Japanese Celebrate The Dead Amid A Town's Ruins

Apr 18, 2011
Originally published on April 18, 2011 11:39 pm

The Japanese seaside town of Rikuzentakata is home to a tiny temple called Kongoji. It's perched on a hillside and is one of the few structures still intact after last month's earthquake and tsunami.

Rikuzentakata was so flattened that it's hard to imagine life continuing here at all. Surveying the whole city, you can see maybe 10 buildings that are still standing. And yet, on a recent day, the sound of drums came from the hillside temple.

Celebrations to honor the dead might be commonplace in the United States, but in Japan they are unusual. Especially now, with the country in self-preservation and conservation mode.

But a recent ceremony in Rikuzentakata featured men dressed in colorful robes re-enacting a dragonlike god blessing local rice cakes and sake. It's a ritual normally reserved for a harvest-time offering to the gods. But organizers say this performance was a requiem: Fifteen people died and eight are still missing from the neighborhood at the foot of this hill.

The offering was followed by a long, silent prayer. Then a troupe of young men wearing wooden masks performed an acrobatic, traditional dance.

Older residents in the audience wept, moved by the idea that they were not just carrying on — but carrying on age-old traditions.

'I Can't Tell Whether I'm Happy Or Sad'

Volunteers from around the country brought their bounty. Residents feasted on stews, grilled fish and fried noodles. They grew cherry-faced, knocking back plenty of beer and sake from a famous local company that the ocean washed away.

There are those who are critical of anything that looks or smells like a party when the country is still in mourning. Particularly anything reminiscent of a cherry blossom festival, which typically involves drinking to excess. And the novelty of ceremony — juxtaposed with total desolation — drew Japanese television crews and newspaper reporters.

Indeed, survivors like Takeko Kono say they didn't know how to feel.

"I can't tell whether I'm happy or sad to be here," she said. "My house is right there. Right there. I lost my daughter, so I came here looking for photos. But I didn't find anything. I just found these old bills."

Moving Forward

Naoshi Sato is the muse behind this event. The 77-year-old Sato lives on the waterlogged second floor of his house. He had mentioned holding an event to honor the dead, and that made its way onto the Internet.

Sato himself looks tired and soiled. But he still likes to crack dry, off-color jokes. He tells those gathered he loves them like his grandchildren ... or wives ... or lovers.

Every day, they have to move ahead, he says. One small step every day, patiently and steadily.

Sato is a logger. The tsunami washed away his chain saw, and the next day he ordered a new one. After all, he says, there are more than 500 houses in his neighborhood that need to be rebuilt.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This week, NPR's Yuki Noguchi happened to be there. She was drawn to the spot after hearing the sound of drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAGULLS)

YUKI NOGUCHI: Rikuzentakata is so flattened it's hard to imagine life continuing here at all. Surveying the whole city, you can see maybe 10 buildings that are still standing. And yet, overlooking the city, we start to hear the sound of drums coming from the hillside.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

NOGUCHI: Celebrations like these honoring the dead might be commonplace in the U.S., but in Japan, it's unusual, especially now, since the country's been in self-preservation and conservation mode.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NOGUCHI: The offering was followed by a long, silent prayer. Then a troupe of young men wearing wooden masks performed an acrobatic, traditional dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NOGUCHI: Indeed, survivors like Takeko Kono didn't know how to feel.

TAKEKO KONO: (Through Translator) I can't tell whether I'm happy or sad to be here. My house is right there. Right there. I lost my daughter, so I came here looking for photos. But I didn't find anything. I just found these old bills.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

NOGUCHI: Naoshi Sato is the muse behind this event.

NAOSHI SATO: (Foreign language spoken)

NOGUCHI: Sato himself looks tired and soiled, but he still likes to crack dry, off-color jokes. He tells those gathered he loves them like his grandchildren or wives or lovers.

SATO: (Foreign language spoken)

NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Rikuzentakata, Japan.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.