My attention was caught recently by a book review of Ghosts of the Tsunami in the TLS by Times correspondent, Richard Lloyd Parry. The book is an account of the Fukushima disaster and its terrible tsunami aftermath, and the review called to mind the words of Lafcadio Hearn on ancestor worship (misnomer for honouring the dead). (For Hearn’s writing on the subject, see here or here.)
Green Shinto has posted several items about the important cultural role ancestor worship plays in the Japanese tradition, helping preserve the sense of collective continuity that gives the people a deep-rooted sense of belonging. For centuries now Western visitors to Japan have been struck by the lack of alienation among the populace (manifest in the West in such social phenomena as graffiti, misfits, riots and drug addiction). Like Lafcadio Hearn, Green Shinto sees ancestor worship as central to Japaneseness.
In the passage below reviewer Gavin Jacobson writes of the way the Japanese of the Tohoku region have dealt with the tragedy that inflicted them…
One of the book’s central themes is the status of spirituality in Japan. Buddhism and Shinto may have little bearing on private and national life there. ‘But over the centuries,’ Parry explains, ‘both have been pressed into the service of the true faith of Japan: the cult of the ancestors.’ The religious scholar Herman Ooms has argued that, ‘It has always made perfect sense in Japan as far back as history goes to treat the dead as more alive than we do.’ Parry describes how, in households that had lost children in the wave, he would be asked if he should like to ‘meet’ the dead sons and daughters:
I would be led to a shrine covered with framed photographs, with toys, favourite drinks and snacks, letters, drawings and school exercise books. One mother commissioned carefully Photoshopped portraits of her children, showing them as they would have been had they lived – a boy who died in primary school smiling proudly in high-school uniform, an eighteen-year-old girl as she should have looked in kimono at her coming-of-age ceremony… every morning, they began the day by talking to their dead children, weeping love and apology, as unselfconsciously as if they were speaking over a long-distance telephone line.
If there is something comforting about this communion with the dead, the idea, as Ooms contends, that death becomes a variant of life, not a negation of it, there is a more unsettling side of this spiritualism. Towards the end of 2011, reports of ghosts began to emerge from the areas affected by the tsunami. These ranged from sightings of lost friends and relatives, uncanny dreams and feelings of unease, to chilling ‘episodes’ of total possession. One of the most interesting characters in Parry’s book is Kaneta, a Buddhist priest from Kurihara, who performed exorcisms on the possessed, such as Takeshi Ono, a local builder who one night began crawling on all fours, snarling at his wife, ‘You must die. You must die. Everyone must die. Everything must die and be lost.’ The wild, menacing nature of these possessions was explained by the concept of gaki: when people die violently suddenly, or in anger, they become ‘hungry ghosts’, trapped in a netherworld of pain, unable to communicate with the living except through terrorising their bodies and souls.
Small wonder then that Lafcadio Hearn, such a devotee of ghost stories, became enamoured of the Japanese folk tradition!