Itaru Sasaki built the most famous phone booth in Japan. The phone of the wind may not be connected to any phone network here on Earth, but it is connected to the wind. And, if you’ll allow it, to your deceased loved ones.
You have to imagine Amaterasu-ō-mi-kami as a beautiful, a smiling goddess. She is the supreme deity in the Shinto religion. Mythologists and theologians have puzzled for centuries why she is a woman.
You have to imagine Japan as the top of a mountain, which rises out of the water. Its foundation is spread over four different continental. 5,000 earthquakes shake the island on an annual average.
Historians have puzzled for centuries why Japan was settled in the first place.
On the 11th of March in the year 2011 , the main island – Honshu – is shaken by an earthquake that triggers a tsunami wave up to 130 feet high, which causes accidents in several nuclear power plants, including Fukushima.
19,000 Japanese children, men and women die, more than 2500 people disappear without a trace.
Here, in the small fishing village of Otsuchi, Mr. Sasaki was busy building a telephone booth. The summer before he had lost his best friend and cousin to cancer. They were the same age and had worked as steelworkers all their lives, looking forward to enjoy their retirement together.
So when they finally had time to do the many things they had planned for so long, Itaru suddenly found himself without his friend. And there were still so many experiences to be had and so many things that were left unsaid.
So Itaru built a small white pavilion in his garden with small glass panes and a green metal roof. Inside, on a board, there is an old black telephone with a dial. But its cable is rolled up behind it.
This telephone is not connected to the phone network of this earth, but directly to the wind. When Itaru wants to tell his cousin something that happened to him, he walks to his telephone box in the garden.
Then he waits until he hears the waves and the crickets. And the wind. When he hears the wind, he dials his cousin’s number and tells him about his life. About the things his cousin can no longer experience himself.
No one in the village thinks Itaru is crazy. In Shintoism the idea that a loved one continues to accompany one through life even after death is very common. It is customary to worship the deceased in small domestic altars or to share their favorite foods with them.
No one believes that the man with the grey hair and the grey beard will receive an answer when he stands there in his phone booth. But everyone can understand that this helps Itaru to get over his grief.
The tsunami hits the fishing village of Otsuchi particularly hard. All buildings in the city centre are destroyed, 1200 people are killed immediately, one of eight.
Itaru Sasaki is one of the helpers on that 11th of march and he sees the suffering and despair. But there is only so much that human hands can do. And so few words that comfort.
In the evening he tells his wife about the misery he has experienced during the day. And his cousin, on the phone, after the greatest troubles are over.
That evening a neighbour waits for him in the garden. He asks for permission to use Itaru’s phone booth. He steps into the small pavilion and stands there silently for a while, this is how Itaru tells the story.
Then he dials a number on the phone. This conversation will last more than an hour. One hour in which Itaru doesn’t know what to do. Should he go away and leave the grieving man to himself? Or should he stay here as a contact person in case of an emergency? He keeps waiting.
When his neighbour leaves the cell, he is covered in tears, but he smiles. Excitedly he tells Itaru what he has experienced.
„I called the number of our house. And I told my wife how much we missed her, the children and me. And how we searched the beach to find her. Every day. Three long days!
Yesterday we found her. Now we finally know she’s dead. I told her about the children and how bravely they helped me now that she’s gone.
I told her how grateful I am for the past, even though I never said so. That I will continue to live in the present until I can come to her in the future.
Your phone booth helped me a lot, Itaru. Can I bring my kids tomorrow?“
Itaru nods. And he understands. That very day he puts a calendar, a large notebook and handkerchiefs in his phone booth. And he tells the sad people of Otsuchi it. About his telephone of the wind.
“Come along. My garden is the big one right on the mountain side. That’s where I built my little telephone booth. In a corner, so that you will be undisturbed. And still protected from the wind. He will not howl louder than the soft voices of your loved ones!“
And the people are coming. Hesitantly, at first, but quickly more and more of them. Itaru installs a waiting bench in his garden beside the booth.
I sit on that bench, every day, and I watch the people come and go.
Nine years have passed since the tsunami, but the stream of visitors does not cut off. People die all the time, around the clock, all year round. The Sasakis think that they had 10.000 visitors last year.
Many stop for a chat. Some want to personally thank Itaru or his wife. The phone booth is the most famous in Japan.
People even come from Tokyo, though it’s a seven hour drive on the highway.
I also watch the people from Tokyo who travelled so far to a phone that is not plugged in.
I arrive early in the morning and I leave late in the evening. I am magnetically attracted to this place: a place of remembrance we have collectively built.
It’s living breathing spirituality, far from any ideology, religion or institution.
One evening Itaru sits down on the bench next to me. He puts his hands on top of each other and takes care to cover half the finger that is missing.
“Death is so much longer than life,“ he says.
What does he mean? To me, death is an event and has no duration.
“Life lasts a hundred years at most. But death lasts longer. For the dead, but also for the bereaved. Death does not end life – not for the people who are left behind in life. They have to find out how to deal with it. They have to create a way to stay connected.“
I don’t dare at first, but then I ask him: „Most of them look like they’re really talking to someone in the cell. Do you think the dead really answer?“
And he tells a story:
“There was a man, even older than me, who had also lost his wife in the tsunami. He was very nervous at first and I had the impression that he felt quite silly in the cell. But then he did use the phone.
And he didn’t stop talking at all. In between, he would listen. Quietly, he listened. Or he nodded his head in agreement or he shook his head. Sometimes he had to laugh and once he was really offended. He had a conversation, no question!
After the conversation he came over to me, I was working in the garden. And then he complained to me, how his wife got on his nerves again with her nagging! He should do this and not forget that – all the time she would only reproach him!
And then all the dams broke inside the poor old man and he cried. His heart emptied of the sadness that had been with him for so long.
When your heart is filled with too much sadness, all your senses don’t work properly anymore. You are locked up as if curtains had been drawn around you. You no longer belong to life.
But if you relieve yourself only a little bit, you might hear a bird singing again, or the waves of the ocean, or you might see the fox here in the garden. It’s a start. It’s a help.
A telephone call with the telephone of the wind is not one-sided if you use your imagination. You talk and then you listen to the imagination that shows you what the other person would say. And it is important to listen. The imagination is the key.
It is the imagination that will help you to live on.
Because you will have to imagine what it is like to live without the person you love. Use the imagination, look at this future. Watch yourself having breakfast without him. See how you take the train to Tokyo without him. If you can imagine it, you’ll do it!“
After this story, Sasaki-san and I sit on the bench and we say nothing.
We just listen to the sea and the crickets.
Then he asks me a question in return: “When will you be ready to use the wind phone yourself?“
I don’t know the answer.
But soon, I hope. Soon.