On the east coast of Japan, in the small town of Otsuchi, on a hill overlooking the Pacific, a 70 year old man named Itaru Sasaki has installed an unusual garden feature – a phone booth.
Like the ones Clark Kent used to use when he was in hurry to save Metropolis. Or the old fashioned red phone boxes you still sometimes see in the UK. Only Sasaki-san’s isn’t red. It’s white with a green roof.
He installed it, along with an old disconnected rotary-dial black phone, to help him deal with the grief he felt at the passing of a beloved cousin. He has cultivated the habit of regularly retreating to the booth, picking up the receiver, and talking to his departed relative.
This might just be a quaint little provincial story, except for the remarkable role Sasaki-san’s phone booth has played in helping a nation come to terms with one of its greatest natural disasters.
We all remember the horrific images of the relentlessly rising black wave that engulfed much of the north east coast of Japan after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake. Those images, plus the news that the tsunami had caused meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima nuclear power plant, dominated our news broadcasts at the time. As did the tally of nearly 16,000 deaths and 2,500 people missing.
Soon, though, the grieving friends and relatives of those lost in the tsunami heard about Itaru Sasaki’s phone box and started showing up at his garden. Thousands of them. At last estimate it was over 10,000 people. They’ve all solemnly entered the phone booth, picked up the receiver and spoken to their deceased or missing loved ones.
They started calling it kaze no denwa – the ‘wind phone’. They believed their precious words to their relatives were being carried to them on the wind.
You can hear Miki Meek’s heartbreaking account of the role the wind phone has played in addressing Japan’s grief on This American Life. But prepare yourself before listening. It’s profoundly sad.
One family, whose members have never spoken to each other about their grief, cram into the booth and talk to their dead father, sharing their sadness for the first time in the five years since he was swept away from them.
Some grieving callers simply report on daily occurrences.
Others tell the dead they hope they’re warm and well fed.
A teenager asks her father what happened to his promise to buy her a violin.
A widow reports to her husband that she’s carrying on the best she can.
One man, who lost his whole family, reports that he’s rebuilt their home, but confesses none of it has any meaning to him anymore.
Some grief-stricken people even tenderly ring their dead relative’s phone number on the clunky old rotary dial.
Meek explains it all by referring to Japanese social etiquette and the way their Buddhist beliefs frame their understanding of death and the afterlife. But I still found myself wondering, how do modern-day Japanese people suspend disbelief by lifting that black telephone receiver? They know their relatives can’t hear them.
Why does one of the most educated, sophisticated and secular societies on the planet embrace the wind phone so enthusiastically?
Sometimes we just have to admit that not everything that’s beautiful and meaningful and profound and brings healing has to make sense. It can’t all be explained rationally. Indeed, very few of the most heartfelt and important truths we hold can really be proven.
I don’t think we live in some Hegelian universe where all of reality can be and will be made comprehensible at some point. Some of the most lovely things are ultimately inscrutable. And their being not fully knowable is what makes them so evocative. We have to be able to embrace rationality in a way that leaves room for experience, metaphor, myth, analogy, and ritual. Focusing solely on rational causes-and-effects rather than purpose ultimately renders the universe meaningless.
I’m certain that a future is breaking in on us at God’s initiative rather than our planning, and that the most profound response we can make to God – repentance – and the most meaningful thing God offers us – forgiveness – defy all normal laws of cause and effect.
I carry with me the most profound sense that my father’s role in my life has shaped me, for better or worse, into the man I’ve become. But I can’t prove that as fact.
I believe every good and noble act I perform will have some lasting effect into the world to come. But I can’t prove that either.
I’m pretty sure Terrence Malick is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived, but I’ve got no definitive proof for that one as well.
I cry every time I listen to Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor or Tom Waits’ Kentucky Avenue, but there’s no rational reason why.
I sense the presence of God in the Rothko Room at the Tate Modern. And Durham Cathedral. And Muir Woods. And on the rim of the Great Rift Valley.
I believe God hears my prayers, and graces me every time I take Communion. Even though I don’t always sense it.
Ultimately, I agree with Augustine who wrote, “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”