Richard Lloyd Parry’s Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone is a sober and moving account of what happened in the Tõhuku region of the northeastern part of Honshu during the tsunami of 2011.
Parry is a British journalist who has long been based in Japan. He’s written at least one other book, a true crime story that’s meant to be very good. Here he expertly contextualizes his material for non-Japanese readers while keeping his telling economical in his telling.
At the center of the book is an investigation of what happened at Okawa Elementary School, where a failure to follow evacuation protocols led to the deaths of 74 children and 10 teachers.
Parry details what went wrong at the school and turns a pitiless eye on the generally fairly ineffectual attempts of the surviving school officials to deny their responsibility. But he is most interested in the psychological costs of the disaster, and he is most interesting when he refuses to consider any aspect of the event as redemptive.
As he puts it in one of the book’s most memorable passages:
It is true 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. New human bonds were made after the tsunami, old ones became stronger; there were countless remarkable displays of selflessness and self-sacrifice. These we remember and celebrate. We turn away from what is also commonplace: the destruction of friendship and trust; neighbors at odds; the enmity of friends and relatives. A tsunami does to human connectedness the same thing that it does to roads, bridges, and homes. And in Okawa, and everywhere in the tsunami zone, people fell to quarrelling and reproaches, and felt the bitterness of injustice and envy, and fell out of love.
Parry is never ghoulish about the societal and interpersonal destruction levied by the disaster. If anything, he is rather matter of fact. But he makes us feel the loss strongly—think about his double use of “falling” in that last sentence. Parry returns to a handful of individuals and families, people he met and got to know in his repeated trips to the region. So when he describes the breakdown of love and trust between and even within individuals we don’t just have to take him at his word; instead we see it happening.
I was first drawn to the book by an engaging review in the TLS. The article made much of the material that gives the book its title, namely, the extraordinary phenomenon of people who, in the weeks and months after the event, felt themselves to be possessed by the ghosts of people who had died, spirits not yet at rest. In Japanese culture, Parry explains, “when people die violently or prematurely, in anger or anguish, they are at risk of becoming gaki, ‘hungry ghosts’, who wander between worlds, propagating curses and mischief.” Parry meets a Buddhist priest named Reverend Kaneda, who lives in a town thirty miles inland, near the tsunami zone but far enough away from it to have been spared. People began to come to Kaneda, reporting to him, in some mixture of embarrassment or horror, things they could not remember doing: shouting and snarling at loved ones, even telling them they must die. They described seeing bedraggled, mud-soaked, flickering people that others could not see. Kaneda prays with them, talks with them, engages with the people or personalities possessing them as a therapist might. He reasons and urges and cajoles and soothes: the ghosts, mollified, disappear.
It’s compelling stuff. But it only takes up the last part of the book. What Parry is more interested in, I think, and what really stuck with me, is the way disasters can be prepared for. When those preparations are good and when people follow the routines that have been prescribed for them, outcomes are, if not good, then at least less bad. Many schools were in the tsunami zone. Only at Okawa did so many children die.
In this regard, Parry’s book reminded me of a strange but fascinating and, to my mind, underappreciated book I read several years ago. Elaine Scarry’s Thinking in an Emergency argues that thinking and habit can go together, indeed, that the best way to prepare for an emergency is to think beforehand so that when disaster strikes habit can take its course, the way those who know CPR are drilled extensively so that they are able to react without thinking and without hesitation in the moment of crisis.
Parry reveals that in Tõhuku, and at Okawa in particular, these protocols—of which there are many in Japan: earthquakes and tsunamis are regular occurrences and the Japanese have thought deeply about the best way to respond to them—were ignored. In the terrible twenty or thirty minutes between the alerts and the arrival of the tsunami, the teachers at the school, for whatever reason, didn’t follow the plan. Even when some of the children asked why they weren’t moving to higher ground—we know this because a few bolted up the hillside behind the school and managed to escape the wave—they went instead the other direction, towards the onrushing wave.
The failure to observe protocol, to follow the procedures everyone had practiced so many times before is by no means unique to Japan. (On the contrary, as I’ve said, the country is admirable in disaster readiness—it is one of the societies, as Scarry notes in her book, which inspired her idea that we need to practice our responses to emergencies so that when they strike habit takes over.) But Parry considers a particularly Japanese aspect to the story: the reluctance of those in authority to admit to the mistakes they made, which led some of the parents of the victims to take those officials to court, a highly unusual move in a country where the good faith of governments and local authorities is rarely challenged.
Parry never comes out and says so, but there must be some sort of connection between the parents’ refusal of the historical Japanese effacement of the individual in the face of the collective (don’t rock the boat, don’t challenge the authorities) and the more dramatic effacement of their very personalities experienced by the survivors possessed by ghosts. In both cases, violent, angry, we might say unseemly emotions are expressed, though of course with the difference that whereas at least in Parry’s telling the parents suing the school district are heroes for breaking a cultural code of silence, the possessed come to Reverend Kaneda because they long to be released from the violent spirits inhabiting them. In the first case, the idea is to be liberated from effacement; in the second effacement is a burden to be undone at any cost.
The idea of effacement carries over into Parry’s style. There is something pleasingly old-fashioned about his way of telling. Although he begins the book by describing how, far away in Tokyo, he experienced the earthquake that led to the tsunami as a minor irritation, and although he is often present in the story, returning to Tõhuku again and again in the years that follow the disaster, getting to know the people who feature in his narrative quite well, he doesn’t make a big deal of himself. I can imagine a lot of other writers making a lot more of their own response to the events.
The book itself is similarly modest. Although it suggests some serious and thought-provoking questions—what does it means for a society to respond to disaster? What is the relation between psychological and physical damages—Ghosts of the Tsunami resists making grand claims, and in fact ends rather abruptly after the section on Kaneda. In keeping with his rejection of an uplifting narrative, Parry, in telling Kaneda’s story, emphasizes not the man’s accomplishments but rather the toll the work took on him—he eventually had to give it up after it brought him to the verge of a breakdown.
Given Parry’s refusal of redemption, it feels wrong to call the book a triumph. But it’s certainly good at what it does. Parry writes carefully, precisely, and very movingly. In so doing, he indirectly attains larger, more general or theoretical significance. By focusing on a small piece of an almost unimaginable event, Parry allows us to think about disaster and trauma more generally. Grief, Parry writes, “doesn’t resolve anything, any more than a blow to the head or a devastating illness.” To say that Parry’s book doesn’t come to specific resolutions is to say nothing less than that it does justice to its subject.