Ghosts on the Shore

August 6, 2018

In Japan, ghost stories are not to be scoffed at, but provide deep insights into the fuzzy boundary between life and death.

It was a moonlit night in early summer, about a year on from the great tsunami. As waves broke gently on a beach half-obscured in fog, Fukuji could just about make out two people walking along: a woman and a man.

Fukuji frowned. The woman was definitely his wife.

He called out her name. She turned, and smiled. Fukuji now saw who the man was, too. He had been in love with Fukuji’s wife before Fukuji had married her. Both had died in the tsunami.

Fukuji’s wife called to him, over her shoulder: ‘I am married now, to this man.’

‘But don’t you love your children?’ Fukuji cried out in reply. His wife paused at that, and began to sob.

Fukuji looked sadly at his feet for a moment, not knowing what more to say. When he looked up, the woman and the man had drifted away.

From Tōno Monogatari or Legends of Tōno (1910) by Kunio Yanagita, author’s translation

This is a true story. Or so the man who wrote it down wanted his readers to believe. Kunio Yanagita was one of Japan’s first folklorists. He collected such tales from the village of Tōno in Japan’s northeastern Tōhoku region, publishing them as the Legends of Tōno in 1910. His hope was to rekindle in the inhabitants of big, modern cities such as Tokyo and Osaka the feel of nature’s mystery and magic – the unknowns of the world – which, Yanagita worried, these people had of late begun to lose, mislaying it amid the noise and smog and reassuring distractions of urban life.

One hundred and one years later, stories much like Fukuji’s were told across Japan. A massive earthquake on 11 March 2011 sent a towering wall of putrid water surging inland from the Tōhoku coast. Television footage filmed from helicopters revealed familiar points of reference suddenly replaced by vast muddy lakes, as the fabric of everyday life – homes, offices, bridges, vehicles – was broken up and sucked out to sea, or else scattered across a new, barely recognisable landscape. People struggled to reach loved ones, first by phone and later by searching through the debris left behind as the waters receded. Some went on looking for weeks, months, even years, as the toll of the dead and missing rose towards 20,000.

Survivors of the disaster soon began seeing and feeling ghostly presences. Men and women dressed in warm clothes at the height of summer, hailing taxis and then disappearing from the back seat. A toy truck, belonging to a young boy killed in the tsunami, pushing itself haltingly around the room. One woman answered her door to a sopping wet stranger, who asked for a change of clothes. She went off to find something. When she came back, a whole host of people were standing there, all of them soaked to the skin.

Here was a new Legends of Tōno in the making. But why would Japan, a country so often associated with a secular, high-tech modernity – the fulfilment of much of what Yanagita had feared – find itself home to all this? Where do Japan’s ghosts come from? And what message do they bring?

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