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A Karaoke Bar Is Helping A Japanese Town Come Back To Life After Fukushima Disaster

Sep 12, 2020
Originally published on September 12, 2020 5:40 pm

In downtown Namie, a small coastal city in eastern Fukushima prefecture, there was a chorus of construction noise this spring. Truck after truck rolled through, bringing workers to string up power lines and rip down deserted houses, rebuild structures and repave roads.

But at night, all was quiet — except in one small corner of a tiny strip mall. The faint sounds of music, laughter and maybe a hit of tambourine floated on the wind, traveling down empty sidewalks and deserted streets, leading to a karaoke bar in full swing.

Namie was once home to over 21,000 people, a close-knit community of farmers and fishermen, dotted with rice paddies and pastures and a bustling downtown full of shops, schools and restaurants.

The train station in downtown Namie, in Fukushima prefecture, is served by the recently rebuilt main train line, which connects with major cities like Sendai and Tokyo.
Claire Harbage / NPR

But on March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami triggered explosions at three reactors at the nearby Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, just 5 miles away. The earthquake rocked the city, while the tsunami devastated the coastal area, washing people and buildings out to sea. Those who survived were forced to evacuate, to escape the plumes of radioactive material carried by the wind after the nuclear explosions.

Nearly overnight, Namie became a ghost town — completely sealed off from the public for six years.

Slowly though, as radiation levels have decreased, places like downtown Namie have reopened and are starting to come back to life — even if only a fraction of the population has returned. The Cosmos Karaoke Bar caters to that fraction, hoping to bring a sense of community back to a town that once thrived on it.

Construction scaffolding is set up in front of some of Namie's downtown buildings. Namie has reopened and is starting to come back to life — even if only a fraction of the population has returned.
Claire Harbage / NPR

In March, two giant screens on either side of the room flashed Japanese lyrics while a dozen patrons, mostly men, passed around microphones, singing at the top of their lungs, shaking tambourines and clutching ceramic cups filled with sake and tall glass mugs of beer.

Things changed in April, when the government declared a national emergency because of the coronavirus pandemic. Cosmos Karaoke had to close under government orders, in an effort to stop the virus from spreading. The town, like the rest of Japan, ground mostly to a halt. But recently, the bar reopened, although business has been slower than before.

The force driving it is Minza Lee, a 63-year-old South Korean woman who has lived in Japan for decades. She opened Cosmos Karaoke in 2018. She's a ball of energy, laughing and smiling, greeting every customer by name and often singing along. In March, she wore a tight leather jacket embroidered with flowers and a big yellow skirt and a sparkly top as she wandered around the room, urging customers to eat more in a motherly sort of way.

After the Fukushima disaster, she came to Namie from Fukushima City as a volunteer, helping to clean up debris and abandoned buildings. She says she fell in love with the town, with the idea of bringing it back from disaster, helping to bring it to life again — even though many of her friends thought it was a bad idea.

Minza Lee, 63, opened Cosmos Karaoke to bring "the light, the brightness, the energy," to the town, she says. "Everyone was against it," she remembered. "They said, 'You're going to live in a nuclear town? You're crazy!' But the more they pushed back, the more I said, 'Yes, I absolutely will.' "
Claire Harbage / NPR

"Everyone was against it," she remembered. "They said, 'You're going to live in a nuclear town? You're crazy!' But the more they pushed back, the more I said, 'Yes, I absolutely will.' "

So she moved to Namie for good and opened this bar named after the town flower — one of the most popular blooms in Japan, known as the fall cherry blossom. She hung big, long posters on the walls showing pink and purple cosmos flowers, which appear to be dancing to the near-constant music. The room is filled with glittery blue velvet booths topped with big floral pillows. The ceiling is painted like a bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds.

"When I first came here, it was so depressing. Everything was rotting and falling apart," Lee said in March. "So I decided that I had to bring the light, the brightness, the energy."

She pointed to the glitter, the decorations, the ceilings — as if wanting to show evidence that she accomplished what she had set out to do.

At Cosmos Karaoke, tambourines sit on a stool ready for use during group singalongs. Minza Lee dishes up bowls of kimchi to serve to customers.
Claire Harbage / NPR

In the kitchen in the back, a small staff prepared mostly Korean food, with no set menu — plates of kimchi and rice cakes started flowing as soon as customers sat down. It's one of the few places to get food in town.

Since 2017, Namie has seen progress and new businesses have sprung up. There are several ramen shops open for lunch and a few new hotels. The main train line was recently rebuilt to connect with major cities like Sendai, about 60 miles to the north, and Tokyo, about 150 miles south.

But there isn't much entertainment for the 1,000 or so people who have come back to live here, many of whom are elderly.

That's why Cosmos opens in the late afternoon — for them.

In one corner booth in March, three friends in their 70s toasted one another over plates of seafood and scallion pancakes and grilled pork-belly lettuce wraps. The men used to be neighbors in Namie, but after the disaster, they scattered to different areas. Only one lives back in Namie now.

They try to meet up as often as they can and remember the lives they once had together in the town.

Masato Yamazaki (left) chats with a friend while selecting the next song to sing; Shigeo Kobayashi belts out lyrics at Cosmos Karaoke. The friends try to meet up as often as they can and remember the lives they once had together in Namie.
Claire Harbage / NPR

"We used to all meet up in our old neighborhood, but now, it's a total ghost town, totally empty... except for the animals that have taken over our homes," said Masato Yamazaki, 76, with a wry laugh.

He said he wished that Cosmos Karaoke had even more customers, that more people had come back to Namie. He pointed out that his friends were drinking iced oolong tea, since they had a long drive home.

"But it's nice to have this place, to meet and reminisce," he said.

And, of course, sing.

Yamazaki's favorite tunes are old Japanese love songs — which he sang often that March night, much to the delight of his friends, who clapped and cheered.

Minza Lee bustles around the bar, chatting with customers and urging them to eat more.
Claire Harbage / NPR

The construction workers who've been painstakingly rebuilding the town have also moved here, at least for now.

One of the workers, 53-year-old Takashi Togashi, sat alone in a booth next to a pile of tambourines. A guitar rested against the wall. He moved to Namie to empty out and tear down the rotting houses that have been sitting abandoned for nearly a decade. When he first arrived a few years ago, it was scary, he said, especially at night.

"There was no one on the streets — not a single person. All you could hear was dogs barking ... and even they sounded scared," he said.

Construction worker Takashi Togashi moved to Namie to empty out and tear down some of the rotting houses that have been sitting abandoned for nearly a decade. At first, he said, "there was no one on the streets — not a single person. All you could hear was dogs barking ... and even they sounded scared," he said. He found Cosmos Karaoke, where he enjoys singing songs like ABBA's "Dancing Queen."
Claire Harbage / NPR

It was lonely and depressing, especially given the work he had to do. "The houses are disgusting. Sometimes I'll open a refrigerator that hasn't been opened in nine years! Just try to imagine," he said, making a gagging noise.

But then he found Cosmos Karaoke and finally had a way to blow off some steam and decompress after the long days. When he comes here, he can just be happy, he said, laughing.

With that, Togashi picked up a microphone and put on ABBA's "Dancing Queen." As the opening piano riff blasted from the speakers, everyone clapped and cheered. Someone grabbed a tambourine. Another person took up an extra mic. A small karaoke band formed.

Lee said this is exactly why she committed to opening this bar — to bring people together.

"I know my contribution — a karaoke bar — is small," she said, looking around. "But it's important."

And as the chorus of "Dancing Queen" blasted over the speakers and the small crowd joined in, it was clear everyone else in the room agreed.

Kat Lonsdorf (@lilkat_bigworld) is NPR's Above the Fray fellow. The fellowship is sponsored by the John Alexander Project, which supports foreign reporting in undercovered parts of the world. Follow the fellowship on Instagram (@thejohnaproject) and Twitter (@thejohnaproject).

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, the town of Namie in Fukushima, Japan, was once home to more than 20,000 people. But in 2011, one of the worst nuclear disasters the world had ever seen happened just a few miles away. Everyone was forced to leave. The whole town sat abandoned for years. Slowly, though, evacuation orders have lifted, and parts of the town have reopened. And as NPR's Kat Lonsdorf found on her trip to Japan earlier this year, there is at least one lively spot there.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: During the day, downtown Namie sounds like this...

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION NOISE)

LONSDORF: ...And this...

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION NOISE)

LONSDORF: ...And this.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION NOISE)

LONSDORF: Teams of workers tearing down houses, stringing up new power lines, rebuilding, trying to bring this former ghost town back to life. At night, though, Namie is still eerily silent, empty. In the three years the town has been reopened, only about 5% of the population returned. But there is one spot tucked away in a mostly empty strip mall. If you listen closely, you can start to hear it - the faint sound of music, laughter, maybe a hint of tambourine down a hallway and behind a big wooden door.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing, unintelligible).

LONSDORF: A tiny karaoke bar in full swing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible).

LONSDORF: Glittery blue velvet booths line the walls topped with big floral pillows. The ceiling is painted like a bright blue sky with big, fluffy clouds. And two giant screens on either side of the room flash lyrics. People pass around microphones, singing at the top of their lungs. This was back in March, when scenes like this were relatively normal and safe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing, unintelligible).

LONSDORF: Minza Lee runs the spot. She's South Korean but has been living in Japan for decades. She came to Namie after the disaster as a volunteer.

MINZA LEE: (Through interpreter) When I first came here, it was so depressing. Everything was rotting and falling apart. So I decided that I had to bring the light, the brightness, the energy.

LONSDORF: She points to the decorations, the ceiling, the glitter. Lee fell in love with Namie. She wanted to help the town get back on its feet, so she moved here for good and opened up Cosmos Karaoke bar, named after of the town flower.

LEE: (Through interpreter) We needed somewhere where people can meet us, where they can feel like they're in a community and get rid of stress.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing, unintelligible).

LONSDORF: The bar opens in the afternoon. A lot of the people who moved back are elderly, and they start coming in early. Today's first customers - three men, all in their 70s - toast each other in a corner booth.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASSES CLINKING)

LONSDORF: They used to be neighbors here, but after the disaster, they scattered. Now they meet up here when they can to remember life together in their old town...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Laughter).

LONSDORF: ...And, of course, sing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Singing in Japanese).

LEE: The other people who live in Namie now are those construction workers rebuilding the town, like 53-year-old Takashi Togashi. He moved here for the work, tearing down rotting houses.

TAKASHI TOGASHI: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: He says at night, Namie is scary and lonely. There's no one around, no sounds. And during the day, his work is tough.

TOGASHI: (Through interpreter) Most of the houses here are disgusting. I'm opening refrigerators that haven't been opened in nine years. Just imagine what's in them.

LONSDORF: He says it's stressful and sad. But when he's here singing with new friends he can be...

TOGASHI: (Speaking Japanese) Happy, happy.

LONSDORF: ...Happy. And with that, he grabs the mic and puts on ABBA, smiling from ear to ear. Everyone starts clapping, joining in. Lee says that is exactly why she's doing this.

LEE: (Through interpreter) I want people to come back here, to laugh and to treasure Namie like they used to.

TOGASHI: (Singing) You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only...

LEE: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: Lee says she knows her contribution, this karaoke bar, is small, but she feels it's important.

TOGASHI: (Singing) (Unintelligible) Oh, yeah.

LONSDORF: And everyone else here seems to agree.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) You can dance, you can jive having the time of your life...

LONSDORF: Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Fukushima, Japan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.