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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Sakamoto's Inspiration

Apr. 21, 2016

Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto has been inspired by his orchestra of children from areas hard hit by the March 2011 earthquake. The disaster led him to rethink the role of music during troubled times.

He recently took to the stage in Tokyo with his new musicians whose performance included a requiem for victims of the 2011 disaster in northeastern Japan.

During an illustrious career spanning 40 years, Sakamoto won an Academy Award for Best Original Score for “The Last Emperor” in 1988. He was diagnosed with cancer two years ago and had taken a hiatus from performance.

That changed this year when he joined his orchestra comprised of students from Tohoku, the region that was hit by the huge earthquake and tsunami. “The children still bear deep emotional scars from the disaster. Some are unable to let go of the past, even after five years. I'm trying to figure out what music can do for them,” he explains.

When a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit parts of northeastern Japan in 2011, footage of the disaster was broadcast around the world. “All I can do is make music. But I couldn't even do that after the disaster, because I felt such a huge shock, as well as fear and confusion," Sakamoto says of his reaction.

The incident reminded him of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, where he lives: “The hustle and bustle of the city died down after the attacks. About a week later, I went to a park and came across a youth with a guitar playing the song ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles. It was then that I realized I hadn't heard any music in over a week. It felt like the song was a way to lament the deaths of those we'd lost. I realized it's the basis of music."

Sakamoto says he has been considering the role of music throughout his career. One month after the 2011 disaster, he and some friends organized a concert in New York. Soon afterwards, he visited the devastated region for the first time. When he saw the damage in Rikuzentakata, he realized just how long recovery would take.

Sakamoto also considered how he could contribute as a musician. He knew the survivors would need music in their lives and to prepare for that, he teamed up with firms to establish a fund to fix damaged instruments. They repaired almost 2,000 instruments in three years.

“The children couldn't play instruments for several months, since their schools had been damaged in the disaster. They were finally able to play after temporary schools were built. They said it was a huge relief. It gave them enjoyment and eased their tensions,” says the famous composer.

After Sakamoto met the children, he thought about how he could provide ongoing support. He decided to hold the concert in Tokyo, and started accepting applications from hopeful participants.

“You're not professional musicians, so don't worry about making mistakes. Just enjoy the music and play loudly!,” he told the rehearsing musicians. About 100 students from the disaster zones joined the orchestra.

They started practicing six months ago, and it was heavy going at first as the group faced a steep learning curve. “Everybody needs to play at the same volume for the performance to sound good. It doesn't work if only one person makes an effort,” Sakamoto told his charges as he hammered home the importance of working together.

Maho Sato, 16, is a violinist in Sakamoto's orchestra. Her grandfather's house was destroyed in the disaster and she lost a friend too. When she moved to another part of the country, she was shocked to find that her new classmates did not seem to care about the disaster.

“As part of this orchestra, I want people to know how we're all working hard to get over the earthquake and tsunami,” says the teenager.

Sakamoto was delighted by orchestra’s performance in Tokyo: “They did a great job, almost like professionals! They played as one. I was really surprised.

For example, when I made a single suggestion, it led to a significant improvement. So there's no need for us adults to teach them everything. Music gave them energy and allowed them to dream. So I realized we can indeed help them."

Collaboration with the young musicians has allowed Sakamoto to consider his work more deeply. He thinks music may help people find peace, and in working with those whose lives have been touched by tragedy, he has found a fresh insight.