In March 2011, over 18,000 Japanese people were swept to their deaths by a devastating tsunami. The initial assessment of those who died, the financial fallout and other collateral effects of this event were tallied, and Japan turned to rebuilding. However their was something that was not measured which were how many of those killed still lingered behind, hungry to reclaim their lives.
In 2014, an article appeared in the London Review of Books that described the unearthly aftermath that came about after this disaster.
The author describes where he met Rev. Kaneda a chief priest at a Zen temple in Kurihara, Japan. It was later in 2011, the priest started to receive requests to exorcise the spirits of people who were possessed by victims who had drowned in the tsunami.
Before this he performed funeral rites for approximately two hundred corpses brought by their family members to the temple. These were people who had lost their homes, livelihood and their loved ones.
Then one day he received a visit from a man named Ono who owned a small building firm. He'd felt the earthquake, but had been spared the destruction of the giant wave, and only saw the devastation through the news.
Ten days later, Ono with his wife and mother went to see the effects firsthand. They arrived in what was known as the "tsunami zone". They were unprepared for the total destruction the saw.
They returned home and ate dinner. He described feeling lonely. The next day he sensed his wife and mother were tense around him. Then they described what he had done after their meal, which he could not recall at all.
He had jumped down on all fours and begun licking the tatami mats and futon, and squirmed on them like a beast. How at first they had nervously laughed at his tomfoolery, but then been silenced when he began snarling: ‘You must die. You must die. Everyone must die. Everything must die and be lost.’ In front of the house was an unsown field, and Ono had run out into it and rolled over and over in the mud, as if he was being tumbled by a wave, shouting: ‘There, over there! They’re all over there – look!’ Then he had stood up and walked out into the field, calling, ‘I’m coming to you. I’m coming over to that side,’ before his wife physically wrestled him back into the house. The writhing and bellowing went on all night until, around five in the morning, Ono cried out, ‘There’s something on top of me,’ collapsed, and fell asleep.
The next day as dusk fell he saw figures walking past his house. People of different ages, all covered in mud. They stared at him, but said nothing. He would sleep heavily for ten minutes, then wake up fully and act unlike himself. "He staggered when he walked, glared at his wife and mother and even waved a knife. ‘Drop dead!’ he would snarl. ‘Everyone else is dead, so die!’"
His family urged him to visit the temple, and after three days he met with Reverend Kaneda. Ono told him about his visit to the coast, but a part of his mind said, “Don’t look at me like that, you bastard. I hate your guts! Why are you looking at me?”’
Ono felt resistant but also desired to be helped. The priest splashed him with holy water, and he felt a return to his normal senses.
Rev. Kaneda explained what happened to him.
‘Ono told me that he’d walked along the beach in that devastated area, eating an ice cream,’ the priest said. ‘He even put up a sign in the car in the windscreen saying ‘disaster relief’, so that no one would stop him. He went there flippantly, without giving it any thought at all. I told him: “You fool. If you go to a place where many people have died, you must go with a feeling of respect. That’s common sense. You have suffered a kind of punishment for what you did. Something got hold of you, perhaps the dead who cannot accept yet that they are dead. They have been trying to express their regret and their resentment through you.
This disaster was the largest loss of life in Japan since Nagasaki in 1945. Rev. Kaneda joined other priest to travel around the coast to meet with survivors. These people spoke about the horror they had experienced, and the pain of losing those they loved. Among these stories they also described encounters with the supernatural. They saw ghosts of strangers, and loved ones. They saw them at home, work and public places. Others also felt the dead trying to take them over.
A young man complained of pressure on his chest at night, as if some creature was straddling him as he slept. A teenage girl spoke of a fearful figure who squatted in her house. A middle-aged man hated to go out in the rain, because the eyes of the dead stared out at him from puddles.
Shinto, Christian and Buddhist priests received numerous calls to lay the spirits.
In Japan it is believed that when a person dies prematurely or due to an act of violence and anger they can become "gaki, hungry ghosts", who are stuck between two worlds. There are rituals to placate them but many surviving family members were not able to perform them, in other cases the entire living family had been wiped out.
Even before the tsunami struck its coast, nowhere in Japan was closer to the world of the dead than 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.
Two years after the disaster the area of Tohoku was in the process of rebuilding. Rubble has been cleared away from the destroyed towns, and only overgrown grass is there. The living were still encountering the unquiet dead, and Kaneda described the following story involving a 25-year-old woman named Rumiko.
She had telephoned him in June in a state of incoherent distress. She talked of killing herself; she shouted about things entering her. That evening, a car pulled up at the temple: Rumiko, her mother, sister and fiancé were inside. She was a nurse from Sendai – ‘a very gentle person’, Kaneda said, ‘nothing peculiar or unusual about her at all’. Neither she, nor her family, had been hurt by the tsunami. But for weeks, her fiancé said, she had been complaining of something pushing into her from a place deep below, of dead presences ‘pouring out’ invisibly around her. Rumiko herself was slumped over the table. She stirred as Kaneda addressed the creature within her. ‘I asked: “Who are you, and what do you want?”’ he said. ‘When it spoke, it didn’t sound like her at all. It talked for three hours.’
The priest went on to exorcise 25 spirits from Rumiko. Most of them turned out to be victims of the tsunami. Some sessions involved not one but three spirits. The process involved speaking to these ghost and listening to their stories. One that spoke through Rumiko was a man that kept calling for his daughter who was attending school when the tsunami struck. He had headed out to pick her up when he was overtaken by the wave.
The voice asked: ‘Am I alive or not?’
The spirits all came to tell their story. One man who survived the disaster committed suicide after learning of the death of his two daughters. The spirits were not only human.
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.’
Eventually Rumiko gained control over the spirits who came to visit her. She married and moved away from the area.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by Marlene Pardo Pellicer