Ghosts of the Tsunami Richard Lloyd Parry
Six years ago, on the afternoon of March 11, 2011, Richard Lloyd Parry was sitting in his newspaper office in Tokyo when he felt gentle vibrations coming upwards through the floor.
Next came the tinkling of window blinds, followed by the drawers of the filing cabinet sliding open by themselves, the swaying of the building and low groans emerging from its depths, ‘a heart-sickening noise suggesting deep and mortal distress, like the death sound of a dying monster’.
It was frightening, but Tokyo is a city where earthquakes are far from unusual, and they were miles from the epicentre. Walking outside afterwards, Lloyd Parry noticed almost no visible damage. ‘Central Tokyo calm and undamaged,’ he reported at 16.26, ‘In 30 mins stroll… I saw one cracked window and a few walls.’
‘It was as if neighbourhoods, villages, whole towns were being placed inside the jaws of a giant compressor and crushed’
But – unusually for a journalist – he had underestimated things. Japan had in fact just been hit by the fourth most powerful earthquake in history, so powerful that it had knocked the Earth ten inches off its axis and moved the entire country 4ft closer to America. And, within an hour, the coastal areas were experiencing something infinitely more terrible.
A tsunami followed, with waves 120ft high, roughly the same as a ten-storey building. One hundred people had just died in the earthquake: 18,500 were to die in the tsunami. The following morning, Lloyd Parry drove to the coast, which, in some areas, was three miles further inland than it had been the day before. It was, he says, an apocalypse. ‘I saw towns that had been first flooded, then incinerated; cars that had been lifted up and dropped on to the roofs of high buildings; and iron ocean-going ships deposited in city streets.’
The tsunami produced scenes of surreal horror, like an updated version of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, with intact houses spinning across fields with flames dancing on their roofs. It was a ravenous, all-consuming monster, travelling at 40mph, devouring everything in its path, sucking up vast, 60ft trees and then using them as battering rams.
‘It stank of brine, mud and seaweed. Most disturbing of all were the sounds it generated as it collided with, and digested, the stuff of the human world: the crunch and squeal of wood and concrete, metal and tile. In places, a mysterious dust billowed above it, like the cloud of pulverised matter that floats above a demolished building. It was as if neighbourhoods, villages, whole towns were being placed inside the jaws of a giant compressor and crushed.’
‘I saw…. cars that had been lifted up and dropped on to the roofs of high buildings; and iron ocean-going ships deposited in city streets’
One survivor described it as like being inside a cocktail-shaker, another like being trapped inside a washing machine. Yet the weakness of both these domestic images shows that the tsunami lay outside human experience, and therefore outside the power of language.
Richard Lloyd Parry wanted to write a book about the tsunami and the human devastation it wrought, but didn’t know where to begin. He had written daily news reports, but ‘the events that constituted the disaster were so diverse, and so vast in their implications, that I never felt that I was doing the story justice’.
How do you write about the deaths of 18,500 individuals? He began to worry that the disaster was beyond the imagination, and beyond his own capacity to feel. ‘In the weeks afterwards, I felt wonder, pity and sadness. But for much of the time I experienced a numb detachment and the obscure sense of having completely missed the point.’
Somehow, this particular tragedy struck him as a distillation of all the arbitrariness and horror that had engulfed the country that day
It was only when he came across the ruins of a small coastal village, 200 miles from Tokyo, in a forgotten part of Japan, that he realised he had finally found a means of encompassing the general in the particular, and of turning bleak statistics into human stories. At the Primary School in Okawa, 74 children had lost their lives: only four had escaped.
Statistically speaking, only a tiny percentage of the overall deaths from the tsunami in Japan had been schoolchildren – most schools had been specially built at a distance from the coast – but somehow this particular tragedy struck him as a distillation of all the arbitrariness and horror that had engulfed the country that day.
First came the earthquake. ‘The shaking was so strong, I couldn’t stand up,’ recalls one villager, who was unable to open her car door. Birds disappeared, along with their song. A while later, one woman remembers noticing that the creek had run dry. The water was in the process of withdrawing, ready to come back again with a vengeance.
‘The shaking was so strong, I couldn’t stand up,’ recalls one villager, who was unable to open her car door. Birds disappeared, along with their song
At the primary school, the electricity was cut off, but the deputy headmaster heard warnings of the coming tsunami on his battery radio. Unlike in other schools, there were no clear procedures for dealing with it. Some pupils and parents suggested that they should all climb the tall hill at the back of the school – ‘We’ll die if we stay here!’ – but the teachers told them to calm down. They would, they said, be much safer staying at the school.
And there they all remained, to be swept away with an almighty roar, minutes later. ‘It wasn’t like the sound of the sea,’ recalls one villager, who had escaped to the hillside. ‘It was more like the roaring of the earth, mixed with a kind of crumpling, groaning noise, which was the houses breaking up.’ And there was a fainter noise, too. ‘It was the voices of children. They were crying out “Help! Help!” But, within minutes, their voices grew weaker. And then silence.’
For British readers, there will be unmistakable echoes of the horror of Aberfan, where 116 schoolchildren and 28 adults were buried under an avalanche of coal slurry. One of this book’s many virtues is that it gives a human face to the people of Japan, who are so often characterised as distant and inscrutable.
‘It wasn’t like the sound of the sea,’ recalls one villager, who had escaped to the hillside. ‘It was more like the roaring of the earth, mixed with a kind of crumpling, groaning noise’
Ghosts Of The Tsunami deals mainly with the aftermath of the tragedy – days, weeks and months in which parents continued doggedly looking in the mud for their children, knowing full well that there was no chance of finding them alive. Their testimonies are almost unbearably moving.
On the day after the tsunami, one mother is led to a hall, where her daughter Chisato’s body is laid out. ‘She looked very calm, just as if she was asleep. I held her and lifted her up, and called her name over and over, but she didn’t answer. I tried to massage her, to restore her breathing. But it had no effect. I rubbed the mud from her cheeks, and wiped it out of her mouth…I wiped and wiped the mud, and soon the towels were black… so I licked Chisato’s eyes with my tongue to wash off the muck, but I couldn’t get them clean, and the muck kept coming out.’
Lloyd Parry has chosen to focus his attention on another distraught mother, Naomi, whose daughter’s corpse was lost for several months. Every day, Naomi searched for her. In June of that year, she attended a week-long course, emerging as one of the only women in Japan to have a licence to operate a mechanical digger. In August, fishermen found a torso, bobbing in the sea, ‘a lump of something. Without arms. Without legs. Without a head’, says Naomi. ‘And this was my daughter.’ A week later, Naomi is back on her digger, searching for other lost children.
Six years on, one of the four child survivors still carries a photograph of his old classmates in his school bag. ‘If I carry it in my bag, I feel as if they are having lessons with me,’ he explains.
In an understated way, Ghosts Of The Tsunami is not only a vivid, heartfelt description of the disaster, but a subtle portrait of the Japanese nation, its strengths and weaknesses. In one way, their belief in keeping calm and carrying on can be debilitating. Lloyd Parry despairs at the minimal outcry at the government’s stubborn refusal to take full responsibility for the dithering that caused those children to perish.
But, perhaps controversially, he also argues that the Japanese sense of duty and community, even in the most catastrophic circumstances, leaves the UK in the shade. ‘I pictured a school gymnasium in north-east England, rather than north-east Japan, in which hundreds of people were living and sleeping literally head to toe. By this stage, they would have been murdering one another.’