Waves of grief and remembrance have been rolling across Japan as the tragic events of a decade ago come into a stark, renewed focus on their anniversary.
At 14.56, Japan standard time, on March 11, 2011, a monster was unleashed.
Twenty miles (32km) under the surface of the Pacific, six minutes of massive seismic activity shifted the seafloor 45 miles (72km) off Tohoku, off Japan’s eastern coast. The activity was so violent, it literally shifted the earth’s axis.
It generated the most powerful earthquake ever to strike the island nation, but even more devastating were waterborne shockwaves, which, rising from the depths, generated a procession of tsunamis. Some approached 40 meters in height.
When these walls of water made landfall, they struck with the force of a Biblical cataclysm.
Television viewers around the world watched aghast as live aerial footage captured a great, black wave storming inland, crushing all before it. Towns, villages, buildings, vehicles and humans in its path were consumed in the storm surge of dark water and tumbling debris.
The fallout remains with Japan – and the world – to this day.
The failsafes of the Fukushima nuclear power plant proved infamously fallible, resulting in a meltdown that remains unresolved.
That situation caused governments far beyond Japan to look anew at their energy mix. With many retreating from nuclear, the disaster posed towering questions about energy policies that are still largely unaddressed.
Damage estimates exceeded $200 billion, making it the world’s most expensive disaster. But it was the human cost that was most colossal. It devoured the lives of nearly 19,000 people, making it the largest-scale killing event to visit Japan since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
It is the human tragedy that author Richard Lloyd Parry focuses on in Ghosts of the Tsunami. The book appeared in 2017, but has renewed relevance on this somber anniversary.
The work does not attempt to cover the macro disaster – a canvas too vast to paint upon with detail and sensitivity. Instead, it focuses on a micro tragedy at the very heart of the catastrophe – the annihilation of the Okawa Primary School in the village of Kamaya, where 173 children lost their lives.
Through the prism of this human-scale tragedy, Lloyd Parry gazes into the psychology of grief and probes the soul of Japan.
Japan is a nation of scale, of sophistication, and of contrasts. The world’s third-largest economy, it is a powerhouse exporter of both culture – cuisine, martial arts, manga and anime and industrial products – cars, cameras and appliances.
Formerly demonized for its World War II brutality, it is today beloved for its quirkiness and cuteness. A flickering, nation-sized stage of 21st technologies, Japan is also home to an ancient culture.
Tokyo-based Briton Lloyd Parry knows this terrain well.
The long-time Asia correspondent of The Times of London, he previously traversed the dark underbelly of Japan with his 2012 investigation into the disappearance of a British bar hostess, People Who Eat Darkness. Prior to that, he had walked readers through the carnage that followed the implosion of Indonesia’s Suharto regime in 2007’s In the Time of Madness.
Ghosts of the Tsunami, while covering some similar territory to the previous two works, is considerably more poignant and – in this reviewer’s opinion – is the finest of the three.
Tsunami, ground zero
Walking a tightrope between sensitivity and anger, Lloyd Parry draws unflinching on-page portraits of what happened on that “cold, sunny Friday” and its aftermath. The events at the book’s ground zero – “the school under the wave” – are recreated in agonizing detail.
We enter the village of Kamaya (population: 393), a hamlet set amid a “Japanese Arcadia” of wooded hills and paddy field through which a river – which will become a deadly vector for the tsunami’s surge – gently meanders.
We meet the parents of children who will never come home. We walk the halls and classrooms of the doomed school. We encounter the teachers and officials who failed in their duties.
And minute by minute, we relive the events of that March day when a great wind – which made a strange sound no one had heard before – blew from the sea, and a great tsunami loomed into view over Kamaya’s roofs as it raced toward the village.
Sentences and fragments of text leap off the pages.
A forest of 20,000 trees lining a river mouth is washed three miles inland. In this 21st century disaster, the stench of rotting fish and muddy ooze substitutes for the acrid stink of radioactive ash from Japan’s last great disaster, Nagasaki. Cars, trucks, vessels and bodies are deposited on the tops of tall buildings
Central to the work is a mystery. How and why did one teacher survive as the column of little children – mustered in response to warnings of a distant disaster, and heading on foot toward a nearby traffic island – was engulfed?
As post-disaster psychological dramas play out, conflicting behaviors become apparent.
Some parents take quiet, introspective approaches to their shock. Some take on missions: One father searches for months in black mud for the remains of his son. Others, appalled at the failed disaster response, take on a deeply embarrassed officialdom.
A formerly tranquil community is riven – particularly by the striking insensitivity of the school’s headmaster, who survived as a result of his coincidental absence on the day of the tragedy.
Ghosts of grief
However, the book delves into matters that go beyond the temporal. Here, Lloyd Parry parts the veil covering the high-tech Japan of the 21st century, to reveal a deeper culture of supernatural beliefs. It is from these scenes that the book gains its title.
An 11-year-old child has a terrible premonition – a nightmare in which “the school is gone.” But the eeriest scenes are post-traumatic. They are the stuff of Japanese horror.
A builder who had walked amid the devastation finds himself engaged in frighteningly bizarre behaviors toward his family, as if possessed by spirits. A line of spectral figures, covered in mud, walk past his home
A Zen priest, engaged in post-disaster community outreach, recalls inexplicable experiences: A fire station receives calls from villages of the dead; the ghost of an elderly woman visits the homes of her neighbors, leaving seawater stains on their seating. And a medium, besieged by a legion of restless spirits, requires exorcism herself.
All this plays out against a contrasting traumascape: Japan’s “cult of quietism” collides with “angry, scathing, determined people” who scream at authority in a despairing search for answers.
The rekindled agonies of the catastrophe on its 10th anniversary suggest that the tsunami’s ghosts still walk. Anyone interested in the mighty tragedy of March 11, 2011, or the wider nature of human trauma, will find Lloyd Parry’s work haunting reading.