A Guidepost for the Future: Japanese Artist Stuns with Musical Message
NEW YORK — “Study, learn, and try to become more invested in these issues,” said artist Harumi Yamamoto. “Remember that nuclear issues affect each and every one of us.”
This was the message Yamamoto gave students who attended her musical presentation about the horrors of nuclear power, on September 30 at St. John’s University’s Queens Campus. About 70 students, faculty and guests crowded an upstairs room in the D’Angelo Center.
Using song-telling techniques to convey the horrors of war
The Japanese artist and activist used her song-telling technique to demonstrate the impact of the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima. She warned attendees of the dangers of nuclear weapons. The two-hour show she presented to St. John’s students and faculty, Uncle Sparrow, was performed entirely in Japanese and only the lyrics were translated to English captions.
Yamamoto used the power of language in art to connect to the audience; reaching across ages and nationalities. Her songs and visual art illustrated the dangers of nuclear weapons, and Hiroshima’s past in particular.
“I am living in the future you dreamed of”
“Uncle Sparrow” is the story is Takoa, a Japanese boy orphaned on August 6, 1945, the day of the Atomic bombing. On that day, the Japanese city of Hiroshima changed forever after the Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber, dropped the first atomic bomb at 8:15 a.m.
The bomb “Little Boy”, which contained 64 kg of uranium, destroyed 90 percent of the city, even though only 150g of its uranium reacted. The detonation instantly killed 80,000 people. Tens of thousands of people would later die from the effects of intense radiation exposure.
In order to survive in the aftermath, ten-year-old Takoa had to hunt, kill, and eat sparrows in the mountains to keep himself from starving to death. More than 60 years later, Takoa is still haunted by what he did to the sparrows. In fact, he feeds them every day outside the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park as his way of asking for forgiveness. The routine earned him the nickname “Uncle Sparrow.”
“The future is not set in stone because we are making tomorrow”
Yamamoto’s performance is not historical fiction. Her story is rooted in truth and she simply relays Takoa’s story and experience to her audiences. According to the artist, it took her five years to record this story from him. “It was very hard for him to recount his childhood,” she said.
Yamamoto holds “Peace Studies” concerts to educate audiences on the narratives of 1945 Japan. Her expressive performances included singing and interpretive movements while she played the piano. Yamamoto’s lyrics underscored the pictures and images on screen, while her physical movements highlighted the raw emotion of the story she was telling.
A victim-centered historical perspective
The first song of the performance introduced the “Phlox Flower,” a delicate light pink flower that, as the artist said, illustrates the rebuilding of the ghost town.
The artist also narrated how after the atomic explosion, Hiroshima’s main river quickly filled with the bodies of those who died in the attack. In addition, the “black rain,” as the artist described it, filled the air and just minutes after the deadly blast, particles and debris “rained” from the sky.
International students from a number of countries, including the U.S. and France came to watch Yamamoto spread her message of peace and remembrance. “This is based on a true story. It took me five years to get everything out of him. I wanted to convey a true message – the true story,” she said.
During the question and answer part of her performance, Yamamoto encouraged younger generations to seek out history and understand the lessons in light of modern nuclear proliferation around the globe.
What lessons can be drawn from history? “The nuclear issue is not something in the past,” she emphasized. “We are currently living in it.”
“I don’t think we can eliminate existing nuclear weapons completely,” Yamamoto said. “We need to eliminate the idea that we need them before we get rid of them.”
Story by: Najee Adams, Luc Castrec, Sydney Denham, Michael Grullon, Destinee Scott, Anisa St. Cyr (JOU 2300 Writing and Reporting for Print / Online)
Photos: Sydney Denham