Grateful Crane uplifts spirits of disaster survivors in Tohoku, Japan

A group of emotional Grateful Crane Ensemble members perform.

The Grateful Crane Ensemble’s Fukushima performance moved Watanabe-san to tears. photo by Michael C. Palma

In October at a public housing facility in Fukushima, Japan, an elderly Japanese man entered the room wearing the LA Dodgers cap we gave him five years ago.

No longer new and shiny, the cap was now faded, torn and well-worn, perhaps showing the passage of time, and how things change — and remain the same — after five years.

His cap was tired, but the man was the same, and he was still there. The cap signaled to us that he remembered, and we remembered him.

“It’s good to see you again,” we said. “Thank you for coming.”

We were there on our fourth goodwill tour to Tohoku, where we would sing nostalgic songs of hope and inspiration for disaster survivors in the three prefectures hardest hit by the 2011 triple disaster.

Our theater group, the Grateful Crane Ensemble, planned a return to Tohoku in October 2020, but the global pandemic forced us to cancel. It wasn’t until Japan re-opened in October 2022 when we started planning a follow-up tour in 2023.

A follow-up and a return to places we had been before — to check-in on friends, and to see how they were doing after five years.

Due to the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, residents have dealt with issues people in Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures haven’t faced. Branded as “unsafe” and “contaminated,” Fukushima products and people have faced discrimination, shaming, bullying and an ongoing stigma just because they are from Fukushima.

Younger folks have moved away, and are trying to start over in cities throughout Japan. The once close-knit Fukushima family bond is gone, leaving displaced seniors behind, oftentimes alone and isolated in government-funded public housing, the large facilities built to replace temporary housing units.

This is where we last performed for them in 2018. Five years later, we were happy to see the man with his cap and several others. However, over time, some have moved away, others have died and new people have moved in. The newcomers, mostly low-income and non-disaster survivors, have not meshed well with the remaining residents. In one facility, it’s gotten so bad that residents refuse to answer their doors, or come out for any community activities.

Except it’s hard to say “community” when “community” doesn’t exist. In one facility, we were told to expect only three people. When we started our show, only two showed up.

During our introduction, I explained who we are, and how many of us with Hiroshima roots can empathize with the nuclear stigma that has also affected our own families. Then I delivered our message, on behalf of our Nikkei community, to the people of Tohoku:

“You have friends in America, and we have not forgotten you.”

In Fukushima, a man named Watanabe, one of the two people in attendance, was visibly moved. During the singing of the Tohoku relief song, “Hana wa Saku,” he started to cry. Seeing this, members of our group started to cry as well.

By the end of the show, though, Watanabe-san was smiling, he was singing along to every song, and afterwards told us that he was deeply touched by our music and our message.

“To know that someone around the world hasn’t forgotten us is very moving,” he said.

We left this facility and headed to another for our afternoon show. Before the show, Watanabe-san showed up on his bike. He wanted to see us again.

We have found that it’s these person-to-person connections that mean the most, and have kept us coming back

Twelve years after the triple disaster, many in Tohoku feel like they have been forgotten. Much has been rebuilt and the ground around them has been raised and uplifted, but what about services that help the people? Tohoku people are strong and resilient, but even they wonder, “What about us?”

Our answer and presence, thanks to the support of the Japanese American community, said to them, “You are not alone.” Hearing this along with our songs and music gave them hope, and we hope, some much needed healing.

“As someone who experienced the disaster, I appreciate that they traveled so far to sing for us,” a man in Minamisanriku said.

“I now feel like I can go on for another day,” a woman in Ishinomaki said.

Back in Fukushima, Watanabe-san told us he had been down on his luck, but after seeing us twice he said, “I haven’t been this happy in a very long time.” And then he started to cry.

Note: NHK World featured Grateful Crane’s goodwill tour on its worldwide newscast on Nov. 6. Here’s the link to the report by Orie Sugimoto: https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/news/videos/20231107162904724/.

The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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