A Living Rope
That Connects Us All
In November 1995, Mariyo Yagi, a Kobe-born artist, installed a huge rope in the grounds of a shrine in the area of Higashi-Nada, one of the worst hit areas of the quake. Yagi enlisted the help of Kobe residents to make the rope out of some 10,000 used T-shirts and other pieces of clothing. On the first anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, she performed a ritual burning of the rope to console the souls of those who perished in the quake. We interviewed her just after the ritual.
Interview with Yagi
Time to Spontaneously Unite
Q: Everyone at the shrine, young and old, was so quiet and still. They just stared intensely as the rope burned.
A: It was a wonderful day today. Yes, they were quiet, and that was a good
contrast with the fire. There was no wind, and the rope and the flames
formed a beautiful spiral. It seemed to transport everyone's feelings up so
Q: And the high-school students looked so happy and friendly.
A: The ones I talked to weren't your usual obedient type. They told me
that today they'd seen something beyond normal reality and that the event
had given them new energy. They even bowed and thanked me. I was very happy
with their reaction.
It must have been the uniqueness of the time that brought us all together
so spontaneously. The Youth Group worked so hard. When I was living in
Mikage as a child, people worried that young people weren't interested in
keeping alive the traditional festivals. In our case, there was a festival
in which we pulled decorated carts through the neighborhood. Real fast. But
that festival was revived about 10 years ago, and the Youth Group is seeing
to it that it continues. You have to have a feeling of union to accomplish
something like that. These kids have a strong sense of community. That's a
great source of power.
Q: "Rope" ("nawa" in Japanese) has a nice sound.
A: The other word for it is "tsuna," of course. But I prefer the sound of
nawa. In the Tsugaru region of northern Japan, "na" means "you" and "wa"
There's a film being made these days about the Jomon Period. [8,000-3,000 BC. Jomon signifies the rope patterns found on the ceramics of the
For one scene they filmed the rope piece I'd made in a red pine
forest in Aomori Prefecture. I always work with a large group of people when
I make my works. In Aomori, too, many local people helped me. When we got
the piece to stand up, an old man came up to me and said, "You made it
specifically for this place, didn't you? It looks like a red pine." And
then he said, "It is a red pine!"
In fact, in the pine forest I'd seen trees
change in color from red to a bluish tinge. It was intriguing and I tried to
work that into my piece.
Q: I felt something of that as I watched the rope burn today.
A: Yes, but it was also different today. I didn't say anything to my
helpers except that today we'd make a fire. I don't usually think of the
significance of burning the thing. I can't visually imagine how it will
burn, either. And it went up so high in a spiral, and it kept on burning and
burning. It was like a fire dragon. Very powerful.
Q. A person from Mikage said that it gave him the energy to continue living
A. Yes, he said he'd been feeling very low and that he'd bottled up all
his hard feelings deep inside. And then today he felt that all those feelings
had been released. He said, "Now I feel good and confident." I heard similar
things from many other people today. The collective process that goes on in
making the rope soothes people and opens them up.
It's not easy to heal
mental traumas. They persist inside us, sometimes for our whole lives long. But sometimes, too, the dark energy is transformed into a positive energy.
Perhaps my ropes carry those positive energies.
Getting the Rope to Stand Up Is the Hard Part
Q: Ever since the earthquake, you've been active in Kobe trying to make the
quake experience one from which we can explore how we might better live
together with nature and the earth.
A: That's true, but I should also add that I receive a great deal of
inspiration from many people.
Q: What made you decide to do the ritual in Mikage?
A: Initially, just after the quake, I proposed a rope project for the city
of Kobe, but that never came through. Months later, someone suggested that I
do something for the community, if even just on a smaller scale. Then I
quickly decided to do something at Yuzuruha Shrine. We came unannounced and
met with the head priest, Sawada, and he thought this was an ideal site
for what I had in mind.
I grew up in Mikage, but even then the neighborhood communities had broken
up as a result of urban development. Then for decades I lived elsewhere and
had nothing to do with the area. Then one day after seeing an art exhibition, I was walking from Sumiyoshi Station to Mikage Station on my way to Sannomiya, the center of Kobe. You have to change trains a lot to get there, so I decided to walk most of the way. I felt nostalgic, sad, about Mikage. So I decided to do my ritual there. But I knew I'd have to wait
until the community itself was ready. I had to wait for the people's spontaneous action.
Q: What was their initial reaction to your plan?
A: First they couldn't understand why a rope. But then they thought that
doing something on a large scale would be good for the community and would
create a feeling of oneness among everyone. "If we're going to do anything
at all, let's do it on a very big scale. Let's make a really large rope!"
they decided. And then everyone really got into it. They'd discuss every
aspect of the rope, from the size to how to make it stand up. The Youth
Group declared that getting it to stand up would be the hard and crucial
part. I hadn't explained to anyone why it had to stand up, only that it
had to happen.
Then I explained to them that we'd need to dig a two-meter-deep hole to fix
the base of the rope in. That's when they realized how large a scale we were
really talking about. And that only made them even more dedicated to the
project. When they heard a specialist talk about some technical
requirements, they knew how hard our work would be. Actually, we didn't give
them detailed technical instructions. They'd analyze each problem and
discover the requirements and solutions themselves.
Q: Was it their spontaneous idea to burn the rope?
A: Sawada suggested it at our first meeting. Then we had to decide
when. At first we thought of late November, then New Year's Day. Finally we
chose the anniversary of the earthquake.
Q: And on November 25 and 26 you actually made the rope.
A: Yes. First we made balls out of the T-shirts and put them together.
People wondered why they were doing such a thing when day-to-day survival
was difficult enough without this on top. But on the 26th they got even more involved and determined to finish the
rope. Making it was like a collective prayer. We all worked to make the
spiral at the top. When at the end we placed the base in the hole everyone
was just amazed. All we could think was that we had really done it.
Earth's Umbilical Cord Is a Part of the Universe
Q: What is art for you?
A: This may sound presumptuous, but I believe that art is not a private or
individual matter. It's about the universal. Art acts upon each individual
to awaken him or her. It shakes us up. It enables us to see the invisible
and to touch the immaterial.
This time was no exception. In making the rope here, I felt I was being
reborn in the world that is Mikage. Similarly, I'm sure that the Mikage
people who participated in the creative process reconfirmed their roots with
the area. This may help and strengthen them in their continuing everyday
painful struggle. We need to first establish strong roots to stand on. Then
the leaves and branches will come. It becomes a source of power, a way to
Q: You placed mirrors on the ground that reflected what was going on both
above and below. It gave me a strong feeling of what you mean by "roots."
A: Yes, I wanted to show the earth below and the sky above, to connect
them. The rope became the earth's umbilical cord, which is connected to the
umbilical cord of the universe. If you can feel this connection then you
realize that everything in the universe is alive, we human beings, the
smallest insects, the camphor trees on the shrine premises, the whole earth...
Q: So the ritual was also intended to remind us that we are born of the
earth, and we are all connected through this universal umbilical cord?
A: Yes. The earthquake reminded us of our very close connection to the
earth, and that the planet is constantly in motion. It's good to feel this
Q: Your project was very deeply rooted in a local community, but it also has
A: What does "local" mean? Look at the human body. It doesn't exist
without cells. Today, people do not pay much attention to small communities.
We emphasize the whole over its parts. But the whole exists only as a
result of those parts. Both are important and must be equally woven into a
single fabric, especially if we really aim to achieve a truly global society.
Q: The project was carried out by the people of Mikage, but the T-shirts
were collected from all over Japan.
A: Yes, we mixed local and national participation quite beautifully, I
think. And that is further extended to a global network. Just as our bodies
depend on numerous nerve cells inside us, we were able to achieve a
whole-and-part synergy. There was good circulation. Smooth and healthy.
Ropes Are Endless
Q: And how do you feel now that it's over?
A: It may sound strange, but I felt that things would work out exactly as
Even before the quake, I was thinking a lot about astronomy and
nature. I had a theme in mind called "A Renaissance Forest." In retrospect, I
see now that this forest was the woods of Yuzuhara Shrine.
made me realize once again, and of course very concretely, that the earth is
a living organism. At an art show, I met people who'd suffered in the
earthquake, people who'd been deeply psychologically hurt and were very
depressed. But I could do nothing for them, could not heal them in any way. And so my trauma was not able to be healed either. What would have a healing
effect on us? Maybe we should think on a small scale: love the humble
roadside plants and flowers. Then I thought it should take the form of
something that would transcend us, something that would have a cumulative
And of course, real healing would require a very long time. Then I thought more about the meaning of making ropes. I usually spend a
long time in preparation and make the ropes slowly and steadily. The final
stages are exciting and liberating, and the rope is actually there. It's a
life-nurturing process, a flower.
Q: Thank you very much for your time today. Is there any last message you'd like to give?
A: Coming here today and standing on this ground with so many people, I
feel like I've made a firm return to the woods of Yuzuruha. The principal
totem here for me is the big camphor tree. I've realized that this is my
root. I could stand under the tree and feel myself reborn. This is how I
I was born of my mother and then was alone. But I've been reborn today. I
was reborn into a circle comprised of many people: the members of the rope
ritual project, the people all over the country who shared our spirit and
donated their old T-shirts, a friend in New York who sent us a warm prayer
and a message that said, "Though from a distance, I am with you and the
rope." I was standing here today with all of these people. I feel so alive and sure that we can all go on together.
I've made ropes in many places and I hope to continue to do so. Ropes are
endless, they have no end, really. They go on and on, they extend into
networks and connections. They connect the people who suffered in Kobe or
other disasters; they connect the people of the past and present and
future. I want to see this "life connection" extended infinitely. It
would prove to all that the earth truly is alive.
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