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Dealing with ghosts in Japan’s disaster zone

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Garry Welch/Released. Used under license from Google Images (noncommercial reuse with modification / cropped from original)
Two large boats sit in a destroyed neighborhood in Aichi, Japan after the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Horrible things relentlessly surround us this year: mass shootings and wars of various sizes and revulsion, an earthquake in Mexico, more hurricanes than we can keep straight, Oakland's Ghost Ship fire, the shockingly destructive North Bay fires.

Who needs to manufacture fake Halloween frights, such as ghosts?

Maybe that’s our safety switch: ghosts are scary, but they’re not real. But Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone, by Richard Lloyd Parry, may give you a different perspective.

Parry’s book title is somewhat misleading, since only one chapter is about ghosts. (They do appear elsewhere, as ghosts will do.) Parry’s book is really a reporter’s six-year examination of an elementary school in northeastern Japan that was destroyed by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the heartbreaking aftermath of this one slice of devastation.

People possessed by spirits of the dead call on religious representatives —Shinto, Christian, and Buddhist alike — looking for relief.

A man says he hears his lost children crying in his dreams. “They never leave my dreams,” he says. But others do seem to have left the dream world and slipped into our realm.

“A fire station ... received calls to places where all the houses had been destroyed by the tsunami,” Parry recounts. “The crews went out to the ruins anyway, prayed for the spirits of those who had died — and the ghostly calls ceased.”

The author tells of physical evidence, too. An old neighbor would show up in various temporary shelters “and sit down for a cup of tea with their startled occupants. No one had the heart to tell her that she was dead; the cushion on which she sat was wet with sea water.”

What explains these otherworldly events? Survivors and families of America’s Twin Towers disaster have not reported mass spirit visitations, nor have people in hurricane zones. Why do they seem to occur so frequently in Japan?

Parry references surveys showing the Japanese to have little interest in religion. But the tradition of ancestor worship is strong, and may provide a clue.

The tsunami not only killed the living, it also destroyed the intermediate state between life and death. Tibetans call this space the “Bardo.” The Catholic Church used to refer to a longer period of waiting as “Limbo.” But without their tombs or shrines, or their living relatives, who is left to remember the dearly departed? Who will honor their past existence? Is this the reason for Japan’s tsunami ghosts?

The priests say reason doesn’t matter here. “What matters: people see them.”

Parry quotes a Japanese author as saying, “When people see ghosts, they are telling a story, a story that has been broken off. They dream of ghosts because then the story carries on, or comes to a conclusion. And if that brings them comfort, that’s a good thing.”

One more thought: with ancestor worship, “The dead are not as dead” in Japan.