I’ve known the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) player, Takeo Yamashiro since the early 1980s. I first met him in Vancouver, B.C., one summer during the Powell Street Festival. It’s the annual summer festival for Japanese Canadians in that city. I was so impressed by his performance at this event that I invited him to perform in Seattle at the Chinatown/ID Street Fair (now re-named DragonFest). Takeo was then coordinator of Tonari Gumi, a social service organization for Japanese Canadians which he helped found. But I never knew he was an atomic bomb survivor until recently when he told me he’d be in Seattle in August for his annual check-up.
There are over 900 atomic bomb survivors living in North America and 90 percent live on the West Coast. For the last 19 years, the Hiroshima Prefectural Medical Association has made stops up and down the West Coast and Hawai’i to do medical examinations of atomic bomb survivors and monitor their health.
Takeo was born in Hiroshima in July of 1943, making him two years old at the time of the bombing so he doesn’t remember much. Although the family residence was close to the epi-center of the blast, luckily the family was re-located some 10 kilometers north of JR Hiroshima Station—and that’s where he grew up. A week after the blast, families were allowed back in. Takeo remembers returning with his mother and older sister and brother to the epicenter of the blast, thus being exposed to massive radiation.
Takeo recalls: “The best memory I have from it is no memory since I was only two years old.” But he does remember what remained when they visited. “There was nothing to see but debris and smoke,” he says. The area was totally flattened. They were able to find their father who was in a camp set up in the affected area.
When I ask him how this bombing has affected him and his family throughout the years, he draws a blank. “I guess I’ve never given it much thought,” he says. “We all restarted from there and we just felt lucky to have survived. There’s no answer if you keep looking for it. I always try to reflect and think about those who were not fortunate enough to live through it.”
Takeo says he feels grateful to be alive.
“It’s really a bonus that I’m still doing alright at the age of 70 and am part of a small community,” he says.
Takeo started studying how to play shakuhacki in Kyoto, Japan while in the university. He studied with two schools of shakuhachi and received his shihan certificate and shakuhachi name, “Renpu,” which translates as Lotus Wind. Shortly after that he moved to Vancouver, B.C., in 1970, he made the decision to abandon his career as a professional musician.
“I guess I reached a different kind of relationship to my music,” Takeo says. “I was fed up with promoting myself, selling myself, and taking advantage of any kind of exposure. I thought to myself, ‘No, this should remain in me as something I can enjoy my whole life as a way of life instead of a career.’ And so there was an evolution in me and since then, music to me is always something that has to be enjoyable and somehow maintains a balance with other things I do in my life.”
The transition to North America was not easy for Takeo. At first, he survived day-to-day playing on the streets. It was a rough few years and he doubts if he could have survived without his music.
“Shakuhachi helped me a lot,” Takeo says. “Otherwise I’d still be back fighting in the streets, who knows … I’m not the kind of person who can plan my life.”
At the time there were a number of elderly Japanese immigrants living in the Powell Street area of Vancouver in need of help and social services. Some of them, due to language limitations, could not articulate their needs for help. Along with Jun Hamada and Michiko Sakata, Yasmashiro helped co-found Tonari Gumi Social Services. It started with a drop-in center and mushroomed from there. Takeo became their Executive Director, a post he held until his retirement in 2004.
When I ask him, as a bomb survivor and a musician, what do you think can be done to remind people of this event and what can we do to make sure it never happens again, he ponders the question before answering.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Maybe I still need some time to reconcile myself with this subject. Hopefully, someday, it will come out.”
I’d like to end with something Takeo said to John Endo Greenaway in The Bulletin: “I somehow know this is my way of life, and it just keeps going. I live through it. Other than that, I don’t really play anything. My language skills were very limited, but the shakuhachi worked as a language, really, as a way of communicating with people.”
Takeo Yamashiro has issued two recordings of his music and is contemplating a third. For more information, visit www.dkam.ca/artists/takeo-yamashiro.