Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Japanese Superstars Bring Anti-Nuclear Message to Oxford

Thursday, 17 November 2011


On Saturday 22 October, our Department of English and Modern Languages, together with the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies of the University of Oxford, helped sponsor a poetry reading with piano accompaniment by two of Japan’s most celebrated artists.  Yoshinaga Sayuri, a four-time Japanese Academy Prize-winning actress who has appeared in over 110 films, has been narrating poems about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for twenty-five years.  The reading at Hertford College Chapel, entitled “‘The Second Movement’ in Oxford: A Message for World Peace” marked the first time that she has done so together with world-renowned composer Ryūichi Sakamoto.  Perhaps best known for his film scores for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) and The Last Emperor (1987), and the music for the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Sakamoto has won a BAFTA Award, two Golden Globes, a Grammy Award as well as an Academy Award.  Approximately fifty Brookes undergraduates, post-graduate students and faculty enjoyed this rare opportunity to experience the synergy of two outstanding artists in an intimate setting. “The moment when the Yoshinaga and Sakamoto entered the chapel was so powerful to me that I think it is worth mentioning…. I dare say they had an aura,” remarked Paola Esposito, a PhD student in Anthropology.  After an opening piece by Sakamoto on the piano, Yoshinaga brought to life a number of Japanese poems, some of which were written by children survivors of the atomic blasts.  All were accompanied by Sakamoto on the piano, and each was followed by a reading of it in English translation.  Stephanie Oeben, also a Ph.D. student in Anthropology, noted that “[Yoshinaga’s] voice and charisma brought those sad stories of the survivors of the atom bomb to life and touched the hearts of everyone in the room. At the same time, [Sakamoto’s] piano improvisation gently underlined and emphasized those spoken words, while his solos brought a tear to my eye.”  In the middle of the readings, Sakamoto also played a few solo pieces on the piano.  To again quote Paola Esposito: “If Yoshinaga's voice was corporeal, flesh-and-blood-like, Sakamoto's music was ethereal, yet so compassionate.  The balance between the two was superb, neither was overpowering the other, but they worked in communion. Each and every moment that the two created was so poignant that, at one point, it seemed like the entire audience was transported somewhere else, caught up in a reverie.” The reason that both Yoshinaga and Sakamoto were so intent on coming all the way to Oxford for this performance is their deep conviction on the need for ‘denuclearization.’  Sakamoto has long been an outspoken advocate for the use of renewable energy, and the recent and ongoing nuclear meltdown in Fukushima has only made his appeal more urgent.  He told us: “I am stunned by the power of nature, the vastness of the damage and the feebleness of humanity.  I urge us, everyone, to take this as a moment to recognize our arrogance in thinking that we can control nature.”  His message seems to have struck a resonant chord in many of the Brookes contingent.  Alastair Touw, a fourth-year student in Japanese Studies, perhaps summed it up best:  “I am too young to remember Chernobyl but I will not forget Fukushima…. We MUST listen. Where Fukushima gave me doubts, Yoshinaga gave me convictions.  In Sakamoto's own words: people and nukes cannot coexist.” Fortunately, an NHK (the Japanese equivalent of the BBC) camera crew was present at the recital and interested readers can view extracts and interviews from the event.