Writing Sample #1 Awakening to Care: The Formation of Contemporary Japanese Buddhist Chaplaincy

“Café de Monk,” read the sign at the door. Inside, a larger sign sat on an easel and explained, “‘Monk’ is an English word for ‘obōsan.’ We think it will take a long time to return to a tranquil daily life. But while saying your ‘monku’ [the Japanese word meaning ‘to complain’], would you at least like to take a little break? While these monks sit and listen to your monku, we can get through this struggle together.” All in attendance had entered and passed by this second sign with little regard. They knew what it said. They had come, in some cases, dozens of times. This time, however, the room carried a rather different atmosphere.[1]

The Zen priest Kaneta Taiō 金田諦應 initiated the first Café de Monk in this area not long after the immense earthquake and tsunami struck in March, 2011.[2] Japanese are accustomed to earthquakes, but he recalled this one shaking longer and far more violently than any in his memory. He even recalled thinking it felt as though the world was ending in those moments. His temple was about thirty miles inland, but for those closer to the shore, the tsunami that followed proved more destructive than any on modern record. Over one hundred feet high at its peak, the wave reached three miles inland taking approximately 18,000 lives and causing over $210 billion in damage.[3] The region was rocked by the tragedy and Kaneta Taiō wanted to help in some way. He and other Buddhist priests drove around to different areas with snacks and tea, set up a canopy with the “Café de Monk” sign and welcomed people in. The priests served tea, and offered people a place to relax and sit for a moment. Then, if anyone wanted to share and let out the excruciating experiences they had just suffered through, the priests and other volunteers were available to listen, to be present, and to accompany others through that pain.[4]

The small coastal city of Ishinomaki was near the epicenter of the quake and took the brunt of the damage.[5] Further inland, numerous makeshift communities with small prefab homes were erected for the thousands of displaced citizens. Café de Monk eventually began a monthly rotation through each of these temporary communities in and around Ishinomaki. Those in the new communities slowly acclimated to the meetings and the regular volunteers came to know and become familiar with the regular attendees.

The meetings followed a general pattern. After gathering to set up tables, chairs, and some decorations in the room of a community center, residents slowly filed in and filled the seats. After a brief introduction by Kaneta, guests lined up at a few tables on one end of the room where they received a cake or other snacks, and a drink of their choice. The guests then took their seats. Usually one or two volunteers would join a table with around six guests. A couple activities, such as free short massage sessions, were available on one side of the room. People would begin to chat and share stories of their lives. Once they warmed up, however, sometimes an individual began sharing a more painful experience or tragedy. The volunteers were always ready to focus in and listen. If needed, they could also move to a side or corner of the room for a slightly more private space. Kaneta expressed,


People don’t like to cry … They see it as selfish. Among those who
are living in the temporary homes, there’s hardly anyone who has
not lost a member of their family. Everyone’s in the same boat, so
they don’t like to seem self-indulgent. But when they start talking,
and when you listen to them, and sense their gritted teeth and their
suffering, all the suffering they can’t express, in time the tears come,
and they flow without end.

About half or two-thirds of the way through the gathering, priests began passing out beads to each table and guests were able to make their own jūzu, beaded bracelets often used for chanting and prayers in Japanese Buddhism. If guests desired, priests could offer a short blessing for their new jūzu. There might be another short group activity or two. Finally, Kaneta would pull out his guitar and the entire room would sing a few songs together before departing.

Volunteers and guests at this meeting, however, had a slightly different air about them. The reconstruction efforts took years, but the final temporary housing communities were about to close. March 26, 2019 would be the final Café de Monk that community center would host. Taniyama Yōzo 谷山洋三, leader of Tohoku University’s spiritual care program, was kind enough to drive me from Sendai that day, about an hour away. On the way, he pointed out different sites and described how they had changed over the years since the disaster. Matsumoto Minenori 松本峰哲, leader of the spiritual care program at Shuchi-in University, flew in from Kyoto for the event. Other volunteers arrived from Tokyo, Hokkaido, Kyoto, and other places all over Japan. They had come to help previously at various points in time since the initial tragedy and wanted to be on hand to volunteer in the community one last time.

The bittersweet feeling in many of the guests and volunteers was apparent that day, as were the deep bonds that had formed between them. Some of the volunteers had listened to these people’s stories regularly over the past seven or eight difficult years. The guests themselves had developed a new form of community as mutual survivors. There were more activities than normal. A group of children came and sang about the city of Ishinomaki. Kaneta included the entire room in large games of rock-scissors-paper and, emceeing with his typical sense of humor, distributed art to the winners. Kaneta’s wife led a traditional local dance, slowly adding the majority of people in the room to its large, rotating circle. The masseuse, a blind volunteer who lives near Kaneta’s temple and loves enka 演歌,[6] occasionally sang for the groups in the past and offered up his voice once more while Kaneta strummed his guitar. The day carried a celebratory feeling and yet, again, bittersweet.

In many ways, it felt like  the closing of one book, and the beginning of numerous sequals. Between the time of the initial disaster care activities like Café de Monk in 2011 and this gathering in 2019, Japanese Buddhist chaplaincy and spiritual care had taken root, sprouted, and grown in multitudinous new forms. Numerous seeds were spread from the activities that developed as a result of this disaster, from this region, and from these volunteers. In many ways, this volume is their story.