“‘The dead are attached to the living, and those who have lost them are attached to the dead.'” – Ghosts of the Tsunami, by Richard Lloyd Parry

February 25, 2018 at 11:48 pm (Book review, books)

  This is a gracious and compassionate book on an extremely painful subject.

In March of 2011, a tsunami struck the Pacific coast of Japan. It was was preceded by an temblor that registered 9.0 on the Richter Scale. Known as the Tohoku Earthquake, its epicenter was situated off the country’s coast. Its effects were certainly felt and damage was done, but worse – much worse – was to come.

Most of the reporting on this calamity concentrated on the earthquake damage sustained by the nuclear power plants located in Fukushima Prefecture. There was plenty to worry about on that score. Yet that was only a small portion of the toll exacted by a series of catastrophic events.

About an hour and forty minutes after the earthquake struck, a tsunami hurled itself inland.This paragraph from Parry’s book is a succinct, horrifying summation of what happened as a result:

It was the biggest earthquake ever known to have struck Japan,and the fourth most powerful in the history of seismology. It knocked the earth ten inches off its axis; it moved Japan four feet closer to America.In the tsunami that followed, 18,500 people were drowned, burned, or crushed to death. at its peak, the water was 120 feet high. Half a million people were driven out of their homes. Three reactors in the Fukushima Dai-ichi power station melted down, spilling their radioactivity across the countryside, the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The earthquake and tsunami caused more than $210 billion of damage, making it the most costly natural disaster ever.

Parry’s book focuses on the fate of the teachers and the children at Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. An evacuation plan existed; it was spelled out in the pages of a notebook. But those charged with implementing it succumbed to uncertainty and confusion. In the end, they waited too long.

Writing about extreme grief from the outside is a very difficult thing to do. By exercising great empathy and sensitivity, Richard Lloyd Parry is able to accomplish this – but only just. In many cases, he allows the bereaved to speak for themselves, when they can and if they are able to.(At the time of these events, he and his wife were expecting their second child.)

He was also able to extract, from a welter of eyewitness testimony, some extraordinary stories. In one case, he describes the experience of Teruo Konno. Konno had been aiding in the effort to recover bodies from the midst of the destruction when he himself was suddenly engulfed by the wave. Through the expenditure of every every ounce of his strength and resourcefulness, and with a large dollop of luck thrown in, Konno was able to survive an incredibly harrowing ordeal. As soon as he had sufficiently recovered, he went back to helping the living in their effort to unearth the newly deceased.

They were dreadful, crushing tasks, even for one who had not gone through such an experience. But Konno found that it had left him with an indifference to mental hardship, and an absence of trepidation of any kind. He had no fear, of life or of death. He was like a man who had suffered a dangerous disease, to survive with complete immunity to future infection. The prospect of his own extinction–now, soon, or far in the future–was a matter to him of no concern at all.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, there were some strange manifestations. In some cases, survivors seemed possessed by the incorporeal presence of the dead. In others, it seemed as though ghosts were dwelling, albeit briefly, among the living:

At a refugee community in Onagawa, an old neighbor would appear in the living rooms of the temporary houses and sit down for a cup of tea with their startled occupants. No one had the heart to tell her that she was dead; the cushion on which she had sat was wet with seawater.

This narrative gets its driving force from the bitter recriminations in the aftermath of the failure to save the children at Okawa Elementary School. A suit was filed, and ultimately the city of Ishinomaki and Miyagi Prefecture were ordered to pay substantial damages to  the bereaved families who had participated as plaintiffs in the action. The courtroom confrontation was aimed more at ascertaining the truth rather than obtaining a large payout (although many survivors were in desperate need of assistance). The terrible pain of the loss, however, could not be assuaged in this way – or in any way.

The true mystery of Okawa School was the one we all face. No mind can encompass it; consciousness recoils in panic. The idea of conspiracy is what we supply to make sense of what will never be sensible–the fiery fact of death.


Born in northern England in 1969 and a graduate of Oxford, Richard Lloyd Parry is now the Asia editor of The Times of London. He has lived and worked in Tokyo since 1995. He is also the author of People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo–and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up. This was a riveting read.

Towards the conclusion of Ghosts of the Tsunami, Parry pays tribute to the people among whom he has had the privilege of living for over two decades:

There were many terrible and fearful scenes, and bottomless pain, but the horror was offset, and almost eclipsed, by  the resilience and decency of the victims. It seemed to me at the time that this was the best of Japan, the best of humanity, one of the things I loved and admired most about this country: the practical, unsensational, irrepressible strength of communities.

Richard Lloyd Parry



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