Japan’s Otsuchi ‘wind phone’ lets the living talk to the dead

[This touching story about a simple use of media technology to connect with and grieve the loss of loved ones seems particularly appropriate on this date. It’s from The Washington Post via The Australian Financial Review, where it includes more images and a 49 minute NHK documentary (which is also available on YouTube). For more coverage you can listen to a 22 minute segment of the NPR program This American Life, and I’ve included an extended excerpt from a new first person report of a pilgrimage to the “phone of the wind” from The Believer below. –Matthew]

Japan’s Otsuchi ‘wind phone’ lets the living talk to the dead

August 18 2017
by Etsuo Kono

An old, disconnected black telephone stands in a telephone booth in the town of Otsuchi – about 20 minutes’ drive from Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture.

Since the Great East Japan Earthquake and the accompanying tsunami of 2011, the phone has been visited by at least 25,000 people, the grief-stricken who have come to convey their feelings to departed loved ones “through the wind”.

The phone was set up by 72-year-old garden designer Itaru Sasaki in his garden, on a small hill with a commanding view of the calm sea in the Namiita area of Otsuchi. Calling it “Kaze no Denwa” (the phone of the wind or wind phone), Sasaki originally set up the phone after the death of his cousin.

The garden is open to all, and there is a notebook placed by the phone, the fourth such notebook to be used. Many have left messages for their loved ones.

Sasaki began work on the booth in November 2010, and completed it shortly after the disaster. Newspapers and other media reported on it, and many people who had suddenly lost a loved one began to visit.

Located on the Sanriku coast, Otsuchi was devastated by the March 2011 tsunami. In the town, 1285 people died or went missing, about 10 per cent of its population. Forty people, including the mayor, died in the former town office.

In late 2013, Sasaki found this message: “Come home soon. From your father, mother and grandparents.”

He eventually met the family who had written it and learned the story. They were looking for their son, who had gone missing in the disaster. After graduating from university, their son had started working at an IT firm and was visiting Otsuchi on a business trip when the disaster struck.

Reflecting on memories

The mother revealed her feelings to Sasaki, saying: “I have no idea what I’ve been doing since that moment. Time has stood still for me since that day.”

Sasaki said messages in the notebooks have changed as time has passed since the disaster. People have started to accept the deaths of their loved ones, writing things such as “Please watch over us from heaven.”

In addition to people lost to the earthquake and tsunami, families who lost a loved one in an accident or from suicide are also coming to the garden to reflect on their memories of that person.

One morning in early July, I visited the garden to find a photo in the telephone booth in which an apparently foreign man is smiling at someone. I felt like a “caller” had just had a conversation with him.

The phone has become known even overseas, and there are messages in the notebooks recalling people lost abroad.

On Tuesday, Sasaki’s book titled Kaze no Denwa Daishinsai Kara Rokunen, Kaze no Denwa wo Tooshite Mieru Koto (The phone of the wind – what I have seen via the phone in the six years since the earthquake) was published in Japan by Kazama Shobo.

“The telephone is not connected, but people feel like their lost loved ones are there listening on the other end of the line,” Sasaki said. “I want people to resume their lives as soon as possible by expressing their feelings.”


[From The Believer.  –ML]

The Phone of the Wind


By Tessa Fontaine
July 25th, 2018


Death is much longer than life. Mr. Sasaki is explaining this to me at a small wooden table, gesturing subtly as he speaks. He folds his hands over one another on the table so that the one missing half a finger is covered.

“Life is only, at most, 100 years. But death is something that goes on much longer, both for the person who has died and also for the survivors, who must find a way to feel connected to the dead. Death does not end the life. All the people who are left afterward are still figuring out what to do about it. They need a way to feel connected.”


I wanted to ask Mr. Sasaki a question I couldn’t stop thinking about.

Do you think that people really hear the dead on the phone? I asked. He told me a story.

One old guy in town recently came to the wind phone. His wife had died in the tsunami. The guy seemed nervous at first, and wouldn’t pick up the phone for a while. Once he finally did, he started talking into the phone and wouldn’t stop. He talked and talked, and was nodding in the phone booth like he could hear the response. He’d be quiet and nod, and laugh, or scoff. It wasn’t just him talking. It wasn’t one-sided. He was having a conversation.

Afterward, he came up to Mr. Sasaki’s house and said he’d been on the phone with his wife, who wouldn’t stop nagging him about things he needed to do around the house. He wept. And then his heart emptied out the grief it was carrying.

When your heart is filled with grief, Mr. Sasaki explains, or some kind of burden, you aren’t in tune with your senses. You’re closed off, like curtains have been pulled around you. After you empty your heart a little bit, you might hear some birds singing again. You might notice a fox or the sound of the stream in the garden.

The way to turn a phone call that seems decidedly one-sided into something obviously two-sided is through the use of personal imagination, according to Mr. Sasaki. When you talk on this phone, you imagine what the other person would say to you, is saying, in response. Imagination is key.

Imagination is also what will help you move on.

You have to imagine your life without the person who is dead. Use your imagination, see that future. See yourself eating breakfast without him. Taking the train without her. Then, you will be able to live it.


Why can’t we just speak to the dead at home, in a place that is comfortable, in your bedroom at night, in the bathroom? Why can’t I just tell my mom what I want to tell her while I’m taking a walk in the woods, when I spot wild iris, while the light through leaves resembles the kind of light people use to describe heaven?

It’s not like anything else. It isn’t therapy, Mr. Sasaki says. It isn’t the same as the thing you say to your friend over your second glass of wine about wishing you could talk to your dead mother about something. It isn’t praying. It isn’t talking to a loved one who also knew the dead.

You pick up the phone and your brain has readied your mouth to speak, Mr. Sasaki explains. It’s wired. We do it all the time. You don’t think what it is you want to say, you just say it. Out loud. Into the phone, which is connected to nothing. From there, there is nothing for your words to do but follow the directives of the thing itself—be carried on the wind.

[snip to end]

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