Zelda Rhiando reviews the powerful account of a heartrending tragedy that stemmed from the wider disaster of Japan’s 2011 tsunami
‘The eleventh of March 2011 was a cold, sunny Friday, and it was the day I saw the face of my son for the first time.’
Thus begins Ghosts of the Tsunami, Richard Lloyd Parry’s astonishing non-fiction account of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in north-eastern Japan, an event that caused ‘the greatest single loss of life… since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945’. At a certain point it seems impossible to describe such devastation, although Lloyd Parry’s lyrical and clear-eyed prose is well-suited to the task:
‘Even the most intense aerial bombing leaves the walls and foundations of burned-out buildings, as well as parks and woods, roads and tracks, fields and cemeteries. The tsunami spared nothing, and achieved feats of surreal juxtaposition that no explosion could match. It plucked forests up by their roots, and scattered them miles inland. It peeled the macadam off the roads, and cast it hither and thither in buckled ribbons. It stripped houses to their foundations, and lifted cars, lorries, ships and corpses onto the top of tall buildings.’
The author finds a small tragedy to focus on within the wider catastrophe – the deaths of 74 children at Okawa primary school, near Ishinomiyaki, despite frequent disaster drills and a 700-foot-tall hill behind the building.Using his gift for character development and narrative,he introduces the reader to the parents of those children, and their quest to understand the sequence of events that led to the deaths of so many children at a single school.
This is an interesting place to start describing the effects of a quake that triggered a 120-foot tsunami, devastating the coast of north-east Japan, killing more than 18,000 people and causing meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Past a certain point, such figures become meaningless, the destruction and loss of life too vast to grasp. As an award-winning journalist who has lived in Tokyo for over 20 years, Richard Lloyd Parry is no stranger to writing about catastrophes, but he freely admits it took him some time to get a handle on this one.‘The events that constituted the disaster were so diverse and so vast in their implications that I never felt I was doing the story justice. It was like a huge and awkwardly shaped package without corners or handles… [so] it was to Okawa that I returned time and again. And it was there, at the school, that I finally became able to imagine.’
What follows is effectively two stories woven around each other. The first concerns the missing children, described with great compassion and beauty through interviews with parents at the school. The second relates the experiences of a Shinto priest, who speaks of the many exorcisms that followed the tsunami – the ‘ghosts’ of the title which must be laid to rest. Lloyd Parry follows the parents through a six-year enquiry into the sequence of events that led to the loss of their children, and provides context through the experiences of Reverend Kaneta, chief priest at a Zen temple in the town of Kurihara. Through Kaneta, we come to understand the wider impact of the disaster.This works both as a piece of investigative journalism and as an exquisite piece of writing, with stories nesting within stories, like a puzzle box that can only be teased open by coming at it from different angles, giving a little push here, a tweak there; being ever gentle, so as not to damage the delicate mechanisms that hold it together.
What really happened to the children as they waited in that school playground in the moments before the tsunami? Why did their teachers not evacuate them to safety? And why was the unbearable truth so stubbornly covered up? As Lloyd Parryexplores these stories, you can see him trying to grasp the ‘untidy package’. Butultimately, as a father, he is unable to accept, as the parents of the children do, the deaths of those young people.
‘I had had enough of Japanese acceptance,’ he writes.‘I was sick with a surfeit of gaman…Japan had enough serenity and self-restraint. What it needed now was… angry, scathing, determined people, unafraid to step out of the ranks and fight.’
It is unusual to see a journalist venturing such a personal opinion, and Lloyd Parry’s candour is both touching and. ‘There is no tidying away of loose ends to be done in a story about the deaths of young children, about the annihilation of a coast – only more stories to be told and retold in different ways.’ The story, unfortunately, follows a familiar pattern, and gradually a picture emerges of human failure, inflexibility, pride, and the obedience of children who have learnt from birth to follow the rules, not to make a fuss.‘It was another enactment of the ancient dialogue, its lines written centuries ago, between the entreating voices of women, and the oblivious, overbearing dismissiveness of old men.’