joy to the World.” That day another team, from Kitakami in the south of the prefecture had joined us. Their pastor gave an ultra-brief talk; starting, perhaps surprisingly (but accurately), that the word ‘kurisumasu’ (Christmas), cannot be found anywhere in the Bible; the biblical story merely offered a new reason for celebrations that were happening before Christianity came along. He concluded by emphasizing the importance of giving and looking after each other. This is also something local welfare organizations are encouraging people to do. Experience from the Kobe earthquake in 1995 has made them are aware of the danger of people in the housing units dying alone or even taking their own lives in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation. After the talk we played ‘Silent Night’ and then it was nearly lunchtime and people started to leave. We cleaned up the common room which boasted a brand-new vacuum cleaner. Many of the common rooms in the ‘kasetsu’ I saw were well-equipped with children’s’ books, flat-screen TVs, computers etc, but distribution of goods has been unequal and some places apparently get left out of the loop.

Over the two weeks I spent in Miyako the team sponsored several such pre-Christmas gatherings with carol singing. On one Saturday afternoon I played for children at a primary school; one of the children presented me with a picture she had drawn of a violin. The following Sunday I joined the band in the small local community church and played a short solo on the invitation of the pastor’s wife, a great lover of music.

Still, it was difficult not to feel frustrated: the people living in the coastal towns of northern Japan need more than cookies and Christmas carols, but what exactly? By now their most basic material needs have been met. But the temporary housing is meant to be just that, temporary. Where, though, are those people to go who have lost everything, many of whom are too old to start all over again? Some of the villages and small towns that were their homes may not be rebuilt at all. The scale of the disaster (and I’m not even talking about the nuclear disaster) is overwhelming. Even so, signs of rebuilding are everywhere and I was impressed and moved by the pluck and determination of the local people. Long-term solutions, however, have yet to be worked out.

Meanwhile I like to think my violin helped create a few bright moments as the dreaded winter looms, and the long haul to recovery has only just begun.

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on December 22, 2011 at 5:00 PM
Thank you for your excellent reporting from the disaster area. We need to be reminded of what's going on because it really has fallen off our radar screens, at least here in the States.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on December 22, 2011 at 8:03 PM
the sad thing is that for many people outside the region it has also fallen off the radar screen.Not heartlesness. People gave so much (and still do in many cases) but disaster-relief fatigue creeps in and the absolute horror of being a refugee from ones childhood friends and neighbourhoods, living in miserable, cold , lonely rabbit hutches is , ultimately, not news for very long.
Plus, the next dimension of the disaster is beginning to hit. There is no real money to pay for rebuilding except by heavy taxation of the rest of us who have very litlt emoney anyway. Combine this with the major industrail difficulties and things don`t look good.
Whats left is the indomitable spirit, the kindness and love of others such a Margaret and our best efforts. The role of music and the arts will be enormous since there is little else to cheer about.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on December 22, 2011 at 10:05 PM
Hi Margaret, thanks so much for your wonderful blog!

Buri and Emily are quite right to point out that outside the region things do fall out of the radar. I was in Kyoto for three weeks last month, my very first trip to Japan. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t have any chance to help out. To me it wasn’t a matter of fatigue; I would have participated but I didn’t see any relief effort in Kyoto, not obvious visible to a foreigner’s eyes any way.

I admire your courage. I have to confess that most of time when I was in Japan, I didn’t know if and when it would be appropriate to bring up something that is considered as their misfortune of some sort by the Japanese people. I hope you and Buri would agree that Japanese people, particularly people in Kyoto, are sensitive and reserved. You will not be told if you have crossed the line. So I choose to stay within my comfort zone and work with a local charity group, which works closely with Red Cross. We just got report from them last month about the result of their relief work on 3/11 disaster. It sounded pretty good to us, but I’m keeping my eyes and ears open and if you and Buri have any suggestion or request, I’d love to bring it to our group for consideration.


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