Grateful Crane Ensemble reflects upon 20 years, upcoming Sacramento show

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Nichi Bei Weekly Report
Grateful Crane Ensemble’s mission is “to pay tribute to the unique hardships and inspiring contributions of Japanese Americans in our country’s history and continues the traditions of our Japanese ancestry through educational and entertaining works of music and theater to the Nikkei and broader communities.”

Recently for the “Nichi Bei Café,” the Nichi Bei Weekly spoke to San Francisco native Soji Kashiwagi, the executive director of the Southern California-based Grateful Crane Ensemble, about the group on the heels of its 20th anniversary last year. Kashiwagi discussed the group’s activities to date, including three trips to help raise the spirits of those in the Tohoku region who were impacted by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, and the group’s upcoming performance in Sacramento, Calif.

Nichi Bei Weekly: Congratulations on hitting the 20-year anniversary of the Grateful Crane Ensemble. As you look back on the first 20 years, what prompted you to begin the organization, and what does “Grateful Crane” mean?
Soji Kashiwagi: The Grateful Crane is a Japanese children’s story, “Tsuru no Ongaishi,” and we based the name of our group on this story. It’s the idea of gratitude and giving back, and being grateful for people and what has come before you. We started the group 20 years ago, as you mentioned, just with the idea of singing some songs to seniors at the Keiro retirement home in Los Angeles. And it kind of grew from there, to just telling Japanese stories, to Japanese American stories, and then we started taking it on the road, up and down the state, across the country, and eventually all the way to Japan.

NBW: What stands out as some of the most memorable moments of the past 20 years?
SK: I would say that the most memorable moments have been seeing the peoples’ reactions to what we’ve been doing. We’ve been telling Japanese American stories. We did so with the show called “Camp Dance,” which was about the high school dances that the Nisei used to have in camp and the songs they used to dance to. We did a story called “Nihonmachi: The Place to Be,” which was about Japantown, and it actually started with the 100th anniversary of San Francisco’s Japantown.
And so it’s kind of covering our Japanese American history, and in the process seeing the peoples’ reactions — laughing, crying, and remembering. I think that’s been the most memorable thing. And there’s also been a certain amount of healing that has taken place. A lot of our history is very painful, and we don’t talk about it. Music has a way of bringing out a lot of emotions.
It’s been pretty amazing. In “Nihonmachi,” we gave out little packets of Kleenex to the audience members as a little souvenir, but thinking that they were going to need it, because prior to that we had audience members wiping their tears with their shirts (goes through motion of wiping tears with shirt). So we figured, let’s give out some Kleenex. And sure enough, those who had the Kleenex, used it, and those who didn’t rushed out during intermission saying, ‘Where’s that Kleenex’? ‘I need that Kleenex.’ That kind of reaction is very emotional. It’s really a rewarding thing to see.

NBW: Your more recent production, “Garage Door Opener,” is about siblings who clean out their parents’ garage, and in the process, dig through some memories. It seems to resonate with Japanese American audiences across the state. How did this production come about?
SK: The initial shows, especially “Camp Dance,” were really for the Nisei. And so over the years, we decided that we needed to do something for the Sansei. We wrote this story of this Sansei brother and sister, that had to clean out their parents’ garage after they passed away. And all of the stuff that they saved, it resonated with people, just because they could relate to this scene. They actually had to do it themselves, where they had to go through the tofu containers, and the kamaboko boards, and everything else that their parents saved, because if you threw it away, it would be mottainai, and that’s not a good thing in our community.

NBW: After the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami on March 11, 2011, the Grateful Crane Ensemble went to Tohoku to try to lift the spirits of those impacted by the disasters. In what ways did that trip impact both the Grateful Crane Ensemble, as well as the audience?
SK: You know we’ve been on three trips now to Tohoku, and each one has been life-changing for the members of Grateful Crane. Mainly, it’s been the inspiration of the people. People who have gone through so much, in trying to recover. But anybody who goes there will tell you that the Tohoku people have an enormous spirit, and that has been so inspirational for us. In turn, they really, really appreciate the fact that we came all the way from America to be with them, number one. Number two, that we haven’t forgotten them. And number three, that we’re there and we’re singing their favorite Japanese songs that has brought them a lot of joy, and laughter, and tears too. So all around, it’s been incredible.

NBW: In recent years, you’ve developed a youth group called The Grateful Four. What led to its development, and why?
SK: When we decided to do something for the Sansei, we also had in mind that we needed to involve the Yonsei. So around 2010 is when we first started bringing in younger folks to sing. At first they would participate in our fundraising dinners, and join us on stage to sing a song. That was kind of their first introduction to Grateful Crane and to our community. Since then, it’s kind of evolved. It started as a Yonsei a cappella group, kind of like the ones they have on college campuses. In fact our board chair, Michael Murata, was with a group at UC Berkeley. So he kind of took that experience and formed this a cappella group, which became a singing group, and they joined us in Japan and had an incredible experience as well. It’s just been great having them.

NBW: On Saturday, April 23 and Sunday, April 24, the Grateful Crane Ensemble will have a free performance at the Benvenuti Performing Arts Center in Sacramento, titled “Misora Hibari: A Tribute to a Legend.” For those who may be unfamiliar with her, who was Misora Hibari, and why was she so popular?
SK: Misora Hibari was an incredible singer, actress and all-around performer. She started when she was a child, and her career lasted 40 years. She’s credited with lifting the spirits, and giving people hope and strength, especially during the war and after the war. What we point out in our show in tribute to her, is that she also had this effect on Japanese Americans after the war. When they didn’t have anything, Misora Hibari would give them joy, and laughter, and hope and strength. That’s one of the things that we point out, along with singing all of her greatest hits, which bring back the memories of our grandparents and parents listening to her songs and albums on the record player, or watching her on Japanese programs on TV, or going to the Kokusai Theater and seeing her in the movies. It just brings back so many memories and joy for people.

NBW: And finally, how can people secure tickets to the event?
SK: It is a free show. You’re supposed to get your tickets online through Eventbrite. So just go to the link on Eventbrite and reserve your tickets there.

The Grateful Crane Ensemble will perform “Misora Hibari: A Tribute to a Legend” Saturday, April 23 and Sunday, April 24 at 2 p.m. at the Benvenuti Performing Arts Center at 4600 Blackrock Drive in Sacramento, Calif. The show features Haruye Ioka, Keiko Kawashima, Merv Maruyama and Helen Ota, along with musicians Lisa Joe on keyboards, Danny Yamamoto on drums and Japanese percussion. The “Misora Hibari” performances are free, underwritten by the Nisei Appreciation Alliance. For more information or to reserve tickets, visit: https://sactownmisorahibari.eventbrite.com.

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