Ghosts of the Tsunami: what the disaster in Japan left behind

Richard Lloyd Parry's book explores the damage to a community that had “suffered an exceptional tragedy”.

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When, on 11 March 2011, the ground began to shake, the Times journalist Richard Lloyd Parry had been living in Japan for 16 years. Some 17,000 earthquakes had been felt in Tokyo since he settled there in the mid-1990s, and the regular tremors no longer caused him much alarm. That morning, at a clinic in the city centre, he and his wife had seen the face of their unborn child for the first time – at least, the moving outline of it on the small screen of a sonogram machine. Two hours later, Lloyd Parry was back at his tenth-floor office, writing an email, or reading a newspaper, or looking out of a window. He no longer remembers what, exactly, he was doing when the fourth most powerful earthquake in the history of seismology struck. Japan sits on top of two “triple junctions” of tectonic plates, making it particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. But this one was exceptional. It knocked the planet ten inches off its axis and moved Japan four feet closer to the United States.

Lloyd Parry checked on the safety of his family and then got straight to work. He filed reports on the situation in the capital, before setting off the next morning for the ruined north-eastern coastline of the Tohoku region, which had been closest to the epicentre. He visited hospitals in which “the wards at night were lit by candles”; he watched “burning industrial oil tanks” that “sent columns of flame high into the air”; he passed cows “dying of thirst in the fields” not far from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where clean-up crews desperately worked to avert another Chernobyl.

The worst of the damage was caused by the tsunami that followed the earthquake. It rose to a height of 120 feet and killed 18,500 people, swallowing up whole villages and reducing them to wasteland. Amid the jigoku – or “hell” – of the scene it left behind, Lloyd Parry “wrote scores of newspaper articles [and] hundreds of fizzy tweets”, all the while maintaining a “detachment” from the suffering around him. “I knew the facts of what had happened, and I knew they were appalling,” he writes in Ghosts of the Tsunami. “But at my core, I was not appalled.”

Lloyd Parry’s careful distance from what he saw was a “professional necessity”. He could not allow his emotions to overwhelm him: “No doctor, aid worker or reporter can do his job if he is crushed by the spectacle of death.” Yet this protective shell disturbed him (perhaps as much as his lack of one did in the late 1990s, when he was “ashamed” of being unable to control his fear while reporting on the violence in East Timor). He was haunted by an “obscure sense of having completely missed the point”. The earthquake and tsunami were “so diverse and so vast in their implications”, he eventually realised, “that I never felt that I was doing the story justice”. This important book is Lloyd Parry’s attempt to engage with the disaster in its entirety once and for all.

When the pain of others is of such great depth, it can feel easier not to understand, or else to abstract their personal catastrophes through impersonal images. In 1994, after much protest from the Japanese government, the Clinton administration cancelled plans to “commemorate” the end of the Second World War by issuing stamps showing an atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud. The decision to commission them was tone deaf: what was illegible in the almost Romantic image of the cloud set against red skies, as if in a Turner painting, was the anguish of the hundreds of thousands who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Too often, like Harry Lime in The Third Man, we can find ourselves feeling no true pity when faraway dots stop moving, even if we know that those dots are our fellow human beings.

The abstracting image of the 2011 tsunami was of the wave, which, Lloyd Parry writes, moved “across the landscape as if it [were] alive, a brown-snouted animal hungrily bounding over the earth”. Aerial films broadcast worldwide documented its progress, as it swallowed up cars and carried the wreckage of boats, houses, pine trees and bodies. But those bodies were too small to see, and we consumed the footage with as much awe as sorrow. Or I did, at any rate. I was vaguely shocked by what had happened and even performed songs at a benefit concert in London to raise funds for the victims, but what sadness I felt was remote.

A natural disaster of this scale is too large to hold in the mind with clarity, even for those who survived it. An elderly witness called Sadayoshi Kumagai tells Lloyd Parry that the water turned into “a black mountain”; others describe their tragedy as something “formless… and ineffable, an immense and overwhelming monster that blocked out the sun”. Lloyd Parry contrasts this with Hokusai’s woodblock print of an ocean wave; the tsunami that flattened Tohoku was “stranger, massively more powerful and violent, without kindness or cruelty, beauty or ugliness, wholly alien”.

But Ghosts of the Tsunami is an exploration less of the instrument of disaster than of the damage that it inflicted on a particular community that had “suffered an exceptional tragedy”. Through the traumas of the people of Okawa, a small coastal town “in a forgotten fold of Japan”, Lloyd Parry allows us to imagine what would otherwise have been unimaginable.

Okawa Primary School was two and a half miles from the coast, and no previous tsunami had reached so far inland. Yet the wave of 2011 swallowed it up. “Nowhere are precautions against natural disaster more robust than in [Japanese] state schools,” writes Lloyd Parry, and the truth of this was borne out that March, when schoolchildren were vastly more likely to have survived than, say, the elderly. Yet, of the 75 children who died in the care of their teachers, 74 of them were at Okawa Primary School. Just 34 of its 108 pupils survived, most because they had been picked up by their parents just in time. The accounts of the bereaved mothers and fathers are told in elegant, unflinching prose that respectfully lets their voices carry most of the emotional weight.

One mother, Sayomi, went to collect the body of her daughter, Chisato, at a makeshift mortuary set up in a high school gymnasium in the days that followed the tsunami. “I held her and lifted her up, and called her name over and over,” Sayomi recalls, “but she didn’t answer”: “I rubbed the mud from her cheeks, and wiped it out of her mouth. It was in her nose, too, and it was in her ears. But we had only two small towels. I wiped and wiped the mud and soon the towels were black. I had nothing else, so I used my clothes to wipe off the mud. Her eyes were half-open – and that was the way she used to sleep… But there was muck in her eyes, and there were no towels and no water, and so I licked Chisato’s eyes with my tongue to wash off the muck.”

Months later, fishermen noticed a commotion among seagulls 30 feet out in the harbour. They were pecking at the remains of another girl called Koharu, whose corpse was among the many that were considered lost. Her mother, Naomi, who had none the less dedicated her life to finding her and even learned to operate a digger to help in the search, went to view what was recovered. “It was just a lump of something,” she tells Lloyd Parry. “Without arms. Without legs. Without a head. And this was my daughter, my little girl. I don’t regret seeing her. But the hope I had… that I would recognise her, was not fulfilled.”

Those who had lost their children largely coped in a distinctively Japanese way. They doggedly searched for their dead sons and daughters and, like parents anywhere else, they held on to hope until there was none – but a stifling propriety quickly re-established itself. In the immediate aftermath, one teacher continued working even though his own child was among the missing.

Some survivors claimed to see ghosts. A Buddhist priest called Kaneta, who performed 200 funeral services in the month after the disaster, was inundated with requests for exorcisms. Hauntings were reported “at home, at work, in offices and public places, on the beaches and in the ruined towns”. “Religious people all argue about whether these are really the spirits of the dead,” Kaneta tells Lloyd Parry. “I don’t get into it, because what matters is that people are seeing them.” Accounts of interactions with spirits were taken seriously; academics at Tohoku University collated such stories and a learned journal published a paper on “the ghost problem”.

Shrines to ancestors can be found in almost every Japanese home, and death is in some ways considered less absolute than it is in the West. It is not uncommon for family members to talk to the shrines as if they were people. Parents asked Lloyd Parry to “meet” their dead children and led him to their memorial butsudan – an altar in a wooden cabinet, decorated with photographs and, often, the artefacts of the child’s life (drawings, favourite toys). Life has no neat ending in Japanese tradition, so the widespread acceptance of ghosts among the Japanese is not as surprising as it may initially seem: the country’s Buddhists believe, for example, that departed spirits remain in the home for the first 49 days after death. Perhaps these encounters were also expressions of uncontainable despair, in a culture that considers even crying over a dead loved one to be unseemly or selfish.

Gaman – which loosely means “endurance” – is an admirable trait in the wake of disaster. It binds people together and allows them to focus on the common good before seeing to their own needs. Yet Lloyd Parry ultimately comes to see it as part of a “cult of quietism” choking the Japanese, making them put up with unacceptable conditions in obedient silence. The final third of his book follows the progress of a legal case initiated by a group of bereaved parents against the local education board, which they blamed for the fatal incompetence of Okawa Primary School’s evacuation efforts. These parents, who dared to cast gaman aside, won their case and were awarded £11m in compensation. In the end, however, “all their children were still dead”.

For Lloyd Parry, these parents’ flouting of obedience is both heroic and necessary. The 2011 crisis is over, and the roads have been repaired, the wreckage cleared up and the ruins demolished. But the danger is ever present. The Japanese cabinet office estimates that a long overdue earthquake and tsunami originating in the Nankai Trough could kill 323,000 people – more lethal than four atomic bombs. Complacency must not be permitted for the sake of saving the face of others, or out of some extreme sense of collective duty. Anger, Lloyd Parry argues, can be harnessed as a positive force: good manners are sometimes merely a form of passivity, which can kill in times of emergency.

When Lloyd Parry wrote Ghosts of the Tsunami, he was seeking “the gift of imagination… the paradoxical capacity to feel tragedy on the surface of the skin, in all its cruelty and dread, but also to understand it… with calm and penetration”. It is to his great credit that, once he attained this gift, he so generously shared it with us here. 

Ghosts of the Tsunami
Richard Lloyd Parry
Jonathan Cape, 276pp, £16.99

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. Yo Zushi’s latest album, “Unconditional Love” (TWGDOYP Records), is out now

This article appears in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia