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Book Review: Ghosts Of The Tsunami: Death And Life In Japan’s Disaster Zone

A deeply moving book by Richard Lloyd Parry!

Ghosts of the TsunamiAt 2.46pm Japan time on the 11th March 2011 a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck off the Pacific coast of Tohoku. The earthquake moved Japan’s main island of Honshu 2.4 meters further east, moved the earth on its axis by between 10 – 25 cm, and at the time dropped Honshu’s Pacific coast by around one meter. It triggered massive tsunamis, some of which were up to 40.5 meters (133 feet) in height, some of which travelled up to 10km (6 miles) inland.

As is pointed out in the book it wasn’t the earthquake which caused most of the damage; most of Japan’s physical infrastructure is built to cope, even with an earthquake of such magnitude. It was the subsequent tsunamis which caused most of the devastation to the coastal environment and took such a toll in human life; 19,575 as of September 2017.

The book doesn’t so much cover the disaster from an overarching perspective instead, while taking into account what happened in the surrounding countryside, it focuses predominantly on the tragedy surrounding the events at Kamaya village’s Okawa Primary School, located 200 miles north of Tokyo in the Tohoku region.

To begin with Parry’s account covers the experience of two families, specifically those of two mothers and the children that they lost; Sayomi and her daughter Chisato, and Hitomi and her son Daisuke. The account switches back and forth between the two families which can be a little perplexing – Japanese names can sometimes be initially difficult to remember and at first this makes it a little tricky to follow the narrative. However, after these initial testimonies, the narrative weave does become much easier to follow, and follow the unfolding disaster and its aftermath Parry does with great dignity albeit at times tinged with increasingly incredulous frustration and anger.

As a Westerner its understood that, as a matter of course, sometimes what is required to get out of a tight corner is what we call taking the initiative and what is astonishing but not unexpected in this narrative are the accounts that highlight the inability of those supposedly in charge that day for once to break out of the consensual Japanese group dynamic of expected behaviour. This is made most evident in the almost homage like acquiescence of the teachers, and their ultimately fatal bounded obedience, to the school’s out of date and un-reviewed Education Plan. This is compounded by the traditional dominance of the old men of the village and their, also ultimately fatal, ‘turning of a blind eye’ to the reality of the situation, in spite of the pleas of some of the children. This is later juxtaposed by the local communities’ rage which, in spite of the culturally acceptable Japanese group behavioural dynamic, bursts into view with a vengeance during and after many fruitless meetings with the Education Board and school authorities who are complicit in their attempts to cover up the truth and to displace the villager’s bitterness and anger with formal taciturn responses and the disappearance of some of the detailed testimony.

74 of the 108 children and 10 adults at the school died.

Okawa Primary School Asahi Shimbun

Okawa Primary School (Asahi Shimbun)

One of the most distressing chapters is that about the local population’s post tsunami experience of the supernatural. Whether or not you believe in ghosts or think their manifestation is of the mind some of the stories in this chapter are deeply deeply disturbing, some less so, yet at the same time incredibly moving; a taxi driver giving a ghost a ride to his now non-existent home, an old neighbour who visits families affected by the disaster in their temporary homes sitting on a cushion which she leaves soaking wet with seawater when she departs, and the most disturbing and tear inducing account being that of the haunting of Takeshi Ono (an alias) and his need for a priest’s help and eventual release from ghostly torture.

Not for the faint hearted, this account is tear inducing, heart-breaking, immensely frustrating, heart-warming and rage inducing in turns. Ultimately the book is a cathartic read especially if, like this reviewer, the reader had any involvement in the post tsunami rescue efforts. However though the Kamaya village community, who suffered so much trauma and loss, do achieve some sort of success in spite of the adversity they meet in their attempts to challenge the authorities, the triumph is ultimately empty of real emotional resolution; they still mourn and their children are still dead.

Okawa childrens schoolbags Yuriko Nakao

Okawa childrens schoolbags (Yuriko Nakao)

A deeply moving book by Richard Lloyd Parry the British correspondent and writer and Asia Editor for the Times. Parry’s previous books include ‘In a Time of Madness’ (Cape 2005) about Suharto’s ascendancy in Indonesia and Parry’s personal experience as a witness, and ‘People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman’ (Vintage 2012). Parry moved to Tokyo in 1995 to work for the Independent newspaper and then The Times.


Tirle: Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone

Author: Richard Lloyd Parry

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

ISBN-10: 1911214179 (ISBN-13: 978-1911214175)

Price: £11.89

Available from Amazon.co.uk 

Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

Related Posts:

Japan Earthquake & Tsunami-related posts


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