NEW YORK – As pop star turned activist Shinji Harada performs around the world, including at a special United Nations concert this month in New York, he is reminded of the importance his hometown of Hiroshima plays as the nexus of a global peace movement 68 years after an atomic bomb destroyed the city.
“Now it is our mission (people from Hiroshima) to spread the message of peace to all the cities (around the world),” he told a packed house in a U.N. hall on Sept. 6. He sang two original songs while playing the keyboards as part of a performance during a high level forum on the Culture of Peace.
Whether singing in New York, Mexico or Japan, Harada, harnessing his distinctive husky voice, strives to bridge cultural, linguistic and generational barriers for the purpose of peace.
“The power of music is enormous,” the singer, who has released some 40 albums over his career and is best known for his 1977 hit “Candy,” said in New York during an earlier interview on the anniversary of the day his city was bombed.
“It can open up the doors to people’s hearts and transmit positive energy.”
While music may seem a “roundabout” way of reaching people, it is a “very powerful and effective” tool that can transform views, he said.
The 54-year-old pointed to occasions during concerts for survivors of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami when he formed special bonds with elderly people and young children who knew little of his fame.
The same thing happened at a Mexico City concert in 2009 when he reached out to eager crowds who embraced his message without understanding his words.
“Hiroshima, the Place to Start,” one of his landmark songs, seemed to rouse the New Yorkers attending an interfaith service on Aug. 5 to mark the U.S. atomic bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The icon led the audience in song while playing the piano passionately. When he substituted “New York” and “Fukushima,” for “Hiroshima” in the chorus, the crowd eagerly followed suit.
He repeated the pattern a month later at the international body, substituting “culture of peace” and “U.N.” so that diplomats, panelists and nongovernmental organization leaders clapped along and sang in time to the catchy tune.
Fukushima Prefecture is one of the hardest hit areas still struggling over radiation concerns after the 2011 triple disaster of quake, tsunami and nuclear station meltdown.
Harada said that whether he plays for crowds in the United States or in Japan, the message remains unchanged.
“I’m not performing to blame anyone,” the singer, who has been holding concerts across the United States for the past eight years, explained. “I perform to convey the message of saying no (to war) now and in the future.”
His songs have elicited unexpected reactions, such as when a group of American veterans in Central Park approached him, apologizing for the bombs.
From staging concerts around the world, the Hiroshima native also appreciates the global recognition his city commands.
“Hiroshima is the most well-known name in Japan, more than Tokyo or Osaka,” he said.
In recent years as more foreign tourists pour in to see the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and other historical sights, he wonders why all Japanese schoolchildren are not required to go there as well.
The musician pointed out that although his hometown is well known outside Japan, Japanese people appear to be paying less attention to it as the decades pass.
“Japan seems to have forgotten how we are the only country that was devastated by two nuclear bombs,” he said. “That memory is fading. It’s just a blip in the news now.”
He was particularly concerned about younger people who seem clueless about major World War II events. They include the double atomic bombings and the day Japan announced its surrender on Aug. 15, 1945.
“If we don’t look back to the past and learn from it, we cannot proceed to the future,” he said, noting the danger of ignorance.
He also worries about discussions on changing the pacifist Constitution, which he opposes, and Japan’s energy policy following the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
Growing up in the epicenter of the peace movement has impacted his work since he first broke onto the scene in the late 1970s and continues to impact it today as he evolves artistically.
“We don’t create anything, we take things from nature around us,” he explained. “The 3/11 disaster reminded us of that.”
Yet, the horrific situation has imparted on the Japanese people a new appreciation for the traditional values of generosity and cooperation, which he believes can be tapped into and spread through music.
In the face of such crises, he witnessed the two ways people responded. They either remain helpless or “are thinking about what they can do about it,” he said.
For him the choice is clear. Through his craft and the history of his hometown, Harada aims to instill hope, helping people choose a positive path.
“Each one of us has the power to change the world. All of us do have it,” he said. “The people of Hiroshima have the duty and the right to spread the message.”