Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Two Years Later: On Ghosts and Healing

“There are no sects or churches when we are faced with the wreckage of our own homes, and doctrines hold no water before the absurdity of nature.”  –Taiou Kaneda, head priest, Tsudaiji Temple, Miyagi prefecture

I keep coming back to stories like this one.

It seems that a lot of people are seeing ghosts in Tohoku, or feeling the presence of some kind of supernatural evil. And given Japan’s long history of reluctance to talk about or seek help for PTSD and mental illness, many are turning to religion and religious leaders to banish the evil spirits.

The trauma faced by survivors of the tsunami, and the difficulty of dealing with that trauma in a country that shuns psychotherapy, are very real problems, and many would argue that religious ritual cannot do enough to solve them. But in thinking of the way that monsters and ghosts can be human-made manifestations of pain and trauma, I can’t help but think that some people in Tohoku have the right idea.

I don’t believe in “ghosts,” if ghosts are defined as supernatural beings that exist as tangible remnants of the dead. I don’t believe in an afterlife of any kind. But if we can define “ghosts” as traumatic memories, as pieces of history, or as a kind of collective feeling that surrounds the people and places affected by tragedy, then Tohoku is certainly full of ghosts. And such ghosts must be dealt with.

In seeking out  religious leaders and rituals to banish their ghosts and demons, some of the people of Tohoku are seeking relief from pain and grief in the only way they know how. It reminds me of Ibuse Masuji’s Black Rain and its depiction of people’s intense desire for ritual in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Even in the midst of fires and ruins and contaminated rivers, someone had to read the sutras. The rituals gave everyone a sense of normalcy and closure.

I also think of Marilyn Ivy’s writings on Mt. Osore, the sacred mountain on the Shimokita peninsula that has become a spiritual center for those wishing to communicate with the dead, a “powerful site for enactment of allegories of loss,” a place where, through spirit mediums, “the dead can literally be made to speak again.” Certain places in Tohoku are so haunted by grief and traumatic memories that they have also taken on this role. Counseling those who see ghosts, Taiou Kaneda, head priest of Tsudaiji Temple in Miyagi prefecture, says “Many people passed away, so it is natural for you to see their apparitions. Please do not be scared. This can also become an opportunity for you to take a moment and think about life and death for yourself. You should make this a first step towards moving forward in this life.”

I find Kaneda’s words, particularly the part about not being scared of (real or imagined) ghosts, incredibly moving.  Kaneda is working with the Miyagi Prefecture Religious Institution Liaison Council, through which priests, ministers, and monks from different Buddhist and Christian sects are providing telephone counseling services to those in need. What a wonderful thing it is for very different religious organizations to work together to help people heal.

Monsters and ghosts need not be objects of fear. They’ve been created by writers, painters, and everyday people for thousands of years to express the inexpressible. In confronting them we can confront our own fear and pain. Whether the people of Tohoku choose psychotherapy, the chanting of a sutra, or simply private counseling with priests and close friends and family, I hope they are all able to one day make peace with their ghosts.

5 comments on “Two Years Later: On Ghosts and Healing

  1. stephanieclairelay
    May 4, 2013

    Hello 🙂 Your post made for fascinating reading, particularly about the adaptive/functional role of ghosts in the telling of the life stories of the living. I’ve stumbled across your blog while I was following up stories about ghosts in the Tohoku region. Do you know of any published works or other resources about this recent phenomenon? I’m trying to read as much as I can. (I’m also a post-graduate student wrestling with the last stages of a PhD so your blog resonated on more levels than one!)

    Thank you for your time.

  2. gradland
    May 4, 2013

    Thanks Stephanie, and good luck with the PhD! I honestly don’t know of much recent work on ghosts and Tohoku, but I’m sure there’s been some. It’s not exactly academic, but I found that the short story collection “March Was Made of Yarn” dealt a lot with “haunting” in very general terms. For me the go-to text on that subject is still Marilyn Ivy’s Discourses of the Vanishing, though it’s not exactly new.

    Other works that I used in my own diss that aren’t specific to Tohoku but do touch on haunting, ritual, and ghosts, many in a Japanese context: Angela Yiu’s “Okuizumi Hikaru and the Mystery of War Memory,” as well as other essays in the collection Imag(in)ing the War in Japan, John Treat’s Writing Ground Zero, Akira Lippit’s Atomic Light: Shadow Optics, Marilyn Ivy’s “Trauma’s Two Times: Japanese Wars and Postwars,” Gerald Figal’s Civilization and Monsters, and Cathy Caruth’s Trauma: Explorations in Memory.

  3. Cat
    September 1, 2013

    Thank you for this. My area of interest is Japanese ghosts and monsters, and yet I never thought to look at the topic from a post 3.11 view. The trauma of that day isn’t something that’s easy to exorcise.

    But what surprised me even more about your post was the quote from Kaneda-san! We live in the same town, he and his wife are such lovely people!

  4. gradland
    September 1, 2013

    Thanks Cat! Kaneda-san really sounded like an amazing person. And yeah, it’s funny how your research interests can end up being connected with real-life events.

  5. Pingback: Who Owns Aokigahara? | Adventures in (Post) Gradland

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This entry was posted on March 11, 2013 by in Japan and tagged , , , , .
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