‘Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone’ is Richard Lloyd Parry’s account of the devastation caused by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake which struck off the coast of north-east Japan on 11th March 2011 and the 120-foot high tsunami which followed less than an hour later. Much of the international news coverage at the time focused on the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear reactor. However, ‘Ghosts of the Tsunami’ centres on one particular human tragedy, namely the avoidable deaths of 74 pupils who should have been safely evacuated from Okawa Primary School.
The book begins with Lloyd Parry’s own experience of the fourth most powerful earthquake ever recorded, on the tenth floor of an office building in Tokyo where he was based as Asia editor for The Times. In the months and years which followed, he visited the region of Tohoku devastated by the tsunami and listened to the stories of survivors. The majority of the 18,500 people killed were elderly, including 104-year-old athlete Takashi Shimokawara who Parry had interviewed in 2008 after he had set the world javelin record for a centenarian.
The subject matter is undoubtedly harrowing and sensitive, but Lloyd Parry doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions surrounding blame and responsibility where the management of Okawa Primary School is concerned. Japan has suffered several natural disasters resulting from earthquakes so schools have very strict evacuation procedures which are regularly reviewed. However, Okawa Primary School was judged to be too far in land to be deemed at risk in the event of a tsunami and there were numerous other failings which prevented the evacuation of pupils and staff to higher ground. Most notably, the testimony of the sole surviving teacher, Junji Endo, was full of major inconsistencies. Some of the pupils’ families brought a legal case against the school to uncover the facts and establish accountability which was finally settled in late 2016.
The differences between how a typically reserved Japanese community responded to the disaster compared to how similar catastrophes might be dealt with in Western countries is also striking. While the understated sense of duty among residents led to many quiet acts of heroism, Lloyd Parry also despairs at the lack of public outcry towards the inept and evasive response of the Japanese authorities who tried to shut down any investigation into possible wrongdoing.
During his research, Lloyd Parry met a Buddhist priest who exorcises the ghosts of those who drowned, yet it is clear that the memories of what happened in March 2011 will continue to haunt the community for decades to come. The scale of the devastation caused by the tsunami is beyond words but by narrowing the focus towards a small group of families, Lloyd Parry has produced a riveting piece of narrative non-fiction. Highly recommended.