Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $27
On March 11, 2011, one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded struck the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan, generating an enormous tsunami that led to twin disasters. One we continue to hear about: the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. It was a warning bell for the dangers of nuclear power everywhere; years later, the plant’s operators are still desperately trying to stop radiation from leaking into the region’s groundwater. No one knows what the final impact of the radiation released during and after the meltdown will be, but, miraculously, no one died at Fukushima Daiichi that day.
But it is the other disaster, the terrifyingly high wave that swept over a swath of the coast, that haunts Richard Lloyd Parry, a veteran British foreign correspondent who has long lived in Japan. “By the time the sea retreated,” he writes, “18,500 people had been crushed, burned to death, or drowned. It was the greatest single loss of life in Japan since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945.”
Lloyd Parry describes an aerial film of the tsunami
that plays and replays in my imagination. … Something is moving across the landscape as if it is alive, a brown-snouted animal hungrily bounding over the earth. Its head is a scum of splintered debris; entire cars bob along on its back. It seems to steam and smoke as it moves; its body looks less like water or mud than a kind of solid vapour. And then a large boat can be seen riding it inland, hundreds of yards from the sea, and—unbelievably—blue-tiled houses, still structurally intact, spinning across the inundated fields with orange flames dancing on their roofs. The creature turns a road into a river, then swallows it whole. … At its peak, the water was 120 feet high.
Returning again later in his book to this “creature,” Lloyd Parry makes clear that it did not look like “the wave from the famous woodblock print by Hokusai: blue-green and cresting elegantly in tentacles of foam.” Instead, “it stank of brine, mud and seaweed. Most disturbing of all were the sounds it generated as it collided with, and digested, the stuff of the human world: the crush and squeal of wood and concrete, metal and tile. … It was as if neighbourhoods, villages, whole towns were being placed inside the jaws of a giant compressor and crushed.”
The safest places in Japan in which to survive an earthquake or tsunami are schools. They have “the most resilient and strictly regulated construction in the world,” warning systems, and evacuation drills. But in one place this went horribly wrong. Seventy-five children died in Japanese schools when the tsunami hit, and 74 of them were at the Okawa Primary School. They died even though there was a nearby hill, above the high-water mark, that they could have climbed, and tsunami warnings had been sounding for nearly an hour before the deadly mountain of water and debris swept over the building. This tragedy is Lloyd Parry’s main subject.
The parents of the school’s children are crazed with grief. Those who lost sons and daughters are helplessly jealous of those whose children survived; those who have at least found their child’s body are envied by those who have not. They consult psychics. One mother learns how to operate earth-moving equipment and spends months fruitlessly digging through mud in search of her lost daughter. Part of the girl’s body is finally found five months later, but floating in the sea.
Why weren’t the students evacuated? Incompetent school officials, despite regulations, failed to plan for a danger that was invisible—the Okawa school, out of sight of the sea, was more than two miles inland. Gradually, overcoming a deep cultural belief that aggressively badgering those in authority is “unforgivably bad manners,” some of the bereaved parents press for answers, question survivors, and force nervously evasive school officials to appear at a series of hearings. The Japanese-speaking Lloyd Parry seems to have been there for every part of the process. Finally a group of parents files a lawsuit. This is a highly unusual thing to do, because courts are loath to issue verdicts that upset in any way the traditional lines of authority. Japan, Lloyd Parry writes, is hobbled by a “cult of quietism that had choked this country for so long.” Just as you entrust the sick to a hospital, you entrust your children to a school.
In something of a surprise, a panel of three judges eventually orders the local government to pay damages to the parents. But reluctant to upset any apple carts, the judges say nothing about whether the school had a proper evacuation plan (it clearly did not), or whether the failure to lead the children up the hill, or to evacuate them in a school bus standing by with its motor running, was criminal negligence.
Although Lloyd Parry has a few too many characters to easily keep track of, his writing is always graceful and filled with compassion for these small-town folk who lost what was most valuable to them in the world, their sons and daughters. If there is a larger echo to this book, it is the suggestion that the very qualities that can make a society orderly, clean, and crime-free sometimes can be fatal. In the last minutes before the tsunami hit, school officials and teachers mustered their pupils outside, made sure everyone was lined up by class and wearing protective plastic helmets and coats against the cold, and marched them toward a traffic island. This would have gotten them safely out of the way if the school had been on fire, but was no protection whatever against a wave of water, crushed houses, and uprooted trees that, at its peak, was the height of an 11-story building. Several boys urged their teachers that they all run up the nearby hill, and started to do so. They were called back and silenced. These children, and their classmates, died of obedience.