By Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun
Northwest Asian Weekly
Imagine an orchestra of girls from Japan performing with musicians from Washington.
Everyone’s a volunteer and conversation among the performers is nearly impossible because of the language barrier.
Welcome to the essence of the 2016 Friendship Concert, with performances by the Tamana Girls High School Band and the Graham-Kapowsin High School Wind Ensemble, brought to you by the imagination, energy, and passion of Dr. Miho Takekawa and Tomio Yamamoto.
The concert is free and donations are welcome, with all proceeds going to over 10,000 families in Kumamoto still living in temporary shelters because of the devastating earthquakes in April. The Tamana Girls High School is in Kumamoto, and some of the students had to cancel their plans to travel to Washington. But the music of the Friendship Concert perseveres.
On June 5 at 3 p.m. in Lagerquist Hall, at Pacific Lutheran University, the Friendship Concert founded by Takekawa, a PLU percussion professor, and Yamamoto, vice president of the Kansai Band Association, will showcase the award-winning girls band from Tamana, Japan, and their talented sister band, the Graham-Kapowsin High School Wind Ensemble.
Takekawa has an easy laugh, and her voice is soothing and ecstatic at the same time as she talks about the upcoming Friendship Concert and ongoing exchange program. She’s organized exchange trips for musical students in Washington and Japan for over 10 years. “It’s been amazing,” said Takekawa. “The reason I keep doing this is because I have witnessed the importance of young people’s lives and what they need. Doing good things for each other at a local, community level is a good thing. That’s why the concert is called ‘The Friendship Concert,’ because it’s based on friendship. I want to be a part of a community that aims higher for young people’s lives.”
In addition to teaching percussion, performing, and playing the marimba as part of the Miho and Diego Duo, Takekawa is hosting 65 high school girls from the Tamana orchestra, who are traveling to Seattle to perform this year. Takekawa also takes American students to Japan every other year. She took 24 students to Tamana last year and she laughed at the question regarding the time and effort it takes to coordinate travel, hosting, and logistics. “We’re very organized,” she said. She started the exchange program with college students before developing high school sister bands. “College students are really busy, and they have to think about themselves,” said Takekawa. “High school kids have more things in common, and that’s really the age they need more information about what others do.”
“Music really helps the students to communicate. It’s amazing how they connect through broken English, Google translation, and whatever they can do at home,” explained Takekawa. The high school students play music together, but can’t really have a normal conversation.
“There’s definitely a big language barrier,” said Takekawa. Although Japanese students study English at school, it’s mainly reading and writing, so Takekawa said it’s “very difficult for them to just say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ or ‘What’s going on?’ Those kinds of sayings are not included in their culture,” said Takekawa. Despite not being able to talk to one another, she said, the students look at the music together, and use body language, pointing and gesturing to communicate. “Somehow, when they’re on stage, and there’s almost 100 people from Tamana High School and Graham-Kapowsin High School performing, it’s amazing — they sound great!”
Takekawa does her best to translate for the students, and before everyone had cell phones, she even translated love letters. “I didn’t want to read them, but I had to translate for them. It was just the cutest thing!” Takekawa said. “Some of the kids have stayed in touch for 12 years. They visit, and invite each other to weddings, and share images of their children,” all the while, keeping Takekawa in the loop. “That’s why I have over 1,500 Facebook friends!”
Takekawa has studied piano since she was 3 years old, switching to percussion at age 13, because she failed to qualify for Japanese private music conservatory middle school. “After learning piano since I was 3, I thought I was pretty good, but obviously I was not!” joked Takekawa. It was in public school where Takekawa became enthralled with the first female drummer she’d ever seen or heard in her life. “She was just outstanding. It stood out for me, and I said, ‘I want to be like her!’” said Takekawa. Through her passion and dedication, she went on to a private music conservatory during high school. “It’s been a long journey,” said Takekawa, of her musical beginnings, to where she is today.
Transforming young lives
“It’s very curious, when the girls from Japan came here to America, they had never experienced hugging people,” said Takekawa. The girls stayed with host families and after the host moms cried with joy and hugged the girls, the girls learned to hug each other. “That’s really sweet.” And after the Japanese girls leave each year, “the American teachers all come to me and say my entire school has changed. Thank you!” said Takekawa. American students learn to demonstrate respect by bowing to the girls, and normal demands turn into requests.
Something as simple as needing to go to the bathroom during rehearsal or lectures changed from getting up and saying, “I have to go to the bathroom,” to practicing patience and asking, “Is it okay, may I go?” Takekawa explained that American students normally get up and go when they need to. But in Japanese culture, it’s considered rude.
Michael Higgins, a senior at Graham-Kapowsin High School, went to Tamana last year as part of Takekawa’s exchange program. He agrees the experience was transformative. “After we got back from the trip, there was the most amount of respect and maturity I’ve ever seen from any group, including in myself. Just spending time with the Japanese girls — really it’s their kindness that I think affected all of us.”
The most profound change Higgins noticed in himself was his shift in priorities. “I’d always been really focused on my schoolwork, and friendship was second. After the exchange, I realized that friendship is the most important part of life. Yamamoto sensei told us before we left that when you’re struggling, remember your friends here (in Tamana) are struggling, too.
That really touched my heart. Friendship is so important to success and happiness,” said Higgins, who plays the clarinet and will be majoring in physics at the University of Washington next year.
“The Tamana girls’ dedication to music and everything they do is phenomenal,” said Higgins.
While in Tamana, “We’d spend four hours every day practicing. They sound phenomenal, but it’s kind of funny to see they’re their hardest critics as well. It’s just a totally different culture that we see in America.” Higgins finds it’s bittersweet that a lot of them don’t continue their music after they graduate. “The girls I met last year — most of them graduated, and quite a few of them are going into nursing programs.”
Higgins further reflected on his first and only trip to Japan. “At first, everyone experienced the anxiety of culture shock because of how different it is there. My biggest insecurity ended up becoming probably the greatest experience of my life, because they just were so warm and welcoming, and it’s such an incredible culture they’ve built there, and the friendship they have with the G-K (Graham-Kapowsin).”
“Their sense of community is totally different,” continued Higgins. “When we were struggling with music, their first instinct was to drop everything they were doing to help us. Here in America, where most of the times if you can’t get something, other people aren’t instantly ready to jump to help.”
As far as the language barrier, Higgins said, “Translators don’t do language-swap justice — there was more confusion than there was clarity.” There weren’t many conversations except for brief exchanges, but Higgins said the Japanese and American students connected through music. “It’s very rare for something to be so universal as music, and to play with them, to feel the same emotions, and to create the music — that was the deepest connection we had.”
Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun can be reached at email@example.com.