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Tsunami's Ghosts Haunt Japanese Earthquake Survivors


It's been a little more than three years since the biggest earthquake in Japan's history, a quake that caused an unforgettable tsunami that killed some 20,000 people.

But the earthquake also had quieter consequences that didn't make headlines. In the London Review of Books, Richard Lloyd Parry investigates a peculiar phenomenon revealed in the aftermath of the storm. His piece is called "Ghosts of the Tsunami."

RICHARD LLOYD PARRY: People reported neighbors - neighbors who died in the tsunami - appearing at their houses and coming and sitting down in puddles of water.

MARTIN: Parry has lived in Japan for 18 years and has known it to be a mostly secular culture. In global polls, Japan ranks as one of the least religious countries in the world.

PARRY: But there's a bit more to it than that. I mean I'd got used to seeing, in the homes of friends, these little altars you find to the family ancestors. And I'd always assumed they were nothing much more than a quaint piece of interior decoration. But I realized in following this story and returning to the tsunami zone, that actually the religion of the ancestors is alive and well and very strong.

MARTIN: Parry's story focuses on Buddhist priest, Reverend Taio Kaneda. His temple was 30 miles away from the coastline. Soon after the tsunami, Kaneda had people coming to him with bodies they wanted him to bury. He could sense they had bottled up their pain. So he lent them a sympathetic ear.

PARRY: People's grief and loss and anguish came out. And what also came out after a few months were stories of ghosts and hauntings and supernatural events to the extent that it almost seemed like an epidemic.

MARTIN: And how were these episodes, these apparitions connected to the tsunami?

PARRY: They were mainly ghosts of people who had died in the tsunami. For a lot of people, it was simply strange and disturbing or sometimes comforting dreams about their lost loved ones. Other people who hadn't experienced loss saw spooky figures on the beach. There was one man who hated to go out because he saw eyes of people in puddles. But then Reverend Kaneda also had a couple of even stranger cases of people who actually seemed to be possessed by spirits of people who died in the tsunami.

MARTIN: One such person is a man named Takashi Ono(ph). Can you tell us his story?

PARRY: Yes. Takashi Ono is not his real name, but he didn't want to be identified by his real name. He was a man, a very nice, ordinary kind of man who lived in the same town as Reverend Kaneda. The tsunami was miles away. He became aware that it was pretty bad after a week or so, and he decided to go down and have a look. And he drove down to the beach, was appalled by what he saw there. He'd had no idea the devastation was so bad. But he came back that evening, sat down for dinner with his family, had his tea, a can of beer and then began rolling around on the ground making animal noises, running out into the field behind his house rolling in the mud, to the horror of his wife and his mother. He woke up the next day not knowing anything about this. And this continued for three days. He was talking in a strange guttural way, threatening violence, talking about the dead. His family were beside themselves and they eventually persuaded him to go to the priest who recited the Buddhist sutras and drove out these spirits, and he felt a lot better soon after that.

MARTIN: This is what this priest ended up doing for these people. He ended up doing exorcisms?

PARRY: He did. He did. It's remarkable. He's a very well-educated man. He's the kind of intellectual Buddhist who doesn't insist on dogmatic religious beliefs. I'm not sure that (technical difficulties) literally these stories of possession. But people who were experiencing them, for them, it was certainly as real as the kind of stories you see on a horror film.

MARTIN: So, it wasn't that he always believed that a certain person may have been possessed by a ghost or a supernatural force? He just saw people who were in pain.

PARRY: He never said to me that he didn't believe them. I asked him about it once and he said it doesn't matter whether ghosts really exist or not. He said what matters is that people believe in them. These experiences are real. So, he never, you know, he never said to people pull yourself together. You're not really possessed. You're just, I think, sad. You know, that's the view I take too. It doesn't really matter whether you believe in ghosts. What's real is the suffering and the pain.

MARTIN: As an expatriate living in Japan, what did you learn through this story?

PARRY: I hadn't realized how real and alive the cult of the ancestors and the cult of the dead is. I mean, just an example, Mr. Ono, I asked him towards the end of our interview, so, you know, do you think of yourself as religious? And he said no, no, no, I'm not religious. For him to have described himself as religious would have seemed pretentious to him. So, it depends on how you define religious. The other thing I learned is something I should have known anyway, but that grief and trauma express themselves often very indirectly. You can talk to people and visit communities, which on the face of it seem to be fine, but the pain can be either very raw, very awful, such as these stories.

MARTIN: Richard Lloyd Parry is the Asia editor of the Times of London. He joined us from his home in Tokyo. Thank you so much for sharing your reporting, Richard.

PARRY: Thank you, Rachel.


MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.