Thursday 29 March 2018

Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry

When I was a preschool teacher, I used to tell a drawing story about tsunami's.

It's over ten years since I last told it, but it involved painting simple images on a large sheet of paper as I recited the story about a small Japanese seaside village, complete with rice fields, a hill and an old man. At some point there was an earthquake and the old man noticed the sea receding. All the villagers race down to the shore to see what was happening. But the old man remembers the stories his grandfather told him about the last time the sea disappeared, so with the help of his young grandson & a fire in the rice stacks, he gets all the villagers safely to the top of the hill....just in time to see the sea come surging back to wipe out the village below.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai 1829-33

Painting the big blue wave that wiped out the village was always a dramatic, powerful moment during the story telling and the old man's final comment, 'that's why I set fire to the rice stacks' left the children speechless.

After the 2004 tsunami, I remember hearing a story about a young girl who saved her entire resort thanks to a lesson her teacher had taught about tsumanis earlier in the year. I was not only moved by the possibility that a story lesson told to a class of children by a teacher on the other side of the world could save hundreds of lives, but that all the adults at the Indonesian resort actually listened to and believed the young girl.

The story I told my classes over the years was based on The Tale of Hamaguchi Gohei and the Tsunami. I found a retelling of it on this Japanese Children's Literature blog.

I did wonder, seven years later, how it was that so many lives were lost in the 2011 tsunami that hit Northern Honshu. Given what we all now know about receding sea levels, why wasn't everyone on higher ground as soon as they saw the sea disappear? And how did an entire primary school get overwhelmed by the wave when all the other local schools evacuated to higher ground?

Richard Lloyd Parry's book, Ghosts of the Tsunami was always going to call my name for all of these reasons and more.

The very first thing I realised when I looked at the maps in the front of the book, is that many of the villages consumed by water were not by the sea. There was a river, the Kitakami. The tsunami was funnelled down the river to the low-lying villages further downstream. They didn't see the sea recede, they were too far away and by the time the severity of the tsunami was realised, the lines of communication were down.

Parry is a journalist based in Tokyo. He's been there since 1995. Since 2011 he has been visiting and interviewing the survivors and bereaved to understand what happened and to document what the ongoing impact has been.

Only two forces can inflict greater damage than a tsunami: collision with an asteroid, or nuclear explosion.

Huge tsunamis recur along the Sendai plain every 800-1000 years, but lesser ones can occur every decade. The most destructive, with 22 000 deaths, was the 1896 Meiji Sanriku Tsunami. Another one in 1933 killed 3000 people. The 1960 tsunami that was result of the largest ever recorded earthquake off the coast of Chile (9.5 magnitude) killed 142.

'Tsunami stones' mark the high water point of previous tsunamis. However the 2011 undersea megathrust earthquake was the biggest to ever hit Japan (9.0-9.1 magnitude). It was also,

the fourth most powerful in the history of seismology. It knocked the Earth six and half inches off its axis; it moved Japan thirteen feet closer to America. In the tsunami that followed more than 18 000 people were killed. At its peak, the water was 120 feet high.

The tsunami was not just one big wave like the painting above (or even the design on the front cover of the book) suggests, but a series of pulses, 'washing in and washing out again, weaving over, under and across one another.'

The elderly were more likely to die than the young - 54% of the dead were over 65 years of age.

All but one school in the area got all their children to safety.

However great the catastrophe of 2011, the damage caused would have been many times worse if it had happened in any other country....Japan's sea walls, warning systems and evacuation drills saved an uncountable number of lives.

The first half of the book focused on the tragedy of the school while the second half was more about the grieving process. The particularly Japanese version of grief was discussed as well as all the variants and nuances that followed this specific event that depended on if you lost a child or not, how long it took you to find your loved ones' bodies, whether you lost your home or not, your entire family or just one or two members. All these subtle ways of feeling pain and trauma and loss were sensitively explored by Parry.

The aftermath of the tsunami brought people together, but it also tore some apart. The anguish of the survivors and parents from Okawa Primary School is unimaginable and it was heartbreaking to see that over time, they became a divided community.

When grief is raw, the presence of the deceased is overwhelming.

Parry's journalistic style makes this book easier to read than you might first think. It's horrifying and frightening and so very, very sad, but Parry has kept a professional distance that allows the reader an insight without succumbing to despair or helplessness.

He spent time exploring the nature of Japanese submissiveness and their acceptance of death by mother nature. I was also fascinated by the acceptance of ghosts, the use of mediums and the importance of ancestor worship in Japanese culture.

A fire station in Tagajo received calls to places where all the houses had been destroyed by the tsunami. The crews went out to the ruins anyway, prayed for the spirits of those who had died - and the ghostly calls ceased.

Knowing that the Kanto plain where Tokyo has been built is well overdue for it's next large quake is not necessarily comforting to one about to travel there. Apparently these big, devastating quakes happen every 60-70 years. The last one was in 1923.

You do the math!

Image source


  1. That tsunami...I still see the images and I know exactly where I was in 2011.
    Cultures deal with grief in different ways. The Dutch seem to bottle it up. Grief was a taboo. But in 1980's many young people in The Netherlands were confronted Aids victims....that was a turning point in this country. Grieve and heal.
    I wonder if we could profit more from the Japanese culture: "acceptance of ghosts, the use of mediums and the importance of ancestor worship."

    1. There's also a lot of not rocking the boat or challenging the findings of authority figures in Japanese culture, which is where a lot of the conflict between various people has developed since 2011. The ones who do challenge can be viewed unfavourably and often face subtle (& not so subtle) disadvantage.

  2. I remember how horrifying the images from the 2011 tsunami were. These events are both horrendous. The physical action of the water also seems so strange. This book sounds both disturbing and fascinating.

    Great review as always.

    1. I ended up spending an hour or so on Youtube after finishing this review. Quite a few tsunami posts were filed a few years after 2011 from people down river. It truly was horrifying to see (again) how quickly and relentlessly the water rose. The noise of breaking houses and cars crashing into things and crumpling iron and tin was gruesome.

  3. That 1923 earthquake was devastating. Even with modern building codes, I worry that the next one will be worse. I am definitely putting this book on the TBR list.

    My mom was in the 1964 earthquake/tsunami in Alaska. Her dad was working on a ship in harbor and saw the bay empty out, so he was one of the people to shoo everybody uphill. The water reached a quarter mile inland.

    1. That's a great family story - a grandfather to be super proud of :-)


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