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HOW I CHANGED MY MIND ~ Nine Years after Fukushima, March 11, 2020

All my life I’ve been playing “catch-up” to the major issues of the day. I find out about events that shook the world months or even years after they occurred. I remember learning details about the Kennedy assassination, apartheid horrors in South Africa, the sufferings inflicted by the Cultural Revolution in China and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, from movies made years after the fact. At that great remove, I piece together bits of information, and the ramifications -- what facets of the modern world owe their existence to these events.

One of these was the triple disaster -- earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown -- in northeast Japan, on and after March 11, 2011. The area is still struggling to recover from that awful day nine years ago. In a way, we all are. Thanks to video cameras and social media, this disaster was publicized quickly, and the world learned about it soon, with help pouring in from all sides. The physical realities of the disasters were immediately evident; the psychological traumas behind them were slower to come to the surface.

I remember that day and hour. I was sitting in my tea class at the local town hall around 3:30 pm when I suddenly felt a wave of nausea that I couldn’t account for. It passed in seconds, and the class was over less than an hour later. We were passing the office when footage of the tsunami appeared on the TV set. We stared in horror at the black water, covered with burning houses and debris, as it swallowed up pristine fields and semicircular greenhouses. We returned home in a daze, to continue watching one heartrending TV story after another: offices shaken up in the earthquake, devastating damage to the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant, a nighttime view of a refinery afire. We in the Kansai had not even felt the quake, but we knew already that Japan would be suffering from this triple disaster for a long time to come.

A few weeks later, at a local temple meeting, I asked the priest what the Buddhist community was doing about the disaster. (I had heard several tales of Christian priests who dropped everything and dashed up to the Fukushima coast, plunging headlong into the relief effort.) The priest told me that they were sending a delegation up to Fukushima to pray for the dead. I remember feeling frustrated and even contemptuous. The dead! What about the living? Were members of our sect doing anything to help them?

The nine years since the disaster have been extremely busy ones for me. I have published books, held shows of my art work, and seen my sons married and grandchildren born. All that time those people in Fukushima have been trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. And the struggle continues.

A book I read recently showed me just how shallow my judgment about the Buddhist priests had been and how important their disaster relief effort actually was. The book was Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry. The lives lost in the disaster were not just those who died on the day itself, although that was a huge number. No, what was also lost was the sense of continuity, when ancestral homes (just like mine) were irretrievably washed away, taking with them the family altars and tablets dedicated to the deceased members of the households.

The survivors lost the occupants of the household altars, the ancestors who had been remembered in ritual and story. In a traditional Japanese family, they aren’t “worshipped”. They are simply still there, in some form, observing the living family, available to provide advice or comfort or strength as necessary. In my own house, when we have big construction projects and reorganizations under way, my husband spends hours sitting in front of the family altar, telling the ancestors what is happening, and listening for advice. These people, who have gone before, aren’t just dead members of the family -- they still have a role to play. It’s because of their efforts in days gone by that the house is still standing. They deserve to be in on things, and thus are always told of important events in the family. It’s a very different mindset from that of the West.

In the space of a day in Fukushima, the homes were gone, and with them the family altars. The local temples, too, were destroyed, along with family registers dating back centuries -- gone in an instant. No wonder it is taking these people, the survivors who escaped with their mere physical lives, so many years to “move on”. People who live in modern urban centers, who don’t have that kind of continuity in their lives on a daily basis, could not possibly understand. Rootlessness is terribly painful to those who have always been rooted.

I finally realized that disaster relief isn’t only about money and goods -- it isn’t even only about psychological counseling (which was sadly lacking in Fukushima in the weeks after the disaster). It’s about understanding. I should have realized how these people felt about their dead, and what a necessary service the priests were performing, because I have lived for over 30 years in a very similar community. If this had happened in our village, the survivors would have wandered around in a daze for weeks, trying to come to terms with the fact that everything that kept them rooted to this particular plot of land was gone -- just gone, never to return. Those who were left alive would have been the real “ghosts of the tsunami”.

The few priests and temples left standing in the Fukushima area were, of course, overwhelmed both with funeral ceremonies for the newly dead and with requests to bring peace to the long deceased, who had lost their roots just as the survivors lost theirs. No wonder priests all over Japan, considering how to help, would conclude that that was the best way.

So I changed my mind about the hasty judgment I had brought down on those priests who in 2011 decided to go up and “pray for the dead”. I see now that it was a lack of understanding that led to my lack of compassion. I hope the bad energy of my judgment didn’t cause too much extra suffering. I did what I could in those days, as most people did. What I should have realized was that there are many ways to help, some of which don’t seem to make sense at first glance to the rest of us.

The priests were needed, to comfort the bewildered newly dead, the uprooted ancestors, and of course the survivors themselves. A triple task of comforting, to match the triple disaster. I hope everyone eventually got what they needed.

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Mar 22, 2020

Thanks for sharing your awakening to a different point of view. I wondered about the meaning of rituals, which seemed to me at first to be rather meaningless. The example, which provided me with a new and meaningful insight, was Shichi-Go-San which we did for our children. When we were sitting in front of the kamisama, I really felt that it was an empty ritual. What did it mean to be sitting there all dressed up, being purified and having my daughter's name being read along with all of the other children? When we did it for my son four years later, my understanding had changed. We were together as a family, we were setting aside a special day to…


Beautifully written Becky. I'm often a little "late to the party" too! March 11 was my mother's birthday. I remember that day well trying, together with my father, to cheer her up in the nursing home which she hated so much. It was a couple of days before I realised what had happened in Fukushima. (Mum passed three months later.)


I think I might have had the same initial reaction had I heard that 9 years ago. Your explanation makes a lot of sense. This connection with the ancestors is something I can observe from the outside but never share. My own parents chose to have no grave and their ashes were scattered with those of many others in a rose garden. I'm also just an onlooker when we visit the grave of my in-laws which was made relatively recently after they moved to the city. I sense that for many in the city the observances have become more perfunctory but you describe really well what it means in 'rooted' communities. Rootlessness by losing that connection is something that has…


Claire Youmans
Claire Youmans
Mar 11, 2020

This is lovely. It's a seismic shift from the western way of thinking to the eastern -- and you write those so very well.


Nice piece, Rebecca. Remembering that awful day still brings tears.

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