Life Goes On: A Visit to Fukushima, One Year Later

Fukushima Folk Song “Requiem”


Min’yō are traditional Japanese folk songs, interwoven with the reality of daily life and handed down from generation to generation. Fukushima Prefecture is particularly famous for its rich repertoire of traditional songs. When a group of local musicians got together to make a recording of Fukushima folk songs as a way of soothing the pain from last year’s disaster, was on hand to capture the moment.

“3/14 was a huge shock. It changed our lives overnight. The past year has really brought home the importance of ties with family and friends,” says Matsumoto Kazuharu, one of the leading figures in a group that works to support the Kominato School of min’yō folk songs.

In Fukushima, people often refer to last year’s disasters as “3/14” and “3/15.” This differs from the practice in most of the rest of the country, where “3/11” is used as shorthand to refer to the earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011. In Fukushima, the focus is different.

On March 12, the day after it was swamped by the colossal tsunami produced by the earthquake, the Number 1 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station lost all power and a hydrogen explosion took place. On March 14, a hydrogen explosion in Reactor 3 blew the roof off the reactor building. In Reactor 2, the nuclear fuel rods were totally exposed when the water supposed to cool them evaporated away. On March 15 a further explosion was heard from Reactor 2. Fire broke out in the spent fuel pool at Reactor 4, and instructions were issued for residents within a 20 to 30 kilometer radius of the power station to take refuge indoors.

From that time, the fear of invisible radiation became an everyday part of local residents’ lives. For many people in Fukushima, the dates of the accidents at Fukushima Daiichi have become a memory even more indelible than that of the earthquake itself.

Strengthening Local Ties

The shakuhachi musician Kominato Akihisa, featured recently on (interview | video), grew up in Fukushima Prefecture, in the city of Sukagawa. His father, Hōshō, is the second iemoto (head) of the Kominato School of min’yō folk songs. Together with his wife Mitsuru, a singer, he teaches traditional folk music, specializing in the traditions of Fukushima and Ibaraki Prefectures. When we heard that the Kominato family and a group of their students were gathering to make a recording of Fukushima min’yō at the Iwatsutsu Kowake Jinja, one of the most important Shinto shrines in northern Japan, we knew this was something we wanted to cover.

Kominato Akihisa (left) performs with his father Kominato Hōshō

“It was about a month after the disaster that we started contacting members of the group by phone to suggest a performance,” says the elder Kominato. “At the time, a lot of older people were cooped up at home with nothing to do. I thought this might be a way to keep them from getting too depressed.

 “Min’yō are traditional folk songs that have been passed down from generation to generation. They tend to be closely associated with a particular part of the country. This gives them a special power to remind people vividly and instantly of the place where they grew up, even if it has been years since they left. All the concern about radiation since the nuclear disaster has given Fukushima a negative image all over the world. We thought this was an ideal opportunity to perform the traditional songs and put the spotlight back on a more positive side of the prefecture. We wanted to remind people that Fukushima is not just some contaminated place, but our precious home.”

Even so, the sudden phone call apparently came as something of a surprise to some of his students.

“When the call came, we were still experiencing aftershocks on an almost daily basis,” says Mizuno Isao, a leading member of the Kominato Min’yō Group. “To tell the truth, at first a lot of us weren’t convinced that the time was right. In fact, there was another big aftershock on the first day of rehearsals. . . . But meeting up after such a long time and catching up on the latest news really cheered everyone up. Singing the old songs together again also brought back so many memories of happier times before the disaster.”

Ancient Songs of Everyday Life

From left to right: Mizuno Isao, Matsumoto Kazuharu, Yabe Fujiko, Kominato Mitsuru

Many of Japan’s folk songs have been handed down orally from generation to generation over hundreds of years. In giving natural expression to the emotions of ordinary, everyday lives, the words, vocalizations, and rhythms of the min’yō have a power to summon up a vivid sense of the region that produced them.

Fukushima Prefecture has a rich variety of traditional folk songs, showing great diversity across different regions of the prefecture. Perhaps the most famous of all Fukushima min’yō is “Aizu Bandai-san,” a traditional melody singing the praises of Mt. Bandai, a large volcanic mountain in the northern part of Fukushima Prefecture. Many of the best-known songs of the prefecture come from its Sōma region, which has become known as a famous center of Japanese folk songs.

“The area where I live in Sukagawa,” explains Kominato Hōshō, “is to the southwest of the nuclear power station, so there is not so much impact from the radiation and we have been able to stay put. It’s the same here in Ishikawa where the shrine is located. But the Sōma district was devastated in the tsunami; and in places like Minami Sōma and Namie, close to the power station, many people have been forced to leave their homes. That’s why for this recording we chose to perform “Sōma Nagareyama,” a famous Sōma song, as a sign of respect.”

The min’yō “Sōma Nagareyama” has a special significance for people of the region, as the song traditionally performed during the ceremony held to mark the start of the famous Sōma Nomaoi festival, which features horseback riders dressed in samurai costume. The song is said to have its origins in words spoken in 1323 by Sōma Shigetane, founder of the local feudal domain, when he set out for Tōhoku, leaving behind his hometown of Nagareyama (today Nagareyama City in Chiba Prefecture). The whispered words of longing for his hometown gained a melody and rhythm, evolving into this folk song.

“It’s a song about missing your home,” notes Mitsuru. “But we just sang it the same way we always do. We didn’t make any special effort to tie it in with what has been happening since the disaster. Folk songs are intimately connected to everyday life. We felt that just singing the songs in the normal way was the best way to remind people of lives and places they have had to leave behind since the disaster.”

Resolving to Remain

For the recording venue, the group chose the Iwatsutsu Kowake Jinja, a Shinto shrine in Ishikawa with a history that goes back more than a thousand years. Huge ancient rocks give the shrine precincts a unique and somewhat eerie atmosphere. In the days before the disaster, many people would visit the shrine as part of a pilgrimage to all the Ichi no Miya or “primary shrines” of the old provinces of Japan. Ishikawa suffered relatively little damage from the earthquake and has also escaped the worst effects of the radiation fallout. Even so, there was a dramatic drop in visitors after the disaster, and despite recent signs of recovery, the number of visitors is still far below the pre-disaster level.

“The damage done to the prefecture’s reputation has been a serious problem for us,” says Mizuno. “Tourist numbers are down, and Fukushima produce isn’t selling at all. But eventually we will succeed in repairing the buildings that were destroyed, and the panic about radiation will surely fade as well with time. But the really terrifying thing about radiation is the fact that you can’t see it. Plus, no one knows how long it will go on for.”

The people of Fukushima have proved remarkably resilient, responding with great fortitude to the disaster.

“Last year’s disaster forced major decisions on all of us,” says Mitsuru. “We had to come to terms with the idea that we might be killed in an earthquake. And we had to make up our minds and resolve to go on living here.”

In normal circumstances, no strong resolve is needed to continue living in the place you have always called home. But today, menaced by the invisible threat of radiation, people in Fukushima Prefecture have been compelled to make precisely this decision. Some have resolved to stay on in Fukushima for all kinds of reasons: their children, their work, or their affection for the land where they were raised. Others would prefer to move somewhere else, but are unable to do so for one reason or another. All of them have had to make up their minds and summon up deep resolve to stay on in Fukushima.

Until recently, I always believed that there was not much we could do as individuals about the threat of radiation,” says Kominato Akihisa. “But a thought occurred to me today as we performed the folk songs that have been passed down for hundreds of years. Over the centuries, all kinds of major events and disruptions must have happened in this area: disasters, battles, wars. But even so, the old songs survived, rooted in the soil of their local communities, because people continued to sing them and pass them down. At present, we have no way of knowing how long the effects of radiation will continue, or when evacuees will be able to return to their homes. But the old songs will surely live on and continue to be sung as a poignant reminder to the people of Fukushima of the homes they have left behind. That’s just one more reason why I want to continue to perform the old Fukushima folk songs—not just in Fukushima, but around the world.”

Akihisa’s arrangement of this song was released on March 11, 2012 under the title “Requiem.” Part of the proceeds from sales will be donated to earthquake relief charities.

“Requiem” by Kominato Akihisa can be downloaded from 

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(Originally written in Japanese. Photographs by Matsuda Tadao.)

nuclear Fukushima Shakuhachi music Kominato Akihisa minyo Radiation Soma Namie folk song song jinja shrine Ichinomiya nagareyama accident power station Fukushima Daiichi