Moving On From Tragedy

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Spectators gather for a street performance during the 21st annual Jozenji Street Jazz Festival held Sept. 10-11. The event drew 790,000 visitors to Sendai. (AUDREY SHIOMI)

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By Audrey Shiomi
Rafu Contributor

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SENDAI  — The musicians were in place and the crowds were revved on the eve of the Jozenji Street Jazz Festival.  Given the outpouring of support to carry out this year’s event despite March 11’s disaster, the 21st annual event was expected to draw at least the same crowd as last year — 740,000 spectators — if not more.

A successful festival would be a small triumph for Japan’s struggling economy and a boon to local storeowners whose businesses stretch along Jozenji Street in the heart of Sendai. However, for event co-founder Mitsuhiro Sakakibara, 54, emotions wavered between elation and guilt.

A woman cooks Hiroshima-yaki at a food booth. (AUDREY SHIOMI)

“Sometimes I cannot accept the good feelings I have in me,” said Sakakibara the evening before the two-day event held Sept. 10-11. “It’s hard to explain my feelings even in Japanese.”

Sakakibara began the festival back in 1991 along with other musician friends. Years earlier, as a student at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, he was impressed to see musicians taking over public spaces — in subways and on street corners — and envisioned importing the same artistic vibe to his northern Japan hometown. Within a 20-year span, the event has become a cultural staple in Sendai, growing from 25 jazz bands to over 4,900 performers of all genres.

Sakakibara praised the festival’s 60-member organizing committee — all volunteers — for their hard work, but mourned the death of one member, a firefighter who went missing during a tsunami rescue mission. His body was recovered one month later.

“It still hurts to think about it,” he said. “I can’t just feel happy. I’m sure many people feel like me.”

Indeed, many Sendai residents feel mixed emotions, especially pangs of remorse, or zaiakukan, for emerging relatively unscathed after March 11.

“In Japan, they say that if you do something bad it’ll come back around,” said Sendai resident Nanae Ota, whose family was safe after the earthquake. “But I know the tsunami took the lives of people who didn’t deserve to die.”

The entire prefecture was rocked by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake, but only those living along the coast — in towns such as Kesennuma and Ishinomaki — faced the ensuing tsunami. City residents suffered considerably, but they soon realized it was best not to talk about it considering others were far less fortunate.

Huge cracks run along the walls of Noriko Okazaki’s condominium in Sendai’s Izumi Ward. She and her husband bought the property two years ago just before learning he was to be transferred across the country to Hiroshima. Okazaki became used to living alone in the condominium, but it became emotionally difficult to stay after March 11. Sadly, if she were to complain about her situation to others, it would only make her feel worse.

“There’s always someone next to you with a sadder story than yours, so you feel bad about saying anything at all,” she said.

Traditionally when a loved one passes, family members are expected to quietly grieve for the rest of the year. Most do not embark on overseas vacations, nor do they exchange New Year’s postcards (the U.S. equivalent of Christmas cards). This April marked a drastic decline in hanami (picnics under cherry blossom trees) outings throughout the country. Sakakibara and his committee considered cancelling this year’s festival.

Traditions aside, March 11 seemed to compel many Sendai residents to reinvest in themselves and celebrate life. In the past few months, therapist Akane Shiomi (no relation to the author) noticed more of her co-workers going to concerts, dancing, and indulging in other forms of entertainment more than in years past.

Ota, a self-employed chef, began teaching private cooking classes more frequently.

“I felt so helpless after hearing how many perished, but it’s driven me to do the things I do best and do it more often,” she said.  “It’s when I do nothing when I feel the most guilty about being here today.”

In July, six major Tohoku festival committees — Nebuta Matsuri, Hanagasa Matsuri, and Tanabata Matsuri among others — joined forces to hold a first-ever collaborative summer festival event. The Rokkon Festival drew an unprecedented number of visitors to the city for a weekend-long parade. Such a celebration might otherwise be frowned upon after a national disaster, but for the people of the Tohoku region this was an opportunity to enjoy life without remorse.

Sakakibara, too, hoped to spread a bit of joy to those who needed it most. Following the earthquake, he visited some of the many evacuation centers in Miyagi. Along with food, water and his electric keyboard, he brought over a violinist, a rakugo comedian and other performers. He worried what they’d think of his light-hearted entertainment — but the crowd loved it. That’s when Sakakibara started to believe in the power of music.

“Music heals people. It offers something to the people,” he said. “That encouraged us to go through with the festival.”

He hoped this year’s jazz festival could in some small way help those affected by March 11. Guilty feelings aside, it seemed like the right opportunity to move on.

For more of Audrey Shiomi’s Tohoku series, visit HERE.

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