A massive tsunami smashed into Japan in 2011, leaving a trail of rubble-strewn disaster, killing thousands, costing billions, and changing how the world thinks about nuclear power. Called from the deep, the black rock-tumbling monster flattened towns and villages, hurled cars high into buildings, and swept away great swaths of civilisation in a few minutes.
The giant wave was born of the biggest earthquake ever to hit Japan and the fourth most-powerful in the history of seismology, knocking the Earth 25cm off its axis. Less than an hour after the quake came the tsunami: 18,500 people were drowned, burned or crushed to death by the flood of water that bashed its way inland in the north of Japan. To add to the horror, by that evening it was snowing, leaving an icy layer of filth on the sea of mud.
It may have been just water that punched its way into Japan on that March afternoon, but it had a furious power, throwing all before it and leaving a surreal jumble of death and destruction. The sheer magnitude of the disaster made it hard to comprehend and harder still to write about clearly.
How to start? Where to start? Richard Lloyd Parry is an experienced journalist with The Times of London, an observer with a keen eye and a deft touch. I have worked with him and have seen how he can absorb a particular situation, listen to stories of conflict and mayhem, or intrigue and disaster, and distil them into a few hundred or few thousand words that convey the facts and the feelings to readers half a world away.
In this book, Ghosts of the Tsunami, a series of stories about a modern and industrialised nation savagely pummelled by nature at her most brutal, Lloyd Parry zooms in on a school and a town about 320km north of Tokyo.
Japan is used to earthquakes and tsunamis. The nation sits above a triple junction: a point where three of the Earth’s tectonic plates rub against one another, creating a zone of instability. Earthquakes are common in Japan, and buildings are constructed with quakes in mind.
Children are drilled on evacuations and safety procedures. Disaster plans are in place, and revised and refreshed, detailing what to do, where to go and how to react should the worst happen. For nearly every school in the 2011 disaster zone in Japan, the plans worked. The children put on their crash helmets, lined up and marched to safety with their teachers.
But at one school everything went unaccountably wrong. At the fairly small Okawa Elementary School, in the cold and remote region of Tohoku in the northeast of Japan’s largest and most populous island of Honshu, 74 children and 10 teachers were killed by the tsunami.
Some children at the school were picked up in time by a parent. They survived. They remembered their friends in the playground clamouring to leave after the earthquake struck. In the 51 minutes between the quake and the tsunami, the children wanted to run up a nearby hill to safety: “Sir, let’s go up the hill”; “We should climb the hill, sir”; “We’ll die if we stay here”. The teacher shushed them and told them to stay still.
This avoidable tragedy is central to Lloyd Parry’s book, and he has used it to support a tangle of stories, ranging from miraculous tales of survival to thoughts on tsunami ghosts and exorcisms, to musings on the Japanese people’s deep-seated reluctance to challenge authority or demand answers.
He considers the ramifications of the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power station, where the cores of three plutonium reactors went into meltdown, splurging radioactivity, creating the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl and forcing countries to rethink their nuclear power plans.
But again and again Lloyd Parry returns to Okawa, where tonnes of mud swallowed the children, and parents spent weeks, months and even years looking for tiny corpses.
One mother got a digger’s licence and spent untold hours sifting through the mud, looking for her daughter’s body. Others, too, worked tirelessly in the mud. Sometimes a shoe was found, sometimes a knapsack, and as the time wore on, sometimes a barely recognisable body was unearthed, which usually had to be sent for DNA testing to determine who it was.
Grief endures, the horror lingers and many people will never forget the sea of icy mud and rubbish with small limbs sticking out of it.
Lloyd Parry does an excellent forensic job determining what happened in 2011. He unravels the story behind the tragedy at the Okawa primary school and asks why the school failed to anticipate the follow-on effects of the earthquake and why the teachers ignored repeated tsunami warnings.
He tells the stories of grieving families and how they coped with the devastating loss of a beloved child, or two — the end of happiness for many of them. He assesses the statements of the teachers, the principal and the education authorities, describing how they changed over time. He challenges official obfuscation and spends time following the development of the various investigations into what happened and why.
The book almost becomes a thriller, albeit an immensely sad and eerie one.
The 2011 tsunami was a disaster of massive proportions for Japan, and especially for the people of Okawa, where the tragedy of the lost schoolchildren knocked so many lives off-centre. Yet in the end there were answers, of a sort, to be had, blame to be sheeted home and some comfort to be found in the strength and endurance of friends and neighbours.