A song for quake survivors

By Shinji Hijikata, Ryu Okamoto

Five years after tragedy hit Japan, chart-topping band reunite for one final fundraiser.
A mannequin sticks out from the rubble in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture, after the earthquake and tsunami devastated much of north-eastern Japan on March 11, 2011. Photo / AP
A mannequin sticks out from the rubble in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture, after the earthquake and tsunami devastated much of north-eastern Japan on March 11, 2011. Photo / AP

On the day of the disaster, she raced through Tokyo relying on her daughter's GPS signal. Princess Princess lead vocalist Kaori Kishitani, 48, can never forget the terror she felt.

On March 11, 2011, her daughter, then a first-grade primary school student, was taking the train home when the earthquake hit.

Frantically searching among the stopped trains, Kishitani pushed against the tide of evacuating passengers to get inside a carriage, where she finally found her daughter. Kishitani's throat was completely dry from repeatedly calling out her daughter's name.

Upon returning home, the two watched news of the tsunami on television. "There are lots of parents and children who couldn't be reunited," she thought. Kishitani could not get the disaster areas out of her head.

Princess Princess drummer Kyoko Tomita, 50, sent a text message to the other members of the group shortly after the disaster, asking if they were okay.

Spurred by this, the once-inseparable five gathered about one week later to discuss what they could do for the Tohoku region.

Each had their own families and jobs, but all of them tacitly understood they had taken a step toward what they had previously considered impossible: getting the band back together. In the summer, the five made their decision.

Debuting in 1986, Princess Princess hit it big after selling 1 million CD singles of the band's now signature tune, Diamonds. Japan's most successful all-female rock band was back in action 15 years after breaking up in 1996.

"The most an individual could donate was tens of thousands yen, or a few hundred thousand. But if it's Pri Pri," Kishitani said, referring to the band, "I thought, we can give a whole lot more than five times that."

Their first charity concert practice sessions were dismal. Keyboardist Tomoko Konno, 50, "automatically covered her ears" upon hearing Tomita's drumming.

Konno was able to devote herself to practising thanks to other mothers who helped look after her oldest daughter who had just started primary school.

Bassist Atsuko Watanabe, 51, at the time was vice principal of a music academy but was "able to give my all, thinking of the young students at our campus in disaster-stricken Sendai".

In March 2012, Princess Princess finally held its first concert after regrouping. In a total of eight solo shows in Sendai and at Tokyo Dome, the band brought out 130,000 fans. Their earnings, including CD sales, were donated to the disaster areas.

"Perhaps Pri Pri was made for these [relief] efforts," thought lead guitarist Kanako Nakayama, 51.

The last of the concerts was held at the end of 2012. All total they generated 500 million ($6.5 million).

"I could be of help to a lot of children thanks to their donations," says Yuji Hirano, 22, a graduate student at Tohoku Fukushi University in Sendai.

Pri Pri allocated about 300 million of its earnings to the construction of Sendai PIT, a live music club with a capacity for about 1200 people that will serve as a musical hub for the disaster areas.

The band also gave 50 million each to Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, and donated 30 million to the university for such purposes as improving the academic abilities of children in disaster areas.

Teachers and student volunteers held study groups in various locations across the disaster-hit areas. Between 2014 and 2015, Hirano himself joined English lessons five times, where many students told stories of their evacuation on March 11, 2011.

Many of the parents who accompanied them at the lessons, he says, told him with surprise that it was the first time they had heard about their child's experience.

On March 11 this year, the five members of Princess Princess will formally open Sendai PIT with their first performance since the end of 2012. This is scheduled to bring the curtain down on their regrouping.

On a Sunday at the end of last year, the members gathered in a Tokyo studio to practise. They were worried that coverage of the disaster had faded.

Kishitani said she wants to give hope to the many people who have continually supported the band's efforts. And their next concert is sure to be their last.

- Washington Post, Bloomberg

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