Singer-songwriter Tomoe Sawa was the first person officially allowed to sing a song in Japanese in South Korea after the end of World War II. In November 1998, a historic concert took place at a theater in Gwangju, southwestern South Korea, after the Kim Dae-jung administration began lifting a ban on Japanese pop culture in place since 1945.

At the concert, Sawa sang the words “Watashi no kokoro wa kosui desu. Dozo koide oidenasai” (“My heart is a lake. Please come and row the boat out”).

“As I started singing slowly, the sound of Japanese words echoed throughout the hall like ripples on the surface of a lake,” Sawa says. She sang an original song titled “Kokoro” (which translates as “Heart”), for which she had put music to a Korean poem translated by her grandfather and scholar, Kim So-ung, who translated Korean poetry into Japanese with the aim of delivering the spirit of deculturated people under Japanese colonial rule. After some 60 years, Sawa found the poem in one of Kim’s books.

Another song that she sang at the concert was “Furusato” (“My Country Home”), which many Japanese people are taught at elementary school.

“To my surprise, I heard voices from the all-Korean audience singing along in Japanese,” Sawa says. “My performance stirred their memories of being at school under Japanese rule.”

After the concert, many members of the audience visited Sawa backstage.

“They said that they had been afraid of songs in the Japanese language,” Sawa says, “but they expressed how they were moved by my music and found the beauty of the understated sound of Japanese. I was so happy to hear that.”

Born in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 1971 to a Japanese father and a Korean mother who were both pastors, and having lived in South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, Sawa developed her musical activities her own way.

Sawa moved to Seoul at the age of 2, and then to the east coast of the United States at 6, due to her father’s missionary work and studies. When the family returned to Seoul, they were forced to go back to Japan due to political instability in South Korea. From the age of 8, Sawa received her education in Japan, except for one year in the U.S. during her high school days.

“My parents spoke Japanese, Korean and English perfectly. The language we spoke at home naturally changed according to where we lived,” Sawa says. “Whichever country we moved to, I was able to live at ease, and was proud of my identity. Before being asked, I would introduce myself with ‘I’m a Christian and half-Korean.’ Perhaps this was because my parents always lived with confidence.”

Sawa started playing the piano at the age of 3, and the instrument has been always with her. But her narrow scope of classical music on the piano was broadened when she encountered improvised jazz at a one-week summer art program during her second stay in the U.S. as a high-school student. On returning to Japan, she became absorbed in jazz, rock and pop and actively performed as a vocalist in a band with her friends.

Before he passed away during Sawa’s high school days, her father asked her not to forget her faith, and encouraged her to pursue a career in music — something she duly did.

In 1991, while studying at the department of musicology at Tokyo University of the Arts, Sawa debuted as a singer with her first album, “Tomoe Sings,” which was recorded in Los Angeles and produced by American musician George Duke.

“I debuted as a singer in English. Cool, isn’t it?” Sawa says. Her CDs sold poorly, though, and she soon learned about the commercial music industry, which she found unsuitable.

“Through my live performances in Japan, I realized that the Japanese language reaches audiences better,” she says. “So I sought words that I should sing, which I found in Japanese poems, and gradually turned my eyes from the U.S. to Asia.”

She wrote her graduation thesis on the music and ideology of North Korea, and the study bore fruit in the form of an original and passionate composition, “Sing Your Freedom Song,” in 1994.

Over the past 28 years, she has sung, played the piano and delivered soulful words written by herself and Japanese poets, such as Shuntaro Tanikawa, Noriko Ibaragi, Kazuko To, at venues including those in disaster-hit areas and juvenile reformatories. Sawa has held a concert annually since 2001 at the national Oshima Seishoen sanatorium for leprosy, where her father worked as a seminarian.

To allow her to live closer to the sanatorium, which is on a remote island in the Seto Inland Sea, Sawa based herself in Okayama Prefecture four years ago and now studies at the graduate school of Okayama University, researching and passing on the music culture and activities practiced for many years at isolated sanatoriums around Japan that are now about to be closed down.

On Nov. 17 at Cafe Milton in Shiroishi, Miyagi Prefecture, Sawa ended a tour to promote her latest CD — her first in four years — which was released in July. The CD’s title song, “Ame ni mo Makezu” (“Strong in the Rain”), sees her put music to Kenji Miyazawa’s renowned poem of the same name. The album also includes a cover of a 1970s Korean folk song and some of her favorite, more recent, J-pop songs, such as “Squall” by Mongol 800 and “Melody” by Koji Tamaki. In the intimate atmosphere of the small venue, with just two dozens people in the audience, Sawa gave an interactive and spontaneous one-off program, singing and playing the piano unaccompanied.

“Since being moved by her song ‘Kokoro,’ I have been impressed by how she lives and delivers a message as an artist,” said Masataka Miura, who runs the cafe and who first invited Sawa there 20 years ago.

Earlier, at the beginning of October, Sawa sang in a church in Daejeon, South Korea. The concert was planned last year as part of the 20th anniversary of the friendship between Christian organizations from South Korea and Kyoto.

“I heard that there were objections to my concert because of the recent political situation,” Sawa says. “But the organizers decided that it was all the more significant to hold my concert as planned.”

Amid strong anti-Japan sentiment, Sawa sang her bilingual repertoire in alternating Korean and Japanese.

“For the audiences of Koreans and Japanese, I wanted to create a space in which no one would be excluded,” Sawa says.

There may have been people, especially among the seniors, who did not want to hear the Japanese language, but as the show went on, “their feelings softened,” Sawa says. For the finale, she invited the audience to sing the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” all together, in both Korean and Japanese.

In the past, she did not feel comfortable being called a bridge between South Korea and Japan.

“The bridge was already there, thanks to many people’s efforts from both sides. I just went back and forth over the bridge,” Sawa says. “But now, I want to serve as a bridge, because there is something that can be done by no one but me.”

Tomoe Sawa will hold Christmas concerts at La Cana in Tokyo on Dec. 7, Tenjinyama Cultural Plaza in Okayama on Dec. 20 and Ganz, Toi, Toi, Toi in Osaka on Dec. 25. For more information, visit www.comoesta.co.jp.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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