In 2011, the small Japanese town of Yamamoto-cho was among those worst hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.
Much of the town was destroyed during the disaster, and countless lives were affected, beginning a long and ongoing process of rebuilding and healing.
In December 2016, a group of Australian artists from the community arts company Crossroad Arts visited Yamamoto-cho to facilitate performances for the reopening of the Japanese Rail Joban Line Station, washed away during the 2011 tsunami.
Titled ‘Gama’ (the name of the plant that grows around the elementary school in Yamamoto-cho), the project built upon three years of international exchange between Crossroad Arts, Able Arts, Polaris Inc and Tanpopo no-ye in Nara. These projects all aimed to re-engage and re-energise the people of Yamamoto-cho, celebrating their resilience and capacity to imagine and create at an international level.
In the lead up to the railway station opening, over 100 participants, including members of several local traditional and contemporary dance and music groups, were involved in two weeks of dance, music and visual art workshops, all led by Japanese dancer, Sin Sakuma, and Crossroad Arts Director, Steve Mayer-Miller.
‘One of the highlights of the workshops was engaging with traditional music and dance groups such as the elderly women from Hanagasa Ondo Hozonka Dance Preservation Society,’ says Steve, who is also creating a short documentary film about the project.
‘The women dancers taught the artists from Crossroad Arts traditional Japanese dance moves and at the same time were willing to participate in theatre games and improvised dance.’
Participants with a disability painted large fiberglass masks made in Australia by Crossroad Arts and wore the masks during a main performance at the event. Over 200 people attended the opening of the railway station with many of them joining the performers and musicians in the final dance.
‘At the end of the project, participants had a greater sense of self-worth, and a sense of belonging with the people of Yamamoto-cho and their community,’ says Steve.
The second stage of the project consisted of a photography workshop in Sendai involving students from Sendai University, teachers, support workers, and 10 people who were blind. They were joined by Australian deaf blind photographer from Crossroads Arts, Brenden Borellini.
‘The aim of the workshop was to develop people’s confidence and skills in realising that people who are blind can see with their hands, their smell, their taste and their hearing, and that - if pictures of dots could be raised or embossed on paper so that blind people could feel the letters of words in braille - why then couldn't pictures or photos also be raised?’ explains Steve.
The workshops began with a sensory exercise in which all participants, including sighted people wearing masks, were able to choose from a table of fruit, flowers and other assorted foods. They each told their stories about what memories and images the smells evoked for them.
Each participant could only take three photos during the day’s workshop. The emphasis was on planning the shots and developing embossed images of 30 photographs by the end of the day.
During his conference talk at the Sendai Mediatheque in January 2017, Steve spoke of the significance of the project for blind participants.
‘This group of photographers, who ordinarily have not participated in this kind of art making before, are now taking an active role in creating their own art,’ he stated.
‘Instead of other people telling their stories, they are now telling their own stories and they are also sharing it with us, they are representing themselves, surely one of the highest ideals for any society.’
As a result of Gama’s success, Crossroad Arts and Able Arts are now planning ways for participants in the regional areas of Japan to collaborate further with Australian artists with a disability in the four years leading up to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
Gama was supported by the Australia-Japan Foundation (AJF). The AJF is DFAT’s oldest bilateral cultural council supporting people-to-people links underpinning this key bilateral and regional relationship.