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Performing Recovery: Music and Disaster Relief in Post-3.11 Japan


The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident that struck Northeast Japan on March 11, 2011 (3.11) prompted an array of local, national, and global musical responses. Based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork primarily in Sendai, Japan, I examine how musical performance serves as a community building mechanism in the wake of a disaster with a focus on music’s place in earthquake and tsunami recovery efforts. I treat music as a cultural tool to navigate towards post-disaster recovery, demonstrate post-disaster solidarity (albeit in sometimes problematically self-fulfilling and exploitative ways), and begin to rebuild and restructure post-disaster identifications, normalcy, and livelihood. I outline musical responses to 3.11 from a variety of different angles including songs that have become anthems of the disaster as representations of recovery and solidarity, songs newly composed shortly after 3.11, the revival and development of localized folk performing arts and matsuri festivals, musical activities by outsiders for disaster victims, staged performances that showcase disaster survivors, and musical objects that help prolong memories of 3.11. I highlight the issues and challenges that have arisen with each type of musical response, while also showcasing the ways that these activities are contributing to the region’s recovery. By putting these activities in conversation with each other and by demonstrating how they interconnect and address varying facets of post-disaster recovery, I aim to show how musical performance and recovery in all its forms from personal, local, cultural, social, economic, and national, are interconstitutive. I offer a broad yet detailed framework of the types of musical support activities developed in response to 3.11, examine the carefully constructed structures of each type of support, and show how they abide with cultural and national expectations of recovery. I suggest ways that the cultural particularities of post-3.11 musical activities could be reinterpreted and applied by readers to help rebuild and sustain the musical cultures of their own communities in the event of a catastrophe, and consider what “hope” means in the aftermath of tragedy.

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