Tag Archives: Japan

A Lonely Death: The Extreme Isolation of Japan’s Elderly

Takashimadaira housing complex in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Katsumi Kasahara)

With a population of 127 million, Japan has the most rapidly aging society on the planet. As Norimitsu Onishi reports at The New York Times, elderly individuals often live in extreme isolation, albeit only a few feet from neighbors on all sides, “trapped in a demographic crucible of increasing age and declining births.” Their fate? A “lonely death” where their body may remain undiscovered in their small government apartment for days (or even years) because family is distant both physically and emotionally, and friends have all long since passed away.

The first time it happened, or at least the first time it drew national attention, the corpse of a 69-year-old man living near Mrs. Ito had been lying on the floor for three years, without anyone noticing his absence. His monthly rent and utilities had been withdrawn automatically from his bank account. Finally, after his savings were depleted in 2000, the authorities came to the apartment and found his skeleton near the kitchen, its flesh picked clean by maggots and beetles, just a few feet away from his next-door neighbors.

Mrs. Ito, age 91, lives alone in a small government apartment built back in the 1960s for up-and-coming salary men.

She had been lonely every day for the past quarter of a century, she said, ever since her daughter and husband had died of cancer, three months apart. Mrs. Ito still had a stepdaughter, but they had grown apart over the decades, exchanging New Year’s cards or occasional greetings on holidays.

So Mrs. Ito asked a neighbor in the opposite building for a favor. Could she, once a day, look across the greenery separating their apartments and gaze up at Mrs. Ito’s window?

Every evening around 6 p.m., before retiring for the night, Mrs. Ito closed the paper screen in the window. Then in the morning, after her alarm woke her at 5:40 a.m., she slid the screen back open.

“If it’s closed,” Mrs. Ito told her neighbor, “it means I’ve died.”

Mrs. Ito felt reassured when the neighbor agreed, so she began sending the woman gifts of pears every summer to occasionally glance her way.

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The Ghosts of the Tsunami

Illustration by Dadu Shin

Richard Lloyd Parry | Ghosts of the Tsunami | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | October 2017 | 19 minutes (5,224 words)

I met a priest in northern Japan who exorcised the spirits of people who had drowned in the tsunami. The ghosts did not appear in large numbers until autumn of that year, but Reverend Kaneta’s first case of possession came to him after less than a fortnight. He was the chief priest at a Zen temple in the inland town of Kurihara. The earthquake on March 11 was the most violent that he or anyone he knew had ever experienced. The great wooden beams of the temple’s halls had flexed and groaned with the strain. Power, water, and telephone lines were fractured for days; deprived of electricity, people in Kurihara, thirty miles from the coast, had a dimmer idea of what was going on there than television viewers on the other side of the world. But it became clear enough when first a handful of families, and then a mass of them, began arriving at Reverend Kaneta’s temple with corpses to bury.

More than eighteen thousand people had died at a stroke. In the space of a month, Reverend Kaneta performed funeral services for two hundred of them. More appalling than the scale of death was the spectacle of the bereaved survivors. “They cry,” Kaneta said. “There was no emotion at all. The loss was so profound, and death had come so suddenly. They understood the facts of their situation individually — that they had lost their homes, lost their livelihoods, and lost their families. They understood each piece, but they couldn’t see it as a whole, and they couldn’t understand what they should do, or sometimes even where they were. I couldn’t really talk to them, to be honest. All I could do was stay with them, and read the sutras and conduct the ceremonies. That was the thing I could do.”

Amid this numbness and horror, Reverend Kaneta received a visit from a man he knew, a local builder whom I will call Takeshi Ono.

***

Ono was ashamed of what had happened, and didn’t want his real name to be published. It was difficult at first to understand the reason for this shame. He was a strong, stocky man in his late thirties, the kind of man most comfortable in blue overalls, with a head of youthfully dense and tousled hair. “He’s such an innocent person,” Reverend Kaneta said to me. “He takes everything at face value. You’re from England, aren’t you? He’s like your Mr. Bean.” I wouldn’t have gone so far because there was nothing ridiculous about Ono. But there was a dreamy ingenuousness about him, which made the story he told all the more believable.

He had been at work on a house when the earthquake struck. He clung to the ground for as long as it lasted; even his truck shook as if it was about to topple over. The drive home, along roads without traffic lights, was alarming, but the physical damage was remarkably slight: a few telegraph poles lolling at an angle, toppled garden walls. As the owner of a small building firm, he was perfectly equipped to deal with the practical inconveniences inflicted by the earthquake. Ono spent the next few days busying himself with camping stoves, generators, and jerrycans, and paying little attention to the news.

But once television was restored, it was impossible to be unaware of what had happened. Ono watched the endlessly replayed image of the explosive plume above the nuclear reactor, and the mobile-phone films of the black wave crunching up ports, houses, shopping centers, cars, and human figures. These were places he had known all his life, fishing towns and beaches just over the hills, an hour’s drive away. And the spectacle of their destruction produced in Ono a sensation of glassy detachment, a feeling common at that time, even among those most directly stricken by displacement and bereavement.

“My life had returned to normal,” he told me. “I had gasoline, I had an electricity generator, no one I knew was dead or hurt. I hadn’t seen the tsunami myself, not with my own eyes, so I felt as if I was in a kind of dream.”

Ten days after the disaster, Ono, his wife, and his widowed mother drove over the mountains to see for themselves.

They left in the morning in good spirits, stopped on the way to go shopping, and reached the coast in time for lunch. For most of the way, the scene was familiar: brown rice fields, villages of wood and tile, bridges over wide, slow rivers. Once they had climbed into the hills, they passed more and more emergency vehicles, not only those of the police and fire services, but the green trucks of the Self-Defense Forces. As the road descended towards the coast, their jaunty mood began to evaporate. Suddenly, before they understood where they were, they had entered the tsunami zone.

There was no advance warning, no marginal area of incremental damage. The wave had come in with full force, spent itself, and stopped at a point as clearly defined as the reach of a high tide. Above it, nothing had been touched; below it, everything was changed.

This was the point at which shame entered Ono’s narrative, and he became reluctant to describe in detail what he did or where he went. “I saw the rubble, I saw the sea,” he said. “I saw buildings damaged by the tsunami. It wasn’t just the things themselves, but the atmosphere. It was a place I used to go so often. It was such a shock to see it. And all the police and soldiers there. It’s difficult to describe. It felt dangerous. My first thought was that this is terrible. My next feeling was ‘Is it real?’”

***

Ono, his wife, and his mother sat down for dinner as usual that evening. He remembered that he drank two small cans of beer with the meal. Afterward, and for no obvious reason, he began calling friends on his mobile phone. “I’d just ring and say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ — that kind of thing,” he told me. “It wasn’t that I had much to say. I don’t know why, but I was starting to feel very lonely.”

His wife had already left the house when he woke the next morning. Ono had no particular work of his own and passed an idle day at home. His mother bustled in and out, but she seemed mysteriously upset, even angry. When his wife returned from her office, she was similarly tense.

“Is something wrong?” Ono asked.

“I’m divorcing you!” she replied.

“Divorce? But why? Why?”

And so his wife and mother described the events of the night before, after the round of needy phone calls. How Ono had jumped down onto 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 had 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.

“My wife and my mother were so anxious and upset,” he said. “Of course, I told them how sorry I was. But I had no memory of what I did or why.”

It went on for three nights.

The next evening, as darkness fell, he saw figures walking past the house: parents and children, a group of young friends, a grandfather and a child. “The people were covered in mud,” he said. “They were no more than twenty feet away, and they stared at me, but I wasn’t afraid. I just thought, ‘Why are they in those muddy things? Why don’t they change their clothes? Perhaps their washing machine’s broken.’ They were like people I might have known once or seen before somewhere. The scene was flickering, like a film. But I felt perfectly normal, and I thought that they were just ordinary people.”

The next day, Ono was lethargic and inert. At night, he would lie down, sleep heavily for ten minutes, then wake up as lively and refreshed as if eight hours had passed. 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!”

After three days of pleading by his family, he went to Reverend Kaneta at the temple. “His eyes were dull,” Kaneta said. “Like a person with depression after taking their medication. I knew at a glance that something was wrong.” Ono recounted the visit to the coast, and his wife and mother described his behavior in the days since. “The Reverend was looking hard at me as I spoke,” Ono said, “and in part of my mind, I was saying, ‘Don’t look at me like that, you bastard. I hate your guts! Why are you looking at me?’”

Kaneta took Ono by the hand and led him, tottering, into the main hall of the temple. “He told me to sit down. I was not myself. I still remember that strong feeling of resistance. But part of me was also relieved — I wanted to be helped and to believe in the priest. The part of me that was still me wanted to be saved.”

Kaneta beat the temple drum as he chanted the Heart Sutra:

There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue,
no body, mind; no color, sound, or smell;
no taste, no touch, no thing; no realm of sight,
no realm of thoughts; no ignorance, no end
to ignorance; no old age and no death;
no end to age and death; no suffering,
nor any cause of suffering, nor end
to suffering, no path, no wisdom
and no fulfillment.

Ono’s wife told him later how he pressed his hands together in prayer and how, as the priest’s recitation continued, they rose high above his head as if being pulled from above.

gone gone gone beyond
gone altogether beyond
O what an awakening
— all hail!

The priest splashed him with holy water, and then abruptly Ono returned to his senses and found himself with wet hair and shirt, filled with a sensation of tranquility and release. “My head was light,” he said. “In a moment, the thing that had been there had gone. I felt fine physically, but my nose was blocked as if I’d come down with a heavy cold.”

Kaneta spoke sternly to him; both understood what had happened. “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 against the windshield 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 like that 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.’” Kaneta suddenly smiled as he remembered it. “Mr. Bean!” he said indulgently. “He’s so innocent and open. That’s another reason why they were able to possess him.”

Ono recognized all of this and more. It was not just the spirits of men and women that had possessed him, he saw now, but also animals — cats and dogs and other beasts that had drowned with their masters.

He thanked the priest and drove home. His nose was streaming as if with catarrh, but what came out was not mucus, but a pink jelly-like nothing he had seen before.

The wave penetrated no more than a few miles inland, but over the hills in Kurihara it transformed the life of Reverend Taio Kaneta. He had inherited the temple from his father, and the task of dealing with the survivors of the tsunami tested him in ways for which he was unprepared. It had been the greatest disaster of postwar Japan. And yet the pain did not announce itself; it dug underground and burrowed deep. Once the immediate emergency had abated, once the bodies were cremated, the memorial services held, and the homeless sheltered, Reverend Kaneta set about trying to gain entry into the dungeon of silence in which he saw so many of the survivors languishing.

He began traveling around the coast with a group of fellow priests, organizing a mobile event that he called “Café de Monku” — a bilingual pun. As well as being the Japanese pronunciation of the English word “monk,” monku means “complaint.” “We think it will take a long time to get back to a calm, quiet, ordinary life,” read the flyer that he distributed. “Why don’t you come and join us — take a break and have a little moan? The monks will listen to your complaint — and have a monku of their own too.”

Under this pretext — a casual cup of tea and a friendly chat — people came to the temples and community centers where Café de Monku was held. Many were living in “temporary residences,” the grim prefabricated huts, freezing in winter and sweltering in summer, where those who could afford nothing better ended up. The priests listened sympathetically and made a point of not asking too many questions. “People don’t like to cry,” said Kaneta. “They see it as selfish. Among those who are living in the temporary homes, there’s hardly anyone who has not lost a member of their family. Everyone’s in the same boat, so they don’t like to seem self-indulgent. But when they start talking, and when you listen to them, and sense their gritted teeth and their suffering, all the suffering they can’t and won’t express, in time the tears come, and they flow without end.”

Haltingly, apologetically, then with increasing fluency, the survivors spoke of the terror of the wave, the pain of bereavement, and their fears for the future. They also talked about encounters with the supernatural.

They described sightings of ghostly strangers, friends and neighbors, and dead loved ones. They reported hauntings at home, at work, in offices and public places, on the beaches and in the ruined towns. The experiences ranged from eerie dreams and feelings of vague unease to cases, like that of Takeshi Ono, of outright possession.

It was not just the spirits of men and women that had possessed him, but also animals — cats and dogs and other beasts that had drowned with their masters.

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 of the eyes of the dead, which stared out at him from puddles.

A civil servant in Soma visited a devastated stretch of coast and saw a solitary woman in a scarlet dress far from the nearest road or house, with no means of transport in sight. When he looked for her again, she had disappeared.

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

A taxi in the city of Sendai picked up a sad-faced man who asked to be taken to an address that no longer existed. Halfway through the journey, the driver looked into his mirror to see that the rear seat was empty. He drove on anyway, stopped in front of the leveled foundations of a destroyed house, and politely opened the door to allow the invisible passenger out at his former home.

At a refugee community in Onagawa, an old neighbor would appear in the living rooms of the temporary houses 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 had sat was wet with seawater.

Such stories came from all over the devastated area. Priests — Christian and Shinto, as well as Buddhist — found themselves called on repeatedly to quell unhappy spirits. A Buddhist monk wrote an article in a learned journal about “the ghost problem,” and academics at Tohoku University began to catalog the stories. In Kyoto, the matter was debated at a scholarly symposium.

“Religious people all argue about whether these are really the spirits of the dead,” Kaneta told me. “I don’t get into it, because what matters is that people are seeing them, and in these circumstances, after this disaster, it is perfectly natural. So many died, and all at once. At home, at work, at school — the wave came in and they were gone. The dead had no time to prepare themselves. The people left behind had no time to say goodbye. Those who lost their families, and those who died — they have strong feelings of attachment. The dead are attached to the living, and those who have lost them are attached to the dead. It’s inevitable that there are ghosts.”

He said: “So many people are having these experiences. It’s impossible to identify who and where they all are. But there are countless such people, and their number is going to increase. And all we do is treat the symptoms.”

When opinion polls put the question “How religious are you?,” Japanese rank among the most ungodly people in the world. It took a catastrophe for me to understand how misleading this self-assessment is. It is true that the organized religions, Buddhism and Shinto, have little influence on private or national life. But over the centuries both have been pressed into the service of the true faith of Japan: the cult of the ancestors.

I knew about the household altars, or butsudan, which are still seen in most homes and on which the memorial tablets of dead ancestors — the ihai — are displayed. The butsudan are cabinets of lacquer and gilt, with openwork carvings of flowers and trees; the ihai are upright tablets of black lacquered wood, vertically inscribed in gold. Offerings of flowers, incense, food, fruit, and drinks are placed before them; at the summer Festival of the Dead, families light lanterns to welcome home the ancestral spirits. I had taken these picturesque practices to be matters of symbolism and custom, attended to in the same way that people in the West will participate in a Christian funeral without any literal belief in the words of the liturgy. But in Japan spiritual beliefs are regarded less as expressions of faith than as simple common sense, so lightly and casually worn that it is easy to miss them altogether. “The dead are not as dead there as they are in our own society,” wrote the religious scholar Herman Ooms. “It has always made perfect sense in Japan as far back as history goes to treat the dead as more alive than we do . . . even to the extent that death becomes a variant, not a negation of life.”

At the heart of ancestor worship is a contract. The food, drink, prayers, and rituals offered by their descendants gratify the dead, who in turn bestow good fortune on the living. Families vary in how seriously they take these ceremonies, but even for the unobservant, the dead play a continuing part in domestic life. For much of the time, their status is something like that of beloved, deaf, and slightly batty old folk who cannot expect to be at the center of the family, but who are made to feel included on important occasions. Young people who have passed important entrance examinations, gotten a job, or made a good marriage kneel before the butsudan to report their success. Victory or defeat in an important legal case, for example, is shared with the ancestors in the same way.

When grief is raw, the presence of the deceased is overwhelming. In households that had lost children in the tsunami, it became routine, after half an hour of tea and chat, to be asked if I would like to “meet” the dead sons and daughters. I would be led to a shrine covered with framed photographs, with toys, favorite drinks and snacks, letters, drawings, and school exercise books. One mother commissioned carefully Photoshopped portraits of her children, showing them as they would have been had they lived — a boy who died in elementary school smiling proudly in high-school uniform, an eighteen-year-old girl as she should have looked in kimono at her coming-of-age ceremony. Another decked the altar with makeup and acrylic fingernails that her daughter would have worn if she had lived to become a teenager. Here, every morning, they began the day by talking to their dead children, weeping love and apology, as unselfconsciously as if they were speaking over a long-distance telephone line.

The tsunami did appalling violence to the religion of the ancestors.

Along with walls, roofs, and people, the water carried away household altars, memorial tablets, and family photographs. Cemetery vaults were ripped open by the wave, and the bones of the dead scattered. Temples were destroyed, along with memorial books, listing the names of ancestors over generations. “The memorial tablets — it’s difficult to exaggerate their importance,” Yozo Taniyama, a priest friend of Kaneta’s, told me. “When there’s a fire or an earthquake, the ihai are the first thing that many people will save, before money or documents. I think that people died in the tsunami because they went home for the ihai. It’s life, the life of the ancestors. It’s like saving your late father’s life.”

When people die violently or prematurely, in anger or anguish, they are at risk of becoming gaki: “hungry ghosts,” who wander between worlds, propagating curses and mischief. There are rituals for placating unhappy spirits, but in the aftermath of the disaster, few families were in a position to perform these. And then there were those ancestors who lost all their living descendants to the wave. Their well-being in the afterlife depended entirely on the reverence of living families, which was permanently and irrevocably cut off: their situation was as helpless as that of orphaned children.

Tsunamis anywhere destroy property and kill the living, but in Japan they inflict a third kind of injury, unique and invisible, on the dead. At a stroke, thousands of spirits had passed from life to death; countless others were cut loose from their moorings in the afterlife. How could they all be cared for? Who was to honor the compact between the living and the dead? In such circumstances, how could there fail to be a swarm of ghosts?

It was in the summer after the tsunami that Naomi Hiratsuka began to speak to her dead daughter, Koharu. At first, and unlike most people she knew, she had hesitated. Shamanism, and varieties of mediumship, were deeply established in Tohoku, and many of the bereaved were turning to those who practiced them. Naomi had her doubts about the existence of such gifts, but above all she detested the way in which some people, especially in the media, treated the subject, in an effort to squeeze spooky entertainment out of tragedy. She had been especially sickened by an article in a Japanese magazine about teenagers daring one another to make nighttime visits to the site of Okawa Elementary School, in the hope of encountering its ghosts.

But the search for Koharu and the other missing children was going so badly, bogged down both in the literal mud and in a morass of bureaucratic complication. Naomi was in close touch with the police unit, which was carrying out its own search, and got to know its commanders. One day they made a suggestion that surprised her at the time — that if she knew of any mediums or psychics who had advice to offer, particularly about specific places to direct the search, she should pass it on.

A friend introduced her to a young man in his twenties who was known to have the ability to see and hear the dead. Recently, people said, he had heard a voice in a dense bamboo thicket by the Fuji lake — and when it was searched, bones were indeed found, and identified as the remains of a missing woman. Naomi arranged to meet the young psychic late one evening at the ruin of the school. It was the summer festival of Tanabata, the star festival, when people hang trees with handwritten poems and prayers, and with delicate paper decorations: streamers, purses, birds, dolls. They walked side by side in the humid darkness, between the shell of the school and the hill behind it. At a small shrine on the hill, Naomi tied decorations of her own around the bamboo and prayed for Koharu’s return. It was a hot, windless night, but the colored paper danced and shivered strangely in the motionless air. “It is the children who are moving the decorations,” the psychic said. “They are delighted with them.”

They walked past a long line of rubble, roughly heaped up into great mounds. Hundreds of people had died in this small area. It was possible that bodies were still contained within the heaps. The psychic said, “I can hear a voice. I think it is the voice of a woman, not a child.” And Naomi, straining, also heard it, although too faintly for the words to be distinguishable. “It was just an ordinary voice,” she said. “It sounded as if she was having an ordinary conversation. But when I looked around, there was nobody there.”

Naomi said, “I didn’t used to believe in such things, and I’d never had an experience like that before. But having lived through the disaster, having been through what I had, perhaps it’s quite natural that I would hear such a voice.”

She spent a lot of time with the young man. They walked together for hours through the wide environs of the school — around the Fuji lake, and as far in the other direction as the Nagatsuura lagoon. He gave Naomi a crystal on a length of cord, which she would hold suspended over a large-scale map in the hope of divining Koharu’s whereabouts. She told the police about the voice she had heard at the rubble mounds, and they were thoroughly sifted. But no human remains were found.

During their long walks, the young psychic would describe to Naomi the invisible scene surrounding them. One might have expected a consoling picture of life after death, but the vision he described was appalling. Naomi compared it to a famous Japanese horror film, Ring, which itself drew on the hell imagery of medieval art. “He said that there were pale figures like the ghosts in that film, many, many of them crawling on the ground. Some of them were stuck in the water, covered in mud, and swallowing the dirty water in terrible suffering. Some of them were trapped and trying to get out. But he couldn’t tell which of them were the spirits of people who had already been found, and which of them were those like my daughter, who were still missing.”

Naomi began to seek out other means of reaching the dead. The introductions were easily made — many of the Okawa mothers were consulting one psychic or another. Having started out a skeptic, she found herself holding conversations with Koharu herself.

The medium, whose name was Sumi, ran a small coffee shop in the city. Sometimes Naomi and Shinichiro went to see her in person; sometimes Koharu’s utterances were conveyed over the telephone, and even by e-mail and text message. But Naomi was quickly persuaded of their authenticity. Sumi conveyed so perfectly the tone and character of the Koharu that her family remembered — the chattiness, bossiness, and sweetness of a girl about to become a teenager. Through Sumi, Koharu dictated a detailed list of presents that were to be given in her name to members of the family — a particular kind of drawing pad and pencils for her brother, a pink bag for her little sister. She instructed Naomi to serve the family with powdered green-tea sweets, which she had always loved. But apart from the convincing childishness, there was an unexpected maturity in much of what she said, which might have been that of the medium, but which seemed at times to be the authority acquired by those, even in their young years, who have passed through death.

Koharu asked in detail about the well-being of her family, especially her siblings, and showed great concern about her mother’s career. “She seemed to think that Sae, the baby, would be okay,” Naomi said. “But she wanted me to give a lot more attention to Toma, who was older. And she told me to finish my maternity leave and go back to work. All of this helped, it helped us so much to carry on with an ordinary life, even after death. It was so welcome.”

What neither the medium nor the spirit ever seemed able to say was the thing Naomi most wanted to know: the resting place of Koharu, or her bodily remnant. “Sumi told us that finding the remains is not everything. She said, ‘You might think that the kids want their parents to find them, that they are desperate to go back home. But they are already home. They are already in a very good place. And the more you bury yourselves in the search, the more desperate you will become.’”

Naomi’s friend Miho visited another medium and drew the deepest consolation from her conversations with her missing daughter, Hana. “It was just like talking to her,” Miho said. “It was just as if Hana was standing there, at my side. She said that she was in heaven and that she was very happy. The woman knew all about our daily life, how Hana talked, the kinds of expressions she used. If she said that she was suffering, if she’d been crying for help, and saying, ‘Mum, get me out of here!’ I wouldn’t have been able to bear it. But the words I heard always made me feel calmer.”

Sometimes the messages from the dead contradicted one another. One of the first things Hana told her mother, Miho, was that she should not harbor any blame or resentment towards the teachers at the school. “The teachers are crying in heaven, and that is hard for us,” she said through the medium. “They are suffering, and watching them makes us children feel sad.” But another psychic, at another time, told Miho the opposite: that the children were bitter and angry towards the teachers for letting them die so needlessly, for failing to lead them to the obvious places of safety and survival.

* * *

From Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry. Published by MCD / Farrar, Straus and Giroux. © 2017 by Richard Lloyd Parry. 

The Dream of a Perfect Android

A robot produced by Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories on display at the Science Museum in London. (Ben Stansall /AFP/Getty Images)

Hiroshi Ishi­guro has spent a lifetime in pursuit of the perfect robot. He has modeled his creations on those closest to him — his wife, his child, himself — but he admits to feeling lonely while surrounded by his family, both human and inhuman. At Wired, Alex Mar unravels the depths of Ishi­guro’s passion for robots, and what he means when he tries to make them lifelike. However, Mar finds that after a lifetime of considering what it means to be human, Ishi­guro may not truly understand the basics of human interaction himself.

He has spent a lot of time talking to himself through his androids, testing them, imagining their effect on other ­people. Hiroshi (who by now has asked me to call him by his first name) tells me he’d like to record himself saying “I love you” and then program an android to repeat it back to him in a female voice. He is kidding when he says this—but maybe it’s another of his half-jokes. At the very least, he believes the need for such an exchange exists. It would be, he says, “a real conversation.” A conversation with himself.

“A conversation is a kind of illusion,” he says. “I don’t know what is going on in your brain. All I can know is what I’m thinking. Always I am asking questions to myself, but through conversations.” Over the years of operating his androids, communicating through them or with them, he has found that he isn’t really concerned about the other person’s thoughts. “Always I am thinking of myself. I need to understand your intention, but it is not a priority. Before that, I want to make clear something in my brain. Otherwise, what is the motivation to talk?”

In other words, he can only imagine using conversation with others as a means to better understand himself—and nothing is more pressing than that. He turns to the conversation the two of us are having. “We don’t know how much information we are sharing,” he tells me. “I am always guessing, and you are always guessing, and through our conversation patterns, we can believe that we exchange information. But I cannot access your brain directly.

“What is ‘connection’?” he asks. “Other person is just a mirror.”

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On Identity, Miyazaki, and Japanese Bathhouses

Still from Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away

There are countless things to love in Hayao Miyazaki’s body of work — from the lushness of the drawing to the subtle ways in which his films reference and comment on earlier literary texts. What I admire the most, though, is the way his movies typically revolve around a crossing of a threshold between worlds — and how these worlds resist any easy binary split. There’s cruelty and kindness, beauty and horror, reality and fantasy in both. Characters have to make tough ethical decisions and work hard (often through grueling physical labor) before they find any semblance of harmony within (and between) the worlds they occupy.

In her Catapult essay on growing up as a mixed-race child in the U.S. and Japan, Nina Coomes finds inspiration in Miyazaki’s films to come to terms with her own personal narrative — one that resists clear-cut definitions and predictable plot twists just as the stories of the young girls at the center of movies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or Spirited Away. Chihiro, the protagonist of the latter, spends the bulk of the movie in a labyrinthine, monster-and-spirit-frequented bathhouse. In a powerful sequence in her essay, Coomes recounts her own experiences as a kid in Japanese bathhouses, and how her visits there, both before and after her family had moved to the U.S., highlighted her growing doubts about where she belonged and who she truly was.

Born significantly underweight, I had always been a long, spindly child. A bundle of elbows and knees, I was constantly tripping, hitting my head, ambling about like a colt learning to walk. I was, by American standards, painfully thin. By Japanese standards I looked identical to my peers. I knew this because of our annual school trip to the bathhouse, where we would all gather around the steaming tub, our bodies present and accountable, held in front of all—all of us with our skin thinning at the ribs, each vertebrae visibly poking out of our backs. It didn’t matter that I had an American father, or that we spoke a hodgepodge English-Japanese pidgin at home; standing at the bathhouse with my peers, I retained a steadfast assurance in my place among the other children, my bodily equality.

After her move to Chicago — a threshold crossed — things get complicated.

That summer, I frequented bathhouses similar to those in Spirited Away with my mother and sister. One day I stood under a showerhead, rinsing my body of dirt and grime before entering the bath, and noticed that the arc of my stomach was jutting softly from my sternum. I had never seen my stomach before, not from this vantage point, with my chin tucked and hair wet. I had always been concave, a pocket of negative space ballooning between my ribcage and hips. To see my stomach take up space was new and strange. As I stared, water ran into my eyes and questions churned in my head: What was I becoming? Was I becoming an American? Was I not Japanese anymore? Had I ever been Japanese?

A steady, fluttering shame took root in my chest, and I was reminded of the ambiguous existence Chihiro entered into when eating the food of the spirit world. By eating the food of a foreign land, I had lost the ability to recognize my own body.

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Scarred by a Rubber Doll

Row of life-like dolls in Japan
Human Cloning in Japan by Danny Choo via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The original piece is a lot to digest. It’s a delicate look at Japanese men who claim they’ve found true love with life-like dolls. But there’s a back story, too. On CorrespondentAlastair Himmer and Tokyo photo chief Behrouz Mehri talk about how they were affected by their work on this story.

You don’t expect to be emotionally scarred by a lifestyle story — and certainly not by a rubber doll. It seemed like such a good idea at the time: write a story that takes a look at the lives of Japanese men and their silicone lovers. I’m AFP’s lifestyle and sports correspondent in Japan and if this wasn’t a lifestyle story, I don’t know what was. I admit that I have previously had odd experiences doing my job. I once ran off the set of a porn shoot. But that was child’s play compared to sex dolls.

But poor Behrouz. He hadn’t been exposed to something like that before. I feel awful about what I did to the Tokyo photo chief. But you have to understand my perspective. It took me nine months to set up this story. You don’t just approach someone on the street and ask them “Can we photograph you and your sex doll.” You make contacts, you get to know the people, you develop trust. I didn’t want to blow all those efforts with some hackneyed, tabloid-style guffaw at Japanese men who go on dates with lifesize dummies. So when Behrouz asked me to ask one of the men, Senji Nakajima, if he could spend the night at his place for the story, I spat coffee all over my shirt. But I asked and Senji agreed and Behrouz went.

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Haruki Murakami’s Advice to Young Writers

Photo by Ole Jensen / Getty Images

International best-seller Haruki Murakami has a new short story collection out, entitled Men Without Women. To celebrate, here is an excerpt from his essay “So What Shall I Write About?” published in the Japanese literary magazine Monkey Business. In it, Murakami muses on what it takes to become a novelist by analyzing his own methods and experience, and he gives us a glimpse into his creative process. Although Murakami has published numerous essay collections in Japanese, little of his short nonfiction is available in English. This essay was translated by Ted Goosesen, and it, and this issue of Monkey Business, are a treat.

We are─or at least I am─equipped with this expansive mental chest of drawers. Each drawer is packed with memories, or information. There are big drawers and small ones. A few have secret compartments, where information can be hidden. When I am writing, I can open them, extract the material I need and add it to my story. Their numbers are countless, but when I am focused on my writing I know without thinking exactly which drawer holds what and can immediately put my hands on what I am looking for. Memories I could never recall otherwise come naturally to me. It’s a great feeling to enter into this elastic, unrestrained state, as if my imagination had pulled free from my thinking mind to function as an autonomous, independent entity. Needless to say, for a novelist like me the information stored in my “chest” is a rich and irreplaceable resource.

…Remember that scene in Steven Spielberg’s film E.T. where E.T. assembles a transmitting device from the junk he pulls out of his garage? There’s an umbrella, a floor lamp, pots and pans, a record player─it’s been a long time since I saw the movie, so I can’t recall everything, but he manages to throw all those household items together in such a way that the contraption works well enough to communicate with his home planet thousands of light years away. I got a big kick out of that scene when I saw it in a movie theater, but it strikes me now that putting together a good novel is much the same thing. The key component is not the quality of the materials─what’s needed is magic. If that magic is present, the most basic daily matters and the plainest language can be turned into a device of surprising sophistication.

First and foremost, though, is what’s packed away in your garage. Magic can’t work if your garage is empty. You’ve got to stash away a lot of junk to use if and when E.T. comes calling!

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Yes, We Do Have Bananas Today (For the Bargain Price of $17)

two perfect watermelons on pedestals at japan's famed sembikiya fruit store
Behold, the $45 watermelon at Sembikiya. (Photo by Jen Leonard via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0).

For Roads & Kingdoms, Bianca Bosker explores the world of high-end Japanese fruit: $500 strawberries and $27,000 melons. The epicenter of the luxury-fruit business is Sembikiya, the Bergdorf Goodman of fruit markets.

When I arrive in the marble lobby of the high-rise to which I’d been directed, I pass back and forth in front of what appears to be a jewelry store before finally realizing it is Sembikiya. Dark, polished wood and sheer curtains line the walls, and sparkling chandeliers shaped like exploding snowflakes twinkle overhead. Glass display cases hold meticulous rows of fruit tended by prim women in starched black uniforms and berets ready to share anecdotes about the sweetness of the pears ($19 each), or Sekai-ichi apples ($24 each). Middle-aged women with Chanel bags and teased up-dos inspect plump, jade-colored Seto grapes swaddled in crisp white paper, while their husbands admire the altarlike case of muskmelons at the center of the floor, each one perched on its own wooden box lined with mint-colored paper ($125 each).

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On Mastery: Learning Kyudo — One of Japan’s Oldest and Most Respected Martial Arts

Photo by Vladimer Shioshvili (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Leigh Ann Henion was drawn to archery by her grandfather’s passion for it. She travels to Japan to improve her archery skills by learning Kyudo — a form of archery that is one of Japan’s oldest martial arts. In her short yet intense course, sensei Kazuhisa Miyasaka helps her realize that achievement with the bow and arrow comes only after mastering one’s mind.

We have not talked about the fact that, when our grandfathers were alive, our nations and families were adversaries. Or that when I asked him to introduce kyudo in just a handful of days, I was making an impossible request. But we both knew.

Miyasaka touches my arm, tightening my actions like the precise folds of origami. My projectiles hit sand, nearer and nearer the target. Until. Twack. I pierce paper. The target is so far away I’d need binoculars to see exactly where my arrow rests.

I’ve achieved an obvious goal. But my release felt no more important than my stance, this arrow no more special than the one sent before it. I arrived in Japan hoping to understand why hitting a target isn’t the most important part of this tradition. Now, I know the closest I’ll come is the realization that it doesn’t matter to me whether I hit.

When I hear the target rip again, from a second arrow, I realize that I had not been listening for it.

Miyasaka has been recording my final day with a video camera. He turns my attention to a flat-screen television, which seems out of place in front of the chalkboard where he sketches feather patterns. When he pushes play, I see a woman I do not recognize. She moves through the stages of kyudo form with deceptive ease. At one point, she closes her eyes.

When I see the pale cocoons of my eyelids, I think to myself: Seriously? I remember none of it.

Miyasaka looks out at the target and says, “You did that yourself. You have real skill now.”

But the sound of my target-slaying was not one of accomplishment.

It was a signal that, as long as I’m alive, I will not be done.

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Themed for Success

The theme cafe is one of the more viral-friendly aspects of Wacky Random Japan, and there are three major subcategories within it. First, and perhaps the most popular theme cafe export, are the animal cafes, most of which are less cafes than indoor petting zoos. The beverages are an afterthought, and an awkward one at that — it’s actually pretty hard to sip your Hitachino Nest Ale, the owl logo pointed out toward the camera, when you have an actual owl on your shoulder, no matter how on-brand. Second are theme restaurants, which are full-service restaurants where the decor, the menu, and the servers’ outfits all revolve around a certain aesthetic, and usually a pretty mall-goth one at that: the Vampire Café, the Prison Restaurant, the (many) Alice in Wonderland cafes. Lastly, there are the maid cafes and their descendants, including the butler cafes and the Macho Café pop-up, where the servers — and their, uh, service — are the stars.

The frivolity and almost willful pointlessness might seem like a leftover from the ’80s bubble era, but the contemporary theme cafe continues the lineage of Western-style cafes that emerged in the 1920s. After “modern” hangouts with names like “Café Printemps” had established themselves in Tokyo among the intellectuals and artists, they began to diversify for a growing middle class; “Europe” was the original theme of Japanese cafes, but once Western-style eateries became more of a norm, new establishments had to step it up. “Rather than small eating and drinking places with tables set with white tablecloths and Parisian or provincial German decor,” writes Elise K. Tipton, a professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Sydney, “the leading cafés became huge multistoried buildings glittering with neon lights, colored glass windows, light-reflective metallic surfaces, and rich furnishings.”

At Eater, journalist Emily Yoshida hits some of Tokyo’s absurd, popular tourist attractions trying to understand specifically what themed destinations offer and why they’re so popular. Her answer? I don’t remember. I got stuck on the part about the owl selfie.

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How the Blues Conquered Tokyo

I couldn’t quite figure out why Japanese listeners had come to appreciate and savor the blues in the way that they seemed to—lavishly, devotedly. Blues is still an outlier genre in Japan, but it’s revered, topical, present. I’d spent my first couple of days in Tokyo hungrily trawling the city’s many excellent record stores, marveling at the stock. I had shuffled into the nine-story Tower Records in Shibuya (NO MUSIC NO LIFE, a giant sign on its exterior read), past a K-pop band called CLC, an abbreviation for Crystal Clear—seven very-young-looking women in matching outfits, limply performing a synchronized dance, waving their slender arms back and forth before a hypnotized crowd—and ridden an elevator to a floor housing more shrink-wrapped blues CDs than I have ever seen gathered in a single place of retail. I had been to a tiny, quiet bar—JBS, or Jazz, Blues, and Soul—with floor-to-ceiling shelves housing owner Kobayashi Kazuhiro’s eleven thousand LPs, from which he studiously selected each evening’s soundtrack. I had seen more than one person wearing a Sonny Boy Williamson t-shirt. I had heard about audiophiles installing their own utility poles to get “more electricity” straight from the grid to power elaborate sound systems. What I didn’t know was what about this music made sense in Japan—how and why it had come to occupy the collective imagination, what it could offer.

– In Oxford American, journalist Amanda Petrusich listens to a Mississippi Blues musician perform in a Tokyo club and tries to figure out why American Blues has a particular resonance with for so many in Japan.

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