Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry

This entry is part 18 of 23 in the series 2023 Reads

Like all the posts in my 2023 reads list, this comes at a lag, meaning I read this a while back—though in this case, a while back is just last week. 

Richard Lloyd Parry had lived in Japan for a few decades by the time that the tsunami in March 2011 hit the country.

Ghosts of the Tsunami is one of those books you hear about mainly because of what the title literally alludes to: the epidemic of reported ghost sightings following the 2011 tsunami that hit Japan and ultimately led to the Fukushima meltdown. That’s certainly what interested me in the book: the prospect of learning about how mass trauma, grief, and loss could lead to such a psychosocial epidemic is something that I’d like to know more about. 

Reading the text, though, I discovered that this element is only one of several threads running through it. Another of the threads—and, really, the main one—is the question of how negligence at one country school in the affected region ended up with most of its students and teachers drowned, when most other schools in the area suffered no casualties. This is something that took a long time for the book to unpack, not for no good reason: inept and awkward denials and even outright lies were employed in covering up the events that led to those deaths, and it was only the rage of the lost children’s parents—especially those whose children were not found—that led to the truth coming out.

Parry’s account is, reasonably, very sympathetic to the bereaved parents, and his interviews with them are impressively sensitive and thoughtful. However, I was also interested in his account of the reasoning that motivated the teachers to behave in such a despicable way when those parents demanded to know why, and how, their children died. Enough kids survived who reported some of the lost children having begged teachers to evacuate them up the side of a hill, to safety, to leave parents certain that there was more to the story than the school board and the surviving teacher (and principal, who’d been elsewhere at the time) were letting on. Parry manages to explain in a way that’s coherent—if not particularly understandable—why the surviving teacher lied, and why the school board was covering up events. 

It seems to come down to denial: the teachers were indecisive, unimaginative, and believed the school would be safe; even when direct tsunami warnings were issued, they couldn’t accept the danger they were facing; and it comes down to the fact that institutions in Japan often manage to avoid facing serious consequences when they screw up disastrously—or so Parry suggests. Having seen the cover-up at TEPCO, and the belated revelations of negligence, some might be tempted to see this as a cultural problem.

However.  is it so different from anywhere, really? It feels, in 2023, like a very familiar story, like a microcosm of our own looming global disasters. Consider how many different ways denial has motivated our leaders to basically do nothing in the face of impending disasters. We’re pretending COVID is over. We’re doing almost nothing about climate change, as the world is literally on fire. Like those few children, some of us are begging for common sense and sanity to prevail, and I think for many of us it has begun to sunk in that sanity isn’t going to prevail. COVID was a dress rehearsal for that. (And it still is.)

Meanwhile, the most infuriating part is that the playbook they’ll use down the road will be the same: apologies, but not admission of responsibility or negligence. “We didn’t know… we did our best… nobody understood… nobody could have imagined… we tried…” Everything but the truth: “We were derelict in our duty as your leaders. We were deep in denial. Ideology and identity induced us to ignore facts. We abandoned our posts at the last minute, having done nothing much beforehand and having known that if nothing was done, you would be swallowed up by the oncoming waves of destruction.” 

That’s a tangent, though, and not to say that Parry’s wrong about some of the culture-specific nature of the reaction to the tsunami. The way many parents reacted, and the way people across the region reacted, seems unlikely to be replicated in many other places. Part of what Parry does well is illustrate the parents’ reaction with sympathy, bridging the cultural gap to at least explain why some reactions look so foreign to a Western reader. I’m sure there are elements of context I’m missing—hard not to think so, when I pause to consider whether I think a similar reaction might unfold in South Korea in response to similar events—but I thought he did reasonably well unpacking the Japanese cultural elements at play. 

Worth a read if you are interested in any of that stuff, but be braced for some really heartbreaking stories. 

Series Navigation<< <em>Harrow County</em> Library Edition, Vols. 1-4, by Cullen Bunn and Tyler CrookYour House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye >>

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