July 2011

The Power of a Song

July 30, 2011 13:49


After a series of overnight bus journeys I finally arrived at our camp in Ishinomaki (one of the towns most badly damaged by the March earthquake/tsunami). I am with the Japanese team of the PeaceBoat NPO which also has a foreign volunteer group. I can see the Japanese members are puzzled to find a weird bearded foreigner in their section. Our hundred plus group splits into four man teams and I find I am going to spend the next eight days dependent on and supporting a thirty year old geisha, a nineteen year old university student and a forty year old salaryman. I am the token violinist...

As we assemble in our lines for the preliminary meeting we are all a bit puzzled to be asked to sing the following children's song from a rather old Japanese animation called `AnPanman.` (All you really have to know about him is that he is made of bread and he saved the world from famine by letting people eat him.)

That's right! Don't be afraid?It is for everybody's sake?All you need is courage and love, because we're all friend

What really makes your smile shine through??what kinds of things do you like to do??Ending when don't even have a clue?That kind of thing is no good!Your dreams are thing you musn't forget?And try not to let your tears spill down?And if you don't it'll be as if?You're flying wherever you goThat's right! Don't be afraid?It is for everybody's sake?All you need is courage and love, because we're all friends?An, an, anpanman?Such a kind, friendly hero?Go, fly! Up in the sky, protecting all our dreams

Anyway, we make a hash of the song and then are told that we will sing it together every morning because the camp is surrounded by temporary housing full of old people who are desperate and lonely. When they hear this song they are touched very deeply and able to remember happier times for just a few moments.

The hundred plus team is divided into three broad groups and I find myself in the `support the fishing industry ` section. Perhaps a little ironic for a vegetarian of thirty years, although I have no idea what the support will entail. We get on our minibuses and head up into the mountains on the steepest, winding roads you can imagine, only wide enough for one vehicle. They are cracked and broken with the sides collapsing down into sheer drops of hundreds of meters. This does not seem to faze the traffic coming in the opposite direction at high speed. We pass houses with `SOS we are starving` written in huge letter on the roofs.

To understand the effect of the disaster here on has to vizualize the geography. Almost flat coves at virtual sea level used to contain little fishing villages of a hundred or so houses. These are backed by really steep mountains covered in trees. The tsunami swept in unchecked and destroyed all the houses and ships killing on average about twenty residents who didn`t make it to the mountains. Up the slopes of the mountains are deposited thousands of tons of rubble and broken ships. After the disaster these hamlets were cut off for weeks until the Japanese army built gravel roads about one meter above sea level which we have to cross. Its very scary because massive aftershocks are still occurring on a daily basis and a new tsunami would be the end. During our work on a few occasions there was a big shock and we had to down tools and run for the mountains until the all clear was sounded. The work itself consists of three basic stages: clearing tons of rubble and machinery, digging out the drains and rebuilding/laying new oyster beds. Of our group two people suffered serious leg injuries during stage one. The oysters themselves are grown on the shells of large shellfish which are strung together and suspend on ropes in the bay. It is back breaking , mind numbing work to thread thousands of these shells onto wires then carry them to the ships to be laid out under the water. I chat with the head of the hamlet and he tells me we are the first volunteers to arrive to help since the disaster. He talks about his family and it takes me a moment to realize the wife and child he is speaking of so proudly both died in March.

I can`t quite get my head round things so I keep pestering people to explain exactly what we are doing. In the small picture it is like a miracle. Our four man team spent one day in 42 degree heat digging mud out of the foundations of a house. It took all day but it was done. From there the owners can try to rebuild and repair a little. 25 four man teams is 25 houses so we have done a lot of good but the scale of the damage and the number of villages is so vast I cannot see the big picture.

Finally I get it. All the displaced families, the old people living in temporary boxlike `homes` with no friends, the many thousands suffering massive bereavement basically need a small light to follow. At the end of the day, if they can see hundreds of people trying their hardest to rebuild and get things moving they take heart and have a tiny glimmer of hope for the future.

Like AnPan Man says

Ending when don't even have a clue?That kind of thing is no good!Your dreams are thing you musn't forget?And try not to let your tears spill down



10 replies

Stoneface Cracks a Smile.

July 2, 2011 12:23


every Thursday night for the last few years has been an excursion into intellectual damnation under the auspices of the beloved `Stoneface.` My curiously named nemesis is a truly hard core septegenarian university professor who drags me kicking and screaming through deconstructions of Montaigne and Bordieu in Japanese, her face a handsome stone mask staying immobile and sarcastic looking throughout my every flub.

I did , of course, affectionately name her after the school teacher in my favorite Japanese comedy `My Boss My hero,` in which a twenty eight year old gangster with an IQ of about 3 returns to senior high school and is beaten into shape by the tough love care of sensei `Iron face.`

I think... she likes me.....It took her a long time to figure out how to teach me since, lacking formal education, my mind moves to an odd rhythm, a challenge she enjoyes. Plus I can read and write about 3500 (sino)Japanese characters now, at least half of which are completely obselete and utterly useless. And of course, I am a musician of sorts.

Her daughter is a professional singer so naturally I was obliged to buy a ticket to what I thought was a solo recital. On the day in question I just made it to the small private concert hall having come directly from the Tohoku disaster zone. I probably looked a bit odd (and smelly) with my 50 litre rucksack full of old washing but is it really my fault if the hall doesn`t have a desk where you can leave luggage?

A quick look at the program and I am surprised to discover that her daughter is one of -seven-sopranos taking turns to sing rather maudlin and very old TV sound tracks. The daughter walks out on stage and I am immediately impressed with how naturally she stands and moves around, something quite difficult for singers to get. She is a -very- good musician with a strong sense of Jazz nuance and what goes on between the notes. A good quality voice being used very sensitively. I am optimistic since she is clearly the lowest ranked and hallowed performer on the program. Alas, the next singer waddles on and sings a very low number that is clearly below her natural range (nothing wrong with transposition). It`s out of tune and unpleasant to my ears. The next sopranos are worse. Huge, self deludedly operatic voices with 6 inch vibrato. My head begins to ache and I wonder if my last sandwich is going to make a miraculous reincarnation. Finally we get to the halfway mark in a mercifully short program and I sprint for the door with my rucksack on. No-one is going to prevent my escape!!!

Back home I wonder what to say to Stoneface. Would it sound funny if I said `Your daughter was great. Everyone else was rubbish.` A touch of the brown nose perhaps? Would she then retaliate by teaching me to say things like `Iwashi no atama mo shinjin kara...` when I was proposing to my next wife?

Like all complex problems here, the matter was clearly best discussed with the school nurse who is not only smart but easy on the eye to boot. Her advice- `just be perfectly honest. It`s not your problem.`

Thus empowered I nervously went into my next lesson and explained that I had found with the exception of her daughter, all those fairly famous sopranos to be utterly awful to the point of wanting to throw up.

Stoneface smiles. `Me too.`

She has finally cracked.



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