On Friday 11 March 2011 at 2.46pm a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit off the east coast of Japan. The Guardian newspaper has described the event as ‘the fourth most powerful in the history of seismology. It knocked the Earth six and a half inches off its axis; it moved Japan four metres closer to America. In the tsunami that followed, more than 18,000 people were killed. At its peak, the water was 40 metres high. Half a million people were driven out of their homes.’
Adding to the heart-breaking devastation caused by the violent tremors and freak waves, a disaster would unfold in slow motion at the Fukushima Daiichi power station standing right on the coastline. As night fell on the day of the quake millions of households were without power but the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) insisted that radiation levels were not abnormal. However, by 15 March three of the four reactors on the site had suffered nuclear meltdowns due to the loss of core cooling, there were three hydrogen explosions and extensive radioactive contamination was emitted into the atmosphere. This was the most severe nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986; 154,000 citizens were evacuated from their homes within a 20km radius of the beleaguered plant.
Ryuichi Sakamoto was in a recording studio in Tokyo when the earthquake struck. ‘I was waiting for the musicians to arrive when the building started shaking’, he recalled. ‘Perhaps because I am a musician, instead of leaving the building, I tried to protect the equipment, the instruments and the microphones. As soon as we could we turned on the TV and looked at the damage across the country. I was shocked, stunned.’
The sense of disorientation and foreboding must have brought back deeply uncomfortable memories of a decade earlier when Ryuichi was in New York as the 9/11 terror attacks hit Manhattan (see ‘World Citizen – Chain Music’).
On 15 March 2011 the radiation levels in Tokyo were said to be ten times higher than normal. Sakamoto later recalled his instinct to retreat as far away as possible from the site of the disaster. ‘Driven by fears of the risks, I rushed to a pharmacy to buy an iodine agent (used to protect the thyroid gland) but found none there. I contacted a doctor who is an acquaintance of mine and heard the government had bought it all up.
‘So, I thought we should go west for evacuation first of all, and contacted hotels in the Kansai and Kyushu regions but no rooms were available then. I believed I was a little more knowledgeable about nuclear power than ordinary people, but (the knowledge proved to be nothing).
‘When the reactors exploded, the wind blew toward the Pacific fortunately, carrying most radioactive substances to the Pacific side. But there was a possibility that tens of millions of people in and outside the Tokyo metropolitan area would be forced to flee like in a scenario imagined by the then administration of the Democratic Party of Japan.’ (2021)
Less than a month after the tragedy on 9 April, New York’s Japan Society hosted a twelve-hour musical event in aid of its Japan Earthquake Relief Fund. Appearing in the early afternoon were Philip Glass, John Zorn, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. Zorn had contacted Sakamoto who was by now back in the US, and it was arranged that he would perform a set in the evening.
In a video interview on the eve of the concert, Ryuichi appears still shaken to the core by the recent events. ‘I want my portion to be like a requiem basically; of course for the victims, but also maybe most of the Japanese people…I wish my music would ease their souls and spirits. Because people are still living in a very tense situation over there, and many bodies are not found yet even, so my feelings are so mixed. The situation is so complex. It’s difficult. It’s basically a requiem.’
Albeit put together at extremely short notice, Ryuichi’s set-list that night was a carefully curated sequence of pieces drawing upon various cultural influences to reflect on the crisis in Japan. Acknowledging the focus of the troubling events that had drawn the artists and audience together, including live-stream viewers from across the world, Sakamoto was joined on stage by ‘a woman who is a Noh actor. I want to show a little bit of our tradition to the American people.’ The actress Mayo Yamaguchi was tutored in Japanese classical Noh theatre in Tokyo before relocating to New York. She chants words from a Noh play while adapting the detailed kata (movement patterns) to Ryuichi’s musical accompaniment, using a fan to precisely accentuate the line of each gesture.
The pianist was also joined by concert violinist Anne Akiko Meyers. Together they played ‘Kōjō no Tsuki’, a traditional Japanese song whose title translates to ‘The Moon over the Ruined Castle’. It’s a supremely apt image in the aftermath of the destruction of all things man-made on the East coast of Japan, where nature’s cycle of sun and moon nevertheless continues unperturbed.
The duo’s other piece was drawn from the culture of Sakamoto’s adopted homeland. ‘I will play the piece called ‘Smile’ which is written by Charlie Chaplin. Because I want to give a small hope, a smile, to the victims,’ he said. ‘Smile’ first appeared in Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times as an instrumental theme. In the ’50s, lyricists John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons paired words with the tune so that today it’s impossible to listen to the melody without hearing, ‘smile though your heart is breaking’.
Ryuichi explained that the ‘main body’ of the set ‘is my improvisation, so you can say it’s a new piece. It reflects what I am right now.’ Four days ahead of the performance, David Sylvian’s official website pronounced that ‘David has recorded poetry readings for Ryuichi’s performance at The Japan Society, NYC, Saturday April 9th.’
The poems in question were written in Russian by Arseny Tarkovsky and taken from an English language edition with translation by Virginia Rounding. Both Sylvian and Sakamoto have expressed their admiration for the work of Arseny’s son, the film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky, citing his movies as a deep well of creative inspiration (see ‘Maria’). Andrei’s film Stalker includes a recitation of his father’s poetry, and that may well be the link that led to this selection for the performance at The Japan Society.
Stalker was released in 1979, the title referring to a character who acts as the guide to a mysterious restricted area known as the ‘Zone’. The film pre-dates the Chernobyl disaster by several years but is seen by many as a premonition of the exclusion zone that was established around the plant after an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction caused explosions and devastating airborne radioactive contamination. Whilst Tarkovsky’s film does not specify the origin of the Zone, a shot of the Stalker with his family as the film reaches its conclusion appears to show a nuclear power plant in the background. (Sylvian and Russell Mills previously incorporated a sample of the clanking wheels of the rail car transporting three principal characters in Stalker to the Zone into the track ‘Epiphany’ for Ember Glance – read more here).
Arseny Tarkovsky’s verse was first published in book form in 1962 but many poems date from much earlier, extending back to the inter-war years and then influenced by his first-hand experience of combat in World War II which led to grievous injury and successive amputations of his wounded leg. Each of the poems narrated by Sylvian seems to take on a fresh resonance in the shadow of Fukushima.
Sakamoto wished the performance to be a requiem for the dead and the first piece is ‘In Memory of Marina Tsvetayeva: Part I – From an Old Notebook’. Tsvetayeva was herself a poet whose relationship with Arseny was complicated by unrequited love on her part. These words dedicated to the memory of a specific person draw us to the truth that each life lost in the unimaginable scale of Japan’s tragedy was an individual with unique characteristics:
‘Your small waist, each of your elastic
Stubborn steps, your cornered verse’
The final stanza even hints at the potentially catastrophic power of the ocean.
‘Assent to joy and sadness!
Leave the furled wings undisturbed:
Supreme above the waters of disaster,
Don’t wrench the waves apart.’
Next is ‘Life, Life’, its opening a defiant proclamation in the face of mortality.
‘I don’t believe in omens or fear
Forebodings. I flee from neither slander
Nor from poison. Death does not exist.
Everyone’s immortal. Everything is too.
No point in fearing death at seventeen,
Or seventy. There’s only here and now, and light;
Neither death, nor darkness, exists.
We’re all already on the seashore;
I’m one of those who’ll be hauling in the nets
When a shoal of immortality swims by.’
There is bold confidence in the image of a youngster riding fearlessly to face whatever lies ahead.
‘I strapped my fate to the saddle;
And even now, in these coming times,
I stand up in the stirrups like a child.’
The words of ‘Dreams’ describe the onset of sleep and the inexplicable wanderings of the unconscious mind…
‘Night settles down by the window,
Puts on her magical glasses,
Intones the Babylonian dream-book,
In a singsong voice, like a priest.’
…and then, most remarkably of all, we have the first of the Russian poet’s ‘Two Japanese Tales’, entitled ‘The Poor Fisherman’. Listening to Sylvian’s reading inter-weaved with Sakamoto’s musical performance in this moment of raw grief for Japan, it’s impossible not to reflect on the words as an expression of the desolation felt on that day, alongside the implied hope to be found in the ‘Star of the morning’.
‘I used to be a fisherman,
But my nets were carrried
Out to sea. Now on earth
I’m empty and transparent.
Rests in my poverty.
I need nothing.
Through the universe
I’ll journey, humble,
Silent and barefoot,
Following the sacred
Star of the morning.’
As the Japanese tale closes, the electronic sounds contributed by Fennesz for the performance and controlled from Sakamoto’s laptop rise to a crescendo which overtakes everything else. The words of Sylvian’s final reading – ‘The Sun’s Eclipse 1914’ – are barely audible amongst the deluge of sound.
‘That summer the national grief
Submitted to iron fetters,
By the edge of the very sea
The dusty steppe decayed.’
Bizarrely, in a complete misunderstanding of the provenance of the poetry, the following day’s New York Times reviewer bemoaned the ‘New-Agey text.’
Another poem was recorded by Sylvian in preparation for the Concert for Japan, ‘And this I dreamt, and this I dream’, but was not used in the performance. It later surfaced on Sakamoto’s album async (2017) on a track named after the collection of Arseny Tarkovsky’s poems, ‘Life, Life’.
In the months that followed Fukushima Sakamoto’s thinking about the nuclear issue was clarified. Writing in The Asahi Shimbun the following year he explained, ‘I believe the first catalysts that made me aware about pacifism and the anti-nuclear movement were Nobel Prize-winning writer Kenzaburō Ōe’s Hiroshima Notes and Keiji Nakazawa’s manga Barefoot Gen.
‘I might also have been influenced by the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. With tensions heightening in the world, even as a child I felt the fear of a possible nuclear war.
‘Having been born and raised amid the Cold War, I may have subliminally had anchored into my subconscious a fear of the destruction of the world through a World War III that was fought with nuclear weapons. I also felt a vague hatred toward power generation that used the same nuclear fission principle…
‘When the Chernobyl nuclear accident occurred in 1986, I only held interest like any other ordinary citizen. Looking back on that now, I regret not having taken any action to stop nuclear plants in Japan decades before the major accident occurred at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
‘On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the terrorist attacks occurred in New York where I lived. I experienced first-hand what it means to live closely with fear from fighting and civil war…I am embarrassed to admit that it was only after 9/11 that I first began studying the history behind why the United States became a target of terrorists. That also immediately led to my asking myself about the contradiction in living in the United States as a citizen of the nation on which it had dropped atomic bombs. I have still not come up with an answer to that question.
‘With the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, and the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, I feel it is now the responsibility of Japan as the only nation to suffer major radiation exposure on three separate occasions as well as a contribution to the international community to say to the entire world that mankind cannot live in this world with nuclear energy, be it in the form of weapons or as a form of power generation.’
Stephen Nomura Schible’s 2017 documentary about Sakamoto, Coda, opens with the musician visiting the exclusion zone the year following the disaster. It’s as if time stopped at the moment the tsunami reached the shore, with clocks halted and calendars still displaying the date of those fateful events. Ryuichi is fascinated by a piano that survived the deluge – ‘I felt as if I was playing the corpse of a piano that drowned’ – and later in the film we see him incorporating samples of its distressed strings into his track ‘ZUNE’ from async.
As his car reaches the most contaminated area the Geiger counter clicks ever more furiously and Sakamoto dons full personal protection gear to view the site, passing beneath a banner proclaiming ‘Nuclear Energy for a Bright Future’ and on to the shoreline.
Back in Tokyo, in scenes that hadn’t been witnessed for decades, Japanese citizens took to the streets to protest against the restarting of the country’s nuclear facilities. Sakamoto is seen addressing the crowds, calling for an end to the use of nuclear power and encouraging the protestors to continue making their voices heard.
On 11 March 2021, the tenth anniversary of the earthquake, Sakamoto was again interviewed in The Asahi Shimbun. ‘Though nearly 10 years have passed since, the actual conditions of melted nuclear fuel have yet to be determined. Dispatched robots reportedly break down quickly due to the strong radiation levels. This is a human tragedy,’ he said. ‘There were no fewer than 54 reactors in the country, which is home to so many earthquakes. The accident may have been meant to occur. My regret is about my having failed to stop them.
‘Damage caused by a nuclear accident cannot be compared to that from car and aircraft accidents. It is really horrific that only a single accident could cause damage to tens of millions of people.
‘Measures following the accident take dozens to hundreds of years. Spent nuclear fuel continues to be generated even without additional accidents, and there are no places to store it. I cannot understand why such a risky technology is used.
‘It might be forgivable if there were no other ways (to generate power). But in the long term, taking advantage of unlimited solar power is the most reasonable…
‘The accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant hasn’t ended at all. Though 10 years have passed, melted fuel must be cooled every second, adding to contaminated water. The accident is still far from resolved…’
In November 2011, Christian Fennesz and Ryuichi Sakamoto released flumina. Sakamoto had been touring and every night at the beginning of the show he performed a piano piece, sometimes composed and sometimes improvised. Each was in a different key, so that after 24 shows he had recorded 24 pieces covering the 12 major and 12 minor keys of the western tonal system. These recordings were made with collaboration in mind and the tracks were then sent to Fennesz who added guitar and electronics. The musicians then came together in New York to mix the album.
My captured recording of Sakamoto with Sylvian and Fennesz at the Concert for Japan is accompanied by ‘0425’ on my playlist, extending the ambience of the musical accompaniment to Arseny Tarkovsky’s remarkable poetry.
‘Concert for Japan’
Music by Ryuichi Sakamoto
Played live at the Concert for Japan, Japan Society, NYC, 9 April 2011
Readings by David Sylvian from Life, Life, Selected Poems by Arseny Tarkovsky, translated by Virginia Rounding, Crescent Moon Publishing, 2000
‘In Memory of Marina Tsvetayeva: Part I – From an Old Notebook’
‘Two Japanese Tales: I – The Poor Fisherman’
‘The Sun’s Eclipse, 1914’
© copyright Virginia Rounding
Many thanks to Gerrit Hillebrand for allowing me to use the davidsylvian.net recording of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s performance featuring Christian Fennesz and David Sylvian from his page on the concert here.
The featured image of Ryuichi Sakamoto is a still from his pre-concert interview on 8 April 2011. All Ryuichi Sakamoto quotes are taken from interviews in 2011 unless indicated. Full sources and acknowledgments for this article can be found here.
Download links: ‘0425’ (bandcamp)
‘In Japanese culture there is a belief that God is everywhere – in mountains, trees, rocks, even in our sympathy for robots or Hello Kitty toys. In an animistic sense, then, this tragedy means we must have done some wrong to nature.’ Ryuichi Sakamoto, 2011