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  • Steve Sato, KASA founder

Communication with Utakkonokai (Choir formed after disaster)

Updated: Dec 28, 2018


Around this time last year, the executive director of KASA Steve Sato met with a local resident of Japan who frequents the disaster stricken area North of Sendai for volunteer work. Mr. Tatsui Tada has journeyed to the city of Kamaishi since late 2011 and in his travels learned of inspiring stories of solidarity and hope in Japan’s rural communities. The serendipitous meeting took place fall 2013 and was organized to exchange information about the present state of rural communities in the Tohoku region of Japan. The KASA organization hoped to gain knowledge of ongoing projects in these communities and the current challenges met by the survivors of 3/11.

KASA director and Mr. Tada met at an Italian restaurant near Denver's International Airport. Mr. Tada stated, "There are many ongoing recovery efforts taking place in Kamaishi City, such as the rebuilding of a destroyed music hall, a woman who made a local cafe out of tsunami debris and other meaningful stories of triumph." The KASA organization director posed the question, “How can we as a nonprofit in America connect directly with the people living in these rural communities and form relationships?”. While speaking with Mr. Tada KASA affiliates learned of how a small group of survivors evacuated a coastal town after their homes were destroyed. The group left together to find higher ground shortly after the tsunami sirens sounded and the Pacific Ocean waters engulfed their homes. How do people pick up the pieces after a natural disaster completely alters their world in the blink of an eye?

These stories of survival and hope collectively resinated with the KASA organization’s mission and one in particularly stood out. One night a group of individuals gathered around a fire lit beyond a building that housed displaced residence of a small town located on the coast of the Iwate prefecture (Kamaishi City). That night something amazing happened, a local musician named Mr. Yamazaki noticed the group’s despair and asked them to raise their voices in song. He hoped to unite the evacuee’s with the universal language of music and thus the choir group Utakkonokai was formed out of the human desire for connectedness with an collective affinity of optimism to heal the emotional wounds understood by the residences of Japan’s Eastern coastline.

Director of Utakkonokai

To gain insight of this amazing story of individuals singing in Kamaishi City was inspirational to the KASA organization. The international liaison Mr. Tada could connect the KASA organization as a direct bridge to individuals presently making a difference in Japan’s rural communities. Upon returning to Japan Mr. Tada visited with Mr. Yamazaki who welcomed a relationship with the nonprofit KASA in America. Shortly after the KASA organization received photos of the Utakkonokai signing in small venues around Kamaishi City. Steve Sato stated that, “Utakkonokai is making a small yet positive impact within their local community.” In February of 2014 a documentary style video arrived with the Utakkonokai choir preparing for a performance in remembrance of the events of March 11th, 2011. They were practicing the song “Hana wa Saku” which translates to “The Flower's will Bloom”. This song was written to inspire the country of Japan to focus on the faithful spring which ushers in seasonal change and acknowledges the losses individuals experienced from this tragedy.

The KASA organization was inspired by Utakkonokai and how they were spreading joy in the City of Kamaishi. The Utakkonokai choir’s story spread to a music group lead my KASA board member's Tim and Madi McLaughlin. The newly formed choir group from Santa Fe, NM was eager to connect with the choir in Japan through music and began a sibling relationship of video exchange and an enthusiasm of each others global musical interest. The KASA organization was eager to learn more about this inspirational group in Japan on a personal level and thus a introduction letter and video were sent along with a few interview questions to the Utakkonokai choir group on May 19th, 2014.

Interview with Utakkonokai’s director: Mr. Yamazaki

Interviewer: How has Utakkonokai positively effected the local community? Mr. Yamazaki: "Through music, we heal our mind and are able to feel this healing together." Interviewer: What does your name "Utakkonokai" represent? Mr. Yamazaki: "After the disaster, it is a fact that possessions can not satisfy our soul; music is for people who are content, but also for people who are heartbroken." Interviewer: Why is singing important to you? Mr. Yamazaki: "Expressing our feelings, sometimes crying together and holding each other... We keep on moving forward... That's important.”

Interview of choir members: Atsuko Takeuchi, Kentsu Tanaka, Sato Yoshida, Saho Ogasawara, Teyo Hoshiba and Tomi Koyoma.

For the time being, the group would like to just enjoy singing together rather than competing. That sunny, summer Saturday morning the group sang a Japanese children song, “Zuizuizukkorobashi”, in the end and cheerful laughter filled the air.

Question #1

Interviewer: Why is singing important to you? Atsuko: "I love singing! Our piano, choir, everything was gone. We are living in the shelter, but we get together and sing; it makes me feel great, gives us encouragement in this way, we get our strength back. The shelters are small, not able to sing loud in them. We come here to sing along with the piano. It is wonderful." Statements from other choir members: "It is fun to sign. Using my voice to sing loudly soothes my mind." Continued response from the group: "We get scared, sad and lonely we feel we lost our connection. When I was asked to join the choir, I felt happiness and joy."

Question #2

Interviewer: How did your time with Utakkonokai begin? Kentsu:"There was a local choir prior to 3/11. Also, people who are at the shelters not able to sing or talk loud. We went to see Yamazaki sensei and his wife had a piano, so we began a new choir." Interviewer: What does singing mean to you? Kentsu: "Singing loud from the bottom of the stomach makes me feel good. Singing makes us feel energetic and joyful. End of interview.

Mr. and Ms. Yamazaki, who live in temporary housing themselves, have been holding classes to coach this singing group.

Message from KASA’s director,

Supporting a personal relationship with active civil groups in Japan is directly aligned with the mission of KASA. The KASA: Kindness America-Sendai Alliance is an international community dedicated to the facilitation of meaningful revitalization projects in northern Japan following the cataclysmic tsunami of spring 2011. The KASA organization’s present goal is to raise funds to support positive collectives in Japan making a difference in their local communities. The hope of this campaign is to shed light on positive role models working towards Japan’s recovery and to spread awareness of inspirational groups such as the Utakkonokai choir in Kamaishi City.

-Steve Sato

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