Songs of oppressed now serve to inspire

by Yumi Wijers-Hasegawa

War and oppression leave not only legacies of death and suffering, but throughout the ages the sorrow they have also inspired songs.

Such music has been a driving force for Miyuki Ishibashi. Born on the Korean Peninsula in 1944 to a Japanese colonial family, she is no stranger to suffering. For many years now, she has devoted herself to singing Russian songs of the oppressed that had been banned.

“No more children like me should be created” by a country’s war against other peoples and suppression of its own people, said Ishibashi, 59, who performs more than 20 times a year, mainly in Tokyo.

Ishibashi, who studied Russian literature at Waseda University, also translates Russian novels and dramas, including Maxim Gorki’s “The Lower Depths,” turning them into modern Japanese plays, which she herself performs.

To widen her network as a performer, Ishibashi runs a bar in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai nightlife quarter, where young artists — many of whom are musicians, designers and painters still struggling for fame — converge.

With a powerful, deep voice, she sings Russian songs about the lives of prisoners, orphans and Gypsies. The popular folk songs were banned in the former Soviet Union.

Ishibashi said many songs about concentration camps were written around 1937 during Josef Stalin’s rule. It is believed as many as 20 million people, or an eighth of the population, were held in prison and labor camps under his reign of terror.

“There is no such thing as a good war. There are economic concessions in any war, even religious wars, where powerful leaders try to protect their interests. But it’s not them going to war,” she said. “It’s the ordinary people, with parents, children and wives, who are sent to kill people.”

Ishibashi’s strong resentment toward the establishment stems from her family’s plight at the end of World War II, a war she blames on Japanese militarists.

As Japan’s defeat became increasingly evident in 1944, Ishibashi’s father was drafted in Korea.

He died a year later. Ishibashi said her mother “went through hell” in the course of being repatriated to Japan and in raising her then 1-year-old daughter amid the rubble of a defeated nation.

After graduating from Waseda, Ishibashi spent some 10 years as a singer and actress, traveling to Russia for the first time in 1976. She was captivated by Moscow’s desolate nature, which dovetailed with her childhood hardships.

Ishibashi began to collect and sing underground Russian songs, which portrayed the true feelings of the people suppressed by the communist regime, and grew increasingly aware of the reality of Soviet life.

“There was nothing on the shelves of grocery stores. People had to stand in lines to buy what little food or commodities they could lay their hands on, while Communist Party members and those with foreign cash were given special treatment,” she recalled.

Invited to a house party, Ishibashi saw her Russian friends sing satirical popular folk songs, in hiding.

“While some songs — about the lives of prisoners or detention camps in Siberia — were sensitive, others were just innocent, like the love of a Gypsy girl,” Ishibashi said, adding these were also banned by the authorities.

The songs fascinated Ishibashi because of their ability to enliven the people as never before, but they had not been recorded on tape or in musical score. So she began traveling throughout Russia, collecting the songs as she went.

When she started her quest, ordinary Russians were barred from having contact with foreigners. Thus many people were too afraid to help her, Ishibashi said.

Ishibashi’s happiest moment came some years after the 1991 fall of the communist regime. In 1998, she had the opportunity to perform for the first time before Russian people.

She appeared on a television show in Ulan Ude, east of Lake Baikal. The show featured “a strange Japanese woman who sings our songs (that) we do not know of.” After the program was aired, Ishibashi was asked to perform more on TV and is regularly invited to sing before Russian audiences.

“They understand the very words that I treasure in the songs. They cry and clap to the music. It’s a singer’s bliss,” she said. The language barrier, however, means that singing in front of Japanese audiences is unfortunately a bit like touching someone’s skin with gloves on, she added.

People sing in good times and bad, and sometimes to make money, Ishibashi said. The songs she sings come from the bottom of the heart. They are songs she is meant to sing, and not for profit. This is the vocation that keeps her alive and gives others strength.