Notes from a haunted land

Richard Lloyd Parry talks to Stephen Phe­lan about doc­u­ment­ing the dev­as­tat­ing af­ter­math of the 2011 Ja­panese tsunami

Sunday Herald Life - - BOOKS REVIEWS - Ghosts Of The Tsunami is pub­lished by Jonathan Cape, £16.99

AF­TER the Great East Ja­pan earth­quake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, I worked with a post-dis­as­ter clean-up crew in a largely oblit­er­ated fish­ing port called Ona­gawa. We shov­elled mud and de­bris, and did myr­iad odd jobs for newly home­less lo­cals packed into evac­u­a­tion shel­ters. Ev­ery­one had lost some­one, and the more talk­a­tive sur­vivors told us bru­tally up­set­ting sto­ries of wives drowned in wa­ter­front fac­to­ries, el­derly par­ents dragged away by the wave, en­tire fam­i­lies killed in their cars while try­ing to out­run it.

They spoke qui­etly, wav­ing our use­less con­do­lences away, al­ways mind­ful that their neigh­bour may have suf­fered worse. More than a few re­minded us to con­sider the poor souls in the nearby town of Ka­maya, where 74 chil­dren had been killed at Okawa El­e­men­tary School when the tsunami ex­ploded up and over the ad­join­ing river.

“In the con­text of the wider dis­as­ter, it was ba­si­cally the worst thing that hap­pened that day,” says Richard Lloyd Parry, a vet­eran English cor­re­spon­dent based in Tokyo, who re­ported ex­ten­sively from the stricken To­hoku re­gion. Cur­rently on hol­i­day back in the UK, he tells me that he of­ten ob­served that same “pe­cu­liar hu­mil­ity of grief” I’d seen in Ona­gawa, “that com­mu­nal sense of not want­ing to at­tach more value to one’s own per­sonal tragedy”.

But the lo­calised catas­tro­phe at Okawa school emerged as a sin­gu­lar case, both piti­ful and pre­ventable, as out­lined in Parry’s book Ghosts Of The Tsunami. “The event it­self might be called an act of God,” he says.

“Tsunamis have al­ways hap­pened, and al­ways will. And we can ar­gue about sea walls and emer­gency plan­ning but, in gen­eral, Ja­pan coped very well, prob­a­bly bet­ter than any other coun­try could have. At the same time, I’ve learned that all nat­u­ral dis­as­ters have their pol­i­tics too, and nowhere was this more man­i­fest than at Okawa.”

Of the more than 18,500 peo­ple killed by the tsunami, very few were chil­dren, and al­most ev­ery other school in the im­pact zone man­aged to keep its pupils safe.

Okawa’s in­abil­ity to do so, de­spite a steep hill be­hind the prop­erty and am­ple time to get the chil­dren up there, is pre­sented by Parry as a study in “hu­man and in­sti­tu­tional fail­ure”.

His cen­tral nar­ra­tive swirls around the black hole formed in those 45 crit­i­cal min­utes be­tween quake and tsunami. He knows that its aw­ful grav­ity may pull some read­ers in, and push oth­ers away.

“When peo­ple hear about Okawa, even in sum­mary, they’ll of­ten say they could never read a book on the sub­ject. The need­less mass death of all those lit­tle chil­dren … So the task was to write some­thing that wasn’t just de­press­ing and sad. I didn’t need to sen­sa­tion­alise, or sen­ti­men­talise. The story it­self was so dra­matic, so full of emo­tion, that the job was to step back and sim­plify.”

But Parry has not writ­ten a straight­for­ward jour­nal­is­tic ac­count ei­ther. The book does cover the Okawa par­ents’ di­vi­sive cam­paign to find out ex­actly what went wrong, the au­thor­i­ties’ shabby ob­fus­ca­tions, and the long court bat­tle that re­sulted.

Parry draws on all the avail­able ev­i­dence to con­sider the “timid­ity, com­pla­cency and in­de­ci­sion” that proved so fa­tal at the school as symp­toms of a broader mod­ern Ja­panese malaise. The flip­side of that na­tion’s fa­bled sto­icism, so in­spir­ingly en­acted af­ter the tsunami, is posited as a cor­ro­sive kind of in­er­tia, “a col­lec­tive lack of self-es­teem”.

True to its ti­tle, though, this is also a book about ghosts. The tsunami cre­ated thou­sands of them, in a coun­try where for­mal re­li­gion plays al­most no part in daily life, yet the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion main­tain a deep, in­stinc­tive be­lief in the abid­ing spir­its of their an­ces­tors. To­hoku, with its moan­ing winds and lonely forests, was al­ready known for a cer­tain eerie, folk-tale at­mos­phere even be­fore the dis­as­ter. Af­ter came an out­break of haunt­ings.

Parry tells of taxi driv­ers tak­ing phan­toms to ad­dresses where the houses had been washed away, and vis­its from drowned rel­a­tives, obliv­i­ous to their own deaths, who left seat

cush­ions soaked in salt wa­ter. Among his most com­pelling in­ter­view sub­jects is Zen priest Taio Kaneta, who was called to per­form ex­or­cisms on a builder from his par­ish and a nurse from Sendai. Nei­ther was di­rectly af­fected by the dis­as­ter, but both were ap­par­ently pos­sessed by en­raged and be­wil­dered spir­its of the re­cently de­ceased.

“So, what­ever the ori­gins of their bizarre ex­pe­ri­ences,” says Parry, “it wasn’t per­sonal grief. I don’t, my­self, see any rea­son to be­lieve in the su­per­nat­u­ral, but nei­ther do I think it mat­ters whether these ghosts were real. You can view them as lit­eral vis­i­ta­tions, or as man­i­fes­ta­tions of a pro­found psy­chic blow, af­fect­ing not just in­di­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties but an en­tire so­ci­ety.”

He does not ex­clude his own ex­pe­ri­ence, hav­ing felt the earth­quake in Tokyo on the same day that the first ul­tra­sound pic­tures were taken of his un­born youngest child. The capital was rat­tled but in­tact, and went about its busi­ness – which was soon to in­clude plan­ning for the next Olympics, even while pre­par­ing for the next big quake. Parry writes about his adop­tive home town as a real-world equiv­a­lent of Oc­tavia, the “spi­der-web city” imag­ined by the great mod­ernist-fab­u­list Italo Calvino, hang­ing pre­car­i­ously over an abyss.

And then there is that other world of “death and de­struc­tion”, which he passed into ev­ery time he crossed the tsunami in­un­da­tion line. “I wanted to go, but I dreaded it,” he says. “You tell your­self you have a job to do, not as vi­tal as aid work but per­haps sim­i­lar. You try to be warm and sym­pa­thetic but de­tached and pro­fes­sional. You want to be of use.”

Even so, he cried many times while talk­ing to the moth­ers of lost Okawa chil­dren, and the small­est de­tails of their suf­fer­ing are the most dev­as­tat­ing to read.

Say­omi Shito licked the mud from her dead daugh­ter Chisato’s eyes, be­cause there was no clean wa­ter avail­able.

Naomi Hi­rat­suka trained to op­er­ate a heavy-duty in­dus­trial earth-mover so that she could take a more ac­tive role in the search for her own daugh­ter Ko­haru, whose re­mains were found much later.

Hi­rat­suka went on to find more com­fort in con­sult­ing a shaman – who claimed to commune with Ko­haru, and as­sured her that the dis­as­ter was ef­fec­tively pre­des­tined – than in pur­su­ing the le­gal case against the lo­cal board of ed­u­ca­tion.

For his own part, Parry did not dis­agree that mis­takes had been made by the Okawa teach­ers (10 of whom were also killed), nor that school and city bureau­crats had closed ranks to at­tempt a cover-up of the most “in­con­sis­tent, ba­nal and trans­par­ent” kind. But where some of the par­ents saw a grander con­spir­acy, Parry saw only “stub­born, clumsy, charm­less men” whose quasi-cul­pa­bil­ity could never sat­isfy the plain­tiffs’ grief.

He came to think of their strug­gle as a reck­on­ing with the un­fath­omable – “the fiery fact of death.”

“The true mystery of Okawa school was the one we all face,” he writes.

“No mind can en­com­pass it; con­scious­ness re­coils in panic. Ex­tinc­tion of life: ex­tinc­tion of a per­fect, a beloved child: for eter­nity. Im­pos­si­ble! the soul cries out. What are they hid­ing?” The fam­i­lies got a pay­out in court in lieu of an­swers from the uni­verse, a quo­tid­ian win to set against their ex­is­ten­tial loss. And Parry got the sense that such loss may only be com­pre­hen­si­ble in the most ab­stract terms.

He’s no Bud­dhist, but ad­mired the “beauty of de­tach­ment” shown by Rev­erend Kaneta. A Zen per­spec­tive al­lowed the priest to tire­lessly sup­port sur­vivors, and mit­i­gate the dam­age to his own psy­che, by re­flect­ing on the tsunami as a re­cur­ring phys­i­cal and meta­phys­i­cal process, a “mech­a­nism” of the cos­mos.

“It’s not easy to con­front tragedy and suf­fer­ing,” says Parry. “It’s surely even harder to take a step back and see these things as nat­u­ral, or in­evitable. If you can do that, death and dis­as­ter might not seem as soul-crush­ing or life-deny­ing as they first ap­pear. I don’t think I could do it my­self, es­pe­cially if I had lost a child. But per­haps it’s some­thing to as­pire to.”

Fam­i­lies pay their re­spects to the vic­tims of the 2011 tsunami at a memo­rial at Okawa El­e­men­tary School where 74 chil­dren were killed

Pho­to­graph: Getty/Daniel Bere­hu­lak

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