For Chornobyl with Love: strumming Ukrainian pain in Japan and relieving that pain in Ukraine

Chornobyl is one of those symbolical places that links Ukraine to Japan. Even more so after the 2011 Fukushima incident.

The Japanese identified with the 1986 tragedy that took place at a nuclear power station in the northern Ukrainian town of Prypiat (プリピャチ in Japanese). It reminded them of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings at the end of the Second World War.

The Japanese had empathy then and continue supporting the children of Chornobyl up till today. One of the children that benefited from these acts of charity grew up between Japan and Ukraine and eventually moved to the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’, got married to a local man, and continues linking the two nations using her artistic talent. The lady’s name is Nataliya Gudziy.

Below we republish an article by Roman Cybriwsky, an Ukrainian-American urbanist, that appeared in a 2005 issue of The Ukrainian Weeklya North American newspaper for the Ukrainian diaspora.

THERE are more Ukrainians living in Japan than I had imagined when I moved back to the country four years ago after a 10-year absence. Some, like me, are transplants from the United States and other Western countries, dispatched to Tokyo and other big cities by foreign employers with Japanese branches. But many, many others are post-1991 immigrants to Japan, directly from Ukraine or from other parts of the former USSR such as Russia’s Far East, Japan’s nearest neighbor.

They are building permanent lives in Japan and are shaping a thriving Ukrainian Japanese community. Among the most noteworthy Ukrainians living in Japan is 25-year-old Nataliya Gudziy, a beautiful and extraordinarily talented young singer with a fascinating life story. She has lived in Japan since 1999. She has become fluent in Japanese, and sings and writes songs in that language, as well as in her native Ukrainian.

My first encounter with Natalka was about three years ago, when my daughter was visiting me and we saw a newspaper notice about a concert the next day by a Ukrainian singer in a part of Tokyo where we had lived some 20 years earlier. We attended, of course, and were almost literally floored by what we saw and heard. Here was a performance in Ukrainian to an all-Japanese audience of some 400 people, with Japanese commentary between songs about the lyrics, the bandura, the singer’s life, and about Ukraine.

Natalka had a powerful stage presence. We were doubly surprised that she spoke at some length in Ukrainian as well, not because she had spotted us, which she did not, but because she wanted her audience to hear the sound of the Ukrainian language. Her songs reflected love of Ukraine, and her singing voice was as strong, sweet and beautiful as any we had ever heard.

A major theme of Natalka’s work is the Chornobyl tragedy of 1986, which she witnessed as a young girl. Chornobyl has been a big part of her life ever since. She talked about it at length that evening in Sangenjaya.

Natalka’s hometown was Prypiat, one of the villages in the shadow of Chornobyl that was evacuated after the disaster and then destined for oblivion. Her father had worked in the power plant barely four kilometers away and stayed behind with orders to work on the clean-up. He has subsequently become ill. Natalka and the rest of her family were evacuated to Kyiv where the family continues to live. While still a schoolgirl, Natalka became a member of the song and dance troupe Chervona Kalyna comprising mainly Chornobyl refugee children.

At the invitation of a Tokyo non-governmental organization called the Chernobyl Children’s Fund (CCFJ) [a civic group based in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward], the group toured Japan in 1996 and again in 1998 to raise funds for victims of the disaster. Natalka was singled out for her rare singing talents and returned to Japan again in 1999 for a solo series of fund-raising concerts. That led to her staying in Japan and making it her new home. In 2003 she married Yoshiro Yamada, who is her manager. Before the wedding ceremony in Kyiv, Yoshiro was baptized into the Orthodox faith and given the name Roman.

A tireless performer, Natalka has now sung in more than 300 venues in every imaginable part of Japan. She always performs in Ukrainian native costume and plays her bandura as she sings. I sometimes see Natalka on Tokyo subways going to or from a performance with her heavy bandura in its case over her shoulder and a travel bag with her costume for the evening in hand.

Natalka always explains her instrument to her audiences, as well as her clothing, always making sure that her audiences distinguish what is Ukrainian from Russian and teaching about Ukraine’s distinctive culture. Her standard repertoire includes songs about the bandura such as “Vziav by Ya Banduru” and “Hrai, Banduro, Hrai,” as well as such popular Ukrainian songs as “Chornobryvtsi,” “Ridna Maty Moya” and “Misiats na Nebi.” Her songs also include her own original musical and vocal compositions such as “Mamyna Pisnia” about the family she misses in Ukraine.

She also performs Japanese songs, including her own compositions in that language, and translates Ukrainian songs into Japanese. “Chornobryvtsi,” for example, is sung half in Ukrainian and, seamlessly, half in Japanese. Because some Russian songs are well-known in Japan and audiences expect it, she also sings a little in Russian. Young people in Japan are coming to know Natalka not just through her singing.

Amazingly, she has come to be a chapter in a popular textbook for the study of English, “Prominence English” published by Tokyo Shoseki. Lesson 5 in that book is called “For Chernobyl with Love” and recounts in learners’ English the story of the nuclear plant accident, the evacuation and demolition of Natalka’s home village, and Natalka’s biography. There are photographs of Natalka and her family in their home in front of their “yalynka” (Christmas tree) a makeshift cemetery in Prypiat, and a child’s drawing of “black rain” over Ukraine. To test readers’ comprehension, the chapter has review questions such as “What happened to the green forests where she [Natalka] played as a child?”

Natalka has already released five CDs. The first two, unfortunately, are no longer available. I am lucky to own a rare copy of “From Chernobyl,” a collection of Ukrainian songs about the disaster and about nostalgia for a distant, lost home. There are similar themes in “Sertse,” her third disk. The printed matter for both includes haunting black and white photographs of what little is left of Prypiat by noted Japanese photographer Ryuichi Hirokawa [founder of the CCFJ]. Her fourth CD is

“Nataliya,” a mix of themes and languages. It includes her beautiful Ukrainian composition about her mother and ends with stirring renditions of the religious classics “Ave Maria” and “Amazing Grace.” The fifth CD is “Merry Christmas,” a selection of Christmas and religious songs, mostly in English.

Natalka is now working on a sixth CD. To be released in 2006, it is timed for the 20th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster. She will make the CD in a duet with her younger sister Katerina, who lives in Kyiv and was born in Prypiat just one month before the 1986 disaster.

After Katerina, also a singer and bandura player, arrives in Tokyo this coming autumn, the two sisters will undertake a two-bandura concert tour around Japan as they work out the details of their joint CD. Natalka is also beginning to plan a concert tour in North America, hopefully in 2006. She has never been there and knows few people, so the planning is slow at present.

In March 2011, after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 20,000 and triggered the nuclear crisis, Gudziy quickly sprang into action. On March 22, she posted a YouTube video calling people to volunteer to house mothers and children evacuating from Fukushima. In the video, which has attracted over 45,000 views, the performer asks nonprofit organizations and local governments to set up a home-stay support system for families who live close to Fukushima plant so they can live without fear of over-exposure to radiation. She says there is no way to asses the extent of the radiation released until the plants have been sealed.

Gudziy performed live in Fukushima on July 25. She told the Toyo Keizai business magazine at the time, “I think children and pregnant women should move far away from the plant. The effects of radiation sometimes only appear several years after initial exposure, like it did with my classmates.”

Up till August 2011, Gudziy has recorded 8 albums, produced a CD book, and a successful cover of “Somewhere,” the theme song from Hayao Miyazaki’s Academy Award-winning 2001 movie Spirited Away.

Since 1995, the Chernobyl Children’s Fund has been donating the proceeds from a calendar it

publishes every year to provide continued assistance to the Ukrainian and Belorussian children, who still suffer from the radioactive contamination that resulted from the accident.

CCFJ has taken a slightly different approach to publishing the 2012 calendar keeping in mind the Fukushima disaster. Ryuichi Hirokawa’s 17th annual calendar depicting the smiling children who live near the doomed Chornobyl nuclear plant is particularly poignant and meaningful this year, carrying powerful messages.

The organization prints 3,000 to 4,000 copies each time. Until now, many of the visuals portrayed the harshness of life in the area, with images such as abandoned buildings and children afflicted with thyroid cancer. The photos in this year’s calendar are not accompanied by captions to provoke memories of the tragedy. Instead, the cover photo is of a smiling girl with a long scar rising up as it stretches across her neck. She got it after receiving surgery to treat thyroid cancer.

The final page features messages to Japan. “I’m sad that what happened in our country has happened again.” “I hope no Japanese children get sick like me.” They come from Ukrainian and Belorussian children who have received surgery for cancer and other ailments through support from the CCFJ.

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