Interview with the founding members Soji Kashiwagi and Keiko Kawashima

On March 11th, 2011, Japan faced a record-breaking 9.0 earthquake, unleashing a devastating tsunami. In the aftermath, music became a powerful solace. From benefit concerts to uplifting anthems, melodies provided healing, relief, unity, and remembrance.


Twelve years post-disaster, Tohoku feels forgotten. The Grateful Crane Ensemble refused to let that happen, so they were determined to travel to bring music and laughter to survivors. Founded by Soji Kashiwagi and Keiko Kawashima in 2001, the ensemble pays tribute to Japanese American struggles and contributions. Their unwavering commitment uses music and theatre to bridge generations, bringing cultural legacy to both the Nikkei community and a wider audience.


The Tempo Team had the opportunity to speak with them through an interview conducted by Emiliano Rodriguez Nuesch, specialist in creative risk communication. Do you want to discover how music can skillfully serve society? In their own words, "Our performances intend to be a 'big warm hug,' connecting with seniors, helping them process trauma, and, most importantly, expressing gratitude for what they've done for future generations.


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Arigatai: expressing gratitude through music


“In Japanese there’s this word ‘Arigatai’ which sums up the sense of thanking those who have made it possible for you. It’s all about being grateful to the people who have come before us, generation wise”, Soji expressed.


In that sense, Keiko Kawashima, shared: “Many Japanese Americans have taken away their culture. We foster connection to their ancient roots and language. We don't sing songs just because they are pretty, the focus is on the given message and how it can touch people. It’s our way to express profound gratitude”.



The beginning 


The Grateful Crane Ensemble emerged during our performances for senior citizens at nursing or retirement homes in Los Angeles. Witnessing the profound impact of nostalgic Japanese and American songs on these individuals, “we realised the powerful connection that music had with their emotions. They requested us to come back, turning a single event into a monthly tradition," Soji explained.


Inspired by this experience and the heartfelt feedback, they delved into research that touched them deeply: their own history and Japanese American roots. Soji reflected, "The suffering our ancestors, including our grandparents, endured throughout their lives became evident. Seniors expressed immense gratitude when we sang Japanese songs. That highlights the potency of music. We wanted to convey a sincere 'Thank you' to them because they have never been told that in public before”.


Music for Relief


Both Soji and Keiko explained that the concept of ‘shame’ is very hidden in Japanese culture. There’s no talking about pain or traumas. 


“We notice that, at the end of each performance, seniors experience joy and can relax, putting their guards down. They start processing and talking about what they’ve experienced. That's what music does: it opens up feelings. In the end, they feel like a burden has been taken off their shoulders.” 


Indeed, music plays many different roles: it helps process the pain and start conversations to alleviate it; it shows gratitude by saying ‘Thank you’ in a very touching manner and it also acts as a connection with memory and important things that happened in the past and need to be remembered. 


They also found a way to connect cultures and generations We build community. Mixing English and Japanese songs in their performances, the Ensemble connects tunes with feelings that are appropriate to each scene. We notice an immediate response to the music; physical by singing, clapping and dancing but also what we’ve mentioned about talking about things they usually don’t”, Keiko expressed.


On Music and Climate Change


At the end of this insightful and heartfelt chat, Dr. Lucy Jones pointed out her personal experience with music: “I am a pretty analytical-scientific kind of person but l find that music gets into a different part of my brain. I react differently and that has an impact in my actions, allowing me to connect to something beyond words”. Then, she asked: What part of your conversation or performance occupies the current climate crisis?


Keiko Kawashima, boldly responded: “Even when we don’t talk directly about the topic, there's a direct correlation between how humans' behaviors impact mother nature’s responses. She is angry and that’s why disasters are happening because. We are not taking proper care of the land and earth.”


For closure, Jones concluded: “There is a clear need for stories to be told and music acts as an universal language. People from different cultures can close a gap and connect. Music drives action, it is a vehicle for that matter”.


More about The Grateful Crane Ensemble

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