Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry

Ghosts of the Tsunami
by Richard Lloyd Parry
Jonathan Cape (2017)
ISBN-13: 978-1911214175

Review by Sir David Warren

At 2.46 pm on Friday, 11 March, 2011, a massive earthquake occurred off north-east Japan, about 70 kilometres east of the city of Sendai in the Tohoku region. It was the biggest earthquake ever known to have struck Japan, and the fourth most powerful in recorded history. The earth was knocked six and a half inches off its axis. Over 18,000 people died in the tsunami that followed an hour later, which at its peak saw waves 120 feet high. Half a million people became homeless. The resulting meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor was the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. It was the most costly natural disaster ever, causing more than $210 billion worth of damage.

Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia Editor of The Times, was one of a number of western journalists who hurried to the disaster zone that weekend, and who spent weeks thereafter in the Tohoku region, reporting from the towns destroyed by the tsunami and the abandoned exclusion zone around the nuclear plant. But unlike many who in due course moved on to other assignments, he returned many times to the area, to try and get beyond the professional detachment of the reporter and understand the enormity of what had happened. In particular, he returned to a small coastal community, 70 kilometres north-east of Sendai, called Kamaya, which had suffered, even by the standards of this massive disaster, an exceptional tragedy. Ghosts of the Tsunami is an account of this tragedy, told through the personal testimony of the survivors; and also a meditation on its wider meaning.

Lloyd Parry’s book focuses on what happened that afternoon at Okawa Primary School in Kamaya. We are introduced to some of the parents of the children at the school: Shito Sayomi, mother of eleven year-old Chisato, scared of earthquakes and a bit sulky as she leaves for school that morning; Konno Hitomi, who worked in a doctor’s surgery the other side of the mountain from Kamaya, mother of Daisuke, captain of the sixth-year class and a sensitive boy who didn’t want to go to school that morning either; Sato Kazutaka, the father of Yuki, Daisuke’s best friend, with whom he liked to fish in the nearby Kitakami River; and many others. With observational skill and great sensitivity, Lloyd Parry draws a portrait of a small rural community about to be obliterated by a catastrophe.

The tsunami engulfed the village shortly after half past three – three quarters of an hour after the earthquake struck. It came not from the sea to the east of Kamaya, but from the river on whose southern bank the village stood. The school had 108 children: of the 78 who were there at the moment of the tsunami, 74 died, together with ten of the eleven teachers. Shito Chisato, Konno Daisuke (and his two teenage sisters), Sato Yuki – all died that afternoon, together with others whose parents and family members we encounter in Ghosts of the Tsunami. 197 of the 393 people who lived in Kamaya also perished: every house in the village was destroyed.

The tragedy of Okawa Primary School is at the heart of Lloyd Parry’s book. The story he tells is not just of a brutal act of nature, but of a community seeking explanations, and pressing for those in authority to be held to account. Although one child died during an evacuation in a town further north along the coast, every other school in the region got their children to safety. Why was Okawa the terrible exception? As the parents enquired about what had happened that afternoon, the realisation grew that the school’s emergency response had been marked by indecision and uncertainty; and that it had been compounded by a vaguely-worded evacuation plan from which the teachers were unwilling to deviate. This culminated in the fatal decision to take the children not up the hill behind the school to safer ground, but to the designated gathering point on a nearby traffic island, straight into the path of the swelling tsunami. And to the negligence of the teachers – most of whom had themselves lost their lives – was added the intransigent refusal of the education authorities to acknowledge responsibility, or even to find the words with which to assuage the anger and grief of the bereaved parents.

Lloyd Parry tells this profoundly distressing story with unsparing compassion – not just for those who lost their children, but also those who, however culpable, were themselves traumatised by what happened that day. He follows the parents’ campaign for justice, culminating in the Sendai District Court’s judgement in their favour in October 2016. This found no fault in the school’s initial response to the earthquake, but accepted that the teachers’ actions, when it was clear that a tsunami was imminent, were inadequate. The parents were awarded substantial damages (appeals against the verdict by the defendants and against the level of damages by the plaintiffs are outstanding). But his book is more than a record of a uniquely terrible event. It is a study of grief; an exploration of how we find the imagination to understand such events; and a portrait of modern Japan.

To talk of “grief” in such circumstances is almost banal. Lloyd Parry takes us into the lives of the families affected, and records their reactions to bereavement – numbness, denial, obsessive searching, and anger. These passages are unbearably moving. But grief also divides communities. ‘Did you lose your children or did your children survive?’ is an immediate question. ‘Even among the bereaved there were gradations of grief, a spectrum of blackness indiscernible to those on the outside’ , Lloyd Parry writes: a parent who lost all her children but recovered their bodies soon after the waters receded is in a dreadful way better than a parent still searching for her daughter five years later. One mother who deals with her loss by taking part in reconstruction work finds herself at first friends with, then almost hating, another who sublimates her grief in the campaign to hold the local Department of Education to account. For many, ‘the power of their grief, which gave it form, channelling it like the banks of a river, was rage’.

Outside observers of Japan tend to admire, sometimes uncritically, Japanese “stoicism” and “resilience”. Lloyd Parry has little patience with this sentimental attachment to the principle of gaman (endurance): he sees this as an excuse for ‘timidity, complacency and indecision…. the cult of quietism that has choked this country for so long’. One bereaved mother is told by her father-in-law, a traditional, uncommunicative man, after a first visit to the devastated school site, that it is impossible that her son could have survived: ‘It is hopeless. You need to give up’. ‘He may have felt very sad, but he contained his feelings’ , she reflected later. ‘Nonetheless, if he found me in a state of sadness, he should have refrained from saying words that would hurt me. But he did not refrain’.

There is practical assistance for the families, but little access to counselling or help with post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who do speak out about the failures at the school are ostracised. Lloyd Parry draws a strong lesson from the tragedy – that what Japan needs today is not ‘serenity and self-restraint’ , but people like the parents who fought for justice – ‘angry, scathing, determined people, unafraid to step out of the ranks and fight, even if all that the contest amounted to was the losing struggle with death’ . (His book does not deal with the parallel disaster at the Fukushima nuclear reactor, south of Sendai, which has generated popular hostility to nuclear power, with which Japanese politicians are still having difficulty coming to terms.)

Lloyd Parry’s book is a distinguished work of reportage, in the tradition, as some critics have pointed out, of John Hersey’s classic Hiroshima. But without ever tipping over into pretension, it is also a highly-wrought and carefully-organised work. It contains a poetic description of the tsunami: ‘Something is moving across the landscape as if it is alive, a brown-snouted animal hungrily bounding over the earth… It seems to steam and smoke as it moves; its body looks less like water or mud than a kind of solid vapour’ .

There is an extraordinary eye-witness account of a local government official, Konno Teruo, actually caught up in the tsunami. The building in which he was working was swept away by the wave, and he was propelled into the open air. He grabbed a piece of timber as he was sucked into a whirlpool, from which he was miraculously released; he seized a wooden wall panel which gave firmer support, only to find himself being carried back out along the river to the open sea as the tsunami began to recede; then, with the next pulse of the tsunami, he was pulled back inland, over an embankment, losing consciousness and eventually coming to, jammed against a roof intact on its wooden frame, to which he transferred himself and which in turn drifted in the freezing cold towards a house on higher ground, where he eventually came to rest, wedged against the front door. A retired teacher, Mrs Suzuki, whom he knew, took him in and rescued him from hypothermia. He remembered only her ‘golden hand’, as she rubbed life back into him: ‘It was also the hand of a Buddha. It was curved, soft, warm… I couldn’t open my eyes. But I saw the soft, round Buddha with golden hands’.

The book becomes more mysterious and moving as it explores the way in which the grim reality of the disaster merges into a spiritual re-imagining of it as a way, for some, of reaching understanding and acceptance. There were few men, Lloyd Parry writes, whom he respected more than the Reverend Kaneta, chief priest at a Zen temple in the town of Kurihara, who exorcized the spirits of people who had drowned in the tsunami. Kaneta travelled around the coastal region with other priests, setting up a mobile centre called “Café de Monku” (a triple pun: monku means complaint as well as sounding like monk, and Kaneta is a jazz fan too – the bebop jazz master Thelonious Monk, with his dissonant, loose harmonies, becomes the soundtrack to these centres of therapy and counselling, where the bereaved can come for a cup of tea and a friendly chat).

The survivors talk, ‘haltingly, apologetically, then with increasing fluency’ , about their experiences, their suffering, their fears for the future, and also their encounters with the supernatural – sightings of the lost, hauntings at work and in public places, supernatural possession by the spirits of loved ones – even animals – who have died. ‘The dead had no time to prepare themselves. The people left behind had no time to say goodbye’ , says Kaneta. ‘The dead are attached to the living, and those who have lost them are attached to the dead. It’s inevitable that there are ghosts’. The Japanese cult of ancestor worship and the prevalence of ghosts in the rich culture of Tohoku folklore form a powerful basis for this phenomenon.

But the task of exorcising ghosts takes a heavy toll. At the end of the book, Kaneta tells Lloyd Parry of his final exorcism – a nurse from Sendai called Takahashi Rumiko, a woman in suicidal despair, from whom he exorcises over several weeks twenty-five spirits. The effort is traumatising for the priest – particularly when Takahashi is possessed by the spirits of dead children. His wife helps him by taking Takahashi’s hand as the spirit of a dead girl struggles through the cold water towards the light. The priest is weeping with pity for the dead soul: his wife feels only ‘a huge energy dissipating’, as in childbirth – a ‘sense of power discharging at the end of pain, as the newborn child finally enters the world’.

This book records appalling horrors. But in facing them squarely and describing the ways people cope with grief – through anger, a search for justice, attempting to rebuild a community, as well as attachment to the world of the spirit – Lloyd Parry helps us begin to imagine and understand the unimaginable and incomprehensible. The author interposes himself discreetly and sensitively throughout. The book begins with his seeing the face of his son for the first time, on the ultrasound at a Tokyo clinic, on the morning of 11 March – a parental moment that intensifies the dreadfulness of the events he goes on to describe. It closes with the image of the child apparently released from suffering as the priest expels the spirit from the woman in torment. It is not a resolution, but there is at least the possibility of release. How else, as he writes, ‘to balance affirmation of life with acceptance of its inevitable end’? ‘We don’t work simply by saying to people, “Accept”, says Kaneta. ‘We stay with them, and walk with them until they find the answer on their own’. This is a brave, powerful and honest book. It deserves to become a classic.


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