SENDAI, JAPAN--Major Michael Willen and SMSgt Michael Goetz exchange handshakes and bows at a pre-concert ceremony honoring relief workers’ heroic actions following the earthquake and tsunami. Sept 2011. (photo: SSgt Josh Voyles)
by by SMSgt Michael Goetz
USAF Band of the Pacific-Asia
9/26/2011 - SENDAI, JAPAN -- The long road to recovery from the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the following tsunami that claimed the lives of over 23,000 people is slowly progressing and military music is playing a vital role in the healing process for many people who suffered losses from the tragedy that occurred March 11, 2011.
Under the leadership of Major Michael J. Willen, seven band members from the USAF Band of the Pacific, Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, joined their partner detachment located at Yokota Air Base to assemble arguably the most powerful and inspirational Air Force Band musical outreach capability for Japan, providing encouragement and support to thousands.
The USAF Band of the Pacific made the most of their two-week mission by adding horn players to produce a combination of vintage Glenn Miller-era mini big band and Top 40 popular music for a wide variety of venues. Some concert highlights were partially broadcasted to the Japanese public on several local news outlets and also covered in local newspapers.
One of the nine performances was in a gymnasium in Sendai City, Miyagi prefecture which had served as a temporary home to over 1400 people following the tsunami. Civilian relief workers, who requested the concert, shared stories of sacrificing their own meals so others could have at least one fist-sized ball of rice per day, and also how difficult it was to fit that many people into a building with a maximum capacity of 240. One volunteer said, "we had no place to move and people were sleeping in parked cars for weeks." Prior to the performance, the band leadership held a ceremony recognizing these volunteers for their heroic efforts and presented them with the band's latest compact disc recording titled, "Kizuna" (meaning helping one another through the bonds of friendship) and a 374th Airlift Wing stylized yukata on behalf of Yokota Air Base.
The band delivered uplifting and inspirational performances to include The Carpenters' hit, "We've Only Just Begun" and also the reemergence of a Japanese song that became widely popular after World War II titled, "Ringo No Uta" which embodied the message "a new beginning and friendship". Today, this song has a deeper meaning to the Japanese people and symbolizes strength, encouragement, and willpower to persevere and recover. The commander of the tri-located band, Major Michael J. Willen said during the performance, "We're your friends and your neighbors and America will continue to be with you every step of the way through this recovery." Audience members responded with thunderous applause and the Chairman of the Sendai Concert Committee, who was extremely moved by the band's heartfelt musical performance, in his remarks emphasized the alliance between the two countries and also highlighted the committee's special effort to invite children to the concert, so they too could experience and see this friendship first hand. Major Willen added..."It's these particular performances that crystallize the purpose of having Air Force Bands abroad which help promote partnerships between nations by positively engaging communities and connecting with their citizens on a personal level... At a time when the media's attention has turned to other crises around the world, the United States is still very committed to the recovery efforts in Japan and the U.S. Air Force Band of the Pacific is honored to be part of that commitment."
After every show, the band interacted with audience members by shaking hands, posing for pictures, exchanging hugs and smiling together. One audience member who traveled over 90 minutes to see the performance said afterwards, "I feel unbelievably energized now because I see how the Americans still really care about us, and also by the band taking the time to learn and perform our music which is so meaningful in our culture. The friendship is important and we are very grateful to the United States for Operation Tomodachi... thank you!"