This is a Commended Project from the 2019 International Award for Public Art

When garden designer Sasaki lost his beloved cousin in 2010, he came up with a unique way to deal with his grief: telephone calls to the departed. He decided to build a white British-style telephone booth in his hilltop garden. In it he placed a battered old Bakelite rotary phone, unconnected to any earthly telecom system, to keep in touch with his cousin’s memory by talking with him regularly. “Because my thoughts couldn’t be relayed over a regular phone line,” he told the Japanese public broadcasting network NHK, “I wanted them to be carried on the wind.”

Sasaki’s home, and the Wind Telephone, are on the outskirts of Ōtsuchi, a small coastal city in northern Japan’s Tōhoku region. On March 11, 2011, while Sasaki was putting the finishing touches on his project, a magnitude 9.1 earthquake in the ocean off the Tōhoku coast triggered gigantic tsunamis. Ōtsuchi was devastated by 30-foot waves; a tenth of its 16,000 inhabitants were confirmed dead or never accounted for.

The Wind Telephone, created to ease one man’s grief, became a place of solace for thousands as word of its existence, and its purpose, spread via local media. “It is believed,” says the Atlas Obscura website, “that 10,000 visitors journeyed to this hilltop outside Ōtsuchi within three years of the disaster.”

Survivors of the tsunami have been joined in this pilgrimage by people who’ve lost loved ones in other ways, including suicide and accidents. In 2016, the radio program This American Life produced a podcast that included recordings of some of the conversations on the Wind Telephone. “There’s laughter,” writes Sherilyn Siy on the website Tokyo Creative. “There are sniffles of tears being held back. Through the most ordinary of conversations, the powerful undercurrents of emotions are clearly discernible: the regret, pain of loss, despair, guilt, frustration, search for strength, hope, and the will to carry on without the loved one.”

Text by Jon Spayde, based on reports by researchers for the International Award for Public Art.

Public Art Review issue 59Featured in Public Art Review #59.