Unsolved Mysteries: Tsunami Spirits

Devastation in the wake of one of the largest earthquakes and tsunamis in Ishinomaki in 2011. Creative Commons photo.

Spoilers ahead, if you haven’t seen the episode!

The fourth episode of volume two of Netflix’s re-imagining of Unsolved Mysteries is, “Tsunami Spirits.” This episode is about the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan on March 11, 2011, killing 20,000 people. Debris wasn’t the only thing left in the wake of the storm: Various residents said they experienced and encountered spirits in the wake of the disaster.

Again, for those lacking in geography skills (again, pointing to myself), the earthquake and resulting tsunami predominately hit Ishinomaki, the city on Japan’s Honshu mainland, inundating 15 percent of the city.

Mother Nature is worth pausing on because it genuinely blows my mind that such things exist, and that sadly, human beings can be in the path of something like this. According to Wikipedia, it was the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world since modern record keeping began dating back to 1900 with a 9.1 magnitude. Since record keeping began, two of the five worst earthquakes have occurred in the 21st century, that one, and the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, which was also 9.1 (up to 9.3). On the tsunami front, the waves reached as high as 133 feet and were traveling at 435 miles per hour. My goodness. Since this happened in 2011, we have pretty good footage of a lot of the earthquake, and it’s terrifying. I couldn’t imagine. And that’s just the earthquake part! Then when the videos show the waves crashing over the highway and ships, whew. That’s hard to watch. Mother Nature is no joke.

The fascinating juxtaposition here is that those who live in the city talk about the rivers and ocean as the source of their wealth, but also, obviously, it was also the source of great destruction and disturbance.

Teuro Konno, the Ishinomaki city employee, describes his experience being caught up, and thankfully surviving the tsunami, and it sounds like getting caught in a rip current, where it disorients and overpowers you, to where you’re not sure what’s up or down, as Konno said, but also, at the same time as that’s going on, there’s all kinds of debris swirling around the water, too, because the tsunami is taking everything with it. That’s why a good number of people died from blunt force trauma.

“I thought I was going to die. I saw the faces of my wife and children,” Konno said.

The next day, after surviving, he found out 54 of his coworkers died. I can’t even begin to imagine the depth of that loss and the surreal horror of coming to the realization of what happened, and that you were lucky enough to survive.

I actually got chills when Taio Kaneta, 26th-generation reverend at the Tsudai temple, said, after all of that, which so far sounds horrifying, it started to snow. What a weird, tragic, horrifying day. And you might think, well, snow isn’t so bad compared to an earthquake and a tsunami, but when you have survivors, as Kaneta said, drenched in water being snowed on now? Goodness.

Taio Kaneta, 26th-generation reverend at the Tsudai temple.

“I was completely defeated. Why is nature being so cruel, so merciless, to people who are already suffering?” Kaneta said.

From the episode description, we know Mother Nature, or her sister, supernatural, wasn’t done yet.

I mean, how do you even begin to clean up after something like this? To search for survivors? More than 2,500 people are considered missing after the tsunami. For example of what that tragically looks like, Kazuya Sasaki, who survived, found his daughters in a bamboo forest. He also lost his wife. Wow. If there’s any solace to be found there, it’s at least he found their bodies amid everything, but wow.

On top of everything, they couldn’t have funerals because they didn’t have enough power and electricity, and had to do mass graves, then later dig the graves up to do cremations, as is custom there. It’s one thing after another here.

Shuji Okuno, journalist and author of Stay Near Me, is the one who comes to the area a few months after the earthquake and tsunami and begins documenting the supernatural stories.

An interesting cultural difference Kiyoshi Kanebishi, a professor of sociology at Tōhoku Gakuin University in Sendai, brought up, is that unlike in American culture, the culture in Japan is to not seek out grief counseling for fear of forgetting the deceased. That itself is wrapped up in a different understanding of death. In Japanese culture, death is seen more as walking through a thin veil and still being almost quasi-present, whereas in American culture, when you’re dead, you’re dead (even if you’re religious, you think the person has gone on to Heaven, they’re not still thinly Earthbound). And in a manner of speaking, the tsunami disrupted that thin connection between the living and dead in the city of Ishinomaki.

A lot of the ghost sightings seemed to occur among taxi drivers.

Even before he said it, I was thinking we’re dealing with a community, including where a lot of these ghost sightings seemed to be occurring with taxi drivers, who experienced an incredibly traumatic event in all the ways outlined previously, so they are experiencing an almost collective form of post-traumatic stress disorder, as Kanebishi said.

“I think the presence of ghosts is a way for people to cope with their PTSD as a community,” he said.

Between that and the cultural difference about death discussed, it makes sense to me. I also don’t believe in ghosts, same as Kanebishi, including Ami being possessed by ghosts, but I appreciate both that the community members sincerely think they are seeing ghosts and Kanebishi’s charitable thought that we can place those unexplained encounters into a sort of a “future data” category, if you will. That’s fine by me.

On a basic level, the reverend is providing “grief counseling,” with just the notion of listening to survivors’ pain. That’s beautiful. I want to make sure those with actual mental health problems are getting real, professional help, but I appreciate what the reverend is doing, too.

Overall, I think this is a beautiful, tragic, and gut-wrenching story to tell about the survivors of the Ishinomaki tsunami, and an interesting meditation on grief, death and the different cultural understandings of those here in America and in Japan. I’m glad the story exists to be told, and on that level, I think it’s the best story so far this season. But it’s not so much an “unsolved mystery.” You either think there are ghosts, or at least, some people are “more sensitive” to that “world” than others, or you don’t. Since I don’t, and there’s not much of an unsolved mystery to theorize about, there’s a reason this might end up being my shortest Unsolved Mysteries post.

What did you think of this episode?

Ishinomaki.

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