Kiroku Project

Healing the division – The role of tradition culture in connecting a fractured community

by Ryoko Ando

So far, we have looked at the divisions created after the nuclear power plant accident. Now we will turn to the healing efforts that emerged in parallel with these problems. The Dialogue was one of these efforts. As described in the section “What is our Dialogue?”, its foundation is the post- Chernobyl experience where people tried to find ways to cope with a community/society torn apart by a nuclear disaster. Similarly, our Dialogue assembled stakeholders from different standpoints, held discussions, share ideas and experiences, and sought ways to improve their lives. We maintained these principles from the very start. 

The words of Ms. Satsuki Katsumi, the former school principal of Tominari Elementary School, describe this point. 

I believe the Dialogue was quite effective in that sense. Even some who were vehemently opposed somehow participated. It functioned as a space where anyone could share their feelings, probably because the Dialogue was not run by the authorities. The ICRP and the other organizers made sure that everyone was treated equally, whether it was the mayor of Date city or someone working for the authorities. A place where you could speak as an equal individual was actually rare. In the Dialogue, there was an atmosphere that everyone was equal, no matter whom. I remember the high school teachers in the Dialogue. When I asked them to participate through a mutual acquaintance and listened to their stories, I learned that they faced a significantly different situation compared to elementary school teachers like myself. Personally, I found new connections as I tried to connect people. I believe this was true for all participants. It was like, one person led to another. 

Personal connection was how the organizers contacted the participants of the Dialogue. Once a theme was decided, they started looked for people related to the theme by word-of-mouth and invited these people to the Dialogue. They were careful to ensure diversity by not choosing people with the same opinion or position and aimed to achieve a balanced group. Ensuring equality was also important: The experts, the authorities, the residents, schoolteachers, stay-at-home mothers, all were treated equally. This was out of a belief that everyone was an expert in his or her role.

The theme and the topics of the Dialogue gradually changed over time. The words of Takahiro Hanzawa who worked for Date city (at the time) attests to this point. 

In the early days [after the accident], many experts came. Each of them acted as if he knew everything and his was the only answer. We had a hard time understanding whom to trust. Hence, the Dialogue focused on radiation-related information and opinion. Once things have become a little calmer and people gradually started getting along. People could afford to think about something beyond their immediate worries, such as the minority-views and voices that had not held center stage. Hence, topics not related to radiation started to be discussed more often. In the early days, themes like food were chosen because it was directly related to radiation. Later on, themes like local festivals and culture were taken up. At first, I was a bit skeptical and felt, “How can you discuss such things in the Dialogue?” But when I heard that the relationships built and maintained through festivals and cultural events contributed to a swifter and smoother rehabilitation, my eyes were opened. As time passed, the Dialogue became less contentious and became a place where we could hold a conversation on individual topics in a more cooperative manner, like, toss around ideas. 

The 10th Dialogue titled “The Value of Tradition and Culture in Fukushima” was held in December 2014. As in the words of Mr. Hanzawa, some thought it was a strange topic for a meeting organized by ICRP, a group of radiation experts. However, the issue of how to preserve and pass on traditional culture had been pointed out from earlier by the participants from the evacuation zones. The areas designated were mainly villages where the traditional rural community remained and functioned before the accident. Even the towns included in these zones tended to be small and had strong local ties. In fact, quite a few schools taught traditional performing arts in the school curriculum such as the local folk dance as part of the lesson on local history. From before the accident, traditional arts and festivals were considered as a key to forge community bonds. Interestingly, this was not limited to Japan, according to this comment in the 4th Dialogue. 

I have visited [the affected areas in] Ukraine and asked what was effective to lure people back. The answer I got was, “It’s the arts, especially performing arts.” That is why the rehabilitation center in Ukraine has a stage so the locals could perform. (November 2012)

The challenge for the evacuees was how to pass on local history and customs to the next generation when the residents became scattered by the evacuation. 

To understand how performing arts could contribute to the community, let us look at the case of Suwa Shrine festival drum. It is a taiko (traditional percussion instruments) performed in Tominari district of Date city and has been performed in the 10th Dialogue in December 2014 and other meetings. 

Tominari was one of the districts deeply affected by the nuclear disaster. Although it was not designated as an evacuation zone, some households were later designated as “Special Spots Recommended for Evacuation.” Ms. Satsuki Katsumi explained her experience. 

Tominari district was in deep trouble at the time. On April 20, the government selected Tominari Elementary School as one of the schools where “Outdoor activities in and outside schools should be restricted as much as possible.” This order appeared in newspapers. Usually, being selected by the government means you’ve done something good. But this time, it meant that it was one of the 13 schools that had high air dose rates. Now, we had to think about how to decontaminate the school yard, support our pupils, and address the concerns of the residents. We received many comments from both in and out of Fukushima prefecture. Many journalists visited us, too. The decontamination project started in July and it became the school with the lowest air dose rate in Date City. In fact, it had the lowest rate not just in Date City but in Tominari; we now had the lowest radiation level and became the safest school. 

Later on, I heard while talking with the locals that this had caused a dilemma for the parents. Most people in the area were still waiting for the government to decontaminate their homes and struggled with the high level of radiation. Thus, they could not rejoice wholeheartedly about it [the plan to decontaminate the school first]. But nobody voiced opposition because they understood the benefit of reducing the radiation level at a place where their children spent the day. 

Date City’s decontamination works started earlier than the other municipalities in Fukushima. Even so, it took years before completion and even longer before the residents could settle down. The 10th dialogue was held about the time when Date city had completed the decontamination works and the area started to return to normalcy. Mr. Mamoru Yaginuma, who taught Tominari Taiko to the students, participated in the Dialogue.  The following is an excerpt from Mr. Yaginuma’s presentation about how the taiko tradition is preserved in Tominari. 

Hello again. My name is Mamoru Yaginuma. I am really bad at making a speech, and I am worried if my explanation is good enough. I will do my best, so please bear with me. 

The parish of Suwa Shrine in Tominari is separated into two; the kamihōbu and shimohōbu. There are about 210 households in shimohōbu and about 110 in kamihōbu. I am currently the leader of kamihōbu.

A group of young parishioners called wakaren is responsible for playing the taiko and pulling the festival float. When I was young, wakaren used to be made up of men younger than age 35. But today, there are fewer young men, and the current leader is almost 40. I’ve graduated from wakaren 25 years ago, but still participate in the practice as an advisor. I consider myself more a handyman than a teacher.
Each year I make new drumsticks for the practice and the festival itself. The large drum needs 10 to 20 pairs, and in total I make about 50 pairs, 100 sticks. I don’t get paid for this, but this is something I enjoy. I must admit I am a matsuri afficionado. 

On the day of the festival, we start at about nine-thirty in the morning and parade each hamlet in the district. I guess we keep walking until around eight or nine at night. There is a ceremony before we start: We drink sacred wine, usually Japanese sake, prepare ourselves mentally, and play taiko on the float. After this, we leave the Shrine. The main building of our Suwa Shrine is said to be about 400 years old. There are two festivals held in spring and in autumn. The spring festival is held on February 26 and 27; the autumn one in October 26 and 27. In recent days, the spring festival is held indoors because it is too cold. The representative parishioners attend a Shinto ceremony on behalf of the community. It is only during the autumn festival that the floats parade through the neighborhood.

Because it takes practice to play the drums atop the float, we start practicing about two months before the festival. The children’s group practices from six thirty to eight in the evening and the wakaren group after them, from eight to nine thirty.

When I was a wakaren member, we used to practice every day. Today, the practice is held two or three times a week. This is partly because the young people and the children are quick learners. Many of them can learn in two to three days something that took us more than a week. During the practice period of about two months, we have a party once or twice which is called nakachōba. All members of the community attend this, from the children to the elderly parishioners, and it is something everyone looks forward to. I don’t think I would have gone to a taiko practice without nakachōba. We wine and dine, practice the taiko, and babble on. It is the only chance where you can talk to anyone, regardless of age or standing. There is a lively atmosphere to nakachōba and it lasts late into the night. 

On the day of the festival, the floats parade each hamlet. The time schedule is usually given out in advance. But as soon as the residents hear the drum beat floating from afar, they come out and wait for the float to arrive. They give us some gratuity called ohana which means flowers but is actually cash, to thank the drum players. In return, we give them the flower decorations used in the festival. 

I am digressing, but the drumbeat has changed from what our grandfathers used to play. To them, it is too fast to play. Why has this happened? This is my theory. My father used to be a taiko player and I had a chance to learn from him just once. His advice was, “A drummer who doesn’t play to be heard from afar is a dumb drummer. But these days, drummers play so people nearby are awed by the vibration, otherwise people would think he is dumb.” This makes the difference. In the old days, if people heard the drumbeats from a distance, say, a festival in another village, they would walk there thinking, “I hear the taiko, there must be a festival going on!” But if you beat taiko like that, people close by cannot hear it. The sound of taiko can only be heard by those far away. That is how taiko used to be played in the old days. These days, drummers play for the nearby audience. That is why the old-school players say, “It is fast-paced.” In fact, it is getting faster. Personally, I like a slower beat, but I have to compete, too. So, I also beat taiko faster.

Around Heisei 21 (2009), the number of pupils at Tominari Elementary school started to fall. Ms. Katsumi was the principal at the time, and a teacher in charge of the sixth grade asked me to teach the pupils. Hence, we started practicing every winter as part of the school curriculum. 

Hideto here was in the first class that I taught. His elder brother and sister used to play the taiko, and he used to come to the practice. Although he didn’t beat taiko himself, he memorized the tune while he played with the other kids. Thus, he can play the taiko as if music is flowing out from him. He is such a good student; all I have to do is give him a small hint and he gets it. 

This is the sixth year that I have taught at the school. The number of pupils is shrinking. When Hideto was in the sixth grade, there were 15 students in his class; this year it was 11. I think there were only five last year. So far, I haven’t met a single student who could not learn at all. Any child who is in the children’s wakaren already knows how to play. If not, a child must start from scratch. I will teach them step by step; left, right, hard, softly. Naturally, the child can’t learn everything I taught during a 50-minute class period. But if I give out some homework for the next class, these children can always play by the next class. At first, I was baffled. Then I learned that the taiko class fostered a powerful sense of solidarity among the sixth graders. There will always be a child who becomes the leader and teach the other kids step by step. That is why all the children learn the tune incredibly quickly. Even now, I am fascinated. 

I only teach the basics at the school. Even if it is only the basics, each student starts to get more confident [and enjoy playing] as they get better. Once this happens, their postures change. In the beginning, they stand straight when they strike the taiko. As they get better, they start to lean forward and take the right posture. This isn’t something you can teach; it is something you have to find for yourself. Looking at those children, I can see their passion for taiko. 

The nuclear power accident occurred in March of Heisei 23. The radiation level of Suwa Shrine was high, and it was considered inappropriate for children to practice there. Now they practice in the community center. Thanks to the mayor of Date city, decontamination works were conducted in Suwa Shrine and the radiation level has become extremely low. Personally, I don’t feel there is any problem practicing at the shrine. Out of consideration for the parents who may be sensitive, we continue to practice at the community center. 

At the time of the accident, I volunteered as a civilian firefighter. After the explosion, I kept working outdoors, such as helping water delivery. I didn’t know anything about the risk of radiation then and learned about it later from the TV and the newspaper. In my family, my second child was the only one who evacuated to Kyushu for about six months. I didn’t have enough knowledge to give parental advise on whether to evacuate or to stay. I wasn’t fully confident of my decision. Neither am I today. My brothers live close by, but they have different opinions; some don’t worry about the radiation level, others must measure everything they eat. Each person has a vastly different opinion about radiation level. Personally, I don’t think it will help me understand better by worrying too much about it. My current policy is to live my life with as little stress as possible. 

It’s been more than forty years since I graduated from school, and I kept participating in the local festival all these years. It is such fun for me, I can’t wait for the festival every year. There was a time when we only performed for the quadrennial sengusai [when the object of worship was transferred]. In those days, we only practiced taiko once every four years. We felt this made it harder to increase the number of taiko players and changed the system. Now we practice and perform every year. 

I believe that you only do this out of love, and you only know if you like it or not after trying. In my case, someone my senior invited me saying, “Why don’t you give it a try?” Actually, I found taiko difficult and had a hard time learning it. There was a person who used to give a group lesson. I picked up a small trick in his lesson and then I found I could play the taiko. Since then, my life’s joy is playing the taiko in each festival. It hasn’t changed. Today, I hope to be like that person, someone who can give such openings [to children]. 

That is why I teach children taiko. I wondered if I did it to preserve the tradition, but that is not what motivates me. I do it out of pure passion for taiko [and the festival]. Without passion, it doesn’t get passed on. Currently, there are more than 10 members in my wakaren. Everyone seems to love taiko and show up at every practice. I am confident that the taiko will continue as long as I am alive. I just wish that I can continue participating as long as possible, one year at a time. 

Mr. Yaginuma passed away in 2019. His presentation at the record is a precious testimony of how Suwa Shrine and Tominari district preserved its tradition despite the difficulties posed by the accident. His family kindly gave us permission to use his transcript and recordings. All of us are grateful for his support of the Dialogue. 

After this presentation, he performed the Suwa Shrine taiko that he loved. Playing with Mr. Yaginuma were his former pupils at the elementary school: Hideto Sato and Ami Kanno (at the time, students at Hobara High School and Shoyo Junior High School, respectively). Tetsuya Ishikawa, a member of PTA at Tominari Elementary School also joined the performance.

Mr. Yaginuma, his friends and students also gave a performance of Suwa Shrine Taiko in the Dialogue seminar in December 2015. 

Hideto Sato was a high school student in 2014. He commented about the role of taiko in his life at the 10th Dialogue. 

I really love festivals. Listening to the presentation, I thought about my future. [After graduating from high school] I must think about my career. I wish I can find a job that I can commute from my hometown, so I can preserve the taiko―to be honest, I just want to keep playing taiko. I thought about staying on in Hobara to keep playing the taiko. Before coming here, I was so nervous, I really did not want to participate in this kind of meeting. But I learned a lot from listening, I am glad I came. (December 2014) 

Ms. Katsumi added to his comment. 

At first, Hideto refused to participate in the Dialogue and turned down my request many times, saying “I’m not the kind of person to speak publicly. There’s no way.” But after participating in the tenth Dialogue, he came to say goodbye and told me, “Sensei (teacher), I’m glad I did it.” I can’t forget it. 

Many people working on preserving traditional performing arts in Iitate and Fukushima city also participated in the 10th Dialogue, and they enthusiastically discussed the important role of local tradition and culture in the community. 

I believe that matsuri, our traditional festival, is something that people can share regardless of their age; the elderly and the children can both enjoy it. (December 2014)

Matsuri is the only occasion when everyone, regardless of age or gender, can get together and enjoy. Even people who live far away or rarely visit come back for matsuri. (September 2014)

Even families who left Fukushima because of evacuation or those who relocated to another area in Fukushima come back for matsuri. The grandparents, parents and children meet and have fun with their friends from the same generation. The parents who left the area tend to have complex feelings, such as, “I feel guilty,” or “I don’t want to talk about it”. But during the matsuri, the children can reunite with their friends. This is a benefit that only matsuri has, and it is really good for our community. (September 2014)

Matsuri is usually not considered as a recovery measure after a disaster. However, the local festivals invigorated the local people and helped them rebuild the local ties that the accident severed. You often find that speaking to someone face-to-face is too straining. But people can attend the matsuri and share the joyous atmosphere. They can find something to talk about if they attend the same matsuri. Sharing something that is dear to heart had a significant role in building and mending relationship. 

However, the festivals could not stop the downward trend of the number of children. Tominari elementary school was closed in 2019. The school that used to have about 60 pupils before the accident had only about 15 before the closure. Although it was unavoidable given the trend, Ms. Katsumi opined that the accident accelerated the closure by about 10 years. 

We’d calculated before the accident when Tominari Elementary School would have to start a combined class [of multiple grades] and when the school would need to close down because there were too few entrants. The estimate was about twenty something years later. [After the accident] the number of children in the district decreased beyond our estimate. Some wanted to attend schools in a different school district. There were more parents who hesitated to send their kindergarteners to our school out of various concerns. In addition, I heard that some parents experienced relationship issues in the kindergarten and chose another school for a change. 

After the decontamination works were completed at the school, it may have become difficult to retain the experience [of what we did after the accident]. .In the Japanese education system, teachers and school staff don’t stay in one school. The number of pupils had not changed by the time I left Tominari elementary. But by the time of the fourth principal after me, it was quite fewer. A school principal changes every three years or so, so it is difficult to pass on the legacy. When the pupils who had just entered school [at the time of the accident] became fifth or sixth graders and the children who had not experienced it [as pupils] became first graders, the atmosphere changed. At the time of the accident, parents of kindergarten-age children were really anxious. As these children came of age, Tominari district started to change.

The local community helped decontaminate Tominari elementary. The guardians at the time witnessed how many volunteers stood up to help the school, and this experience may have given them courage to overcome the difficulties. As time passed and the pupils graduated, the guardians changed and so did the teachers. It was not an easy task to retain and share the legacy of what they experienced and learned. 

Her words show the difficulty of confronting a nuclear disaster that leaves long-term effects. When the accident occurred, quite many people stood up to confront the unprecedented situation, enlisting the help of various people. They learned a lot through the experience; they acquired not just the measures to address the problem but built a human network to support them through the difficulties. However, human relationships change over time with job transfers or relocations. In addition, time itself changes the actors involved. What cannot be seen, such as lessons learned and people’s sentiments, only remain in individuals. At the same time, forgetting is part of being human. Without a system or effort to retain the experience and preserve the lessons learned, memories fade over time as people change. This happened not just in Tominari. It happened everywhere that was affected by a nuclear accident. 

Hideto Sato, who was a high schooler at the time of the 10th Dialogue, also participated in the Fukushima Dialogue in December 2018. He graduated from school and started working in Fukushima. The following is an excerpt of his presentation transcript. 

Hi, I am Hideto Sato. I would like to speak about Wakaren Taiko of the Suwa Shrine which is the reason why I chose to stay in Tomizawa, Tominari District in Hobaramachi, Date City. 

When I was asked to participate in this Dialogue, I hesitated first because I’m not good at public speaking. I would rather play the drum than make a presentation. But I will try to show how much I am into taiko by this presentation. 

I was born in Tomizawa, a village in Tominari district of Hobaramachi, Date City. Date City was established by a merger of five townships, Date, Yanagawa, Hobara, Ryozen and Tsukidate. Hobara is one of the towns that make up Date City today, and it has five elementary schools and two junior high schools. Tominari Elementary School is the smallest school. Currently, the population of the school district is around 1,000. 

Other elementary schools had more than one classes in a grade, but Tominari had only one at the time I was a pupil. The class had only 15 pupils. Because the class size was small, everyone had to get together and become close. That is something I liked. 

I have been practicing taiko at Suwa Shrine ever since I was old enough to remember. However, although I attended the practice, it doesn’t mean I played the taiko. Initially, it was just to hang out. On the day of the festival, I had to perform a bit [even though I wasn’t seriously into it]. I remember the first time I played the big taiko in a festival, I got high. The memory is still vivid. That moment, I started to enjoy performing. From that day, I became serious about taiko. I vowed that I will practice really hard in the practice for the next year’s festival and be an excellent big taiko player. 

While I am playing taiko, I don’t think of anything. But when I look back on the video of my performance, I can examine my performance objectively. When the drummer uses his whole body, it makes the performance look cool. So, I focus on my form at practice, on how high I should raise my arms, or how to move my body up and down as I play. In addition, I try to devise a new way of beating the taiko. We call it the saku. I practice daily, think how I can create a new saku and focus on my form so I can impress the audience. Sometimes, your seniors teach saku, but taiko players start thinking about their own saku from high school age. 

I learned taiko from Kosuke Sato, the man on the right in this photograph. He played with us when we performed in the previous Dialogue at the Date City Center. My elder brother and sister are not enthusiastic about taiko and they didn’t teach me. Most of the time, Kosuke taught me as he was my senior at the wakaren.

I was in the first year of the junior high school when the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami struck. It happened close to the end of the third school term. I don’t have a clear recollection of the festival in [the autumn of] 2011. But I remember the younger kids relocating because of the disaster and many of them stopped showing up to the practice. One reason was that the air dose level at Suwa Shrine was too high to use for practice. So, the practices were held in the local community center in 2011. But we could have the festival itself. In the following year, the elementary school let us use the gymnasium for practice. 

I participated in the Dialogue in December 2014 and 2015. Together with the senior and junior members of my wakaren, I performed the taiko and made comments at the roundtable. What I said about the disaster was, I felt sad that the younger members could not participate in various activities because of the radiation effects. Although the festival itself was held in 2011, accompanying activities that kids used to enjoy had to be cancelled. I also spoke about my passion for taiko. Some of my seniors could not attend the practice after they started working, but I wanted to find a job that allowed me to stay in my hometown and keep playing taiko. Today, I work locally and keep playing taiko as I dreamed that day. 

Tominari district is made up of Tomizawa, the district where I live, and Takanarita, which is in the other side of Tominari Elementary School. The taiko tradition in Takanarita was lost about ten years ago, even before the accident. It was because the number of children became too small to perform taiko for the local festival. There are taiko enthusiasts in Takanarita and they participate in other district wakaren practice. Within Tomizawa, we have two wakaren, the kamihōbu and shimohōbu. I belong to kamihōbu and practice with its wakaren. 

In Tomizawa, we have been able to keep holding the festival, both in kamihōbu and shimohōbu. The reason why Takanarita couldn’t continue their festival is because there were too few children.Both kamihōbu and shimohōbu suffer from this trend. As the number of members decrease, it gets tougher to parade the whole neighborhood, the burden on each member gets heavier.

Recently, members of other wakaren in Hobaramachi help us with the festival every year. These wakaren members in other areas love playing the taiko, and they help out festivals even if it is not from their area. Naturally, they are really good players, and they are a great help. 

Thinking about the future of my hometown, I believe that preserving the local taiko is an important investment for the future. Since I’ve graduated, I play not just in Tominari but also actively help out other wakaren, just as their members help us. By visiting hospitals and kindergartens in other areas and performing taiko, I hope I can show the fun of playing taiko to people everywhere. 

Through the local taiko connection, I have started joining various taiko performances. Drum players from various wakaren get together in a street called Jinya in Hobaramachi and hold a joint performance. This has continued every year since the accident. The number of participating groups change each year, but every year it has been a very lively festival. 

My future plan is to increase the younger generation of players so we can continue naorai (a get-together after a festival) every year. There are youths in my area but not many of them are passionate about taiko. Thus, my challenge is how to make the youths understand the fun of playing taiko, so we can preserve our local taiko performance. 

Another challenge is to think of new ways to teach. I learned to play the small taiko first and then moved to the big taiko. However, I got hooked on taiko through playing the big taiko. I’m not sure how I can make the younger kids get the kick out of playing taiko, and it is one idea to start from the big taiko. 

I’m not good at public speaking, so thank you very much for listening. 

Hideto Sato’s story shows how the traditional taiko has been preserved and passed on, adapting to the needs of the times, even with decreasing population. The accident affected all of Fukushima, but some areas were more affected than others. Even the areas that may not have changed much has been affected by the national trend of decreasing birthrate and aging population and depopulation in rural areas. All parts of Japan experienced these in the ten years since the accident. Thus, all over Japan, it became a common challenge for communities to preserve and pass on the local tradition so they can maintain the ties among its members in a society with decreasing population. The story of Tominari Taiko may seem small compared to the huge tragedy from the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power disaster but it teaches us how people worked together to overcome their situation and preserve the local tradition.