Ghosts of the Tsunami

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

August 31st 2017
June 13, 2022 June 22, 2022

On 11 March 2011, a massive earthquake sent a 120-foot-high tsunami smashing into the coast of north-east Japan. By the time the sea retreated, more than 18,500 people had been crushed, burned to death, or drowned. It was Japan’s greatest single loss of life since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

Richard Lloyd Parry, an award-winning foreign correspondent, lived through the earthquake in Tokyo, and spent six years reporting from the disaster zone. He met a priest who performed exorcisms on people possessed by the spirits of the dead. And he found himself drawn back again and again to a village which had suffered the greatest loss of all, a community tormented by unbearable mysteries of its own.

What really happened to the local children as they waited in the school playground in the moments before the tsunami? Why did their teachers not evacuate them to safety? And why was the unbearable truth being so stubbornly covered up?

Ghosts of the Tsunami is a classic of literary non-fiction, a heart-breaking and intimate account of an epic tragedy, told through the personal accounts of those who lived through it. It tells the story of how a nation faced a catastrophe, and the bleak struggle to find consolation in the ruins.

About the book

This is a touching book about Great East Japan Earthquake, it tells the true story of the Japanese population immediately after the tsunami that devastated the northeastern coast. It focuses on one school in particular, the only one where pupils have died. Yes, because among the 378 students who died, it seems that only those of this school are direct victims of the tsunami while they were at school (the others were at home or were going home with their parents). The book is about this disaster, the decisions made by the adults in the school that led to the death of the children, about the old men of the village versus the young wives who wanted to go and get the children and run overground, but being old they have experience with earthquake and the school is a safe place, it is built against earthquakes (but not against tsunamis) and about the parents of the children overpowered by the wave and of the surviving children, those who want to forget the tragedy to move forward and those who want justice.

What I think

I still remember the images that televisions from all over the world broadcast. Not of the earthquake, we are used to seeing the destruction that an earthquake can bring, but that of a tsunami? I only remember two tsunamis that occurred during my life, one in Indonesia on Boxing Day 2004 and this one, of Japan. I remember both, but only in the Japanese one I saw the destructive power on live TV. I remember the wave in Sendai that carried debris and submerged everything. Rice paddies, roads, the river that no longer existed and cars trying to escape. And inside I said “but why did they wait so long to escape?”. I didn’t understand at the time.

After the 2004 earthquake I was told “if you are near the sea and an earthquake happens, don’t hesitate, run as high as possible or as far away from the sea shore”. No one ever told me about running away from the riverside by the sea, but that’s what happened too. Rivers overflowing, people who thought they were safe, but they weren’t. I have seen videos of people being swept away by the force of the tsunami once it entered the river bed. And all this in a Japan that is used to emergencies where there are drills every day. The only drill we did was in middle school with the firefighters for fire emergencies. One during all my life. I don’t know if there are exercises in schools now or not, but if an earthquake were to happen in Italy, I think most of us don’t know what to do and would panic (and there have been earthquakes in Italy – and people are still waiting for the rebuild -). Even if a fire were to happen most of us would not know what to do. But in Japan? How could this happen? They are so used to it, right?

Then, studying what happened, I understood. The magnitude of the disaster was just too great even for a Japan so trained in emergencies.

I knew about the school, but I didn’t know anything specific. I thought surely, they had been taken by surprise. They were unfortunate. I didn’t know about the actual responsibilities in the disaster (of the school).

Also because, let’s say it, when talking about Great East Japan Earthquake, everyone thinks of Fukushima and the nuclear disaster, after a few weeks no one spoke about the people who died in the tsunami, so much so that I didn’t even remember this tragedy. I remembered it only when I started following a Japanese figure skater from Sendai, I remembered the images broadcast on TV, before him, the disaster of March 11, 2011 was synonymous with Fukushima because this is what Western televisions broadcast more. There are people who don’t even know about the song composed for the disaster and who start talking nonsense after this Japanese famous skater skates his heart out as a tribute to the 15,703 confirmed dead, 5,314 injured and 4,647 missing.

So I’m happy that this book exists and that it doesn’t focus on Fukushima, which for heaven’s sake, that too was a tragedy for many (also about this, people only talk about the environmental impact and not about the thousands of people evacuated, the animals left to die or forgotten that still roam those areas).

And I find it right that that school remains as a warning and that the voices of survivors are not suppressed.

The book is not for everyone. If you don’t want to know more about the Great East Japan Earthquake, you probably won’t like this book, but I liked it. More people should read it in order to not suppress the voice of 74 innocent children of Okawa school, not heard by their teachers.

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