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Review by Terence Jagger

Ghosts of the Tsunami Richard Lloyd Parry

Japan suffers multitudes of earthquakes every year and is among the best prepared countries in the world.  Tsunami, too, are common, and both are planned for meticulously.  But March 2011 was different.

This is a staggering book, intensely moving, and a wonderfully penetrating insight into modern Japan, both its resilience and organisation, but also the dark side, the claustrophobic social structure which makes transparency, accountability and open debate so very hard, almost antisocial.  It is not a complete account of the earthquake and tsunami which struck Japan in March 2011, but rather it focuses closely on one small region which, close to the epicentre of the earthquake, suffered horrible and unnecessary tragedy.

Lloyd Parry has lived in Japan for many years, and is The Times’ correspondent there.  Like everyone else, he is very used to earthquakes, and Japan is very well prepared for them, because they are so common.  There are plans for emergencies, well trained response and disaster management teams, high public awareness, amazingly robust building standards, and regular drills for schools.  But on 11 March, after he had been with his partner to hospital and seen for the first time on a scan his not yet born son, he became aware that the shocks, while not massively destructive, were larger and more frightening than he was used to.  But damage in Tokyo was very limited, and the kabuki actors had time to bow deeply in apology before leaving the stage.  The epicentre was far away in the north, and the news that came in was garbled and confusing; the Japanese government was slow to be open about the effects, especially as they concerned the nuclear power station, and the media was perhaps not as challenging and resourceful as we are used to in the UK. But it was soon obvious that the earthquake was massive – the fourth largest ever known, moving Japan 13 feet closer to America; while the earthquake had been severe, the tsunami which followed had been unprecedentedly catastrophic and 18,000 people died. Not since the Kobe earthquake of 1995, perhaps not since the Second World War, had Japan seen such devastation. $210 billion worth of damage was caused.

Travelling frequently to the earthquake and tsunami affected areas, Lloyd Parry covered a whole range of relevant stories for his paper, focusing on the humanitarian crises and the slowly emerging story about the safety of the nuclear plant at Fukushima.  Only after some months does he become aware of the particular tragedy in the small community of Okawa, which suffered an exceptional tragedy.  To put it in perspective, of the 18,500 people dead or missing, only 351 were children; the majority of those were not at school that day. In most tsunamis and earthquakes, children are especially vulnerable, but there is no safer place to be than a Japanese school. Only 75 children in Japan who were actually at school (and the tsunami struck on a normal school day) died – and 74 of them were in Okawa.  So in Okawa, something terrible had clearly gone wrong, and this book is largely an account of the tragedy itself, based on numerous repeated interviews with those affected and those working there, and their efforts to find out what had really happened and to hold someone responsible.  Some of the stories will certainly bring tears to your eyes.

The tsunami was unprecedented in its scale, reach and power, but that is not why these children died.  They died because their teachers could not use their imaginations to break free of what they had learned, that a tsunami would not come this far up the valley, and they suffered severe cognitive dissonance in the face of evidence and expostulation.  They died because the children, who feared they were going to die and suggested fleeing, were too disciplined to disobey their teachers.  They died because, when the police car came by loud hailering everyone to leave immediately, the teacher ignored what was no longer advice but passionate urging.  They died because they waited in the playground, drawn up in lines. They died because, though they had the time, they did not walk or run a few hundred yards and climb for a few minutes up an easy path up the hill behind the school.

The teacher at the centre of these terrible events was Junji Endo, who went absent after the disaster, who gave a partial and possibly untrue account of what happened, who was missing from most of the public debate, and who apologised repeatedly but who would not give a coherent account of events.  Parents felt abandoned by a lack of explanations, by a failure to invite them to a ceremony at the school, and by the evasiveness of officials, and eventually this boiled over in a very un-Japanese way.  Public meetings in Japan are formulaic, polite, stuffy, and the first public meeting seemed set in that mode.  Then Toshimitsu Sasaki spoke. He has lost his son and his daughter, and he started politely “Teachers, headmaster, members of the board of education … and then the raw anger took over and he demanded to know why officials had come to the school immediately, why they wouldn’t give information, why they didn’t know, even now, the details of the loss and the pain.  He had only found his daughter’s shoe: Is my daughter a shoe? he shouted at the down-turned faces of the officials. Anger and abuse followed from many others for over two hours, and Lloyd Parry says it is difficult to exaggerate the violence of these interventions and the intensity of the emotion that they betrayed.

In exploring the stories of those who lost their children and those who searched for them for months, and in his account of the suppressed anger and the investigation and eventually the court case, Lloyd Parry also provides an insight into the nature of Japan, which although it has enjoyed an enormous economic miracle over the past half century, and is full of the trappings of the western world, is still fundamentally different at almost every level of society.  So an important part of the story is the difficulty villagers have in even asking their questions, let alone getting them answered, and the divisions which this challenge to authority created.  But at another level, we learn about the teacher who has lost a child but goes to his own job as a teacher in another school the day after the disaster.  And we learn of men and women who personally carried on the search for the bodies of their children in the suffocating mud and debris for weeks and months, sometimes finding their own sons and daughters; and of one woman who learned to drive a digger in order to be able to continue the search.  And we learn of a terrible scale of values, of the resentment that normal men and women feel for families who have “only” lost one or two children when they have lost all their children and perhaps their parents as well.

And we learn of the ghosts. I’m not sure whether the author believes in the ghosts as ghosts, I certainly don’t, but they certainly existed in the minds of the sufferers – and there are some moving stories of the patience and understanding of the priest and exorcist Taio Kaneta.  But the real ghosts, which will live for as long as life itself, are in the hearts of the parents who lost their children.

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Richard Lloyd Parry, Ghosts of the Tsunami  Penguin Random House (2017) ISBN 978-1-911214-175  251pp, hardback £16.99

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