03. The Hospital

August 26, 2020Roger W. Lowther

Summary: A concert in a hospital near the broken nuclear power plants of Fukushima shortly after the 2011 earthquake in Japan brought us together. In that terrible time, music brought healing and helped us mourn and cry for what was lost. Excerpts from my forthcoming book Aroma of Beauty.


We had a pretty big earthquake the other day. The alarm on my phone went off as part of the early warning system for coming earthquakes. I heard the sirens out on the street, and all through the neighborhood. It was actually pretty scary. It sounded like the end of the world!

My mind immediately went back to 2011 and that 9.0 earthquake. Here in Japan we’ve been talking about that again, and how terrible it would be for an earthquake to happen now, during the spread of COVID-19, for everyone to be forced into the small confines of gymnasiums and other shelters. You can’t social distance when you’re sheltering from an earthquake.

When I watch the news about the spread of the corona virus around the globe, they always have a story about the people fighting on the front lines in hospitals. The people on the front lines, facing the worst of this disaster, at incredible risk to their own lives, helping as many people as possible.

It makes me think about a hospital in Minami Soma, just after the earthquake. Not far away, seawater spilled over the concrete walls and took out the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. The tsunami knocked out the power all up and down the coast. It went over their backup generators, flooding them, making them useless. The radioactive cores no longer had water running through them to keep them cool, and they began to overheat and melt through layer after layer of protection, becoming ticking time bombs.

One reactor blew, and then another, and then another!

Radioactivity shot into the air and flooded into the sea. It was a disaster of global proportions, comparable only to Chernobyl.

Words cannot describe the fear we felt during that time. In Tokyo, we were told not to drink the tap water, but there was no bottled water anywhere. And we had small children. And blackouts rolled through the city. And rain supposedly showered us with radioactivity from the sky. And rumors spread that all 38 million residents would have to be evacuated, basically the whole middle third of Japan, the most populous part. We would all have to move down as far as Osaka or even further south.

Looking back, of course none of that happened, but at the time we didn’t know that. We didn’t know what the future held. People were actually whispering, “Is Japan finished? Is this the end?”

It was during that time that we heard about an urgent need at a hospital through a doctor in our neighborhood. In Minami Soma, a city just 15 miles north of the broken power plants, there was a hospital full of patients and refugees that needed food and supplies. They were just outside the evacuation zone, and so they couldn’t get the help they needed to move somewhere safe. Trains and buses weren’t moving. Most of the people left behind were older, and so they didn’t have the money to move anywhere else, and they really had anywhere to go. Professional truck drivers refused to go with supplies because of fears of radiation, and it was the only shelter for miles around. Because of all this, our group of volunteers made many trips to this hospital in those early days after the earthquake.

About two months after the earthquake, I personally made my first trip to the hospital. They no longer needed supplies, but now they needed encouragement. And so, I was sent to give an organ concert.

I experienced firsthand the isolation and hopelessness of that situation. But man, was that hospital hard to get to! The tsunami had destroyed most of the bridges and roads along the coast, and there were these huge lakes of water because the land had sunk a little and the drainage system no longer worked. So the Japanese Self-Defense Force constructed temporary floating bridges and roads to make travel possible, but it was frustratingly slow for travel. And these bridges were open only for certain hours of the day.

We finally arrived at the hospital and unloaded my digital pipe organ. As I entered the lobby, I saw pictures by children in our community. It was like a little art gallery. Every time we sent boxes of supplies up north, children in Tokyo drew pictures to tape to those boxes. The hospital staff had apparently carefully taken off those pictures and saved them, and hung them in the lobby of the hospital and in the hallways. I even saw a few by my own children. It was actually kind of moving to see them there, to see this visual connection between our two communities.

During the concert people were pretty quiet. The audience was almost completely devoid of emotion or any kind of response. I played my usual repertoire: Bach, French Romantic music, and some pieces that I wrote. Then I played a pretty long improvisation on Moon Over the Ruined Castle, and the atmosphere of the room completely changed.People engaged with the music. They began to hum along. Some even began to sing softly.

This song, Moon Over the Ruined Castle, is very famous here in Japan. It’s about an old but deserted castle in Fukushima. The lyrics describe a beautiful moon rising over the castle but the area is completely deserted. No one is around to see it. “Where has everyone gone?” the song asks. “Only vines remain on the walls. Only storms still sing in the forests.” The scene was eerily similar to the situation we found ourselves in so close to those broken power plants.

As soon as I finished the piece, the hospital director stood up and spoke.

“We’re ruined by earthquake and tsunami. We’re reduced to nothing, a mere ghost town by radiation. We’re cut off from the world by ocean to the east, mountains to the west, broken power plants to the south, and impassable roads to the north. All the while, we’re bombarded with invisible radiation, but what can we do? What choice do we have?”

As you can imagine, the room was full of tears. I saw so many wiping their faces and their eyes. And then, people came up and spoke with me. A young nurse, probably in her early 20s, confessed that she wanted to leave the hospital but couldn’t. There was no one else to take her place to care for the hundreds sheltering there. The hospital had sent requests for new people to come, but no one did.

An old man confessed to me that he wanted to leave but couldn’t. He had nowhere to go and no money to do it.

After the concert, the hospital staff treated me to dinner at a nearby restaurant of yaki niku. You may know this food from the movie Lost in Translation with Bill Murray. We were served these thin strips of raw meat, which we had to cook ourselves at our table. I will never forget that meal for the rest of my life. It was so good being with these people. Even though I was personally meeting them for the very first time, it was like we were old friends.

And the meat at this restaurant was amazing. I wish I could share some with you. I’ve never had anything like it. It was really the best meat I’ve ever had in my entire life. I’ve had yaki niku many times, but never anything remotely like this. I couldn’t help but think that the meat came from cattle nearby that couldn’t be sold anywhere else because of fears of radiation. It didn’t matter whether the meat was radioactive or not. It couldn’t be sold because now Fukushima had stigma attached to it. No one in Tokyo, or any other part of the world for that matter, was going to eat meat from Fukushima. So I think this restaurant was just able to get the best, the kind of cuts that were always sent away before, the kind of cuts that were always unaffordable to people like me.

And there was just something about this whole experience. To be with these people, in the midst of this urgency and this fear, and to be sharing a meal together. And to be talking about the people that were at the concert. And to be talking about the past two months.

In that moment, we experienced community. In that terrible time, music brought healing. It helped people mourn and cry for what they had lost. The hospital no longer needed supplies, but music enabled the relationship between our two communities to continue. And I was so thankful for that point of connection.

Because of music, and because of the art of the children, hearts were opened to us, and they were opened to each other, to share their stories and their lives and their food. And the experience changed me as a person.

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