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Playing & Learning Calligraphy With Children

January 17, 2020

MLA/MUS 675X: Music and Culture: Japan Wind Orchestra

January 17, 2020

Hello again!  For the past two days, the wind orchestra has been in Hiroshima.  We drove here from Kurashiki on the 16th directly to our next concert.  Our third and penultimate performance was at a Japanese elementary school, and it was quite the experience.

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The children, of course, were adorable. The school had 1st-6th grade, I believe. The most striking thing about the school initially was the temperature.  In Japanese schools, it is common practice to leave hallways unheated even in winter, and this practice apparently expands to gymnasiums as well. We were set up to play in the school gym, and it was freezing!  However, despite the problems cold can cause an instrument (waaaaaay too many to name), we successfully performed for about one hundred grade school children. The emotional climax of the concert was when we played “Furusato” (which I was told was the Japanese parallel to “America, the Beautiful”), and the whole school began singing along.  It was a beautiful moment of reciprocity, and many of us were deeply affected.

After the concert, we were divided into sections to join in activities with the children.  My section was sent with grade 5 to learn some calligraphy. The kids, though they spoke very little interest, were actually in charge of teaching us.  We each got our own table and were surrounded by 5-8 children. My group was four boys and one girl, Soma, Sora, Osuke, Yusei, and Yume. Yusei painted out the symbols we were learning (Japan and America), and then I was invited to copy.

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However, I managed to mess it up! It turns out that Japanese calligraphy has an order in which strokes must be done. All strokes should be done from left to right and top to bottom. It took a translator (our wonderful Wang Sensei) for me to understand what exactly was going on, but Soma took charge and did his best to explain to me the proper gestures to form the right strokes and then even walked me through the steps by counting, before finally just painting the numbers and strokes directly onto Yusei’s example.  I hope I finally got it (I have about six papers full of my failed attempts), but the odds of that are low.

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The next day was very sobering.  We went to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.  This monument is built incredibly close (though not directly over) the hypocenter of the blast from the atomic bomb.  There is a museum describing in vivid detail everything that happened on August 6, 1945 and after. It was incredibly unpleasant, but I feel that it was something that I (and everyone) had to see.  I realized that I had a lot of misconceptions about the bombing that diminished the tragedy of it. For instance, I believed that all deaths at Hiroshima were instantaneous vaporizations. That is not true.  Most of the initial deaths were from burns. The museum had memorialized the last words of several victims, including children. I was crying and sniffling throughout the museum, but I almost burst into full sobbing when I read the story of a fifteen-year-old boy who survived the blast but was trapped under the rubble of a burning building.  A police officer tried to help free him, but was unable to, and had to tell him that there was nothing that could be done. The boy thanked the officer for trying, and then passed his name tag to him and asked that it to be delivered to his family on nearby Miyajima Island. And then he was left to face his fate as the fire burned closer. I wish I had remembered to write down his name.

I did write down a name and a quote from another victim.  Kanji Toma was a soldier in Hiroshima. He aided the victims, completely unaware of the silent killer, radiation.  After the bombing, he fell ill from radiation poisoning like so many others. As he was dying, he comforted his wife, explaining that he was not the only victim of the war and telling her “Don’t be sad, be strong.”  That quote propelled me through the rest of the museum. This was an atrocity, and it was something that our country was responsible for, even if I didn’t have any individual responsibility. I felt it would be a disservice to not stare it in the face and accept what happened.

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Although deeply shaken, we all made it through and went on a tour of the memorial to peace outside.  The tour was surprisingly light-toned, and we were able to leave feeling hopeful for the future. We were taken to the spot directly below where the bomb exploded.  And you know what? There was a fruit tree growing less than ten feet away. And they said trees would never grow here again.

After the morning at the peace park, we went to Miyajima Island, which I believe some other bloggers will be covering.  I’m writing this right before we leave for Kobe, our final stop on the tour. See you later! 


About the Japan Study Tour


Jan. 10-24, 2020


Music Prof. James Ripley

Modern Languages and Asian Studies Prof. Yan Wang


In this study tour, students will be exposed to Japan’s rich culture, heritage, and what their musical performances and traditions. This new context will help them to explore the relationships between music and culture. Students are also invited to reflect on the cultural differences they encounter during their time abroad.


Joe Hansen ’20