Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
On the outskirts of Otsuchi, a town battered by the 2011 tsunami, a rotary phone is a gathering place for people to recall loved ones lost.
The boys interrupted their grandmother. The three of them were wedged in a phone booth in a hilltop garden overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Wind ruffles blades and leaves on this quiet plot in the Japanese town of Otsuchi. The young grandsons chirped away about their grades in school; their grandmother issued corrections.
The white, glass-paned phone booth holds a disconnected rotary phone, its cables neatly coiled. It never jangles with incoming calls; outgoing messages don’t travel through cords. Instead, the booth is a mediation on relationships, life, and death, and it has become a pilgrimage site of sorts for residents untangling grief that remains knotted in their stomachs.
When an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in 2011, 30-foot swells swallowed up houses and obliterated coastal communities. Otsuchi is one of those towns that lost almost everything to the waves and convulsing ground. The century-old community was pummeled in 30 minutes. About 10 percent of the town’s 16,000 residents perished in the disaster.
A resident named Itaru Sasaki had nestled the phone booth in his garden the year before, as a way to ruminate over his cousin’s death. Longing to maintain a relationship with a departed loved one is a deeply relatable desire, but a tricky proposition. “Because my thoughts couldn’t be relayed over a regular phone line,” Sasaki told the Japanese TV channel NHK Sendai. “I wanted them to be carried on the wind.”
The photographer Alexander McBride Wilson heard the public radio segment and traveled to Otsuchi last fall to photograph kaze no denwa, or “the wind phone,” and the people who use it. To Sasaki, the booth isn’t related to any kind of religion, Wilson says, “but you get the feeling that it’s a bit of a shrine, people who come over are kinds of pilgrims.”
In the wake of the devastating tsunami, the numbers of pilgrims increased. Grief is hard to carry—it’s heavy and shifting. As Wilson helped Sasaki clear out a greenhouse that had offered respite from the barreling storm, the men spoke through translators about grappling with grief, frustration, and survivors’ guilt. The booth invites people to drop in to work out painful feelings in a comfortable space: sadness that can feel all-encompassing is, for a moment, confined to a specific shape and landscape. It’s a private way of wrestling with a tragedy that reshaped the whole community.
Tens of thousands of people were displaced by the disaster, but some return to revisit the event and the routines that it shattered. This American Life also told the story of a 66-year-old woman who moved 50 miles from Otsuchi when she lost her husband—a deep-sea fisherman—in the tsunami. A crew from NHK Sendai reported on her journey to the wind phone. As the woman picked up the receiver, she murmured her former phone number; the rotary phone clacked as her fingers reflexively dialed the digits.
The grandmother and grandsons visit regularly, rattling off the sorts of dispatches you might write in an email to a cousin in a different state: here’s what my routine looks like; I miss you, and hope you are well. The set-up is not dissimilar to an altar for dead relatives that’s common in Buddhist homes, said This American Life producer Miki Meek. It’s “a way to stay in touch, let [departed people] know that they’re still a big part of our family.”
More than five years after the disaster, cities along the northeastern coast are still working to rebuild, slowly replacing temporary structures with sturdier, more rooted ones. “It seems as if every second vehicle on the roads is a dump truck or a cement mixer,” the Washington Post reported from nearby Rikuzentakata last year.
The land is still being excavated and prepared for new development. Wilson recalls his bus passing “bits of railings, things which basically haven’t been sorted out yet.” Meanwhile, new projects are under construction. His hostel was full with construction workers who flood in during the week to erect housing, roadways, train tracks, bridges, “everything that makes up a town,” Wilson says. “It all needed putting back together.”
As the town rebuilds, girding itself to be resilient in the face of future weather events, Sasaki’s wind phone is a reminder of those most fragile and searing losses that can’t be patched up and won’t be forgotten.