Japanese Cafe Provides Comfort for Tsunami Victims

The disastrous tsunami and earthquake in March 2011, quickly followed by a nuclear disaster that led to thousands of residents being uprooted,  has created a traumatic legacy that still lingers today.   According to Taio Kaneta, a Buddhist monk helping tend tsunami victims, many survivors have been emotionally numbed by what has happened to them.  "People lost their ability to feel," Kaneta said in a media interview.  "They became emotionless. It’s like their hearts froze to the point where they couldn't even cry.”

As volunteers were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the disaster, Buddhist monks like Kaneta needed to become innovative in finding new ways to assist people in need.   While the monks have traditionally handled funerals and helped survivors with grief,  Kaneta found that many of the people needing help belonged to different religions and different traditions.  Also, in the largely secular Japanese society, seeking comfort from religion is not as popular as it once was.

Since Kaneta is also a musician, he came up with a more eclectic solution for comforting survivors.   As he stated, "You’ve got to improvise, like in jazz. The base of what we do doesn't change. But you’ve got to groove with it.”    With that in mind, Kaneta created a rotating, pop-up cafe, that he called "Cafe de Monk."    The name is a play on words since Kaneta is a monk and the Japanese word, "monku" means "to complain."   Joined by other monks, Kaneta sets up operation at different spots in the temporary housing facilities in Yokoyama set up after the disaster. 

Once the cafe is operating, certain ground rules come into play.  First of all, though Buddhist monks provide services to visitors, often aided by practitioners from other faiths, they aren't there to preach and no religious arguments are permitted.  Instead, visitors simply eat cake, enjoy coffee, and listen to the music of Thelonious Monk.   Art therapy and massages are also available or visitors can work on beadwork.  As far as Kaneta and his fellow monks are concerned, the purpose of the cafe is to listen.  "We draw out their suffering, sadness, happiness. Really listen," he said. 

For most of the cafe's patrons, life in the Yokoyama temporary shelter is extremely difficult.   Most come from the town of Minami-Sanriku which has been largely destroyed by the tsunami.   The units where they live now are very different from the homes they once had and were never really meant for long-term living.   The worst part is the uncertainty surrounding their existence since nobody has any idea when they will be able to rebuild   After the cafe closes at the end of the day, Kaneta often visits many of his patrons at their makeshift homes, especially the ones mourning the loss of a loved one.  For them, Kaneta provides more traditional Buddhist comfort though only as patrons request. 

Part of the appeal of the Cafe de Monk is that it can cross religious boundaries and offer services in a way that government and aid agencies cannot.    Kaneta and his fellow monks admit to often feeling depleted by the burden placed on them but are still able to unwind as needed.   Taio Kaneta often plays jazz or songs by the Beatles on his guitar to deal with the stress of his responsibilities. 

But the patrons of his cafe appreciate his efforts.   As one patron said in an interview with Public Radio International, "When they do Café de Monk, a lot of people come. And we’re able to open our hearts to each other. And the monks, they’re really good at listening.”

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