Piano tuner's long journey for peace

Seventy-five years have passed since the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the first use of a nuclear weapon against a civilian population. By the end of the year, about 140,000 people were dead. To this day, many are still suffering from illnesses caused by radiation exposure.

A memorial service to mark the milestone had to be downsized due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the unusual circumstances cast a spotlight on a special instrument.

Yagawa Mitsunori is a piano tuner who was born in Hiroshima. He was among the approximately 800 guests invited to the memorial service on August 6. It was a particularly special occasion for him as the event featured a piano he had restored. On the day of the bombing, the piano was in a house just three kilometers from the epicenter. It survived the heat of the blast and, all these years later, was played at the ceremony.

Yagawa Mitsunori
68-year-old Yagawa Mitsunori attended the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony. He listened to the sounds of the piano he had painstakingly restored.

Yagawa works as a tuner but over the years he also learned how to restore and repair old pianos. This reputation is what led a group of hibakusha, or people who were affected by the atomic bomb, to donate a piano that survived the bombing to Yagawa over two decades ago.

Over the years, he has carefully dismantled, cleaned, and restored six such pianos at his factory. He says he has found traces of the blast in nearly all of them. Pieces of glass. Red soil. He keeps it all as testament to the destruction caused by the bombing. Despite the extensive damage, Yagawa says he has been able to get them all to once again "sing", though they do sound different from ordinary pianos. The sound is heavier, more powerful, yet carries a certain elegance.

For the original owners, some of whom are still alive and well in their 90s, the pianos were faithful companions during the postwar decades. Yagawa says the most painful moments in his work are when he takes possession of the pianos. He says most of the owners break down in tears as he loads the instruments onto his truck, as if they were parting with a child or best friend.

"I will never forget the tears of the atomic bomb survivors," he says. "They handed me their treasures. They helped me understand that it is my duty, as a piano tuner in Hiroshima, to use these pianos to convey a message."

Pianos affected by the bomb
Yagawa has restored six pianos that were damaged in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Yagawa's parents were both hibakusha. His father was a firefighter and was trapped under rubble after the bombing. He was able to use a sword to break free, but many of his colleagues were not so lucky. A fire engulfed the site, and it was all Yagawa's father and the other survivors could do to offer a quick prayer for those still stuck and then flee. Years later, he gave the sword to his son as a keepsake.

Yagawa says his father didn't speak about this experience for decades. He says seeing how his father seemed to internalize the pain made him think that there were thousands of others just like him, suffering from the psychological effects of the bombing.

Yagawa received a sword from his father as a keepsake.

Yagawa understood the extent of the suffering caused by the bomb, and thought that perhaps there was something he could do with his pianos to spread a message of peace. He bought a four-ton truck and began taking the pianos around the country. Over the span of fifteen years, he has visited all forty-seven Japanese prefectures and held more than 2,000 concerts in the name of peace.

"A piano usually stays in one place, but these are always traveling," he says. "I think they are the busiest pianos in the world. I know it must be tough for them, but they are patient with me and follow me on my truck to deliver this message of peace. They are very dear to me."

Yagawa eventually took his show overseas. Ten years ago, one of the pianos was played at a September 11 memorial service in New York City. And in 2017, the same instrument was used in the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies in Oslo honoring ICAN, the international non-governmental organization that campaigns for nuclear abolition.

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This year, when organizers of the Hiroshima memorial event were forced to cancel the traditional choir performance due to the coronavirus, Yagawa and his piano were the obvious next option.

On the day of the ceremony, a high school student played the piano and the keys Yagawa had so meticulously tuned provided a gentle finale to the proceedings.

"The piano doesn't speak with words but its tune can still deliver a message of peace," Yagawa says. "As more people who survived the bombing leave this world, the piano's role will become even more important."

Yagawa believes a piano's notes transcend language, religion, and race. He says he's committed to continuing his journey to get the world attuned to the possibility of a nuclear free-world.