Ghosts of the Tsunami
January 30, 2014 6:02 PM   Subscribe

Ghosts of the Tsunami has Richard Lloyd Parry interviewing survivors, priests, people who have seen ghosts, and the possessed in this article about events following the 3.11.11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. From the London Review of Books.
posted by Purposeful Grimace (10 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
This is beautifully conceived and written. Thanks for posting it.

I'd love to hear the perspectives of Japan-based mefites on this.
posted by Rumple at 6:47 PM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

If only people could access these sorts of grief rituals and trained, conscionable people like Reverend Kaneda in their own contexts, U.S. and otherwise. Remember, practice grief rituals, ways, processes. Grief is a sort of trauma.

There is something to be said for the madness of grief, for the myriad and infinite ways in which it can express itself. Some things cannot be explained, and science is at its best when humbled by this knowledge, even as it moves forward.

I liked the distinction made between mental health problems and ... a something else, an ineffable:
'Given all that, we thought we had to do something. Of course, there are some people who are experiencing trauma, and if your mental health is suffering then you need medical treatment. Other people will rely on the power of religion, and that is their choice. What we do is to create a place where people can accept the fact that they are witnessing the supernatural. We provide an alternative for helping people through the power of literature.'
This article is beautifully written, and there were real moments of hair-raising insight, description.
Kaneda reasoned and cajoled, prayed and chanted, and in the end each of the spirits gave way. But days or hours after one group of ghosts had been dismissed, more would stumble forward to take their place. One night in the temple, Rumiko announced: 'There are dogs all around me, it's loud! They are barking so loudly I can't bear it.' Then she said: 'No! I don't want it. I don’t want to be a dog.' Finally she said: 'Give it rice and water to eat. I'm going to let it in.'

'She told us to seize hold of her,' Kaneda said, 'and when the dog entered her it had tremendous power. There were three men holding on to her, but they were not strong enough, and she threw them off. She was scratching the floor and roaring, a deep growl.' Later, after the chanting of the sutra, and the return to her peaceful self, Rumiko recounted the story of the dog. It had been the pet of an old couple who lived close to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. When the radiation began to leak, its owners had fled in panic with all their neighbours. But they forgot to unchain the dog, which slowly died of thirst and hunger. Later, when it was much too late, the spirit of the animal observed men in white protective suits coming in and peering at its shrivelled corpse.
An important read.
posted by simulacra at 7:04 PM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Such a beautiful, evocative piece. Thank you.
posted by rtha at 7:28 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's a tendency to romanticize the "Japanese way of thinking." I'm guilty of it, that's for sure, so I wonder if Richard Lloyd Parry is perhaps taking the accounts of the haunted a little too much at face value...?

On the other hand, Lloyd Parry is a well-respected foreign journalist for his reporting on East Asia. He's no hack or woo woo pedlar.

Perhaps taking the survivor's tales at face value was one way to honour their predicament.

People are obviously living with great psychological shock. It's bad enough to lose a loved on by violence or misadventure, but to lose one's entire family? And entire support network who might have helped you get over your loss? And to see your ancestral community washed off the face of the earth?

On top of that, the survivors of the tsunami are, for the most part, damned, in the most forlorn sense of the word. Tsunami reconstruction money, while reaching the afflicted regions, has also been diverted to Tokyo of all places.

On a brighter note, the last of the rubble has been cleared away, apparently.

Japan is a strange place to live sometimes, hard to figure out for a Westerner. The place is truly "syncretic" in belief.

When my father-in-law died, god bless him, he had to lay in state in the parlour for several days until he could be cremated. Why? We were waiting for him to essentially traverse the Buddhist version of the River Styx and arrive in the afterlife.

While he was dying, my wife and my mother-in-law prayed at the local shrine to the resident god, Isasawake no mikoto (伊奢沙別命).

It wasn't an abstract diety to them, they meant it. The prayers obviously didn't work.

I'm writing this in my mother-in-law's house, the house where my wife grew up. We're back for a visit for a few months. My mother-in-law has placed cups of water throughout the house in various locations for the house spirit. This is something far beyond "Shinto" and is an almost uncategorized form of folk religion, highly local, and only significant to perhaps this neighbourhood.

My wife and I had an annoying friend who said she could see ghosts. While I am rather dubious about her claims, it's not an uncommon thing here in ghostly Japan.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:59 PM on January 30, 2014 [10 favorites]

I wonder what people in Japan are saying about people's experiences in the aftermath of the quake. What it means for those people who are migrants to Japan, ethnically Korean Japanese residents, people who don't believe in haunting, ghosts, possession, any -ities or -isms but still grieve in ways that makes the world look completely different, glassy, opaque, untouchable.

As always, useful to use the scythe of clear seeing and clearing away the debris of romanticism and the other potholes and pitfalls of poorly-done ethnographic writing, and ethnography generally.

Different languages to articulate facets of the same thing. Environmental degradation. Large-scale loss of life.
posted by simulacra at 8:15 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's only "ethnographic" writing if you strap on a pith helmet.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:24 PM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wonderful, evocative, and frightening piece--so much better than I could have imagined it would be, and so close to certain of my own experiences that I hold in a place outside of memory that I think my partner of 25 years is wondering how well she knows me after all, andIhaveaverypeculiarheadache.
posted by jamjam at 9:29 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

This isn't just Japan, it's
Tohoku, the northern part of the island of Honshu. In ancient times, it was a notorious frontier realm of barbarians, goblins and bitter cold. For modern Japanese, it remains a remote, marginal, faintly melancholy place, of thick dialects and quaint conservatism, the symbol of a rural tradition that, for city dwellers, is no more than a folk memory. Tohoku has bullet trains and smartphones and all the other 21st-century conveniences, but it also has secret Buddhist cults, a lively literature of supernatural tales and a sisterhood of blind shamanesses who gather once a year at a volcano called Osore-san, or ‘Mt Fear’, the traditional entrance to the underworld.
Echoing other commenters...
Wonderful, evocative, and frightening piece--so much better than I could have imagined it would be
Such a beautiful, evocative piece
beautifully conceived and written
posted by ohshenandoah at 10:47 PM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by ereshkigal45 at 11:46 PM on January 30, 2014

Very fascinating to read about the spiritual aftermath of the tsunami. If I recall my Ainu history correctly, that part of Honshu was originally Ainu territory before the Yamato (sp?) drove them out and left Hokkaido as the last Ainu hold out. Which to me would explain it's historic sense of alieness to the rest of Japan.
posted by Atreides at 1:25 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

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