Ghosts from Fukushima

December 12, 2019
Jun'ichi Isomae speaking to audience at Duke

How does a society grapple with its ghosts? Is there a particular quality of Northeastern Japan that lends itself to the appearance and persistence of ghosts? Are the ghosts themselves mere manifestations of individual grief?

These were among the many thought-provoking questions raised by Prof. Jun’ichi Isomae in his December 4 talk at Duke University, “Ghosts From Fukushima,” sponsored by the Global Asia Initiative with support from the Asian/Pacific Studies Institute and Center for International & Global Studies.

Using scenes from the 2016 film Grüsse aus Fukushima as a vehicle, Isomae revealed how individuals who existed at the literal margins of Japanese society are still coping with a massive trauma that disrupted their daily lives and, in many cases, left them displaced and wandering. In this way, even those who had not lost their lives due to the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and associated nuclear disaster at Fukushima, now had to navigate what remained of their lives in a ghost-like state. Isomae noted, as a scholar and witness, “you are a mediator – you provide a voice for those who experienced disaster. You provide the translation of their story.”

One unique coping method that some residents of the village of Otsuchi have adopted is the kaze no denwa – a “wind phone.” It has become a one-way means of communication with lost loved ones. With this disconnected rotary phone in a glass booth overlooking a peaceful landscape, the living can dial the phone numbers of the deceased and share news or other messages that enable them to move on. As Isomae stated, “in order to establish a new way of communication, they need to establish a new way of life.”

As to the question of dealing with ghosts, both on an individual and social basis, Isomae pointed out that the first step is to acknowledge the loss and the corresponding feelings of the living. After all, “if there are no ghosts, it is a trial to listen to their voices and identify individual people.” How can people meet with these ghosts? “They have to be strong, to discipline themselves.” In northeastern Japan, ongoing conflicts within local communities about financial compensation (or the lack thereof) are a reflection of broader social cleavages between the wealthy and those who were left behind by Japan’s economic growth. Rumors of ghosts haunting the Fukushima seashore and surrounding environs are perhaps one way in which those left behind on many levels cope with the darkness of trauma and loss.

For the local residents, as well as for Japan as a whole, resolving these questions is not an end, but a process. All members of society need to find ways to show empathy and sensibility for others’ pain. As Isomae observed, when reckoning with trauma, “Such a place makes some voiceless voices. How to listen to the voices? We are still thinking.”

Jun'ichi Isomae is a Professor of Religious Studies at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken). He received his Ph.D. in religious studies from Tokyo University. Previously, he was a visiting professor and research fellow at Tübingen University, the University of Zurich, Ruhr University Bochum, SOAS, and Harvard University.