Interview with Yumi Notohara, member of the “Hiroshima and Music” committee

Hopes people will become more actively involved in playing music that conveys Hiroshima’s experience

Interview and photo by Naoki Tahara, Editorial Writer

Now that 69 years have passed since the atomic bombing, there are no longer many survivors who hold clear memories of that fateful event. While it is becoming harder to hear about this experience directly from the survivors themselves, works of art imbued with a wish for peace are able to play a part in conveying this message.

With this belief, members of the “Hiroshima and Music” committee have been compiling a database of musical compositions so they can be put to better use. The Chugoku Shimbun interviewed Yumi Notohara, 43, a member of the committee, about the challenges they face and the outlook for their efforts.

How many pieces of music are there involving Hiroshima?
We have information on more than 1,900 pieces of music in our database. For each piece, the information includes the title, when it was composed, the name of the composer, and background data. The themes involve the horrific tragedy of the atomic bombing or anti-nuclear messages, and cover a variety of musical genres, including symphonies, choral songs, jazz, and pop music.

The planning committee before us began this effort and completed it 10 years ago, but we’ve been updating the information each time a new piece is written or a piece is newly discovered. We also collect musical scores and materials.

I hear that musical works about Hiroshima are not as well known as literary works, even though there are some excellent pieces.
“Symphony No. 2 Hiroshima” by Erkki Aaltonen (1910-1990) is a good example. It was written four years after the bombing, one of the earliest instrumental works related to the event. This symphony was performed in Hiroshima in 1955, as the Chugoku Shimbun reported. There are no commercial recordings of this symphony or many of the other works, so we can’t listen to them.

It’s a pity that we’re unable to hear them.
Music has no meaning if it’s simply held in a database or the scores are kept in a box. It has to be played and listened to. So, four years ago, we started holding concerts and playing mainly little-known pieces. We ask local musicians who support our mission to perform. We try to stage concerts that can convey Hiroshima’s message and appeal to people in today’s world.


Music has the power to make an appeal and move people.
Anti-war songs once united people to promote the peace movement. But many war songs exalted people’s fighting spirit and moved them to take up arms. It can be said that one characteristic of music is it’s magical power to influence a lot of people. Some of the pieces about Hiroshima express such strong messages that some people don’t enjoy them. It’s important to communicate the pure prayer put into the music.

Do the pieces about Hiroshima have any particular characteristics?
They’re distinctive in the way they were created and in how they’re played and received by an audience. It’s thought-provoking music.

For example, the symphony by Aaltonen was praised highly in Eastern European countries, but this great work was not played in the West. Against the backdrop of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union, judgments about the piece were influenced by ideology. But it seems there were no political motives or ideological leanings when the symphony was played in Japan. The composer’s pure intention to give comfort to the survivors was expressed in the performance, and the music left a deep impression on the audience. The way Hiroshima was depicted, and the artistic value of the music, were conveyed in a straightforward fashion.

Behind each piece is a story.
Yes, one such example is “First Symphony HIROSHIMA” by Mamoru Samuragochi. It was actually written by a ghost writer and caused a scandal. The media hailed him as a modern-day Beethoven, which must have significantly boosted sales of the CD. Then, as you know, suspicions were raised about who actually composed the music.

There may have been publicity stunts behind some other pieces about the atomic bombing or involving anti-nuclear messages, but we have put these in the database, too. We believe this is part of Hiroshima’s history. So we are discussing the possibility of also adding Samuragochi’s piece.


In what way can we use music related to Hiroshima in the future?
There have been many concerts featuring famous singers that cost large sums of money to produce, with the catchphrase of sending out messages to the world. But the public just sits and listens, and only a small number of people actually take part in these performances. Almost 70 years have passed and the times and the environment have changed so much, but in most concerts they just sing peace songs. If we want to hand down the memory of the atomic bombing, we have to think much harder than this.

What approach could we take?
If we force our values on younger generations and say, “This song is full of the wish for peace. Isn’t it great?”, we can’t expect the memory of the bombing to be passed down to the next generation. Instead, it will just fade away. I would like to create something where the audience can be actively involved in the music, instead of just passively listening to it. I think it’s important that people share an awareness of the problem and understand why they sing this particular song now, and in unison.


Yumi Notohara
Born in Nishi Ward, Hiroshima, Yumi Notohara completed a doctoral program at Hiroshima University’s graduate school of education. Her special field of study is Western music history. She has taught at an elementary school in Hiroshima and also at Hiroshima University’s graduate school. Ms. Notohara joined the “Hiroshima and Music” planning committee in 1995, and became a member of the “Hiroshima and Music” committee in 2003. She served as the leader of the group between 2007 and 2013. Ms. Notohara resides in Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto.

(Originally published on August 6, 2014)