3/11: The Second Anniversary

Talking with the Dead Through Invisible Grief

Society Culture

The road to true reconstruction in the disaster-stricken Tōhoku region can be opened by conversing and living together with the dead there. Wakamatsu Eisuke, a literary critic acclaimed for his writings on the living and the dead, holds that talking about the existence of the dead is a must if we are to get on with life in the world after the 3/11 disaster.

“For my own part, I will consider myself content with my work if, in attempting to locate the place and theme of testimony, I have erected some signposts allowing future cartographers of the new ethical territory to orient themselves. Indeed, I will be satisfied if this book succeeds only in correcting some of the terms with which we register the decisive lesson of the century and if this book makes it possible for certain words to be left behind and others to be understood in a different sense.”

Giorgio Agamben, in Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive.

Two years have passed since the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, but cleanup and reconstruction work is still an urgent issue. The reconstruction must be carried through to completion. At the same time, however, we have reached the point where we should confirm once again what was destroyed, what was stripped from us, and what was lost. That should also remind us of what we did not lose. How can people who cannot remember what they had search for what has disappeared from sight?

In a Place Beyond Grief

On March 3, 2013, the morning edition of the Asahi Shimbun carried an article by a journalist who went to Rikuzentakata, a city in Iwate Prefecture that was virtually wiped off the map by the tsunami following the earthquake. There she chronicled the words of Murakami Yasuo, an old man she had also interviewed one year earlier. Murakami says: “It makes me happy when my grandson appears in my dreams. That gives me a way to talk with him. ‘What is it, gramps?’ he asks.”

His grandson Yūta was carried off by the tsunami just before he was to enter elementary school. When the boy turned up in a dream one year later, he appeared to be a bit older. Like other pupils, he was wearing the school uniform, and he had become a member of the baseball team. “So you’re playing together with all your pals,” his grandfather said to him. Near the end of the article is this comment by the old man: “I no longer have Yūta, my wife, my older sister. I felt desperate for a while. But then I found that by talking to photos, I can still live together with Yūta.”

How are we to deal with this kind of article? The grief of the grandfather is more than we can imagine. But surely these kinds of voices are still to be heard all around the disaster-stricken region. Should we say that his distress is an emotional expression of the loss of those he loved? That their appearance in his dreams is what depth psychology might describe as the aspiration of his unconsciousness? Even if we do not put it into words, is this how it can be interpreted?

My suspicion is that Murakami wants us to hear something altogether different. He wants us to believe in the very words he spoke. He is not interested in having us understand the inner truth of his grief. The meaning of grief is sufficient in itself without any questioning. The important point is the conversations with his grandson that occur in a place beyond grief. He is hoping to meet people who, more than sharing his distress, accept as an actual fact that his grandson—whom he never expected to see again after his death—calls out to him.

Having lost even his wife, elder sister, and grandson, the old man seems to have nothing left to live for, but one day he begins to talk to them using photos. The photos do not make any response. As the man faces these pictures, the door to an unknown time and place opens up. There he can hear the soundless “voice” of his grandson speaking to him. This voice does not cause the air to vibrate, but it moves Murakami’s soul. No doubt he would have lost his desire to go on living had he not been able to talk with his grandson day by day using photos as a medium. This is no exaggeration. Why else would he tell others about it? The journalist reports that her conversation with Murakami this time went on for hours.

A Modernity that Has Lost Its Historical Moorings

Thoughts with nowhere to go lurk in a deep place within each individual. Words with nobody to receive them rarely make an appearance. When these words find a recipient, the veracity of past events shines more brightly. The old man has no doubt of the existence of a grandson who has managed to remain alive. Still, he wants the fact of their conversation to somehow be made more substantial. It is other people who undertake this role by listening and responding to his words. On occasion this gesture can rescue a person from the brink of despair.

The literary critic Kobayashi Hideo (1902–83) once said that “history” is the grief of a mother who has lost her child. This comment has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Some have criticized it as a sentimental expression that replaces history with what the single individual experienced. But if history rejects all that is illuminated by the individual’s sentiments, what is it? One may imagine it to be nothing more than a slice of what happened in the past, related from an empty perspective, that is, the value system of the times.

The “history” Kobayashi was speaking of is the daily life of our old man. It is something quite separate from a people’s so-called perception of history. This “history” must never be used as a source for advancing claims. But it will go on being grounds for the everyday development of personal relations.

For the mother, nothing is more certain than her sadness, and no opportunity is better than her grief for relating with her lost child on a deep level. History is always accompanied by great sorrow. A true account of history cannot be conveyed to those who would reject grief. Grief is one of the origins of our lives, as anybody can appreciate by reviewing his or her own existence. When deep distress is truly experienced, a real life finally begins to be lived. Our modern age has lost sight of history in the sense that it has lost the imaginative power that wells forth from grief. This sorrow does not obstruct the operation of reason but rather supplements and supports it.

Words Entrusted to the Survivors of Auschwitz

Next I will cite some passages from the preface to Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive by Giorgio Agamben, one of the philosophers who represent contemporary Italy. (The work is translated into English by Daniel Heller-Roazen.) The “survivors” he is talking about are those who, like the “witness” mentioned in the book’s title, remained alive despite being sent by Nazi Germany to the Auschwitz concentration camp. While Agamben speaks of the impossibility of fully relating the events that took place at Auschwitz, that is, of the impossibility of fully understanding this historical episode, his discussion brings into relief the existence of peculiarities and universalities that cannot be encompassed within any theory or general description.

“On the one hand, what happened in the camps appears to the survivors as the only true thing and, as such, absolutely unforgettable; on the other hand, this truth is to the same degree unimaginable, that is, irreducible to the real elements that constitute it.”

Forgetting about their concentration camp experience is simply not possible for those who lived through it. It was not merely an irreplaceable and inviolable event for each individual but continues to be an experience resisting reduction by doctrines of any sort. Something about it rejects any statement that starts off with such words as “the core meaning of Auschwitz is that …”

After this passage Agamben comments on the nature of his book, remarking that readers may be disappointed to find that it does not contain much more than what can already be found in the testimonies of the survivors. He continues:

“In its form, this book is a kind of perpetual commentary on testimony. It did not seem possible to proceed otherwise. At a certain point, it became clear that testimony contained at its core an essential lacuna; in other words, the survivors bore witness to something it is impossible to bear witness to. As a consequence, commenting on survivors’ testimony necessarily meant interrogating this lacuna or, more precisely, attempting to listen to it.”

There is just one method for drawing closer to what happened at Auschwitz: to face the words of the testifiers in order to discern the meaning hidden behind them. This is what he describes as “perpetual commentary on testimony.” In doing so, he seeks to be not so much a writer expressing his own philosophy as a strict guardian of the words left behind. This attitude is also an expression of the author’s utmost respect for the survivors.

The survivors bear testimony. Even if this testimony were thoroughly scrutinized, however, it would show a gap that simply cannot be filled in—the something “it is impossible to bear witness to.” Also on the scene are the dead who did not come back. The lacuna comes into being because the dead do not speak. But the dead actually do “speak”—with noiseless voices—via this lacuna. While reading the words of the survivors and attempting a commentary on what they said, Agamben was seeking to shine a light on the words the dead entrusted to them. He was “attempting to listen to [this lacuna].” It is the dead who quietly “give voice” to the truth of what happened. That this is possible appears to have been the conviction inspiring his writing of the book.

Relief from the Words Between Spirits

Things can exist even though they cannot be seen, touched, or converted into numerical values. Human life gains depth in the face of just such things. While grief cannot be pointed to as a visible thing, faith manifests itself in the concrete works of people. Experiencing things of this sort can become the event that determines the course of our lives. Again and again, the phenomena that motivate us to question the fundamental meaning of life make their appearance in invisible form.

Words are by no means mere tools to identify substantial things. Words are born when “meaning,” which is invisible, rises from the depths of existence to manifest itself. Words articulate the world. This articulation is a phenomenon wherein meaning suddenly comes to the fore from a place of chaos that seems to contain nothing.

When you have lost all hope and are spending your days in black night, have you never had the experience of certain words providing the spark that convinced you to arise once again? These words need not come from a book or a person. Often they are an urge that wells forth from within you. At such a time words articulate the meaning of why we are alive. A person cannot live in the absence of words. Their original role is to draw people close together. Perhaps I may say that words touch our hearts. That is why they can injure us, inspire us, and give us the power to live.

Indeed, they are very much like food. Food is not just to fill an empty stomach. It provides deep support for our body and soul. How we think about food may also determine our view of life. The passages in the New Testament that depict meals are not occasions of sensory pleasure but scenes of reconciliation in a real sense. Food nurtures the soul as well as the body.

When food draws people together, eating becomes an activity that nourishes us. In the same way, when words are exchanged between spirits, the exchange reveals their original function. Just as our bodies are made from the food we eat, our souls are cultivated by the words we hear. When the words that serve as the foundation of the human being disappear, the soul starves and withers.

Silence Can Also be “Words”

In the modern age, people have given up on the assignment of “forms” to things that cannot be talked about; indeed, today we are inclined to reject their very existence. But the things that cannot be talked about are by no means things that cannot exist. Rather, they are things that, while residing deep within existence where they cannot easily be touched, call out to us forcefully with their message.

Grief in some cases resembles fear; it can terrify people. When it grows intense, however, it always becomes a boundless affection for something lost. The loss is so distressing that it can cause tears to run dry. The intensity of the grief is at the same time an indicator of the depth of the love.

Those who have forgotten that remaining silent is also a way of speaking might face the grandfather, Murakami, and urge him to snap out of his grief in an attempt to encourage him. From his point of view, however, the grief is not something that will ruin him; it is clear evidence that he is still in touch with those he lost. Why should he be required to let go of such a thing? The newspaper article I introduced at the outset concludes as follows. “As I sensed the depth of his feelings, tears welled from my eyes. Seeing me in this condition, Murakami silently handed me a tissue.” At such a time, tears become “words” that speak more eloquently of concordance than anything that might be verbalized.

The old man says he desires to see his grandson even if only in dreams. Probably all who have lost a loved one share this desire. To such people, the dead are those they long to meet once again; in no way are they detestable entities. If they give voice to their fervent desire for a reunion with the dead, however, few who hear their appeal will take it seriously. Given this, the grievers naturally sense a need to refrain from speaking about their encounters with the dead or what the dead mean to them.

Collaboration Between the Living Dead and the Survivors

If we cannot talk about the dead properly, we will leave a portion of the disaster issues locked away in the dark forever. In that quarter the families of the deceased are wailing and suffering. In the quote with which this essay begins, Agamben states that his purpose in discussing the dead is to erect “some signposts allowing future cartographers of the new ethical territory to orient themselves.” He will be satisfied, he says, if the book succeeds only in making it possible for certain words (such as the dead) “to be understood in a different sense.”

To complete true reconstruction in the Tōhoku region, we must not neglect collaboration with the dead. The dead are constantly working together with the living. The sacred duty assigned to them is to protect, assist, and walk together with those of us still alive.

The dead are not a metaphysical concept. On the contrary, they actually exist. Is this not something we experience on a daily basis without any need for demonstrating it? Nobody who is still alive knows death. Nonetheless, many of the living have encountered the dead. If death completely annihilated life, wiping it out and leaving nothing behind, whom could we turn to for mourning? Mourning is by no means the burial of those we have lost. In Japanese, itamu (to mourn) originally meant for the heart to shake at something that cannot be seen. It rather should be seen as responding to calls from the “living dead” and exchanging words with them in the present.

(Originally written in Japanese on March 6, 2013. Title photo courtesy Aflo.)


Agamben, Giorgio. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone Books, 2002.

Izumaru Nobuyo. “Yume de mo ii, mata aitai” (I Want to Meet Them Again, Even if Only in Dreams). Asahi Shimbun. March 3, 2013, morning edition.

Tōhoku earthquake tsunami March 11 Asahi Shimbun Rikuzentakata Eisuke Wakamatsu Giorgio Agamben Auschwitz Iwate Prefecture Hideo Kobayashi