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


The tsunami in question is of course the one generated by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake—the one which destroyed 650km of Japan’s coastline, killed about 18,500 and swamped the Fukushima power station. It was a disaster by any standard. But Parry has a rather different take. He emphasizes how well-prepared Japan was, and he certainly makes a convincing case that the death and destruction would have been much worse in any other nation.

Parry at the time reported from Tokyo for The Times. He had lived there for years and spoke reasonable Japanese. He describes his own experience of the earthquake in his Tokyo office, but then headed to Tohoku in the aftermath of the tsunami to report on the destruction and recovery. He was at it for six years.

Parry emphasises that Japan has almost continuous volcanic action, frequent earthquakes and occasional tsunamis. The government and society have worked out and codified effective countermeasures and emergency responses. Buildings are strengthened against earthquake displacements; there are tsunami warning systems and every office and factory has pre-planned escape routes and procedures. The Tohoku quake was the fourth most powerful ever recorded anywhere. It moved Japan 4 metres closer to the United States. Its intensity exceeded the design specifications of many buildings, but the result was cracked walls and broken windows. Less than 100 died in the earthquake. In particular,


Japanese architecture and bureaucracy did an almost perfect job of protecting the young. No school collapsed or suffered serious physical damage.


Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone, Richard Lloyd Parry (Jonathan Cape, August 2017; MCD, October 2017)
Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone, Richard Lloyd Parry (Jonathan Cape, August 2017; MCD, October 2017)

Tsunami preparedness is a bit different. The countermeasure is always “shut everything down and move to high ground.” Unlike earthquake damage, the result is binary: if your high ground is high enough, you’re completely safe; if it’s not, you have no hope. The March 2011 tsunami, 36m high at its peak, was the worst in Japan’s recorded history. The 18,500 deaths were of people who either ignored clear warnings or whose high ground wasn’t as high as it needed to be. Nine schools were completely overwhelmed, but in eight of them there was only one boy who was overtaken as his class retreated up the hill.

Parry focuses entirely on one small town on the Kitakami River, the scene of the ninth school. The town was wiped out, because it was three or four kilometres from the river mouth and had never experienced a tsunami before. It had more than fifty minutes to evacuate between the earthquake and the tsunami’s arrival. During that time officials broadcast serious warnings, including running around town in a sound truck. Most people ignored the warnings. Others took shelter as advised, but the locations were much too low. The primary school children were simply mustered in the playground. They had no chance. Only those working elsewhere that day survived.


Parry’s portrayal of the terrible events is gripping. The style is reminiscent of Walter Lord’s classic A Night to Remember about the Titanic’s last evening. He describes survivors returning from elsewhere to find the town obliterated. He describes the painstaking search for bodies which involved clearing an entire town converted into a mountain of rubble. He describes how the disabled were trapped in their official shelter and how one man parked his car, walked downhill to a shelter and was slaughtered while his car remained undamaged above the high water mark. It’s a riveting account.

The aftermath was of course much less dramatic. Those who survived struggled to find the bodies of their loved ones in enormous heaps of rubble and at the same time to re-establish their lives. That’s where the ghosts come in. One Taoist priest almost drove himself to exhaustion performing exorcisms. The story becomes a study in Japanese psychology and sociology. At that point many readers may find that the tale has lost much of its relevance and its interest. As Parry himself says,


There is no tidying away of loose ends to be done in a story… about the annihilation of a coast.


His account gradually just fades away in a fashion many readers are likely to find rather unsatisfactory.

Ghosts of the Tsunami is likely to be an award winner. The first three-fifths are an account you’ll remember for a long while. It’s well worth your time and effort.

Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People’s Republic.