After a Tsunami, a Young Monk Finds Her Calling
Dates2011 - Ongoing
- Locations Japan, Iwate, Kyoto, Tokyo
A 15-year-old girl, Masako Kobayashi, sat alone on a hill a few weeks after Japan was hit by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011, a disaster that struck on March 11, killed almost 16,000 people and led to the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown. She gazed at the devastated land for hours. More than 200 residents of Kesen, her small community within the coastal city of Rikuzentakata, were dead. Of some 550 homes, all but two were destroyed. Most survivors left, but about 15 residents refused to abandon their town, living amid the debris for months without electricity or water.
Masako, now 22, was one of them. She had survived the disaster along with her father, Nobuo, the chief monk of the temple; her mother, Kouko; and her older brother, Takamasa. She lost her house and all of her belongings, and the most important thing for her family — the Kongoji Temple, the historic Buddhist temple according to Nobuo had been established about 1,200 years ago and had been the heart of the community for centuries — had washed away.
I was born in Japan and first came to the United States in 1998. I rarely traveled back to Japan, but was distraught when I saw the news of the devastating tsunami in 2011. I rushed from New York to the disaster area as quickly as I could. When I arrived, there was so much debris in every city on the coastline, and sadly, everything started to look the same to me. But when I came across a small temple that remained standing on top of a hill in Kesen, where the Kobayashis had taken refuge, I felt it was calling me to be there. They trusted me, and I decided to document their resilience as they rebuilt the Kongoji Temple and the community. Masako was a shy teenager at that time, following her mother.
While continuing to work as a monk at another nearby temple, Nobuo devised a plan to rebuild the Kongoji Temple. He needed to cut through a mountain filled with trees, obtain support from the temple’s worshipers and raise funds for the project. He also had to rebuild his own house.
Although Takamasa was supposed to succeed his father as the monk at their temple, he entered medical school. Masako decided that she would fill the religious role. She once had no interest in succeeding her father. In high school, she had been interested in cosmetics, and then she majored in chemistry at college in a nearby city. But after seeing her parents work hard to rebuild the temple, Masako decided she wanted to become an ama, or female monk. She wrote her parents a three-page explanation of her desire to study Buddhism. Her mother tried to dissuade her, but she was determined.
To begin training to become a monk, Masako traveled with Nobuo to Chishakuin Temple in Kyoto, the head temple of a Buddhist sect, for a tokudo ceremony in March 2017, six years after the disaster. Her parents had selected her monk name, Eishin. The students marched through a sacred room in the darkness and then emerged where we could see them — Masako with her monk robes, a white hood and a huge smile.
Few days after, Masako moved to Tokyo to attend Taisho University to study Buddhism and to earn a degree in Buddhist studies. She lives in a tiny apartment to save money because she knows that her parents have been raising funds for the new temple and to restore the community.
In October 2017, a Rakkei ceremony was held to celebrate the reopening of the Kongoji Temple, whose reconstruction had begun five years after the tsunami. Colorful textiles adorned the temple. Hundreds of people, including about 50 monks from across Japan, gathered to celebrate. Masako, who had shaved her head, led a march of monks in colorful robes. The atmosphere was blissful.
Although Kesen transformed from a faded village into a joyful place that day, progress is slow. Only 10 new houses had been built in the vicinity of the temple. The debris has long been cleared away, but a scarred emotional landscape remains. Many villagers are settled into their new homes in other neighborhoods and rarely come back.
The Kobayashis hope that the rebuilt Kongoji Temple will help villagers reclaim the lives they had before the tsunami. “Many temple members left Kesen,” Nobuo said. “Even though they are scattered, it’s important to have a place that will provide spiritual support. I believe the temple will be the heart of the community, a place that people will believe in.” Masako will follow his spirits.
Masako still has a long way to go to succeed her father. She is still in training to officially become a monk. In her classes, she is one of a few women among the students; Buddhist leadership remains dominated by men. Three times a year, Masako and other students travel to Kyoto to participate in trainings at Chishakuin Temple. During few months a year of strict trainings at Chishakuin Temple, students chant Buddhism sutra all day long, every single day, starting early in the morning. At the very end of one-month-long training session during the summer in 2018, Masako became emotional and burst in tears because of her passion and determination.
When I moved to the United States to work as a photojournalist, I tried not to think about my home or my family. I did not return to my homeland for 10 years because as an immigrant, I was afraid of losing my ambition if I relaxed. I felt I had to keep pushing myself to accomplish my goals, even though I felt shame for rarely thinking about my family in Japan.
Sometimes the stress and pressure made me want to disappear, even after many years of living and working here. But people like Masako, and the refugees I met in this destroyed community — people who had survived extraordinary sadness yet had strong spirits — gave me the energy to push forward in my own life. I have even been returning to visit my parents twice a year since I started documenting this remarkable community.
The work Masako and her family and neighbors put into their small village, the place they love, has been remarkable to witness. They know it may take a while to restore their community. I know that’s not the only thing they are able to restore.