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A Journalist Confronts the Japanese Tsunami

In "Ghosts of the Tsunami," Richard Lloyd Parry asks: How can you write about a disaster beyond comprehension?

Sadatsugu Tomizawa/AFP/Getty

On the cold and sunny Friday of March 11, 2011, a powerful series of earthquakes shook Japan. The epicenter of the quake was northeast of the main island of Honshu, in the northeast region of Japan known as Tohoku. Richard Lloyd Parry, the correspondent for the Times of London in Japan, was in his Tokyo office when the quake occurred. Japanese buildings are generally well-fortified to withstand quakes, and the building where Lloyd Parry’s office was located suffered no damage. Tokyo generally was unaffected, though reports trickling in from the regions closer to the epicenter started to report casualties. The afternoon of the quake, Lloyd Parry tweeted, “No deaths in Tokyo so far. My hunch is that there will be scores, perhaps low hundreds in NE Japan, but no more. Not megadeath.”

GHOSTS OF THE TSUNAMI By Richard Lloyd Parry
MCD / Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 320 pp., $27

Lloyd Parry might have been correct in his “not megadeath” prediction, if it weren’t for what happened after the quake. The first disaster to follow—which, miraculously, resulted in no direct casualties—was a meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. This was the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. What could be worse than a nuclear meltdown, you might wonder? A tsunami. As Lloyd Parry describes all three events:

It was the biggest earthquake ever known to have struck Japan, and the fourth most powerful in the history of seismology. It knocked the Earth ten inches off its axis; it moved Japan four feet closer to America. In the tsunami that followed, 18,500 people were drowned, burned or crushed to death. At its peak, the water was 120 feet high. Half a million people were driven out of their homes. Three plutonium reactors in the Fukushima Dai-ichi power station melted down, spilling their radioactivity across the countryside … The earthquake and tsunami caused more than $210 billion of damage, making it the most costly natural disaster ever.

It was also the worst national crisis in Japan since World War II. Fearing more nuclear mishaps, Japan quickly shut down all of its nuclear power plants, resulting in power outages for 2.5 million people. Between the meltdown and the tsunami many villages and towns were destroyed, never to be rebuilt. Lloyd Parry writes, “A generalized dread took hold, the fear of an invisible poison spread through air, water—even, it was said, through a mother’s milk.” More powerful than that generalized dread, though, were the tsunami’s devastating effects, which is where Lloyd Parry focuses his reporting and analysis in this harrowing book.

The primary story Lloyd Parry tells in the book is that of the Okawa Primary School, which was destroyed in the tsunami. It is by focusing on this singular disaster that Lloyd Parry finds he can come to grips with the world historical events he has just lived through. “The events that constituted the disaster were so diverse, and so vast in their implications, that I never felt like I was doing the story justice. It was like a huge and awkwardly shaped package without corners or handles: however many ways I tried, it was impossible to hoist it off the ground,” he writes. The slipperiness of the tragedy forces Lloyd Parry to imagine and report on the horrors people in northeast Japan were in the grips of: missing relatives swept away by the tsunami, homes destroyed save for what people could grab, and possessions lost in the power of the unquenchable wave. Because of his focus on the school, Lloyd Parry, a father of two, does his best to empathize with the parents of Okawa’s children. It is these people—along with the few children who survived the tragedy and discussed it with Lloyd Parry—who emerge as the downtrodden yet heroic figures of the book, which tells a story that desperately needs heroes.

But Perry does not feel good about his work. “I interviewed survivors, evacuees, politicians, and nuclear experts, and reported day by day on the feckless squirming of the Japanese authorities,” he says of his reporting in northeast Japan. I wrote scores of newspaper articles, hundreds of fizzy tweets, and was interviewed on radio and television. And yet the experience felt like a disordered dream.” What finally makes the tsunami concrete to Lloyd Parry is hearing it described again and again by survivors. They use the same word over and over: jigoku, translated as hell. He clarifies, “The image they had in mind was not the conventional landscape of lurid demons and extravagant, fiery tortures. There are other hells in Japanese iconography—hells of ice and water, mud and excrement, in which naked figures, stripped of all dignity, lie scattered across a broken plain.” This is as close as Lloyd Parry can get to comprehending the tsunami.

Okawa primary school had 108 children in attendance on March 11. Of the 78 who were not picked up early by their parents (there was a rush to pick up children after the earthquake and before the tsunami) or absent that day, 74, died in the disaster. So did 10 of the 11 teachers. The parents who picked up their children did so after the radio warned of an Ō-tsunami, translated as “super-tsunami,” with waves expected to reach up to 20 feet (the actual waves were much, much higher). Those parents whose children survived later found themselves at odds with their neighbors who had lost a child in the disaster. Friendships crumbled, neighbors ceased to be neighborly, and alliances formedespecially among those whose children were missing, as they continued to search for any traces of them long after the disaster was over. The community around Okawa Primary School became a symbolic center of the tragedy.

Lloyd Parry went to the area around the school for the first time in September 2011. He had been visiting the tsunami zone before that, though it was hard to reach by car and the trains were not running yet. In the fishing villages and the small inland towns of the region he saw the wrath the tsunami had wrought. Still, he writes, the scenery was beautiful:

This was the prospect revealed to us as we drove along the Kitatami [River] into Okawa that morning: the arching sky; the green hills divided from one another by valleys packed with rice; villages at the edge of the fields; and, in the hazy distance, lagoon and sea. It was an ideal, archetypal scene: farm and forest, fresh and salt water, nature and humanity in balance.

Though stereotypes cast the Tohoku residents as yokels, Lloyd Parry finds them sophisticated, if slightly more rugged due to the rough terrain and harsh climate of the region. They were less fussy about their appearances than he was used to from living in Tokyo. Their messy hair and layers of clothes were meant to keep bodies warm in the colder months. The region had been hit by tsunamis before: in 1585, 1611, 1677, 1687, 1689, 1716, 1793, 1868, and 1894. The most destructive tsunami before 2011 was the Meji Sanriku Tsunami of 1896, which killed 22,000 people. Many of the older residents of the region also remembered the tsunami in 1933, which had waves as high as 100 feet and killed 3,000 people. These were hardy folk, not inclined to grouse about the weather, even in its extremes, which is part of why the tragedy at the school hit so hard.

Lloyd Parry tells the story of a mother named Naomi, an English teacher who was the mother of an Okawa student lost during the tsunami. The student, Koharu,
was one of the missing, and Naomi joined with the other parents who searched the school during the days it was declared safe to be in the area again. Naomi is also one of the many parents who consulted a psychic during this time, to both speak to the spirit of her daughter and to help locate her—or any trace of her (she is one of the lucky parents: Her daughter’s remains were eventually found and buried). Lloyd Parry is struck by Naomi’s practical nature and her reaction to the loss of her daughter: “Of all the Okawa mothers I met, Naomi was the clearest-sighted, even in the intensity of grief. For many of those who experienced it, the tragedy of the tsunami was formless, black and ineffable, an immense and overwhelming monster that blocked out the sun. But to Naomi, no less stricken than the others, it was glittering and sharp and appallingly bright.” It is that brightness that Lloyd Parry seeks in his conversations with the people associated with the Okawa school. There is no answer to the overweening question of why the disaster happened. But there are answers to how, and both Lloyd Parry and the parents he interviews want as much information as possible as to why the school did not evacuate the pupils to higher ground. It’s a search for justice that becomes a search for lost possibility. Both Perry and the parents grapple with the futility of searching for ways to to save children who have already been lost.

Much of the book focuses on the question of the actions of the administrators and teachers at the Okawa school, and the steps taken by the parents in search of justice. But one of the most startling moments of the book is a description of the tsunami by a government functionary named Teruo Konno. Konno describes his ordeal in terrifying detail. As the building he worked in was hit by the tsunami, he was surrounded by swirling water. “I never heard anything like it, Konno says. It was partly the rushing of the water, but also the sound of timber, twisting and tearing.” Lloyd Parry explains, “In the space of five minutes, the entire community of 80 houses had been physically uprooted and thrust, bobbing, against the barrier of the hills.” It is in these accounts that we finally can start to comprehend what the experience of the tsunami was like. It’s hard to think about the waves crashing on the beach in quite the same way, so powerful is Ghosts of the Tsunami. Lloyd Parry’s account is truly haunting, and remains etched in the brain and the heart long after the book is over.