US & World

Remembering the Japanese earthquake and tsunami: 'Impermanence is true'

Ministers at the event spoke about the importance of interdependence and working towards the mutual benefit of all beings.
Ministers at the event spoke about the importance of interdependence and working towards the mutual benefit of all beings.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

At 2:46 p.m. on Sunday, a small gathering at the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo bent their heads forward in silent prayer as a bell tolled softly outside, a rare moment of quiet in downtown L.A. They were remembering what happened exactly one year ago in northeast Japan, the murky waters that consumed cities in minutes, the earthquakes that shook a country into panic, the lives lost.

The memorial service, sponsored by the Los Angeles Buddhist Church Federation, aimed to remind people of the Buddhist understanding of impermanence. Head minister Noriaki Ito, chair of the federation, asked the congregation to enjoy every moment of life and continue to show compassion to people still suffering in Japan.

“No matter how well we take care of our lives, no matter how prepared for emergencies like what happened last year, our lives can be taken away in the flash of a moment,” he said to the crowd. “We tend to have this romantic idea of impermanence — the fragile cherry blossoms display their beauty for only a moment, until a strong wind comes to scatter them away. But those 16,000 people remind us with their lives and deaths that impermanence is true.”

Ito has been back to Japan three times since the disaster. He visited his uncle’s temple, where tremors caused the massive temple gate and many cemetery stones to fall over. “The amazing thing is that one stone might be knocked over going to the east, and one right next to it might be going the other direction,” Ito described. “It just shows the ground shook so hard that even something like a stone that’s maybe 1,000 pounds in weight just toppled over as if it was nothing.”

It wasn’t until he visited the heavily damaged areas that the disaster became a reality to him.

“To be honest, as time passed, we started to kind of forget because we’re so far away,” he said. “I think that being able to do this memorial service gave us the opportunity to think about how we have to continue to be supportive of the suffering of the people there.”

Ninety-one-year-old Paul Bannai stood outside the temple after the ceremony, taking photos energetically as others waited in line to ring the temple’s giant bell, which is usually only sounded on New Year’s Day. He hails from Fukushima prefecture, known for nuclear accidents triggered by the tsunami. But Bannai comes from the western coast of the prefecture, which he said remains relatively unscathed.

“I was very happy that our family did not have damage that happened to the poor people on the east coast,” he said. “I went back to Fukushima-ken several times to visit my relatives, and I was very thrilled to see the country and to see Japan, and to see Fukushima-ken, so I was very proud of the fact that my heritage came from there.”

Bannai’s friend Mineo Hoshi explained the effect of the natural disaster on Fukushima: “Fukushima city has a beach side, middle section and mountain side. The mountain side [was] almost not affected, but people think of Fukushima, then they’re all afraid,” he added. “They put ‘Fukushima radiation,’ so the entire Fukushima prefecture was effected. Nobody goes there now.”

Head minister Ito said that though much has been done, people in Japan continue to suffer. Thousands of people are still listed as missing.

“But on the other hand, with Buddhism as the kind of backbone of the Japanese psyche, they understand the teaching of impermanence,” he said. “They understand that those people who passed away are supporting them through their wishes, so what they wish for the ones that survived is that they be able to live meaningful, happy lives.”