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Yukari, the Fukushima evacuee singer

January 26, 2017

Fukushima singer touches hearts of French after disaster




She never imagined she would one day sing overseas, not to mention at a famed venue in France once graced by Edith Piaf. But the catastrophic Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 changed everything.

In her hometown of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, Yukari was struggling to raise her two daughters by singing at piano bars and other joints prior to the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant about 40 kilometers away.

On New Year’s Eve 2016, though, the singer-songwriter was in Paris performing at La Cremaillere, a famed restaurant in Montmartre that has been in business for more than a century. It was her fourth tour in France.

One song she performed at La Cremaillere was titled “My Life,” a ballad she wrote that includes the lyrics: "All of a sudden/ I had to leave behind my hometown/ I was made to realize that nothing can be taken for granted/ on the very moment the sky looked tinged with red.”

Shouts of "bravo" erupted among a crowd of about 200 when she completed the song.

Most of her songs centered on her experiences after the triple meltdown in March 2011, which saw her and her daughters displaced from their home.

Yukari, 44, finds it particularly meaningful that she can sing her songs in the world’s capital of nuclear power generation. France’s 58 reactors generate more than 70 percent of the country’s electricity needs, a level not seen anywhere else.

She sang in Japanese, but it did not seem to inhibit the French audience to fully appreciate the evening as organizers explained the lyrics and their backdrop in French. Some listeners even wept, touched by her performance.

“It is the time when I feel the power of music,” she said.

Yukari appears to be making a difference in her pleas for a rethink concerning nuclear energy among the French audience, albeit in a small way.

Some approached her after the concert.

“Public opinion in France is changing slowly after the Fukushima disaster,” one person said.

“We, too, need to sit down and think about nuclear energy,” said another.

Yukari’s life was turned upside down on March 11, 2011, when the crisis unfolded at the plant following the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

She fled to Tokyo with her daughters, toiled away living on next to nothing, and is still navigating the rough waters of life in the Japanese capital almost six years later.

She never sat there with her head in her hands, crying over her plight. She instead channeled her troubles into songwriting, finding strength to soldier on and keep a record of her and other evacuees’ fight to rebuild their lives through her original songs.

Her connection to France began in 2014 when an instructor at the University of Lyon interviewed her because her songs were themed on the nuclear accident.

The following summer, she was invited to France to perform live there for the first time. She later sang at Lapin Agile, the legendary chanson house where Piaf, whom she idolized, had performed.

At that show, Yukari was with Philippe Marchand, a pianist who also accompanied her at her concert at La Cremaillere on Dec. 31.

Yukari, whose full name is Yukari Sasaki, discovered the joy of singing through her grandmother, who loved singing local folk songs with her on her lap.

When she was in a local high school, she often skipped classes to listen to The Beatles. Her aspiration to become a singer took her to Tokyo after graduating from high school. There, she juggled jobs as an office worker and a budding singer at a music agency and dreamed of making her professional debut.

With no breakthrough, however, Yukari returned to her hometown at 22. She did stints at bars, restaurants and in other events, covering all genres of music from jazz to bossa nova to Japanese ballads.

The catastrophe at the nuclear plant came when she was raising her daughters as a single mother after a divorce.

Power outages and cuts in the water supply followed. Hydrogen explosions at the facility caused many in her neighborhood to flee in terror even though no evacuation order was issued as Iwaki was outside the 20-km “no-entry” zone around the plant.

Finally, on March 16, she left for Tokyo with her girls.

Yukari said one thing still torments her: She stood in line outside to get water from a water tank truck on March 15 with her young daughters.

On that day, the radiation level was at 23 microsieverts per hour, 100 times higher than the limit regarded as safe by the International Commission for Radiological Protection.

At that time, she had no knowledge of the danger of radiation exposure, particularly to children.

After four months in the capital, the family moved from a hotel into an apartment, which was provided by the central government.

But the evacuation took a toll on her children. One of her daughters, who was a third-grader back then, temporarily suffered from aphasia as she was feeling homesick.

Even for Yukari, the situation was bleak. She saw no glimmer of hope for the future.

A catalyst was a small gathering of evacuees held in Yokohama in the summer of 2012, where she sang John Lennon's “Imagine.” Seeing a mother crying at her performance, she rediscovered her gift.

“I thought my songs may help others,” she recalled.

Whenever the inspiration for a song wells up, she now records the words and melodies on her smartphone.

She is one of thousands of Fukushima evacuees who are called “jishu hinansha.” The term refers to people who fled despite the absence of evacuation order. Unlike evacuees from within the 20-km radius, they only receive limited government subsidies.

“I was like a dandelion that grew in a field slightly outside the evacuation zone,” she said. “I blew dandelion heads to fly so that I can protect my children.”

She feels a pang in her heart whenever she hears comments like “You can now return to Fukushima as it is no longer dangerous there,” “Did you come here, leaving behind your parents and hometown?” or “Why don’t you return to Fukushima to help the rebuilding efforts?”

Yukari is now worried because public housing assistance to evacuees like her is scheduled to end in March.

She pauses and reminds herself that she has, at least, the talent to sing.

Yukari is determined to leave songs for her daughters ... formed out of her struggle.


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