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This is a past article published in Hiragana Times. Each Japanese paragraph is followed by its English translation or vise versa, and furigana are placed above each kanji to make Japanese study even easier. [Magazine Sample] [Subscription Page]

The Character “Sei” (Life) Built on a Sandbank

[From August Issue 2011]

At Takarazuka City, Hyogo Prefecture, on the sandbank of the Muko River, the kanji character for life (sei) has been created using piles of stones. ARIKAWA Hiro, a novelist living in the city, says that this art installation inspired her to write the novel, “Hankyu Densha” (the Hankyu Line). The beginning of the novel contains a description of how this kanji character comes into view just as the train is crossing a bridge over the Muko River.

This kanji character was created in 2005 by modern artist OHNO Ryohei, who was born and still lives in Takarazuka City. Ohno says, “On the tenth anniversary of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, I was planning an art exhibition on the theme of “reproduction,” and I was wondering if there was any place outside the venue where I could express this concept. It was then that I thought of this place. The fact that there was a big river with a beautiful sandbank flowing through the middle of the city really made an impression on me and I decided to create the character “sei” in order to offer up prayers for the dead.

In 2006, the river swelled and the installation disappeared. But in 2010, when “Hankyu Densha” was made into a movie, it was decided that the artwork would be reproduced in cooperation with volunteers, including students from Takarazuka University (Ohno’s alma mater), local residents and children. UEOKA Hidehiro, assistant professor at the art and design department of Takarazuka University, who also participated in the effort along with the students, says: “The sandbank was overgrown with grass that reached the tops of our heads, so it was really hard work to cut it back. The students were all working silently, carrying the cut grass across the river in high boots. Since they had already developed mental and physical strength through creating their own works of art, I think they were able to toil away without too much difficulty.

Ueoka says that, starting with the largest, he put his heart and soul into piling up stones one by one. “At the time of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, I was buried alive for three to four hours under the beam of a Japanese-style house,” he says. “Because of this experience, as I added each stone, I thought about those who had died.” The huge art installation, measuring about 20 meters long and 10 meters wide, was restored in December 2010 with the help of a total of 100 volunteers.

This art installation was much talked about after it was shown at the ending of the film, and was also featured in “Masashi to Yuki no Monogatari” (The Story of Masashi and Yuki), a spin-off TV drama taking the theme of the letter “sei.” The installation was also featured in various media, including newspapers and TV. Having received a lot of attention as a new tourist attraction in Takarazuka City, the big character vanished again last April, when the water rose.

Ohno continues, “It was sad, but it makes us want to cherish moments that have disappeared. From the outset, rather than using concrete, I decided to use materials that would harmonize with nature. Every tangible thing disappears eventually, but I think the feelings of those who piled up the stones will surely remain. This time, the installation was filled with so many people’s emotions that it became a piece of art that captivated the hearts of even more people than the last one.”

By popular demand, a movement to reproduce the character “sei” has begun again. Ohno says, “From Takarazuka, which has recovered from a disaster, we would like to send the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake the message that it is possible to reproduce what has been washed away. 

Photos courtesy of the Project to Reproduce the Character “Live”

Text: KAWARATANI Tokiko


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