Mikako Atsuchi, founder of the arts and music NPO Acchi Cocchi, has witnessed the power of performance to connect and heal. She works to bring music, dance and the visual arts into everyday life in Tohoku and the greater Tokyo area.

A graduate of Musashino Academia Musicae in piano, Atsuchi worked for a classical musical management company for 20 years, but the seeds of Acchi Cocchi were already sprouting while she was still a student.

“I became frustrated at university because everyone was only aiming for an elite level at the top yet, realistically, only 5 percent will ever succeed,” she says. “I always knew I wanted to do something beyond the field of music.”

In 2011, Atsuchi had quit her job and was studying at business school when the triple disasters of March 11 hit.

“Of course, at first I wondered what I could possibly do to help,” she recalls. “I decided to simply focus on supporting people emotionally, so in August 2011 I brought the things I loved — cake, coffee and music — to the people in the disaster areas.”

Creating a cafe-like environment while she and her friend performed piano and violin, Atsuchi’s first “cafe concert” was so rewarding, she made a commitment to build relationships in Tohoku, feeling that a one-time visit would not accomplish enough.

She started inviting more musicians to join her, and the idea for Acchi Cocchi blossomed. At first Atsuchi paid all the costs herself, piling volunteers into her own car for the drive, but a professor from business school counseled her on starting an NPO.

“The disaster affected me deeply, and made me really think about what I wanted to do with my life,” she says.

Officially incorporated as an NPO in 2013, Acchi Cocchi also connected with student volunteers from the Tokyo University of the Arts to expand their work. With over 50 performers now registered as Acchi Cocchi artists, Atsuchi says, “It’s important that the artists be good, or no one will want to come hear them. But it is equally important to build relationships with your audience and to be open to their ideas. For example, if your audience wants to hear anime tunes, you play it, but play in a way that children will really be moved by it — that’s what true artists do, and I want the young musicians to be able to reach their listeners this way.”

Atsuchi firmly believes Acchi Cocchi’s work helps the artists as well.

“I realized that although all of the musicians we were working with are very good at music, some of them aren’t very good at socializing. Our aim also became to support young artists in any way we could so that they can contribute to society in the future, helping to make art an everyday part of people’s lives.”

Having had a few years of success in Tohoku offering a wide range of musical events and arts workshops across the region, Atsuchi expanded to include other communities in need of emotional support.

“I came up with the idea of doing something like what we do in Tohoku at homes for the elderly in Yokohama — bringing them homemade sweets and art. We’ve since branched out into many types of activities — we do events for children, for the elderly, as well as international exchange projects.”

Recently, the group collaborated in Tohoku for the second time with Australia’s renowned Polyglot Theatre, bringing their interactive artistic production “Paper Planet” to the elementary schools in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture. The children and adults worked together to create a new world from their imagination.

“We made a huge tree out of cardboard and invited the children to create a ‘paper planet’ out of a wide range of materials,” Atsuchi explains. “The Australian performers played with the children, becoming animals in the forest, and Acchi Cocchi created music to go along with the story.”

Bringing an international outlook into the devastated areas gives the children a valuable perspective on the aftermath of the disaster. Atsuchi says that even after visiting the affected areas every month for seven years, there still remains so much more to do as regards the emotional recovery.

“People in Tohoku have been taught the importance of securing their own safety first, even if it means everyone else around you dies. The paper planet teaches children the importance of figuring things out for themselves — there are no scissors to cut the paper, the children have to use their imaginations to tear, fold or paste the paper in order to create. It’s important for children to know that there’s never just one right response and that adults don’t always have an answer. Basically, creative play allows the children to think for themselves.”

Atsuchi hopes to bring more such international exchanges to Tohoku and beyond.

“It’s rewarding to do something you love, so I hope to keep working together with people toward the same goal, promoting international exchange and spreading music and art across an even wider area in Japan.”

Acchi Cocchi: www.acchicocchi.com/index_en.html. Send all your questions and comments to lifelines@japantimes.co.jp.

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