Trumpeter Dai (center), who was separated from his parents for two days when the tsunami struck, performs in Otsuchi town, Iwate Prefecture. • Courtesy Photo
Trumpeter Dai (center), who was separated from his parents for two days when the tsunami struck, performs in Otsuchi town, Iwate Prefecture. • Courtesy Photo

In the devastated landscape of the Tohoku coast, which was hit by the triple catastrophe of a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant meltdown, drummer Akira Tana and his jazz group, Otonawa, softly played the blues.

With Bay Area native Art Hirahara, two Japanese musicians who now reside in California—Masaru
Koga of San Francisco and Ken Okada of San Jose—Tana brought Asian American jazz renditions of Japanese folk songs to appreciative listeners in temporary barracks and wherever displaced people could gather to hear them.

The group, known as “Otonowa” or “Sound Circle” in Japanese, traveled to Japan last spring, on the second anniversary of the 3/11 Great East Japan Earthquake.
The band is among a contingent of Bay Area Asian American groups that have lent support to survivors of the disaster.

This year, the Friends of Fukushima in San Francisco are holding “Noodles for Nippon” on Sunday, March 9, at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) to raise money for the Horikawa Aiseien Children’s Home in Fukushima.

On March 15, musicians and performing artists Brenda Wong Aoki, Mark Izu, Tomohiro Tanaka, Edward Schocker and Shoko Hikage will perform music related to the Tohoku region at the San Francisco Public Library in a free recital titled “Wasurenai” (We will not forget).

Recalling last year’s tour, Tana said that perhaps the most moving event was a small concert held near a temporary barrack built in Otsuchi, a fishing village in Iwate Prefecture.
Folding chairs and a small stage were set up for an audience of a few dozen. A young man who had gone missing for two days before being reunited with his father played the trumpet. His name was Dai and he wore a formal black business suit. The audience included grandmas who dabbed their eyes when they heard Asian American jazz renditions of Japanese folk melodies such as Akatombo and Furusato.

The venue didn’t have a fancy acoustic system and lacked the sophistication of the Satin Doll in Tokyo or jazz clubs in New York, where Tana has played with jazz greats Sonny Rollins, Hubert Laws, and Lena Horne.

But “it was very meaningful because we were playing for survivors,” Tana said. “The town of Otsuchi—there’s no town anymore.”

Otsuchi was flattened by the tsunami, which slammed over a 30-foot-tall concrete sea wall and killed several hundred people, including the town’s leaders. Those who stayed on the second floor of the town hall and didn’t flee to the roof were swept away. An iconic image of a ferry boat resting on the top of a building was taken in Otsuchi (visit to see it.)

The Tohoku region is one of the nation’s poorest areas. In past decades, poor laborers known as dekasegi would famously travel to Tokyo on the night train in search of day labor in the urban center. Traditional farm textiles now prized by collectors used techniques known as sashiko stitching and kogin needlework that were invented out of the need to extend the life of thread-bare garments.

The famous, long-running NHK television serial, Oshin, about a poor country girl who rises to wealth and success over the course of the tumultuous 20th century—only to question her achievements towards the end of her life—begins in the Tohoku region.

The struggle now for recovery in the Tohoku is compounded by a high percentage of aged residents in the farming and fishing industries and an outflow of young people to jobs in cities.

Three years after 3/11, some 95,000 people are still displaced in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures, living in emergency housing. The occupancy rate in such housing is surprisingly high, at 85 percent.

Otonawa is planning a return trip to Japan in July to bring free concerts to Tohoku survivors. They will be playing at the Jazzschool in Berkeley on June 29 at 4:30 p.m. to raise funds for the trip. On August 10, they will be part of the San Jose Jazz Festival, which is a fiscal sponsor for Otonawa’s fundraising for the Tohoku tour.

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