After the Deluge

Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan's Disaster Zone BY Richard Lloyd Parry. MCD. Hardcover, 320 pages. $27.

The cover of Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan's Disaster Zone

Richard Lloyd Parry’s very touching and thought-provoking book Ghosts of the Tsunami tells how the community of Okawa, Japan, was affected by the Great Tohoku Disaster: the earthquake and resulting tidal wave of March 11, 2011. On that day, the tidal surges struck Okawa’s primary school, killing seventy-four of the seventy-eight children present, and ten of the eleven teachers.

To write his account, Lloyd Parry—the Tokyo bureau chief of The Times of London and the author of the true-crime book People Who Eat Darkness—visited the locality for six years. His achievement reminds me of the documentaries of the great filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. I once asked Wiseman, “How did you ever get people to open up to you like that?” The director replied, “I don’t know how to answer that question other than that I have big ears and I try to distract some people.” I cannot say whether Lloyd Parry distracted anyone, but he certainly had big ears, and understood what he heard. Time, tact (or inconspicuousness), empathy, and patience obtained him the trust of several survivors, so that he could show us how they changed over time. A lesser writer might have exploited their ugly, gruesome stories. This man has a heart. He transmits to us not only the facts but also, through that special emotional conduction that requires both skill and sincerity, a portion of his subjects’ sufferings. In other words, you will not find this to be an uplifting book.

The tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004 provoked its own sad literature—in particular the memoir Wave (2013) by Sonali Deraniyagala, who became the sole survivor of her children, parents, and husband. Its account of the tidal wave’s preliminary inconspicuousness and shocking upswelling (“The jeep was in water then. Suddenly, all this water inside the jeep. Water sloshing over our knees. Where did this water come from?”) jibes with what I would hear from people in Fukushima when I visited the region in 2011. Next would come years of apathy, bewilderment, denial, anger, self-hatred, and alienation, followed by the scarring that the ignorant call healing.

The tale that Ghosts of the Tsunami relates is, if possible, even worse than Deraniyagala’s. You see, Deraniyagala could not have done any better than she did. One infers her guilt at not having warned her parents of the approaching wave, but she knows that had she done so, she would almost certainly have died with the rest of her family. The situation at Okawa Elementary School was different: It appears that many or all of the students and teachers might have been saved had they fled to higher ground between the earthquake and the tsunami warning. Indeed, we learn that “a handful of parents had gone to school after the earthquake, picked up their children, and taken them to safety.” And one little girl whose life was preserved in that very fashion revealed to a friend’s father, who of course told others, that in the last minutes she spent standing obediently at the assembly point with her classmates, two outspoken boys (one of them the class captain) had implored their teacher, “Sir, let’s go up the hill,” and “We’ll die if we stay here!” The teacher “shushed them and told them to remain where they were.” So they drowned. The one teacher who fled “up the hill,” together with a single boy, did survive. By the way, this teacher’s testimony later appeared to contain several fictions.

What happened at the school was not the only such apparent dereliction of authority on March 11. For instance, in obedience to the public loudspeaker, the 104-year-old javelin-thrower Takashi Shimokawara, his son, and his daughter-in-law drove away from their home, in whose upper story they would have been safe, parked at another safe place, then “calmly and obliviously walked back down the hill” to the public evacuation site, where all three drowned. Hindsight’s diagnosis, here and at Okawa Elementary School: the rigid execution of an ill-considered excuse for an evacuation plan.

Whether this judgment is fair is not for me to say. In 2011 a grandmother on hard-hit Oshima Island told me: “For 350 years our family have been living here, and our ancestors’ saying is that in the Meiji era the big tsunami could not come up to here; therefore this house is safe. If I believed the saying of the ancestors, I wouldn’t be alive.” Fukushima’s nuclear accident arose from just such thinking: The Tokyo Electric Power Company was slow to react to the possibility of so high a tidal wave; hence Reactor Plant No. 1’s backup generators were ruined.

Against the potential excuse of unforeseeability must be set the following, from the log of Okawa’s education board: “Parent: I told Takashi [the sixth-grade teacher], ‘The radio says there’s a ten-meter tsunami coming.’ I said, ‘Run up the hill!’ and pointed to the hill. I was told, ‘Calm down, ma’am.’”

In these pages, Lloyd Parry goes close and deep. To convey some idea of his method, let me now retell the tale of Naomi Hiratsuka, whose daughter Koharu died in formation with her compliant classmates. “She was a tall girl with unruly, shoulder-length hair and a plump, humorous face.”

The Hiratsukas’ village lay sufficiently upstream as to be out of sight of the tsunami. Moreover, public communications had failed following the earthquake. Immediately after the quake, Naomi prepared to collect Koharu. But her father-in-law informed her, “This is not the moment.” At first Naomi felt little worry; people said the school would be evacuated by helicopter. Of course, the next day, having heard nothing, she wanted to check on her daughter. Her father-in-law chose to make the trip himself. On his return, he said, “I think it is hopeless. You need to give up.” On the following day Naomi made her first visit to the improvised mortuary.

In April, returning over and over to the death site, she frequently encountered a heavy-equipment operator seeking to unearth his seven-year-old boy. Over time, most of the little corpses were retrieved, some from a lake two miles away. Eventually Naomi found Koharu’s backpack and one of her shoes. Over her father-in-law’s objections, she became a licensed earth mover and began to dig. In August some fishermen found Koharu’s remains in the ocean. Naomi insisted on viewing them. “The hope that I would recognize her . . . was not fulfilled.” Perhaps this explains why, after the headless, limbless body was cremated, Naomi kept digging, now with the aim of uncovering the school’s last four missing children. Later she returned to teach “at the school where Koharu would have gone.” Lloyd Parry writes, “Of all the Okawa mothers I met, Naomi was the clearest-sighted, even in the intensity of grief,” which “was glittering and sharp and appallingly bright, . . . the opposite of consoling.”

If this book had, like Deraniyagala’s, focused solely on one damaged survivor, it would have been heartrending enough. But because it considers a group of people, the theme darkens still more. “It is true,” remarks Lloyd Parry, “that people can be ‘brought together’ by catastrophe, and it is human to look to this as a consolation. But the balance of disaster is never positive.”

A home floats in the Pacific Ocean near Sendai, Japan, March 13, 2011. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dylan McCord/Flickr.
A home floats in the Pacific Ocean near Sendai, Japan, March 13, 2011. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dylan McCord/Flickr.

He describes “the men of the Ishinomaki city government” thus: “As individuals, they were tireless and self-sacrificing. . . . But when confronted by their own failure, as they were at Okawa Elementary School, personal warmth and empathy were stifled by the instinct of the collective—the instinct to protect the institution against outside attack.” As Lloyd Parry tells it, this determination to resist accountability divided the community.

“Naomi Hiratsuka and Sayomi Shito were scarcely more than nodding acquaintances before the disaster. After it, they grew to hate each other.” While the former kept digging for corpses, the latter became one of the many parents whose rage led them to be “hecklers of the principal and his colleagues.”

Shito had lost her own daughter Chisato, who was found much sooner than Koharu Hiratsuka—but who would dare say which woman suffered more? “There were no towels and no water, so I licked Chisato’s eyes with my tongue to wash off the muck, but I couldn’t get them clean, and the muck kept coming out.”

This devastated mother began “pursuing a systematic investigation into the truth about what had happened at the school.” Apparently she supposed that she and Naomi Hiratsuka were performing two complementary aspects of one task, but “their denunciations of the education board threatened the delicate architecture of relationships built up by Naomi, who depended upon the goodwill of the city government for diggers, for fuel, and for the permissions necessary to continue her search.”

Meanwhile, Shito and other outspoken parents “began to suspect . . . an obsession with avoiding anything that could be taken as an admission of liability.” In due course the former principal would apologize for “carelessness,” but not (in response to a bereaved parent’s hostile question) for “negligence.”

In 2014 the families of twenty-three dead pupils sued the city and the prefecture in district court. In 2016 they won large financial damages. But because the court did not single out the principal, teachers, or the board of education, in Lloyd Parry’s judgment (reinforced by the one parent he quotes), it “completely failed to concern itself with the things that mattered to the parents the most.”

This powerful and thoughtful arrangement of testimonies, enriched by time, change, and some descriptive talent, would have been better still had the author been more temperate in the expression of his prejudices. His own evident horror and compassion do him credit. How can I be against him for opening his heart to us? But I fail to see the usefulness of his characterization of Naomi Hiratsuka’s father-in-law. Lloyd Parry portrays old Hiratsuka as an “uncommunicative man; ‘traditional’ would have been the polite way of describing his conception of family and the appropriate behavior of its members.” (Lloyd Parry implicitly asks: What if Naomi had defied him and gone to get Koharu following the earthquake? But there is no way to know. Perhaps she would have drowned in the tsunami, or just maybe Koharu would still be alive.)

And Kaneta, a Buddhist priest exhausted after years of ministering to survivors, but still doing his best to accompany them to some kind of acceptance, inspires the following judgment: “There were few men whom I respected more than Kaneta. But in my gut, I rejected what he said. I had had enough of Japanese acceptance; I was sick with a surfeit of gaman. . . . What [Japan] needed now were . . . angry, scathing, determined people.”

In case you are wondering, gaman translates roughly as “perseverance” or “patience.” A related word, ganbarō, is an exhortation that means something like “stick to it” (my interpreter used to render it as “cheer up”). In an earlier passage Mr. Lloyd Parry remarks:

Banners reading Ganbarō Tohoku! were often to be seen in stations and public buildings. . . . Was it really a source of consolation to people newly homeless and bereaved to be told, in effect, to tough it out like a marathon runner? . . . Tohoku people were famous for their gaman. It was what had fortified them over the centuries against cold, poverty, and unrest. It was also, I suspected, what had made them susceptible to their historical role as Japan’s exploited.

It seems inappropriate for Lloyd Parry, who after all was an outsider, to have “had enough” of Japanese anything. And his open doubt that Ganbarō Tohoku! could be “a source of consolation to people newly homeless and bereaved” strikes me as an empathetic failure.

One of the mud-smothered places I saw in 2011 was the city of Ishinomaki, where, as Lloyd Parry notes, 20 percent of the fatalities caused by the tsunami occurred. Okawa Elementary School lies at no great distance from here. I remember a survivor in Ishinomaki calmly telling me that “of course” her family’s lives would now become better, not worse, because “unless you think that way, you cannot advance.” She even said, “To console my dead mother-in-law, I would like my two sons to work hard to rebuild this city.” I cannot pretend that in her shoes I would ever think this way. But I would never dream of running down her magnificent Tohoku stoicism as some kind of false consciousness.

With well-meant interjections, Lloyd Parry mars his own achievement, which is too bad. This significant lapse aside, Ghosts of the Tsunami approaches the highest standards of journalism.

William T. Vollmann’s novel Europe Central (Viking) won the 2005 National Book Award. He is working on a study of nuclear- and carbon-based fuels.