SENDAI – A young woman who lost her father during the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami is one of many people who continue to speak about mysterious experiences they have had involving lost relatives and other loved ones.
About 10 days after the quake, Ayane Suto, 28, went to a public bathhouse near where she took shelter from her house in Sendai, and on collecting her shoes again from her locker when leaving, unexpectedly found a white flower in one of them.
At that time, her father, Tsutomu, 54, who was listed as missing in her Miyagi hometown of Kesennuma after the disaster, was still unaccounted for. His body was found several days later.
When Suto returned to Kesennuma, she saw that the same white flowers had been laid on his body in preparation for his funeral.
She wrote a short essay about this experience and entered it for a ghost story contest held by publisher Araemishi in Sendai at the end of the year. It won first prize.
Suto then began to talk about the experience in newspaper and television interviews.
“I don’t believe in the souls of the dead, but I feel as if those who listen to my experience add their own prayers whenever I talk about it,” she said.
In August 2013, Hiroki Sano, a director at NHK, produced a television program featuring Suto and three other people who said they had “reunion” experiences with family members killed in the earthquake and tsunami.
Sano was one of the first NHK reporters to arrive in the devastated region. About six months later, he began to hear from local people directly and indirectly about some of these enigmatic stories.
“They talked about reunions with the dead as important experiences,” Sano recalled. “I decided to report on what was happening in the disaster areas by covering these stories.”
Some of those who lost loved ones felt as though time had stopped after the disaster hit but restarted once they had “reunited” with the deceased relatives.
“The dead are caring for their bereaved families,” a doctor offering psychological support in the region said.
NHK received many positive messages about the program.
“These so-called ghost experiences may be effective as a means of sharing grief,” said Hara Takahashi, associate professor of religion at Tohoku University, referring to the desire to encounter the spirits of those lost.
But there are also people who said they had met unknown ghosts or the spirits of those they wanted to avoid.
Takahashi and his colleagues conducted a survey in Miyagi of religious people, including Buddhist and Shinto priests, on the advice they offer to those who have experienced psychic phenomena.
Of the 273 respondents, 111 said they were asked for advice by people who claimed they were being haunted. Some 76 percent said they “listen fully” to such people, while 65 percent said they conduct religious and spiritual rituals to exorcise ghosts or other spiritual entities from people or areas believed to be possessed.
Even Buddhist priests who do not believe in ghosts as a matter of doctrine listen to people talk about these phenomena and conduct religious services for them, Takahashi said.
Religious people “accept psychic phenomena as expressions of anxiety and offer psychological support,” he added.