Sendai, Japan: Resilience of a Cultural Jewel

By James David Jacobs

May 1

In March, as I was preparing the programming for my weekend shows, I found myself distracted by the images of devastation coming from northern Japan. The news coverage kept mentioning Sendai, a city I had never heard of before. I was suddenly filled with an overwhelming desire to find out what I could about the city and to see if there were any recordings made by Sendai musicians.

In the course of my online research I discovered that Sendai is the cultural center of northern Japan and has a major orchestra, the Sendai Philharmonic. I was astonished to find a local connection: its conductor is Pascal Verrot, who was an assistant to Seiji Ozawa at the BSO in the late 1980s, and served on the faculty of New England Conservatory.

My desire to find out everything I could about this orchestra was fulfilled when I found Dr. Maureen Murchie, who recently completed a doctoral dissertation about the Sendai Philharmonic. Her expertise is not merely academic: she grew up in Sendai and studied with the concertmaster of the orchestra.

Now, as we continue to hold the people of Japan in our thoughts, it’s a pleasure to welcome Maureen to During the month of May, Maureen will be contributing a series of pieces about Sendai, its orchestra, and the role of classical music in Japanese culture. In addition, you can hear the Sendai Philharmonic each Sunday morning, in many recordings that have never been broadcast outside of Japan.

As you read and hear, please keep Japan in your thoughts.  If you're interested in helping out, one excellent source is Global Giving.

Shinto Shrine, Sendai, Japan (source:  Wikimedia Commons)

Sendai, Japan is my hometown.

Though I was born in Newark, New Jersey, to American parents, we moved to Japan when I was nine years old. I attended Japanese schools from fifth grade all the way through high school and was the only non-Japanese student in my graduating class of 300 girls. Thanks to my height and my blonde hair, I always stood out in the crowd. The home video of my high school graduation shows one “yellow sun” (as the Japanese often described the back of my head) amidst the broad, dark sea of our navy uniforms and the black hair of all my colleagues.

As I was growing up, I studied violin with the concertmaster of the Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra, Yumiko Shibuya (that's her in the center of the photo at left, with my sister on the left and myself on the right), and I attended many a Sendai Phil concert with my father, who is also a violinist. My parents still live and work in Sendai, their home for over 25 years.
It is no secret that the Japanese today love classical music. The history of Western music in general and the role of a western-style symphony orchestra in Japan is a complex issue and one that has been dealt with extensively by other historians. It involves some key events such as a battle in 1862 when Japanese soldiers, freshly defeated by the British, first heard the strains of triumphant Western military music and decided that perhaps the music was one key to military success.

Shortly thereafter came the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when Japan opened itself up to foreign influences after a couple centuries of strict, isolationist “foreign policies.” The story of Western music in Japan has a strong connection to Boston, through some key figures such as Shuji Isawa (below), a Japanese exchange student in Boston, and Luther Whiting Mason, a Boston schoolteacher who traveled to Japan and wrote Japanese children’s songs that incorporated those strange, exotic tonic and dominant chords.
Fast-forward a couple hundred years and you will find city firemen playing annual summer concerts in parks all over Japan. You will witness a strong commitment to fine arts and music education in Japanese public schools, where elementary school children sing pieces in two and three part harmony at the beginning and end of every school day. You may be surprised to learn that Tokyo has more symphony orchestras than any city in the world. You might hear arpeggios and trills as part of the “next-station” announcement on the bullet trains.

In Japan, music is treated as a necessity, not a mere cultural nicety that all too often becomes the first victim of the budgetary scalpel. Perhaps this view of music is not unrelated to the touching, organized civility of Japan that seems to shine through, penetrating even the horrors of natural disasters and the opaque labyrinth of international media.

Following the events on and since the March 11th disasters, Sendai and its recovery have remained a constant presence for me.  The tragedy there is unimaginable in a way, but I hope this short snapshot brings you a closer connection to the people there, the struggle they're enduring, and the hope that classical music brings them.  I am truly grateful to James David Jacobs and WGBH for the opportunity to share my experiences with you.

I'll have more next week about one of Sendai's cultural jewels, the Sendai Philharmonic, whose 40-year history was the topic of my recently completed doctoral dissertation.

And in the meantime, I hope you'll enjoy hearing the orchestra on Sunday mornings during May.

- Maureen Murchie

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