As survivors from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami sat in evacuation centers across Iwate Prefecture on March 19, support came from a surprising source. Amid the steady flow of information from the radio, a children’s choir began singing.
The song they sang was called “Sora Yori Takaku (Higher Than the Sky)” and it had been donated to the Iwate Broadcasting Co. (IBC), a local radio station, anonymously.
“After receiving the recording, we decided to broadcast it. We then got requests from listeners telling us that they wanted to hear the children’s voices again,” IBC director Masafumi Kuchiki says.
After seeking out the identity of the contributor, the IBC found Sachiko Namioka. She runs Child School, a nursery school in Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture, a city that was not too hard hit by the disaster.
A few days earlier, Namioka and her colleagues tried to explain to their young pupils how many people, including children just like them, were dealing with a lot of hardship in the devastated areas.
“We told them they were too small to help the others,” Namioka tells The Japan Times by telephone. “But they replied by saying, ‘Yes, we’re small, but we can sing a song.’ ” When she asked the children which song they’d like to sing, one child suggested “Higher Than the Sky,” which they had learned previously in the school year. For them, the song’s main message was that “we will never be defeated.”
“They really sang with all their might,” Namioka says. “Their voices and faces were totally different. We teachers were so impressed that I asked them to let me record their singing, then I sent that recording to the local radio station.”
The song provides encouragement with lyrics such as: “So don’t give up saying it’s all over/Wipe your tears and try to sing.”
IBC received a lot of positive feedback from their listeners about the song, so they decided to produce a special program featuring interviews with the composer of the song Hirotaka Nakagawa and his colleague, lyricist Toshihiko Shinzawa.
“It might not be your typical children’s song, but I always try to write lyrics that people of any age can sing along to, not just children,” Shinzawa says. “Now the message of those words is being applied to this situation beyond its original intention.”
The song is sung partly to the tune of Scottish folk song “Auld Lang Syne,” which is often performed as the song “Hotaru no Hikari” (“Glow of a Firefly”) at school graduation ceremonies in Japan.
“I did not intentionally use ‘Hotaru no Hikari,’ but when I read Shinzawa’s words, the melody came to me naturally,” says Nakagawa. “It just seemed to be the intrinsic melody of the words.”
Author Keiko Ochiai runs Crayonhouse, a bookstore in Tokyo’s Aoyama district. She explained that the song was written in 1990 and released as part of a series issued by Crayonhouse’s publishing division between 1986 and 1995.
“We wanted to create new songs for future generations,” Ochiai says. “It is amazing that this new song, ‘Higher Than the Sky,’ was combined with such an old melody. We never imagined that a song we created 20 years ago would be sung in this situation, but I am glad we could help.”
Ochiai says “Higher Than the Sky” shares a similar message to Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” King’s song includes the lyric “I’ll be there,” which Ochiai explains gives her comfort.
This sentiment is reminiscent of the lyric “hitori ja nai” (“you are not alone”), which was used in Ayaka Hirahara’s “Jupiter.” The significance of that song was that it was widely requested following the 2004 Chuetsu Earthquake that struck Niigata Prefecture. Like “Higher Than the Sky,” the Hirahara song borrows an older melody,this time from composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite “The Planets.”
Kiyoko Takeda, an expert in music therapy, believes the nostalgia in certain pieces of music can help with the drive to overcome adversity.
“For Japanese, ‘Hotaru no Hikari’ is a graduation song and reminds everybody of memories from the good old days,” she says. “It moves your heart, which revitalizes your being and then you will want to listen to it again. That is the first step in motivating oneself to live.
“In addition, ‘Hotaru no Hikari’ also suggests a new stage in life.”
In the process of development stages from birth, human beings first derive melody before learning words, according to Takeda. “Everybody has such melodies deep in their subconscious. So certain songs we learn later in life can resonate with those melodies.
“Blending together joy and melancholy, songs that combine both major and minor tones, console us and offer hope. Listening to slow and flowing melodies is like giving our broken hearts a warm hug.”
Takeda adds that the Japanese language is generally suited to songs rich in vowel sounds rather than the rhythmical beating of active consonants.
An example can be found in Kyu Sakamoto’s “Ue wo Muite Aruko,” internationally known as “Sukiyaki.” The song has been used to encourage people during previous disasters as well as the current one. The song begins with “Ue wo Mu-u-i-te A-a-ru-ko-o-o (Let’s walk with our heads up)” and continues with a melancholic yet healing melody.
Another important element of “Higher Than the Sky” are the children’s voices. Composer Nakagawa, who uploaded the recording on his blog, commented that listeners were sure to be impressed by the children’s powerful voices.
Takeda adds, “Every child under 10 years old has an angelic, pure voice. Although children might not understand the meaning of the lyrics as adults do, they instinctively catch the essence and recognize the most suitable song for a given opportunity. In this case, the children didn’t grasp the cultural significance of ‘Hotaru no Hikari’ nor the legacy of ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ I think the children’s innocence was clear and that’s why their message was accepted and appreciated by the people in the devastated areas.”
Of all the donations being collected for disaster relief, the young pupils at Namioka’s Child School can be proud that their contribution was among the first to actually start healing the survivors.
You can listen to a recorded version of “Higher Than the Sky” by the children at Child School at songrecords-news.blog.so-net.ne.jp/2011-03-22.