Nearly 20 years have passed since Nataliya Gudziy visited Japan for the first time, when she performed live with fellow members of the Ukrainian folk dance ensemble Chervona Kalyna, or Red Viburnum, named after Ukraine’s national symbol.
In a series of concerts across Japan, the troupe performed traditional Ukrainian folk dances and sang songs to the accompaniment of a “bandura” — a traditional 61-string Ukrainian instrument resembling the lute, played by then 16-year-old Nataliya, or Natasha, the informal version of her name under which she now performs here.
Becoming the first and one of only two professional bandurists within Japan, she continues to share Ukraine’s history along with her own, and her fellow countrymen’s, experiences, hoping to raise awareness of the dangers of nuclear energy that since 1986 has affected millions of people worldwide.
Natasha believes that music has the power to heal and bring relief. In her songs, some of which she wrote, she expresses her thoughts and her longing for Ukraine and the place where she spent the first years of her life. In addition to a selection of Ukrainian folk songs and others sung in Russian to familiarize the audience with her culture, Natasha sings in Japanese.
“I still remember the sky over my hometown that day . . . and even though I’m far away, I am singing to share my thoughts with you,” one of her songs goes.
“Since my early days in Japan, I’ve believed it was vital to share my story with people of the country where millions suffered from the effects of radioactivity caused by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945,” she said.
On March 11, 2011, when the crisis broke out at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Natasha was performing at a school in Tokyo.
“Until that day many Japanese viewed the Chernobyl disaster as something distant,” she said. “I was sad, knowing that many Japanese (from the day the Fukushima disasters happened) would share the same experience (as the Ukrainian people had done 25 years previously).”
Natasha, 34, was born in Dnipropetrovsk, southeast of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. When she was 4, she and her family moved to a small village adjacent to Pripyat, a city in northern Ukraine near the border with Belarus.
Pripyat and its suburbs offered housing for workers at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where Natasha’s father landed a job as a technician.
On April 26, 1986, when she was just 6, a sudden surge of power, likely caused by a design flaw, occurred at the reactor of the plant’s Unit 4, only 3 km from Pripyat and 3.5 km from Natasha’s home, causing an immense explosion that lifted the cover off the top of the reactor.
“The accident occurred at night when we were asleep,” she said. “All of us spent the next day like any other. The weather was nice and people spent that day outside. My sisters went to school, as usual.”
The reactor was scheduled to be shut down for routine maintenance to test the ability of the reactor’s turbine generator to generate sufficient electricity in the event of a loss of external electric power.
Not long after 1 a.m. on April 26, soon after the tests started, two explosions that ruptured one of the four active reactors at the power plant were reported. The blasts and the subsequent fires that started that day and continued for more than a week resulted in the unprecedented release of radioactive materials, including iodine-131 and cesium-137.
“We planned to go to see a puppet theater with my sisters, but when they came back we were told to stay home,” she recalled. “I didn’t understand what was going on, but my mother heard that something had happened at the nuclear plant.”
The next day residents evacuated, but officials suggested taking only valuables and leaving other belongings as they would be able to return to their homes in three days, she said.
At a nearby train station the family managed to buy tickets enabling them to move to the western part of Ukraine, to her grandmother’s house. The following day, they headed to the station, leaving behind the girls’ father, who was assigned to help at the plant.
“I remember the station crowded with people, women unable to accept the fact they had to leave the place where they had spent all their lives; they were crying and shouting that they didn’t want to leave their hometown,” Natasha recalled. “I still remember the children who wouldn’t stop crying, complaining of headaches or sore throats.
“The moment the train left the station, I instinctively felt we would never come back and tried to remember the landscape from the train window, so it remains imprinted in my memory,” she said.
“It’s been 28 years, but the consequences of the catastrophe continue to impact new generations, as many who experienced the disaster at a young age still suffer from diseases, while babies are born with anomalies,” she added. “Some got sick soon after the accident, but many developed diseases (such as leukemia or thyroid cancer) 10 or 20 years later.”
From an early age Natasha showed an interest in music and signs of musical talent. After moving to Kiev to start a new life, she started to learn how to play the bandura at age 8.
“At that time many parents tried to engage their children in various learning activities to help them take their minds off the disaster and its effects,” she said, adding that having lost their friends and their homes, most of the children suffered both physically and emotionally.
While in Kiev, Natasha continued on her musical path. As a member of the school ensemble, which later became known as Chervona Kalyna, mainly comprising evacuees from affected areas, Natasha would often take the lead playing the bandura, which was becoming increasingly rare even in Ukraine.
In 1996, Natasha and her fellow ensemble members came to Japan after receiving an invitation from Ryuichi Hirokawa, a photographer who was the first non-Soviet journalist to document the Chernobyl catastrophe.
During that year the group put on a series of charity concerts across the country to mark the 10th anniversary of the disaster. Chervona Kalyna visited Japan once again, in 1998.
After graduating from high school, however, Natasha had to give up on her dream of becoming a singer. Instead, to support her family, she landed a clerical assistant’s job with a local security company.
It was Hirokawa who helped Natasha realize her dream, inviting her to Japan in 1999 during which time she spent several months performing solo at venues nationwide.
With his support, Natasha returned to Japan in 2000 and since then has been living here while pursuing her career as a professional performer.
“Many people have forgotten about what happened and sometimes it is important to forget, but if we forget about Chernobyl, we’ll keep making the same mistakes,” reads a message in her book, “My Hometown.”