On the outskirts of Otsuchi, a town battered by the 2011 tsunami, a rotary phone is a gathering place for people to recall loved ones lost.
The white, glass-paned phone booth holds a disconnected rotary phone, its cables neatly coiled. It never jangles with incoming calls; outgoing messages don’t travel through cords. Instead, the booth is a mediation on relationships, life, and death, and it has become a pilgrimage site of sorts for residents untangling grief that remains knotted in their stomachs.
When an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in 2011, 30-foot swells swallowed up houses and obliterated coastal communities. Otsuchi is one of those towns that lost almost everything to the waves and convulsing ground. The century-old community was pummeled in 30 minutes. About 10 percent of the town’s 16,000 residents perished in the disaster.
A resident named Itaru Sasaki had nestled the phone booth in his garden the year before, as a way to ruminate over his cousin’s death. Longing to maintain a relationship with a departed loved one is a deeply relatable desire, but a tricky proposition. “Because my thoughts couldn’t be relayed over a regular phone line,” Sasaki told the Japanese TV channel NHK Sendai. “I wanted them to be carried on the wind.”
The photographer Alexander McBride Wilson heard the public radio segment and traveled to Otsuchi last fall to photograph kaze no denwa, or “the wind phone,” and the people who use it. To Sasaki, the booth isn’t related to any kind of religion, Wilson says, “but you get the feeling that it’s a bit of a shrine, people who come over are kinds of pilgrims.”
In the wake of the devastating tsunami, the numbers of pilgrims increased. Grief is hard to carry—it’s heavy and shifting. As Wilson helped Sasaki clear out a greenhouse that had offered respite from the barreling storm, the men spoke through translators about grappling with grief, frustration, and survivors’ guilt. The booth invites people to drop in to work out painful feelings in a comfortable space: sadness that can feel all-encompassing is, for a moment, confined to a specific shape and landscape. It’s a private way of wrestling with a tragedy that reshaped the whole community.
Tens of thousands of people were displaced by the disaster, but some return to revisit the event and the routines that it shattered. This American Life also told the story of a 66-year-old woman who moved 50 miles from Otsuchi when she lost her husband—a deep-sea fisherman—in the tsunami. A crew from NHK Sendai reported on her journey to the wind phone. As the woman picked up the receiver, she murmured her former phone number; the rotary phone clacked as her fingers reflexively dialed the digits.