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Ghosts of the Tsunami

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Shadowraith
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« on: October 20, 2014, 08:27:14 pm »

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Even before the tsunami struck its coast, nowhere in Japan was closer to the world of the dead than Tohoku, the northern part of the island of Honshu. In ancient times, it was a notorious frontier realm of barbarians, goblins and bitter cold. For modern Japanese, it remains a remote, marginal, faintly melancholy place, of thick dialects and quaint conservatism, the symbol of a rural tradition that, for city dwellers, is no more than a folk memory. Tohoku has bullet trains and smartphones and all the other 21st-century conveniences, but it also has secret Buddhist cults, a lively literature of supernatural tales and a sisterhood of blind shamanesses who gather once a year at a volcano called Osore-san, or ‘Mt Fear’, the traditional entrance to the underworld.

Masashi Hijikata, the closest thing you could find to a Tohoku nationalist, understood immediately that after the disaster hauntings would follow. ‘We remembered the old ghost stories,’ he said, ‘and we told one another that there would be many new stories like that. Personally, I don’t believe in the existence of spirits, but that’s not the point. If people say they see ghosts, then that’s fine – we can leave it at that.’

Hijikata was born in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, but came to Sendai as a university student, and has the passion of the successful immigrant for his adopted home. When I met him he was running a small publishing company whose books and journals were exclusively on Tohoku subjects. Prominent among his authors was the academic Norio Akasaka, a stern critic of the policies of the central government towards the region. These had been starkly illuminated by the nuclear disaster in Fukushima: an industrial plant erected by Tokyo, supplying electricity to the capital, and now spitting radiation over people who had enjoyed none of its benefits. ‘Before the war, it used to be said that Tohoku provided men as soldiers, women as prostitutes, and rice as tribute,’ Akasaka wrote. ‘I had thought that that kind of colonial situation had changed, but after the disaster I changed my thinking.’

Hijikata explained the politics of ghosts to me, as well as the opportunity and the risk they represented for the people of Tohoku. ‘We realised that so many people were having experiences like this,’ he said, ‘but there were people taking advantage of them. Trying to sell them this and that, telling them: “This will give you relief.”’ He met a woman who had lost her son in the disaster, and who was troubled by a sense of being haunted. She went to the hospital: the doctor gave her anti-depressants. She went to the temple: the priest sold her an amulet, and told her to read the sutras. ‘But all she wanted,’ he said, ‘was to see her son again. There are so many like her. They don’t care if they are ghosts – they want to encounter ghosts.’

‘Given all that, we thought we had to do something. Of course, there are some people who are experiencing trauma, and if your mental health is suffering then you need medical treatment. Other people will rely on the power of religion, and that is their choice. What we do is to create a place where people can accept the fact that they are witnessing the supernatural. We provide an alternative for helping people through the power of literature.’

Hijikata revived a literary form which had flourished in the feudal era: the kaidan, or ‘weird tale’. Kaidankai, or ‘weird tale parties’, had been a popular summer pastime, when the delicious chill imparted by ghost stories served as a form of pre-industrial air conditioning. Hijikata’s kaidankai were held in modern community centres and public halls. They would begin with a reading by one of his authors. Then members of the audience would share experiences of their own: students, housewives, working people, retirees. He organised kaidan-writing competitions, and published the best of them in an anthology. Among the winners was Ayane Suto, whom I met one afternoon at Hijikata’s office.
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