Since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, poignant reminders of lives lost or forever changed continue to find their way across the ocean. A Japanese soccer ball washed ashore in Alaska, a motorcycle found its way to British Columbia, and part of a Japanese dock landed in Oregon.
Now, what experts believe is the arch from a Japanese Shinto shrine’s sacred gate has washed ashore in Oceanside, Oregon. The bright red piece of wood, measuring just over sixteen feet in length, was teeming with sea life, pecked by seagulls when Judson Randall spied it from his Oceanside beachfront residence in the early morning hours of Friday, March 22.
“My first thought was that it was something from the tsunami, because it had all that marine life on it and it looked man-made,” Randall said. “It was a chilling thought.”
Cape Lookout State Park Manager Pete Marvin confirmed that the artifact was removed from the beach intact, and that the Japanese Consulate has been contacted. There has not yet been an official response from the Japanese government.
As a sacred religious object, its return may be somewhat complicated by Japan’s post-war constitution, which requires strict separation of state and religious activities. There are about 80,000 Shinto shrines throughout Japan, all of them overseen by the Association of Shinto Shrines, a non-governmental organization which does, nonetheless, have strong ties to Japan’s ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party.
Iwahashi Katsuji, chief international public relations officer at the organization’s Tokyo headquarters, examined photographs of Randall’s discovery.
“I think it’s the very top part of a torii,” Katsuji said. “It looks rather new, still bright red.”
Torii is the Japanese word for a gate that marks the entrance to a Shinto shrine.
“Within the torii is a sacred area,” Katsuji said. “For Japanese people, torii are a symbol for Shinto shrines.”
Shinto, which translates to “The way of the gods”, is the indigenous spirituality of Japan, first recorded as a set of precepts in the Kojiki (“Record of Ancient Matters”) and Nihon Shoki (“Chronicles of Japan”) in the 8th century. It is estimated that between 80 and 90 percent of Japanese take part in Shinto rituals, even though many identify as non-religious. Shinto co-exists peacefully with Buddhism in Japan.
“Japanese people often claim not to believe in Shinto, but they still feel a familiarity with Shinto shrines and rituals,” Katsuji said. “Most Japanese still have wedding ceremonies in Shinto style, they offer prayers at their local shrine on New Years and bring newborn babies to be blessed there. Shinto shrines are the places people gather for festivals and recognize that they belong to one community and share the feeling that they are one. They play a very significant role in the community. Shinto shrines are very fundamental for the Japanese way of life, and torii are a symbol of the Shinto shrine.”
Torii are such a powerful symbol, Katsuji claims, that spaces vulnerable to public urination are often protected with a drawing of a torii.
“Japanese people feel guilty if they pee on a wall that has a torii painted on it,” Katsuji said.
For many Japanese, the date 3/11 holds the same emotional resonance that 9/11 does for Americans. The earthquake of March 11, 2011 was the largest in Japan’s recorded history, and the tsunami that followed in its wake devastated the Sendai coastal region while triggering a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
By September 12, 2012, a Japanese Police Agency report confirmed 15,882 deaths, with 2,668 people still unaccounted for. 100,000 children were estimated displaced from their homes by the Save the Children organization. The World Bank estimated the total cost of the disaster at US $235 billion, making it the costliest in recorded world history. Entire communities were uprooted, and even today, many from the hardest-hit areas face the prospect of never returning to their homes, due to radiation contamination and a costly cleanup that is still the cause of political debate.
4,585 of Japan’s Shinto shrines were damaged or destroyed in the disaster. Portland State University Professor of Japanese Laurence Kominz believes that the return of such a symbolically significant piece of one of those shrines could have a strong impact.
“It is a beloved and visible symbol,” Kominz said. “Certainly the city or town that once had this torii in its shrine would like to have even a piece of it back where it belongs, to remember the shrine and town how it was before it washed away, and to honor those who lived and prayed there.”
Both Kominz and Katsuji likened its symbolic significance to that of a cross from a Christian church being swept away during Hurricane Katrina, finding its way to a foreign shore. Yet restoring the torii to its original home may prove difficult, practically, if not politically.
“I think it’s a bit difficult to identify from which shrine this part of the torii is from,” Katsuji said. “Identifying markings, such as the name of the donor or the date of its origin, are usually written on the pillars of the torii, not the top part. But, there is hope in the fact that there are many different kinds of torii; for instance, the torii of Meiji Jingu Shrine looks very different from that of Yasukuni Shrine. So, it’s not impossible to identify, but it may take time.”
Katsuji isn’t certain of what will happen with the torii, but said it is likely that Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs will first deal with the matter. In time, he acknowledges, it may be up to his organization to find a home for this most curious piece of driftwood, which he said remains a sacred object, on any shore.
“It’s the tendency of Japanese people to find some meaning or significance in the remains of disaster or sadness,” Katsuji said. “It’s already been two years. I still remember the day the earthquake and tsunami hit. The return of an object so important to the community may cause some people to relive that experience. At the same time, we are still alive and we must ‘ganbaru’ (“persevere”) – we must live for those who died.”
Josh Hunt is a student of communication studies and Japanese at Portland State University. He is presently studying at Waseda University on a one-year-exchange program. He has been selected as the New York Times Tokyo bureau summer intern for 2013.
Author’s note: Japanese names in this article appear in the traditional style, with the family name coming before the given name.