Schools to close but their songs go on

Pair save music of students in tsunami-hit zone

by Setsuko Kamiya

Staff Writer

Music has played an important role in easing the pain of many people in the Tohoku region whose lives were affected by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

But for Sendai-based violinist Satoko Sato and pianist Mitsuhiro Sakakibara, performing for the survivors is not the only way they can help.

The duo have helped students at four elementary schools in tsunami-hit Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, record their school songs. The schools will close for good at the end of March and merge with neighboring institutions, and when that happens, their songs and names will be done away with.

“Even though the schools will be gone, by recording their school songs, the people in their communities will have something to remember them by. People who listen to the songs years later will know that such schools existed in the area,” said Sato, who leads the volunteer group Caecilia Club Himawari Foundation, which focuses on supporting victims of the disasters with music.

Ten elementary and four junior high schools near the Ishinomaki coast were inundated by the tsunami, which also killed more than 3,500 people in the city and swept away more than 20,000 homes. Last April, the city’s board of education decided to merge several schools to ensure a stable educational environment.

From elementary school to college, most schools have their own song, with lyrics that typically describe the school’s natural surroundings and encourage the students to study together in that environment.

The idea of recording the songs of the schools facing merger came naturally to Sato and Sakakibara.

The pair have been performing in elementary schools in Akita Prefecture over the last few years, with the support of local restaurant and wedding hall operator Iyataka Co., to give children the opportunity to hear live music.

In their concerts at the schools, the duo make it a rule to include each school’s song, arranged by Sakakibara, in the performance.

“In every school where we’ve performed, the children, teachers and even the parents really enjoyed it,” Sato said, adding that the reactions they got made them realize that a school song plays a small yet significant role for the people in the community.

“Whether they like the school song itself or singing that song, a school song is still a song that everyone who grew up there and attended that school can sing. It’s something they share,” Sato said.

In August, Sato and Sakakibara, with the help of Nobukazu Endo, an Ishinomaki-based music hall owner, recorded the pupils at Aikawa, Yoshihama and Hashiura elementary schools.

The buildings at Aikawa and Yoshihama were flooded by the tsunami, and their pupils, about 70 and 15, respectively, have since attended Hashiura, which has about 85 students. The three will merge in April under a new name.

The initial plan was to record the songs of only the three elementary schools. But after they were contacted by Principal Kumi Sugawara, who had read about the recording project in a local newspaper, Sato’s group also did a recording for Funakoshi Elementary School in December.

Though the school was also swamped by the tsunami, its students all survived. However, all but one of its 10 pupils lost their homes, and two lost family members. Currently, the students are attending classes in an unused building at a city high school about 20 km from their old school.

From April, the school will merge with neighboring Ogatsu Elementary School, bringing the student body to nearly 50. The Funakoshi Elementary School building will eventually be torn down.

“The students sing their school song on various occasions at school functions, and so it’s a song they’re deeply attached to,” Sugawara said. “I felt that recording the school song and preserving it on CD would be a good memento, something they can treasure.”

Prior to the recording in early December, Funakoshi pupils and teachers practiced the song, accompanied by a recording Sakakibara had made.

Finally, on the day of recording, two versions of the song were made: one sung by just the pupils, and another that included parents, teachers and a few graduates. Sato said the CD will be ready in February, and some 400 copies will be presented to the school.

“The children sang proudly, and people in later years will realize that these kids have not been beaten by the disasters (when they hear it),” she said.