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

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Cosmos Karaoke is a lively karaoke bar in the middle of Namie, a small city that is slowly reopening after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident devastated the area. Minza Lee (right) is the driving force behind the bar.

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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.

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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.

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Decorative figurines sit next to a container of hand sanitizer just inside the entrance of Cosmos Karaoke.

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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.’ »

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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.

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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.

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

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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.»

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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).

  • karaoke
  • fukushima
  • Japan

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