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“I Felt Again That I’m Alive!”


Drum Cafe, a company that offers around 250 motivational team events every month for companies and organizations internationally, has participated in a charity campaign since May 16th for the victims in Japan. On June 19th, Matthias Jackel from Drum Cafe Germany attended in Japan for a week to support the project, and documented the activities.

He writes:

On March 11th, the devastating earthquake happened approximately 270 miles northeast of Tokyo and 80 miles east of Sendai. The triple catastrophe of the earthquake, subsequent tsunami, and the meltdown of today (including problems with nuclear reactors) has led to an uncomfortable silence – hardly anyone speaks to each other.  Believe it or not though, after the hour-long trip to Tokyo and Sendai, there is not a feeling of disaster. In the land of the rising sun, people are disciplined, and the metro, trains, and subway are still clean and free of any graffiti. If you go to a restaurant bathroom the feeling of “I’m in a disaster area” is completely shaken away. Toilets in restaurants, which are also electronic bidets, have comfortable, heated seats. Surely anyone has dreamed of this when in their own bathroom on a cold winter day.

At least up to and including the German Embassy in Tokyo, everything looks normal from here.

2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the Japanese-German partnership. This only became clear to me when I was in the German Embassy in Japan reading brochures while I waited for my appointment to present this project in more detail. The knowledge of this anniversary was by far not the only thing that I would learn in the next week!

The Drum Cafe office in Sendai was founded about a year before the quake. After the disaster, the professional events and the business training industry only broke once. In Drum Cafe’s interactive, motivational, and team building events, all participants, regardless of whether there are 1000 or 10, receive a separate drum. It’s an easy decision to allow this activity to benefit those who need it most: the children and adults in the emergency shelters, hospitals, schools, and kindergartens who have lost their homes, jobs, friends, and relatives. The Japanese Ambassador to South Africa was quickly invited to an event in Johannesburg in order to understand the effect of a Drum Cafe event to promote community and reduce stress – and was thrilled. The events in Japan have exactly one goal:

People have to draw on more courage by meeting with the artists of Drum Cafe, gaining something unexpected and getting to release stress and even have a good laugh.

In Sendai, some damage causes dim lighting in the buildings. That’s because only about every fifth Lamp is burning, still saving power. Schools are partially closed and the classes are merged to intact buildings. This creates a challenge for the students and the teachers. This tense situation exists in community school classes, which is where our first project occurred on Tuesday. I attended this Tuesday event on the trip, and had been warned what to expect the following Wednesday. On many Japanese magazines, I saw the term 3 / 11. The devastation of 9/11 popped into my head – a rather disturbing comparison.

On Tuesday morning, we went to Shibiku Hoikusho, a nursery school located about 24 miles from Sendai. There I met Margriet Blaauw, M.D., who knows much about psycho-social programs, and the Japanese section of Plan International (an organization to help children). She supports Drum Cafe, especially for children’s emergency and development work in Japanese communities. Margriet Blaauw explains:

“Psycho-social programs deal with it, to regain a sense of community and coming together, especially after what happened here. So people do something together, exchange views and discuss their problems, if they want.”

We have over 100 drums here, which we distribute in the gym. Drum Cafe includes three artists – Hirufumi Tsukamoto from Japan, who plays the bass drum, and Nkhensani Kubayi and Inock Mahlangu, great djembe players both from South Africa. The facility serves children aged 2-5 years old. The tsunami hasn’t done any damage here, but buildings were damaged by the quake, and groups had to be rearranged. Basic services like water, food, electricity, and gas are far from assured, and many children have friends and relatives that were affected much worse by the destruction. The children look expectant but also skeptical when they enter the room. Shortly they would be welcomed by the management of the kindergarten, and the Drum Cafe team would be announced.

The three entered the room drumming. The festivities start with simple drum rhythms, clapping, and fun activities such as rubbing the hands and fingertips. These first things invite the children to just make fun and loosen up. The basic rhythm runs through the whole 45 minutes and the children play more and more sophisticated bars, until they get more percussion instruments and play with them on the front of the stage. They dance, sing, laugh, listen to each other, have fun, and become mighty proud of themselves.

Margriet Blaauw said after the event, “First there was a large reserve, but little by little they all agreed to it. It was fantastic to watch this. People have certainly talk to anything tonight.”

Kashiwade, who is responsible for the one year emergency plan and reconstruction program of Japan for the children in Tohoku added, “I enjoyed the Drum Cafe event very much. It was very, very good and the kids I saw were so excited and it pleased them.”

The concept is of course somewhat different for children than adults, since adults have adapted to societal standards and children are more playful. But it is also striking that in Japanese kindergarteners a very healthy discipline prevails. Even here you can see a lot of respect for each other and for what each person does. With this respect, they naturally pay attention and very quickly grow to like something that captivates them. I learned from the advantages of this culture on the first day while I watched 2-year-olds. That is amazing, and with this first positive impression, the day came to an end.

In keeping with the warning I received on Tuesday, I was taken aback by the visible destruction on our Wednesday tour. During our morning visit to the kindergarten in Miyako City, we could see evidence of the incredible 3 months of cleanup work. More apparent was the destruction in the hearts and souls of the children. When you are in hundreds of public events and have interacted with large groups of people frequently, you get a very keen feeling of the vibrations that are present in a group. If you then work with a group of 5 or 6 year old children, who in many cases have lost their house and part of the family, then you can see the uncertainty and anxiety of the children and almost feel it physically. You understand through the eyes of the children the horror they have seen. It’s no longer about motivating people in a corporation or forming a team of it. It now becomes about helping children through a devastating situation that happened a little over three months ago, which literally washed away the ground under their feet. That these children were able to forget for a few minutes, and allow a smile to flit over their lips with laughter was the great success that was achieved here.

At noon, we went to Kirikiricho Otsuchi Junior High School, the only school still standing in the region. I stood on a hill just before the school near a house that was largely destroyed. Power poles were snapped off before it. In front of me, the sea took away a good 550 yards of the land. The water has accumulated in this long bay through the underground structure to an incredible 40 yards and hundreds of feet pushed into the country. Here, a major part of the government is dead, so new members are chosen almost from scratch. Four of the students who participate in the Drum Cafe event lost their parents, and because the gym is the only hall that was still standing, the found corpses were laid out here after of the tsunami – the same gym which we were using for our event. This is very difficult to imagine. Approximately 7,700 people in Japan are still missing and this week alone there were 8 bodies recovered. The smell is unimaginable to endure, far beyond a garbage dump in the summer at high temperatures. From here came the worst images of destruction that we had seen, and it was not even close to the site of the worst devastation in Japan as a whole. So it ended up being one of the nicest feelings after we saw the rise in children’s drums. After the event we spoke to the assistant principal Kiri Chu, who said,

“We had no chance until now to look forward to from the heart, or let our feelings out. Today was a good opportunity. We have already tried sports and music, but today it went far beyond these achievements. After the event everyone had a ‘normal laugh;’ it worked really well.”

On Thursday evening and Friday morning we are guests in “The Cafe” in Sendai. The cafe has a hint of smoke at the ceiling and an exciting, slightly burnt smell in the air. Here the coffee is roasted just before it’s made. We meet in the cafe with members of Tohoku Women’s Club. The club was founded a year ago by Kuniko Chiharada and has set itself the task of offering its members programs for mental health and emotional growth. The Drum Cafe event will include members of the seminar program regarding the specific circumstances of March 11th. Some have a house and lost family members but most were spared by the tsunami. They did particularly well with the enormous lack of basic supplies after the disaster. Despite the catastrophic effects on families we were impressed with people’s patience. “There are a lot of people who have experienced worse, and even more live in misery.” The founder of the club, which is drawn from Bangkok, describes this behavior as a culture shock for them. “No matter how much people are in shock, they seem to give themselves permission not to show emotion.” This made us all the more amazed at how many came to the Drum Cafe event. They made music, experimented with rhythms, celebrated, laughed, and even sang and danced. “That moved me. I felt again that I’m alive!” was the comment of one participants. Kuniko Chiharada said, “This event was a chance to finally let these feelings out and it worked wonderfully!”

A bizarre situation occurred even during the first session in the cafe – there was a quake of magnitude 6.7. The German news reported it as a strong aftershock and that Japan had shifted back in panic. Not the participants of the event. During the heat of the movements, nobody realized it.

The first event on Saturday took place in Toumarisaki-sou, back in the middle of an area that was extremely destroyed by the tsunami. We were accompanied by two camera crews from Japanese television networks. I saw a hotel with two floors, about 330 yards from the sea. It was next to a school about the same height, on the roof of which the children had futilely sought refuge. Basically, I cannot understand how people can deal with these images. The sea, building up in front of their eyes to the height of a skyscraper, disassembled in seconds into a whole village full of rubble, ripping up all life and material with it. I heard from a psychologist that in an event like a tsunami, the entire perception of people changes – what they consider to be sure, hope for the future, relationships, and communities. I also learned that the suicide rate has increased dramatically; even in primary school children take their own lives.

We were in a typical, unpretentious Japanese hotel, which is still used as an emergency shelter. The people who live here have nowhere to stay, not even in the temporary shelters were set up in many places by the government. As before, there is no water and no gas. Power poles and lines were set up again, but the rest is delivered daily from the outside. Accordingly, participants are reluctant to join the event. We start the event with only 5 children and 3 adults on the chairs. Some older residents sit on the edge and give a friendly wave. Some children are standing in the doorway to the room, coming back to take a look, going back out, taking a chair, and then a drum set (at a safe distance of about 11 yards behind the group until they warmed up). Hard to believe that after 45 minutes, all 30 people sitting together scrambled to the additional percussion instruments with which to dance on stage. In the end, an elderly lady would not stop dancing! We felt deep satisfaction.

It was twenty-five miles on the chaos of the coast road to the next and last event of this trip for me, unfortunately. That might sound far, but in fact, about 310 miles of all estates below a line of 30-100 feet above the sea are destroyed.

Once again we were with children in Kaiyou, at a school about the same region as in the morning. We came back because the head of the institution wanted us to repeat the event with a larger group. Hooray! Discussions with strong children’s aid organizations such as Plan International or Save the Children have at least begun. But it needs more support from the economy for such a project to get off the ground. The cost is (only) at about 20 per-$ 25,000 per month. The participants and heads of the institutions were interviewed after the event for a while. A small selection of the most moving comments proves the effectiveness.

“I was so happy to see people laughing together again.”

“I’ve lost almost everything. Stress, shock, and lack of energy cover all my feelings. It was long ago that I could let it out aloud. The drum has become my friend.”

“I felt connected and united. I never thought that one can experience so much joy only by drums.”

“Since the quake I have not laughed so much and am surprised at how much power you have left in me.”

“The Drum Café session has given me much confidence that I can now show to others.”

“My house is destroyed. I lost my job. But today I had joy in the face again and was able to laugh. I really appreciate what they have done for us today.”

“That moved me. I again felt that I was alive.”

I must close at this point with a statement regarding the Japanese. You react and work here so efficiently, quickly, and effectively. You take a moment for every human interaction, the time to carry this out with respect and attention. It is simply present when interacting with people here. This cannot be wrong, it works quite well. If you have spread in your career thousands of business cards, which disappeared quickly in the hand and pocket, there’s a warm feeling in your stomach when here, it is received with both hands by comparison, considered, and will be thanked with a physical gesture. You just have to experience this several times to understand it. I bow to a country with this discipline, this patience, this optimism, and this respect. The Japanese succeed because of these traits, and the ability to deal with this disaster so quickly. One of my last glances fell on a poster in a cafe. Translated it said:

Walk not in front of me, because it could be that I do not follow you.

Run not behind me, because it could be that I do not lead you.

Just walk beside me and be my friend.

I’m deeply moved back in Germany, where a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami is not an issue. Of course, if any meltdowns were to occur the solution is already in hand: Together for each other and with respect!

The moving film about this trip report can be found under the search term “Drum Cafe NicoNico” in Youtube.

For information about the project and how you can support it please visit www.drumcafe.com/japanwecare.html.

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