Ms. Olena burns incense. The priest taught her how to do it.
The sound of sutra chanting began to echo through the silent main hall of the temple.
Olena Kazimir, 45, a Ukrainian woman dressed in formal attire, was holding her hands together with prayer beads and staring at a point. She gazes at two framed portraits, one of a young man in a full-body black down jacket, the other in a military uniform with a knit cap. He has a rifle slung over his shoulder and is slightly beaming.
A white wooden tablet standing behind the portrait reads.
“The Lotus Sutra, secular name: Oleksii Kazimir no rei.”
He died on April 4, 2022.
Oleksii, 20, Olena’s oldest son, was shelled by Russian troops near the capital Kyiv and never returned home.
A memorial service for him was held at a temple in Tokyo in late June.
Olena spoke of her current state of mind, “The Russians were not the only ones who were killed,” she said.
“The Russians killed not only my eldest son, but also me. My son’s life and future were unjustly taken away from him. I will never forget what the Russians did to my eldest son. I have told my second son about it, and his death will be passed on to his children and their children’s children.”
Oleksii is the child of Olena’s Ukrainian ex-husband, 50. After their divorce, she came to Japan to marry a Japanese man she met in Kyiv, and their second son was born. Although she has lived in Japan for 15 years, she has never missed a contact with Oleksii, who is now a university student in Kyiv.
My oldest son was well-liked and considered a leader by his peers. He is a family man and always helps those in need, and he has a strong sense of responsibility.
She was proud of her son, who was about to graduate from college and was thinking of going on to graduate school after that. Just then, the Russian army invaded, and his distant homeland was instantly engulfed in the flames of war.
“I’ll be fine in Kyiv.”
Olena was relieved to receive a reply, but the situation grew more tense with each passing day, and in early March, worried, she tried contacting his father in Ukraine but she lost contact with him.
He, too, could not reach Oleksii.
Having once worked as a nurse in the Ukrainian army, I sent Oleksii’s picture to military personnel and made phone calls to Ukrainian hospitals, but there was no sign of him.
I wondered if my son was really alive.
In the midst of her days of feeling crushed by anxiety, Olena came across a temple near her condominium in Tokyo.
“On my way to a convenience store, she was mesmerized by the sound of drums coming from the temple. When I passed through the gate, I was also soothed by the sound of running water. When I went back the next day, I saw many children chatting and studying, which cheered me up a bit, and I started bringing sweets and snacks. That was my first encounter with the temple.”
The temple’s 46-year-old priest also began to understand what was going on as he communicated with Olena in broken English.
“She told me that his eldest son might have passed away. So we contacted the municipal office in Tokyo, but were told that they could not provide assistance to Ukrainians living in Japan, and the Ukrainian embassy in Japan was not reachable by phone. So we consulted with the parents of Olena’s second son’s classmates. Ms. Olena wanted to go to Ukraine anyway. She said she would ask them to take care of her second son then.”
After that, Olena visited the temple several times, her face gaunt and, on one occasion, drunk.
“I could tell by her face. I could tell by his face, he even smelled of alcohol.”
Olena’s fears proved correct. She broke down in tears in her apartment.
According to an acquaintance who contacted her from Ukraine, Oleksii was shelled by Russian troops near Bucha, near Kyiv. It is believed that he was a member of a regional defense unit organized by civilians and was targeted when he and his friends drove to Bucha to protect civilians. The car was abandoned at the scene, and three charred bodies lay beside it. This scene was also reported by the BBC. Olena recalls.
“My eldest son had never told me that he was a member of the local defense force. When I heard that he had been killed in action, I couldn’t stand up, so my friend took me to the hospital, where I was hospitalized for three days, given an IV, and discharged. Many of my Russian friends called me and apologized.”
I, the author, was in contact with Olena at this time.
“While in Kyiv, I interviewed Olena’s ex-husband, 50, about Oleksii’s death in the war in late April, and published the article “Identifying Burnt Bodies…The Lament of a Ukrainian Military Officer Searching for His Missing Son” (https://friday. kodansha.co.jp/article/241824). At that time, he called Ms. Oleksiy in Tokyo from Kyiv. When she answered, her voice was dark, as if she had lost her mind, and her speech was incoherent and to the point.”
“However, when I called her again in early June, after I had returned to Japan, she had regained her composure to the point that I thought she was a different person, and she explained to me in detail what had happened. At the same time, the priest of the aforementioned temple was also astonished by the change in her demeanor.”
“One day, I went to her house next to the temple and found her eating dinner while chatting with my family. I was surprised at the smile on her face. Then she told us that her son had passed away, and the whole family decided to chant sutras together. Although our religions are different, we made the Buddhist tablets and put up the stupa. Compared to the beginning,s he is much healthier now.”
Although she did not understand the words, Olena was moved to tears at the thought of the priest who performed sutra chanting with her family.
“The priest’s daughter plays the taiko drum for us. The sound was so comforting. This temple has supported me in my time of need. It is like a family. If you stay depressed forever, you will give negative feelings to those around you. So I tried to change my mind.”
Recently, she showed the resident’s family how to make borscht.