CAMP ZAMA, Japan –
"Thank you for saving me that day."
Sgt. Cameron Blackhurst, assigned to the U.S. Army Japan Band, here, was told those words by a tearful Japanese woman after he, along with other band members, put on a concert at Showa Kinen Park on the outskirts of Tokyo in November 2013.
Blackhurst, who plays the trumpet, discovered the meaning of the woman's words when she told him that the USARJ Band had performed at the shelter where she was living after having lost everything in the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck Japan, in March 2011.
Blackhurst said that it was a complete coincidence that the Japanese woman happened to be walking by the park that was roughly 250 miles away from the shelter and where she had chosen to start her new life more than two years later.
"'You have no idea of the impact your band had on me at the time of the disaster,'" recalled Blackhurst, commenting on the words of the Japanese woman.
"She said she was so grateful that to see our band perform again," Blackhurst said.
Blackhurst said he is often not aware of the impact the performances he and the USARJ Band put on can have on people.
Whether they are having a bad day or are going through struggles in their lives that he and the other band members can't comprehend, Blackhurst said, "Some inspirational music can sometimes lift (people) up, and give them some encouragement, or even just allow them to have some fun for a few minutes."
The mission of the USARJ band is to provide musical support to the Camp Zama community, but that is really only a portion of what they do, said Blackhurst. (The USARJ Band) also perform for the host communities throughout Japan and act as "the face of the U.S. Army in Japan," Blackhurst said.
The band is often invited to perform at various events and festivals, and even participate in joint concerts with the Japan Self-Defense Forces, explained Blackhurst.
Blackhurst said he has a unique responsibility and role within the band because he is fluent in Japanese. Blackhurst sings in Japanese, acts as master of ceremonies for the band's concerts, and converses with the Japanese audience members, before and after the band's performances. Blackhurst is also able to interpret Japanese to English for his fellow band members when the Japanese audience members express gratitude.
Blackhurst was first introduced to the Japanese language during a missionary trip to Japan, in February 2003. After a few months he said he reached a point where he thought, "I don't understand anything that is going on around me. All I'm going to do now is just listen and write down everything I hear."
"I started to pay close attention to not only what the Japanese people were saying, but how they would say it," said Blackhurst.
Blackhurst said he would ask any Japanese person who would listen to him what they were saying.
"Over time I was able to understand not just words, but also the hidden meaning behind words and phrases," he said.
The more he learned the language, Blackhurst said, the better equipped he was to understand the unique emotions and thought processes of the Japanese people.
"Even simple things like why everyone in Japan carries handkerchiefs," Blackhurst said.
"Those (nuances) are all hidden inside the language, but the only way to access that part of the language is through (the) people," said Blackhurst.
"When you get to know (Japanese) people to the point where they invite you to their house, you start to realize why Japanese (people) think the way they do, and why and how the culture bends and twists to meet the needs of Japanese people."
Blackhurst said he feels that when Americans can find a way to integrate those cultural and lingual differences with their own unique emotions and thought processes, the two sides can reach a platform where they can communicate on a level that goes further and deeper than either of the two cultures.
"Once I started making those connections with Japanese people, I fell completely and madly in love with the Japanese culture."
Blackhurst said from that core love of getting to know Japanese people, "everything else about Japan kind of came to (him) in layers."
Blackhurst said the biggest change came after he reached a point where he could have conversations with Japanese people without using English.
"It got me out of an "American mindset" and away from an American way of thinking," he explained.
"Speaking the language dropped me into another culture and it forced me to have to deal with the way another culture thinks, the way another culture feels about certain things. It made me realize that there is not just one way (to live)," said Blackhurst. "Any country that you go to in the world, any culture that you go to in the world, they are going to have their own way of dealing with things -- and that is okay."
Blackhurst said the best way to begin integrating oneself into another culture, Japanese or otherwise, is to make a native friend who can speak English and ask them questions.
"Not somebody necessarily that you can rely on to help you order at lunch or dinner, but somebody who is truly a friend," Blackhurst said.
"Come up with a list of things you want to be able to say. Learn how to say them (in the native language), and have your friends help you say them correctly," Blackhurst said. "Ask them questions, annoy them and bother them, and go out and use the language. Don't be afraid to be embarrassed."
Blackhurst related the process of learning a new language and culture to that of being a musician, dancer or actor.
"Performers in those mediums have to accept, to a certain degree, that they are going to make mistakes. It is how they deal with those mistakes that ultimately determine their success."
Blackhurst said music and the Japanese language are such engaging passions for him, that they inspired his pursuit in a long-term project.
"Japan has a very high suicide rate, especially among teenagers," said Blackhurst. "I have always thought that it would be interesting to use my music to encourage teenagers to find other solutions in their lives that can maybe help them deal with those challenging circumstances in their lives."