16 November 2017

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

* Copy courtesy of NetGalley *

After reading Richard Lloyd Parry's essay entitled Ghosts of the Tsunami in the London Review of Books, I instantly became obsessed with getting and reading his book, Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan's Disaster Zone. Parry was living in Tokyo at the time of the earthquake and spent six years as a foreign correspondent visiting and reporting from the tsunami disaster zone.

Shocking facts about the Japanese earthquake on 11 March 2011*
- It was the biggest earthquake ever to have struck Japan, and the fourth most powerful in the history of seismology.
- It knocked the earth 10 inches off it's axis.
- It moved Japan four feet closer to America.

Shocking facts about the tsunami that followed*
- The tsunami killed 18,500 people.
- At its peak, the water of the tsunami was 120 feet high.
- The earthquake and tsunami caused more than $210 billion of damage, making it the most costly natural disaster ever.

Review
I didn't know that the Japanese honour their dead ancestors in the form of household altars and memorial tablets. When these were destroyed in the tsunami, the subsequent grief and bereavement was about so much more than the immediate loss of life. The tsunami destroyed memorial books and tablets containing the names of generations of ancestors and even 
ripped open cemetery vaults and scattered the bones of the dead

Without their memorial tablets, and important family items, survivors weren't able to honour their ancestors. Entire families lost in the tsunami left nobody behind to honour them and their ancestors. The disaster left a population in deep grief and a feeling that the souls of thousands of ancestors had been suddenly 'cut adrift'.

Parry interviewed hundreds of survivors and many of their experiences are in this book. He tells how survivors "spoke of the terror of the wave, the pain of bereavement and their fears for the future. They also talked about encounters with the supernatural. They described sightings of ghostly strangers, friends and neighbours, and dead loved ones. They reported hauntings at home, at work, in offices and public places, on the beaches and in the ruined towns."

I was hoping to read more about these encounters and the way in which the nation and individual communities dealt with the sudden loss of 18,500 souls. Stories like this one: "A fire station that received calls to places where all the houses had been destroyed by the tsunami. The crews went out to the ruins anyway, prayed for the spirits of those who had died - and the ghostly calls ceased."

However it soon became clear that Parry's overwhelming focus was going to be the story of the children at Okawa primary school. Tragically, the teachers did not evacuate the children to higher ground, despite having more than enough time to do so before the tsunami struck. Parry documents the parent's grief, the search for their children's remains (often lasting years), the process of pursuing the school and government for answers, right through to class legal action; quite unusual for Japan.

Reading Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan's Disaster Zone was incredibly informative, factual and shocking but at the same time heart wrenchingly tragic.

Unfortunately for the Japanese, the threat of earthquake and tsunami is constant. Parry tells us that in 2012: "a new study concluded that an earthquake and tsunami originating in the Nankai Trough could take 323,000 lives along the south-central Pacific Coast." He also says that "it is generally assumed Tokyo will be shaken by an earthquake powerful enough to destroy large areas of the city......that will kill many tens of thousands of people."

I hope this doesn't happen during my lifetime, although the Japanese seem as prepared as they can be for the inevitable. Until then, this generation will continue to wade through their grief and loss the best way they know how.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

* These facts have been extracted from the book.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great review, and although it sounds gut wrenching, it also seems like a good read. Thanks

Tracey said...

Thanks and you're right, it was gut wrenching but incredibly moving as well. I hope you pick it up, or at least read the free essay.

Brona Joy said...

This is on my TBR pile - sounds like I will need to be in the right frame of mind to do it justice though. Hoping to go to Japan next year, so keen to learn more.
Great review - thanks.

Tracey said...

Thanks Brona, and great to hear it's already on your TBR pile. How exciting to hear you're going to Japan next year! In that case, you'll get even more out of reading this, as there are a tonne of references to the Japanese culture I found fascinating but didn't have room to include in my review. Let me know what you think of it.