It does not have as many temples as Kyoto and Nara, it does not have Mount Fuji and it does not have the hyperurban energy of cities like Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya. Until recently, therefore, Tohoku was not very well-known outside Japan. But everything changed two years ago, when suddenly the whole world became familiar with its name. As you know, the region was hit by an earthquake and a tsunami that killed more than 20,000 people, wiped away entire towns, and caused heavy damage to a nuclear power plant. It was filmed by many, producing impressive footage that was broadcast by TV stations worldwide. The name Tohoku thus became synonymous with suffering and destruction. Until, of course, the next big war, disaster or sports event drew the attention of the mass media, and the world forgot about Tohoku. Journalists happily report about disaster, suffering and crisis, but the difficulties and hard work involved in step-by-step reconstruction processes are much less sensational, and easily ignored.
Most Japanese think Tohoku is far away. The area is associated with remote farming villages, archaic cultural practices and wild nature. In reality, however, the distance between Tokyo and Sendai (the largest city in Tohoku) is less than the distance between Tokyo and Kyoto. If you take the fastest shinkansen (bullet train), you can get there in only one hour and forty minutes. Nevertheless, Tohoku attracts few foreign visitors, as most tourists do not make it further north than Tokyo or nearby Nikko. They miss a lot: Tohoku has some of the most stunning landscapes in the entire country, fascinating religious traditions, and is a great destination for hiking, hot springs and matsuri (festivals).
I had been to Tohoku twice: in 2001 I spent a few days in Iwate prefecture, and in 2006 I went hiking and camping in Akita and Aomori prefectures. Since the disasters of March 2011, however, I had not yet had the opportunity to go back. But if such an unprecedentedly large natural disaster happens when you are doing research on the relationship between Shinto and nature in contemporary Japan, it is hard to ignore it. The question of theodicy – why do we have to suffer – is central to any religion, and Shinto is no exception. If nature is conceptualised as abundant and life-giving, as it is by many Shinto scholars, and the own ritual tradition as a centuries-old expression of gratitude to and harmonious coexistence with nature, expressions of nature’s destructive force such as tsunamis and earthquakes inevitably raise questions. Moreover, several of the organisations I have been studying have been active in fundraising, research or other activities somehow related to Tohoku, so it would only be logical to take these activities into consideration.
In sum, even though it is not exactly the central topic of my dissertation, I did feel that I should pay attention to what has been going on there. Hence my choice to spend a few days in Tohoku on this research trip. However brief the visit, it would give me the opportunity to talk to some people involved in cultural and religious activities, and to see the current shape of the tsunami-hit area with my own eyes.
Sendai Station is very crowded. It is filled with shops and stands selling all kinds of local specialties (meibutsu), from seafood and pickles to rice cake and biscuits. Recently, the number of domestic tourists coming to Tohoku has increased significantly thanks to campaigns by local authorities and Japan Railways, the promotion of various ‘traditional’ local matsuri, the establishment of a large new pan-Tohoku festival, a large Van Gogh exhibition in the museum of Sendai and so on. Apparently, there has also been a lot of economic activity thanks to reconstruction activities, mass volunteerism and government investment. But the money seems to go primarily to urban construction companies, travel companies and hotels, rather than to the remote coastal communities hit most by the disaster. Most people there are still living in prefab temporary housing, and few houses or other buildings have been rebuilt.
In any case, Sendai is a charming city. Some structures have been damaged by the earthquake, and are now being restored, but most buildings have survived – living testimony to the fact that the quality of buildings in Japan has improved significantly since the 1995 Kobe earthquake. The main boulevard, Aoba Dōri, is lined with high trees and wide pavements. Sendai is well-known for its university, Tohoku University, which is one of the most prestigious in the country. Its main campus is built on the site of the former castle of the feudal rulers, and surrounded by green space. A student city, there seem to be more bicycles than cars. The city has several interesting museums, nice restaurants and excellent locally produced saké. In sum, it is not a bad place to spend a couple of days (or longer).
Together with a professor from Tohoku University, who kindly invited me here, I visit the tsunami-hit area. The railroad has been destroyed, and although trains are replaced by buses, they are slow and few in number. The best way to get around, therefore, is by car.
We first visit Ishinomaki. With a population of approximately 150,000, this was by far the biggest of the towns hit by the tsunami, and thousands of people have died here. Reportedly, it is also the place where the most reconstruction activities are going on. We visit an interesting, fairly new shrine on the outskirts of the city, with an unusually young head priest. As it is located on a high place, the shrine did not suffer much damage. But the priest has been active in various community-rebuilding and forest-(re)planting activities, which he kindly tells us about. I also learn some new things about devotional practices in the Tohoku region which I did not know before – apparently, the worship of dragon gods is alive and well, as is the practice of communicating with and transmitting messages from these gods by qualified mediums. Shrine Shinto and shamanistic practices are not necessarily incompatible, it seems. Not anymore at least.
As we leave Ishinomaki and approach Minami-Sanriku, we drive through areas hit hard by the tsunami. Signs above the road indicate how far the water came. Complete villages and towns have been wiped away, literally. Now that most of the debris have been removed, the only thing that remains is empty wasteland. But the scars of the tsunami’s devastating power are visible in the landscape: ruins of bridges, foundations of houses, a few remaining walls. Hardly anything has been rebuilt, and it remains to be seen whether these towns will ever recover. Most survivors live in containers that serve as temporary houses – nobody knows for how long. We have lunch in a shopping area in Minami-Sanriku completely made up of such prefab buildings, before we continue our journey north.
We pass a railway bridge of which only the two central pillars are left; the rest has been destroyed. The railroad may never be rebuilt, as it probably was not profitable in the first place. But without a railroad, the speed of depopulation will only accelerate further. Yet, as the number of potential customers decreases, chances that the railroad will be rebuilt are getting smaller and smaller. It is the vicious circle of rural depopulation in Japan, also visible in other areas – but here, the situation is extreme, due to the sudden destruction brought about by natural disaster. Despite the rhetoric of ‘reconstruction’ and ‘rebirth’ one encounters everywhere in the country, most coastal towns have not been rebuilt. Their communities no longer exist is their former shapes, as many people have died, and many others have left. Those who remain live in their temporary prefab containers, and may have to stay there for years to come. Most of them are elderly people.
We drive through Kesennuma, a former port town, of which a large part has been destroyed. Bulldozers and trucks are driving around, cleaning up the remaining debris and parts of buildings. At some places, old cars, boats and remnants of houses are piled up, several metres high. At other places, only the scars remain. There are a few buildings of which one or two walls are still standing. They look like skeletons, the sole remaining vertical structures in a frighteningly horizontal landscape.
Then we see the ship. It was taken by the tsunami and brought several hundred metres inland, ending up in the middle of what used to be the town. For some reason, it has not been taken away. In fact, it seems to have become a symbol of the tsunami’s destructive force. As we are standing there, several other people stop and take pictures as well. Next to the ship, somebody has planted beautiful flowers, and a bit further a small provisional altar has been erected. The ship may well become some sort of monument; a place of commemoration, not unlike the Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima. But its status is contested. I am told that some people want to ship to stay where it is, as a reminder of what has happened for future generations. Others, however, do not want to be reminded, and want the ship to be taken away. Issues like this can cause friction and divide an already fragmented community, so let us hope a consensus will be found.
Whatever one’s opinion on the ship, it truly is an impressive sight. As we walk from the car to the ship, however, I am perhaps even more shocked by what I see around me: the foundations of houses. Only the lower parts of the walls remain, but you can see where the houses have been, how big they were, where the front door was – in some cases, you can still see the steps leading to the front door. Most floors, however, are gone, and have given way to grass and weeds. I am reminded of Ostia Antica and other excavation sites I have visited – after disaster and destruction, usually only the foundations of buildings remain. These houses, however, were not destroyed two thousand years ago, but only two years ago, which makes walking here quite unlike walking around ruins from antiquity. Destruction is not always a gradual process; it can come overnight, quickly turning human civilisation into ruins. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. It is a depressing thought.
But as we drive further, I see a young woman and child playing in a brand-new playground, laughing together. Another prefab temporary shopping street has been erected, decorated with flowers, covered in bright colours. Humans have one great skill: their capacity to hope. Even in the most difficult circumstances, they are capable of rebuilding their lives, both literally and metaphorically. The importance of hope and optimism should not be underestimated.
On the way to Rikuzentakata, we pass by a huge white building. It looks like a factory, but it is a waste incinerator. This is where the trucks are bringing the waste and debris from the destroyed towns, and where it is processed and burned. Most of the building is hidden behind fences, so from the road we cannot see much of what happens there. Perhaps significantly, everything here – the fences, the building – is white: the colour of ritual purification, traditionally, but also of death.
When we are in Rikuzentakata, we visit Imaizumi Tenmangū, a local shrine that was destroyed almost completely. The only thing remaining is an 800-years old pine tree, the shinboku (sacred tree) of the shrine. It has become a famous sight in Japan. (In fact, as I will be told later, the tree died some time after the tsunami, and the few leaves on its branches are artificial.) The statue of a bull (found at Tenjin shrines throughout the country) is also still here, but it was decapitated by the wave. The shrine buildings have all disappeared.
Despite all this destruction, the priest and her family have displayed a remarkable optimism. They have provided various types of support for community members, engaged in fundraising activities to rebuild the shrine, and set up a project to provide local children with books, toys and a place to play. Called ‘Niji no raiburarii’ (‘Rainbow library’), they have brought a wooden prefab building to the shrine grounds, and turned it into a small yet bright and cosy library. Although the library is mainly targeted at children, it also serves as a community centre, constituting a space where parents and other people from the neighbourhood can meet and share information. We talk to the daughter of the priest, who kindly answers our questions, explaining why it is crucial to have a place like this if you want to bring people together and maintain a sense of community. If you are interested in this project and would like to know more, please have a look at their website (bilingual).
We drive back to Sendai through the beautiful mountains. By the time we reach Ichinoseki, it is already getting dark. Today was quite unlike any day I have ever experienced before. Never before did I witness such destruction; rarely did I have the chance to talk to people living through such a disaster and its aftermath. I am moved, not only by the things I have seen, but also by the stories I have heard. Sometimes, when people are directly confronted with death, they learn to embrace life anew. I do hope that these communities will experience the rebirth they are longing for, and find safety and stability.
Two days later, we visit the town of Yamamoto, south of Sendai. This place has also been hit hard by the tsunami. As we leave the main road and drive through the flat land near the sea, there are hardly any constructions to be seen – except for a broken railroad and a few prefab container buildings. Again, it is hard to imagine that, only a few years ago, there were plenty of houses in this area. We do see lots of trucks, though. They all bring waste from the surrounding areas to some sort of factory near the sea where it is processed – probably similar to the one we saw two days ago. All trucks have large banners saying “Let’s try our best! Yamamoto” – together with a picture of a strawberry and an apple, two local products.
Farmers, incidentally, have also suffered seriously from the tsunami. Not only because of lost harvests and farm buildings, but also because the soil has become salty as a result of the sea water, making it more difficult to grow things. I assume they have also had difficulty selling their products, as many Japanese fear(ed) that products from Tohoku might by contaminated as a result of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. However, there are signs of hope: new rice paddies have been dug, new rice planted, and new glass houses have been constructed for the strawberries. Yamamoto seems to be recovering, however slowly.
The tsunami did not only destroy buildings, landscapes and livelihoods. It also destroyed human lives, suddenly confronting people with death in a way few of them had experienced before. In many ways, modern society has become alienated from death; that is, in the twenty-first century, death is less present in human societies than ever before in history, and is confined to certain designated spaces as far removed from daily life as possible. But all of a sudden, people here have had to find ways to cope with the unexpected death of family members, friends and acquaintances. Of course, all of us are confronted with death sooner or later – but not usually on such a scale, and not usually so many people at once.
One thing I have noticed here in the past couple of days is that there are many new graves scattered around the landscape. Not all of them are the graves of people who died in the tsunami – many are probably family graves that were here before. But what is interesting is that the graves seem to be among the first things that have been rebuilt. While most people still live in their containers, as do some of the Buddhist priests performing funeral rituals for the deceased, many new graves have already been erected. Here in Yamamoto, in the empty, flat land near the sea, there are hardly any buildings. But there is a large graveyard, apparently brand new. The temple taking care of the graves, however, has not yet been rebuilt.
In fact, contrary to what most introductory textbooks on Japanese religion will tell you, it is not only Buddhist temples and priests that help people deal with death. We visit a nearby shrine that has been completely destroyed – all there is now is a small prefab container that serves as shrine office, and an altar were people can pray, in lieu of a shrine building. We have a very interesting conversation with the head priest. She tells us about her experiences as the priest of an ujiko (parish, shrine community) hit hard by the tsunami, about the importance of conducting the annual matsuri – joyous collective celebrations that strengthen the sense of community, and establish some sort of symbolic connection to the ancestral past – and about spiritual care.
Many people in this area, she tells us, say that they can feel the presence of spirits of the death; some even see them. It is important to take these stories seriously in order to help people overcome their suffering; i.e., to talk to people about spiritual issues in a language they can relate to, so that they feel acknowledged. That is arguably more beneficial than calling their experiences symptoms of ‘mental illness’ and sending them to a psychiatrist.
It is not very common to meet a female head priest who talks about spiritual issues. As a matter of fact, the shrine world remains very masculine, even patriarchal. There are female priests, but they usually work in small shrines they took over from their parents, rather than making a career in any of the famous and powerful shrines. Most of these shrines do not employ women to work as priests. Yet, I think, it might be a good thing if there were more female priests in the Shinto world. Perhaps the focus might shift somewhat: away from hierarchical social structures and nationalist symbolism – although these will undoubtedly continue to be part of the Shinto package in one shape or another – towards more attention to pastoral care, community well-being and, who knows, spirituality and non-regulated devotional practices.
The priest of this shrine is not only empathetic, she is also remarkably bright and optimistic. She has to work in a container without electricity or running water, yet she seems happy, laughs and tells jokes. The lovely wooden Edo-period shrine building has been destroyed completely, but she cherishes the one remaining wooden statue – probably a piece of the roof – of a guardian spirit, that was found underneath a pile of debris, a couple of hundred metres away. And although it may take a while before there is a new building, the reconstruction activities have begun: recently, Japan’s most famous ecologist came here to plant trees, and create a new shrine forest together with the community. The young trees are standing around the space of the former shrine building, bringing some green to a grey landscape, bringing some hope to an injured place. In a few decades, they will constitute a lovely small forest.
I will come back to have a look.