August 11, 2020

Destruction of 2011 Japanese earthquake echoes through Mayo

By Elizabeth Zakaim
Reviews Editor

Despite the distracting beauty of the Riverside Church in New York, music rehearsal was starting to drag as choirs from both the College and two Japanese high schools were working hard to tackle every lyric their music threw at them.

The College choirs and Japanese high school choruses held their sixth annual East Meets West concert in Mayo Concert Hall on the evening of Monday, March 20.

The Japanese and American choirs bonded over shared experiences. (Photo courtesy of

The concert was a project of Hand in Hand, an organization established after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 that spreads awareness and comfort to those affected by the earthquake through musical performances throughout Japan and the United States.

Under the project’s wing, two Japanese high school choirs traveled to the U.S. to perform at the College as well as the Lincoln Center in New York City on Wednesday, March 22.

The students in the Japanese high school choirs are from Tohoku, Japan, a region greatly affected by the earthquake, according to John Leonard, the director of choirs and an associate professor of music at the College.

Many of them have lost family members, friends and homes in the area, he said.

For the students in the College’s choir, it was hard to learn the Japanese words to the songs, but both groups were intent on learning not just their music, but more about each other, as well.

For Alyse Watson, a member of the College’s Chorale and a junior early childhood and Spanish double major, it was hard to break the language barrier and get to know the Japanese students.

That did not stop her from trying, though. During a break in rehearsal, Watson and a friend were playing a hand game. One of the Japanese students sitting next to her expressed an interest in the game.

“I could just say ‘Hi’ and smile, but that was the kind of way we connected,” Watson said. Though they did not speak the same language, they successfully taught her how to play the game.

The connection Watson and others from the College formed with their Japanese peers made performing with them more meaningful. She felt honored to share in their efforts to spread awareness of the tragedy that affected them so deeply.

“Just how they remember the ones they love through song, it was really special to share in that,” she said.

Leonard was able to travel to Japan last year to work with the singers and conductors there before they flew to this country to perform. He developed a close friendship with Atsushi Yamada, the maestro from Japan who wrote the Hand in Hand theme song the choirs performed together at the end of the concert.

Since the College became a part of the Hand in Hand concert five years ago, Leonard has since developed a friendship with Yamada.

“Just to break down the language barrier and get to know other singers, other musicians… from other countries and then perform at an extremely high level at Lincoln Center together is really cool,” Leonard said.

The Japanese choir from Miyagi Prefectural Sendai Minami High School performed a moving song, “Wasenedeya,” which translates to “Don’t Forget,” which brought tears to the eyes of many audience members.

The song was written to honor those lost in the earthquake. One member of the choir had stayed home from school the day of the earthquake, and she, her family and her home were washed away. Her remains were found in the wreckage a few days later, according to the event program.

In the middle of the song, one student briefly spoke over the undertones of the choir.

“We lost many people we couldn’t possibly do without,” she said as the rest of the choir and the conductor bowed their heads. “We will never forget them.”

Freshman psychology major Elisa Liang heard about the event through the Japanese Student Association on campus and was glad she came.

“The first song (“Wesenedeya”) actually made me cry,” said Liang, who was not expecting to be so touched by the song and the tragedy it commemorated.

Members of the College Choir, one of the College’s choral groups, joined the Chorale, the more advanced chorus, and the Japanese choirs onstage to sing the Hand in Hand finale.

“I was blown away. … (The Japanese student choirs) were so loud and powerful,” said Cayla Maratea, a member of the College Choir and a junior elementary education and history double major.

Sophomore communication studies major Kelly Scheper was impressed with not just the Japanese students’ performance, but also how well they adapted to the unfamiliarity of a new country they have never visited before.

As a member of College choir for four semesters, Scheper was glad to see some fresh faces occupying Mayo’s concert hall stage.

“It’s not everyday that people from Japan come and sing here,” she said. “We’ve been doing it for a while now, so we’re used to doing it out there.”

These performances were different, though, as they were a cultural experience.

She enjoyed the Fukushima Prefectural Yumoto High School choir’s performance of “The Sound of Music,” which the students sang in Japanese.

Students from both of the College’s choral groups felt a connection with the Japanese high school students, despite their cultural differences.

“I just love music and being able to be a part of something that’s so much bigger than yourself,” Watson said.

Having the opportunity to meet people that are so different from herself and getting the chance to learn about their world was made even more special because both groups shared something in common that brought them all together despite any differences music.

“Being able to express our love for music together it’s really neat,” she said.

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