Can music save lives? The answer is a resounding “Yes.”
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several people from the northeastern region of Taiwan living in Chicago. Among them is a dear friend, Mr. Wang Chang-Suo, who has shared countless stories of his native land — personal experiences that are the backbone of this narrative. In the interest of clarity, the “I” referred to in this text represents Mr. Wang Chang-Suo.
A musical introduction
In my second year of elementary school, my parents bought me a Chinese traditional instrument, the Erhu, hoping to cultivate my interest in music. I was no prodigy and, admittedly, not particularly enthusiastic about music. To motivate my learning, my mother related to me one of her own experiences.
A mother’s tale: A musical hero in trying times
In 1945, my mother was attending university in Changchun, where most of her classmates and professors were Japanese. Among them was her music professor, Mr. Suzuki, a kind and friendly middle-aged man in his fifties with an exceptional talent for music. The students admired him greatly.
That summer, Japan’s defeat in World War II was all but certain. The once formidable Kwantung Army had been largely depleted, with most of its main force sent to the Pacific frontlines and subsequently decimated by the U.S. forces. In these desperate times, even a music professor like Suzuki was drafted to fight in the impending battle against the Soviet invasion in northern Heilongjiang. A country that resorts to conscripting middle-aged music professors for war is hardly in a winning position. Before leaving, Suzuki bid a tearful goodbye to his students, doubting he would ever return.
Against all odds
The Soviets attacked the northeast on August 9, swiftly occupying the entire region as if it were uninhabited. The Kwantung Army was obliterated, with the captured soldiers sent to Siberia for hard labor, where most of them subsequently perished in the harsh weather. To everyone’s astonishment, Suzuki returned to Changchun alone and alive at the end of 1945.
He related his tale during a reunion with the students. Faced with the formidable Soviet forces, the inexperienced Japanese troops, many of whom had never handled a gun before, stood no chance. As soon as the first shots were fired, they scattered, each man for himself. Suzuki began a grueling journey to return to Changchun on foot, evading Soviet checkpoints by passing as Chinese due to his fluency in the language.
The power of music
He was eventually captured near Changchun. It seemed he was destined to meet his end with a group of Japanese captives. But in a moment of desperate inspiration, Suzuki sang a Russian folk song in fluent Russian. His melodious voice echoed in the air, leaving the Soviet soldiers captivated. At their request, he continued singing, his soulful renditions of Russian tunes melting the icy hearts of the Soviet soldiers.
The soldiers confessed that they had been sent to the battlefield while still too young, enduring a living hell. For them, their homelands had become distant dreams. “Thank you for your song,” they told him. “It took us back to our beloved hometowns, to our dear mothers, and to our happy childhoods. Your music is like a heavenly melody to our ears. We can’t kill you. You’re free to go…”
Reunion and reflection
In 1987, Mr. Wang Chang-Suo, accompanied by his aging mother, traveled to Tokyo. They placed a missing persons ad in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, and within a week, they reconnected with her university friends. Forty years after their last gathering, they reminisced about their beloved music professor.
They learned that in 1946, Suzuki, together with his family, had left his birthplace, Changchun, to return to a Japan that was now somewhat alien to him. For a while, they kept in touch, but after several changes in their lives, they lost contact and his whereabouts remained unknown…
This story is a testament to the potential of music to transcend cultural boundaries, break through barriers of misunderstanding, and yes, even save lives.
Translated by Audrey Wang