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Buddhism after the Tsunami

Directed by Tim Graf and Jakob Montrasio. 2012. 63 minutes. In Japanese and English, with English subtitles.

Study Areas: Japan, Tohoku Earthquake/Tsunami, Religion in Japanese Culture, Buddhism.


Much has been said of the terrible events of March 11th 2011 in the West, but comparatively little attention has been paid to the survivors left behind. As narrator Tim Graf notes early on in Buddhism after the Tsunami, the narrative in the West surrounding the Japanese response to the events of March 11th is one of resilience in the face of disaster. Meanwhile, the spiritual needs of those who survived are almost always ignored.

This sentiment summarizes a key theme of Buddhism after the Tsunami, which explores the role played by Buddhist institutions and individual monks in the areas affected by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. This film makes an important contribution to the study of the Tohoku disaster by focusing on this oft-neglected element of contemporary Japanese culture: religion, specifically Buddhism, and its place in the lives of ordinary Japanese. By focusing on the role of Buddhism in a time of disaster, this film also says a great deal about the role of Japanese Buddhism in contemporary Japan more broadly. Additionally, though filmed by a specialist in Japanese Buddhism, and using Buddhism as its primary lens, the topics addressed by this film go far beyond religious studies.

Tim Graf, who co-directed the film and acts as its narrator, was in Tokyo when the earthquake hit, allowing for a very personal journey through the events of 3/11. The film opens with footage of the quake’s comparatively minimal impact on Tokyo, contrasted with the devastation wrought on the Northeast. After introducing us to the events of 3/11, the film investigates the role played by Buddhist institutions in the aftermath of the disaster as they provide material and spiritual comfort to those who survived. The narrator interviews several priests from the affected areas as they recall living through the disaster and the days immediately following it. For example, the priest of Jōnenji temple discusses how his temple was one of the few buildings in the community unaffected by the earthquake and tsunami. It first acted as an unofficial evacuation zone, and then as a shelter for those whose homes had been destroyed.

We also see the relief efforts of Buddhist institutions nationwide; as the narrator states early on in the film, “Japan’s Buddhists were among the first to mobilize a response to the earthquake,” which he characterizes as “the greatest religious mobilization in post-war Japanese history.” This mobilization included raising funds for the areas affected by the disaster and conducting prayer services for the deceased.

As the film progresses, the viewer sees how this material comfort was closely accompanied by meeting the spiritual needs of the communities devastated by the March 11th disaster. It was the Buddhist clergy who took on the duties of providing comfort to those who were left behind. While this of course included prayers for the dead, temples and their priests also provided counselling and solace to those who had lost loved ones in the disaster. In this way, Buddhism after the Tsunami provides a very different picture of the tsunami’s aftermath than other documentaries in its portrayal of survivors’ very real need for spiritual and human comfort.

Roughly three quarters of the way into the film the narrator shifts to look at the role of religion in Japan’s urban landscape. He reminds us that while over fifty percent of Japan’s population is urban, over seventy percent of Sōtō Zen temples are in the countryside. The urban lifestyle embraced by so many Japanese presents a great problem for those who move to the city and away from ancestral burial plots, or for those who cannot return to their hometowns for fear of radiation. This part of this film in particular demonstrates the directors’ desire to explore the role of religion in contemporary Japanese society more fully, beyond that of its role in post-disaster communities.

In Tokyo we get a look at the Tōchōji temple, which provides memorial tablets and a final resting place to all who join the temple. Beyond providing for the deceased, however, this community also gives great comfort to its parishioners. When interviewed, an older member of the temple’s community discusses how before joining, she felt empty in a life where her children had all left the house, leaving her alone. This same woman then happily discusses what song she would like to be sung as part of her own memorial service. In this way we see how a Buddhist institution at Japan’s urbanized center has adapted to meet the needs of parishioners alienated from traditional community bonds.

Towards the end of the film we see a brief look at some of the lingering social issues in Japan related to the stigma attached to the disaster areas. In a particularly revealing scene, a local priest from Fukushima relates how pine tree logs from coastal areas devastated by the tsunami were sent to Kyoto to be burned in the giant flame during the Obon festival. Yet, due to complaints from Kyoto residents related to (unwarranted) fears of radiation, the logs were sent back. So at the temple in Fukushima prefecture, the logs, along with the letter explaining their returned, were burned in memorial of those who died in the 3/11 disaster. Here we see the contrast between the role played by local temples in the disaster areas, and the response of the more famous national institutions to the problem.

Buddhism after the Tsunami does an excellent job of getting at issues such as, the place of religion in Japan today, the continuing disappearance of rural communities, and the response to the 3.11 disaster. One problem that with the film is that, in editing it down to a length suitable for a classroom viewing (roughly fifty minutes minus the credits), many of the issues the film raises feel underexplored. Paradoxically, however, this could work in the film’s favor as an educational tool, in that it demands discussion. This is a thought provoking film that encourages its audience to seriously ponder the issues at hand rather than taking heavy-handed approach, making it especially useful for classes that heavily incorporate student discussion into their curriculum. It will be of great use to any class on Japanese anthropology, religion, or contemporary culture.

Michael Abele received his BA in history from Michigan State University in 2009. He is a currently a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, with a focus on nineteenth century Japanese social history.

To watch the trailer or purchase this film, visit the Souls of Zen Vimeo or the Souls of Zen website


Last Updated: November 18, 2014.

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