Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone

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Title: Ghosts of the Tsunami

Writer: Richard Lloyd Parry

Publishing House: Jonathan Cape

Date of Publication: August 31st 2017

Rating: 5 stars

‘’By the time the party came to an end, it was already becoming cloudy, but there was no wind. Not a single leaf was moving on the trees. I couldn’t sense any life at all. It was as if a film had stopped, as if time had stopped. It was an uncomfortable atmosphere, not the atmosphere of an ordinary day.’’

                                                               Sayomi Shito

Friday 11 March 2011. A 9.1 earthquake strikes Japan, 70km east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tohoku. Its duration? 6 minutes. It was the most powerful earthquake ever in the country, triggering severe tsunami waves. The result? 15, 899 deaths, 6, 157 injured, 2, 529 people missing. It caused nuclear accidents in the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant and reminded us that we are the tiniest specks of dust when Nature decides to confront us. This exceptional book by Richard Lloyd Parry describes the aftermath of the nightmare, centred around the tragic loss of 74 children and 10 teachers of the Okawa Elementary School. 

‘’Do you know the number of missing children in each class, Headmaster? Without looking at that piece of paper. You don’t, do you? You have to look at your piece of paper. Our kids – are they just a piece of paper? You don’t remember any of their faces, do you?’’

From the very start of his chronicle, Lloyd Parry makes the readers feel as if they’re actually experiencing every step of the terrifying disaster. The descriptions of how he experienced the earthquake in Tokyo are extremely vivid and frightening. We have constant earthquakes here in Greece and as a resident of Athens, I have experienced quite a few strong ones, but I can never get used to the phenomenon. I simply can’t. To go through an incident of this magnitude and duration is unimaginable. However, the actual terror and despair comes later, in the aftermath of the disaster and the victims of the tsunami.

‘’-Itte kimasu.’’

‘’-Itte rasshai.’’

How can one describe the agony of the parents who didn’t know their children’s whereabouts? Their unimaginable pain? Their despair of not having bodies to bury and find some form of closure? It is often unbearable to read. From the strange quietness experienced by the mothers, preceding the nightmare, to the frantic search in the mud and debris, the reader is required to have a strong stomach. Where children are concerned, every sense of detachment simply vanishes. Yet, the way the writer narrates the experiences is sensitive, careful and deeply respectful. There is no shock-mongering, no vulgarity. Everything is handled with the utmost care and sincerity, but still, it is impossible not to yield in the face of the horror. A horror caused by nature and humans alike in a nightmarish fellowship, because of the negligence, the criminal incompetence that cost the lives of children and the ordeal of waiting for your son and daughter to be washed ashore in whatever condition…Japan was the last country I’d expect this to happen but it did and this shows us that no one is immune to wrong decisions and stupidity.

‘’[Tohoku] is associated with an impenetrable regional dialect, a quality of eeriness and an archaic spirituality that are exotic even to the modern Japanese. In the north, there are secret Buddhist cults, and old temples where the corpses of former priests are displayed as leering mummies. There is a sisterhood of blind shamanesses who gather once a year at a volcano called Mount Fear, the traditional entrance to the underworld.’’

Stories of children’s bodies shedding tears of blood. Priests who exorcised the spirits of the ones who met a tragic death and chose to reside in the bodies of the living, in search of a connection with our world and, possible, with a sense of justice. Hauntings were reported in the towns, at home, on the beaches. Young and old spirits, silhouettes covered in mud. Frightening dreams, unsettling feelings, possessions, dark figures, disembodied eyes. Lloyd Parry narrates the otherwordly experiences, the spiritualistic history of Tohoku, the destroyed graveyards, temples and household altars, the presence of the gaki, the hungry ghosts of the vast Japanese tradition. These parts of the book make it so unique, so powerful and one of those works that haunt you and stay with you forever.

Along with the chronicle of the disaster, the writer inserts facts about his gradual familiarization with Japanese culture and daily life, the patriarchy that is present even in the aftermath of terror, the political games of power. It is a dark journey for the reader, you will walk down the path with a heavy heart but it is a route we need to follow to understand how insignificant we are against Mother Nature, to change our ways, to start thinking clearly. Or just start THINKING, because it seems we are incapable of even that…

‘’Once the water has retreated, how much did you have left? […] When you’ve got the truth in your hand, what are you going to do with it?’’