Books: Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry

Mpepper/ July 20, 2020/ Reviews

Richard Lloyd Parry is a foreign news correspondent in Tokyo, and this book is comprised of numerous interviews with survivors of the March 11, 2011 tsunami that hit the Tohoku region of Japan. I only heard about this book from a YouTuber of all things (Chris Broad of the Abroad in Japan channel). But I have a dear friend who taught in Sendai and knew people in the affected area, so I already had some interest in better understanding just what happened there. After all, today’s news cycles are spectacularly brief, so we often only get the “highlights” and headlines. This book goes a bit deeper into the impact the tsunami had, focusing especially on the tragedy at Okawa Elementary School.

Parry (Lloyd Parry? I don’t know which is his last name, but my library shelves him under P, so I’m going with Parry) first goes over his experience of March 11, 2011 while in Tokyo. They felt the earthquake there, too, but the tsunami was a non-issue. Soon enough, Parry describes the part of Miyagi Prefecture that was hit… In fact, he goes to some great lengths to give readers a mental picture. I was reading on my Kindle, and there were a few maps and photographs, but they weren’t as clear as might have been in a printed copy of the book. So I really don’t know if I’m picturing the geography all that well, despite all the words used. The book isn’t that long, so maybe he was padding his word count? In any case, what one really needs to know is that there is the ocean, and also the Kitakami River, and some hills. And that this tsunami came not just up out of the ocean, but also up the river and partly up the hills—farther than any tsunami in living memory. So a certain amount of complacency resulted in more deaths than necessary, particularly at Okawa.

Parry interviews a number of parents who lost some or all of their children. There are a lot of names in this book, so it can be tricky to keep track of who is who. Parry interviews a man who nearly died in the tsunami, and one who had been possessed by the ghost of a tsunami victim. He also talks to religious leaders who, in the aftermath, did their best to help in ways both practical and spiritual. It’s all interesting, if a bit of a mishmash.

There is also a good bit of time spent on the lawsuit against [what amounts to] the school board for negligence. Seventy-four children died at Okawa Elementary, and ten teachers. The emergency handbook did not have clear instructions on what to do in case of a tsunami, and none of the adults seemed to believe a tsunami could even reach the school, even after local bureaucrats drove by with loudspeakers and announced the oncoming wave. Poor planning and poor decision making were on full display, it seems. Some of the parents who lost children eventually filed suit and… Well, you can read the results online or read the book.

As for Okawa itself, it still stands as a memorial.

The “ghosts” thing was tangential; I might have liked a few more examples of people having encountered supernatural phenomena, but this simply isn’t that kind of book, so it would maybe have seemed weird. Even the bits that are there don’t feel entirely homogenous to the rest of the book.

As someone who has, all my life, had a very visceral fear of drowning—not sure why, if it’s a past-life thing or what—it was a bit difficult for me to read this. But I’m glad I did. It really did mostly engross me, barring some diversions into explaining the culture, the bureaucracy, etc. At least these spurs were not too long-winded. I know they were for context, but I also think anyone reading this probably already has an interest in Japan and knows a bit about the culture going in without needing lengthy explanations. I could be wrong.

This book does not go into the nuclear meltdown or fallout caused by the tsunami. So if you’re looking for that, look elsewhere.

And this one is more tightly written than People Who Eat Darkness, another nonfiction book by Parry that I read earlier this year. That one did have much more exhaustive passages about the culture and the legal system, but Ghosts of the Tsunami manages to avoid that. On the whole, as I said, I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who has interest in the subject.

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