31. Tsunami Violin

May 14, 2021 - Roger W. Lowther

This week I’ve been working on putting subtitles to the various talks from our “Aroma of Beauty” conference we held here in Tokyo in March. There were so amazing stories shared. Although it was all in Japanese, with subtitles soon you’ll be able to watch and hear them as well. But I want to take this time to share one of them with you now in this podcast.

It’s really exciting to me how God shows himself through the art and culture of the world. And through the story of the tsunami violin, I was once again reminded of that.

I’ve briefly mentioned the tsunami violin in a number of podcasts in the past, but this time I want to go deeper and pass on to you some of the things that Muneyuki Nakazawa shared in the conference.

This tsunami violin was made from debris in the disaster area. When Nakazawa-san first visited the disaster area and saw the wood everywhere—every wooden structure destroyed, every tree knocked down—and walked through it with his wife, she said, “You know, this isn’t just debris. This wood is fragments of people’s lives. They represent hopes and dreams. Can’t you make a violin from that?” Well, of course, Nakazawa-san loved the idea and set out to do exactly that.

He calls himself the “violin doctor.” His role is to fix and heal broken sick violins, but he also makes new violins. And he was given a small piece of wood from the Kiseki no Ippon Matsu, the Miracle Pine Tree, the only tree left standing in a beautiful grove of 70,000 trees. Every one of them was knocked down but one by the tsunami that hit the city of Rikuzentakata.

This tree was a special image of hope. People thought, “That tree’s still standing, I can too.” Even when it eventually did die from salt left in the soil left by the wave, it continued to be a symbol of hope. I tell a lot more about this story in my book Aroma of Beauty.

So Nakazawa-san was given a small piece of wood from this tree after it died and wanted to do something special with it. The sound post, the konchu (魂柱) in Japanese, literally means “spirit pillar.” I think that’s a pretty cool name! Sound post? Boring. Spirit Pillar? It’s like out of a fantasy novel!

Here is Nakazawa-san talking about it in the conference. [clip]

You can watch the rest of that clip with English subtitles in the video below. Here Nakazawa-san is talking about how without the sound post, without this small piece of wood, the violin is dead. But with it, the violin comes to life. It sings like it was meant to. It really is the soul of the violin, the pillar, the foundation.

Listening to Nakazawa-san talk I could not help but think of the Spirit of God and of Christ. There are just so many levels of meaning here! I thought of the scripture verse from Romans 8:11.

“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.”

The Spirit gives life to our mortal bodies. Just as the konchu, the “spirit pillar,” gives life to the violin, made from dead wood, useless debris laying in the mud, the Spirit of God gives life to us. This Spirit comes to us because of Christ who was hung on the tree, the cross, the most famous of all trees, enduring the full onslaught of the tsunami of destruction that hits this world because of our sin. The Spirit is our life and foundation. We can freely sing with life in ways not imagined possible because of his work in us.

So this violin of hope, this tsunami violin, is now traveling the country of Japan spreading this story and this hope to person after person. It’s called “The Bond of 1,000 Tones” Project. There have been over 1,600 performances so far. In the performance in our conference, our teammate Christina Davison became the 749th violinist to play the violin in a performance. She then went on to perform it at the annual festival in the art village of Seto, as I mentioned in a previous podcast.

Nakazawa-san is trying to reach the goal of having 1,000 violinists, amateur or professional, perform in formal and informal concerts. He pointed out in the conference that the number 1,000 is full of meaning in Japanese culture, representing wishes and prayers.

Perhaps the most famous is the senbazuru or 1,000 paper cranes, and this holds the meaning that your wishes will be granted by the gods when 1,000 paper cranes are made. It means longevity and life. I saw these multi-colored strings of paper cranes at memorial sites throughout the areas devastated by the tsunami.

Senbazuru in Minami Sanriku, Japan

In history, the most famous example of the senbazuru was made by Sadako-san. She was two years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and was exposed to radiation. Later she died of leukemia.

I remember when I visited St. Paul’s Chapel shortly after 9/11, the chapel near the World Trade Center, and it was full of strings of 1,000 paper cranes sent by school children in Japan.

Senbazuru at St. Paul's Chapel in New York City

There’s also the senninbari or 1,000 person stiches, where one thousand people stitch into a belt or piece of cloth with prayers of protection.

After the tsunami, I remember reading about the “3.11 portrait project” by photographer Nobuyuki Kobayashi. His goal was to take 1,000 portraits of people in the disaster area. At that time, all the pictures people owned were washed away in the tsunami. I often found them outside in the mud. Kobayashi-san wanted to help people build new memories by taking new portraits of people and giving them to them. Sometimes he would have schoolchildren write notes of encouragement on the back first.

There was also the “1,000 Portraits of Hope” Project by artist Naoto Nakagawa. He held an exhibit just a few blocks from where I live here in Tokyo. He went from shelter to shelter hand drawing various people. Nakagawa-san lives and works in New York City, so I heard more about this exhibit as it travelled around Manhattan from my friends who live there, especially when it was exhibited at St. John the Divine, which is near Columbia University where I went to school, and got into a lot of newspapers. He too was trying to reach 1,000 portraits.

So the violin doctor Nakazawa-san shared stories of his hopes for “The Bond of 1,000 Tones” Project. And he also shared something that Empress Michiko told him when he told her he wanted to reach 1,000 performers to spread this hope around the country of Japan, and she said, “People forget so easily so go slowly, very slowly. If you send out this music, these tones, to even just one person, then they’ll remember.” It’s so cool that this artist got the endorsement of the Imperial Household to pursue this project.

I’m just so excited how God is bringing hope to the people of Japan. After such a terrible disaster, it was hard to find the light, but the lessons we learned then are just as applicable now, for all of us around the world during the spread of COVID-19. We’re enveloped in darkness. People are lonely and isolated. We have to hide our faces from one another with masks. We’re afraid to even get near each other. Entering someone’s home or a church is a place of fear and danger, and it’s impossible to see what will happen next.

“The Bond of 1,000 Tones” shows us is that we’re not alone. We’re surrounded by community. The tsunami violin, born out of disaster, provides just one more way to bring us together, and is just one more example of how the arts builds community and can build the church.

Pointers to Christ are everywhere in the world around us. We just need more and more Christians to talk about them, to praise the good and beautiful things we see in the world and show how it makes us think of Christ. And who knows? God may be calling even you to bring these conversations to a foreign land.

Watch other videos from our "Aroma of Beauty" Conference


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