After the tsunami
Non-fiction: Ghosts of the Tsunami, Richard Lloyd Parry, Jonathan Cape, hardback, 304 pages,€19.99
A new book peers beyond the aftermath of the natural disaster that left thousands dead, and into the minds of the survivors crying out to lay the ghosts of the tragedy to rest.
'The one thing it did not resemble in the least was a conventional ocean wave, the wave from the famous woodblock print by Hokusai: blue-green and cresting elegantly in tentacles of foam. The tsunami was a thing of a different order, darker, stranger, massively more powerful and violent, without kindness or cruelty, beauty or ugliness, wholly alien. It was the sea coming on to land, the ocean itself picking up its feet and charging at you with a roar in its throat."
One of the most jarring senses that you come away with from Ghosts of the Tsunami is the ineffectiveness of televisual footage, photojournalism or info-graphics when it comes to one of the most destructive forces that nature can wield. Reams of online footage, taken from the air or with shivering hand-held devices, give an idea but no lens can ever be truly wide enough.
Parry has form in wading in. As an Asia correspondent for the Times and others, he has encountered East Timorese militias, Borneo cannibals and Pyongyang police officers. His book, People Who Eat Darkness, traced the story of the brutal murder in Japan of Briton Lucie Blackman, and the ensuing media and legal circus that followed it. It was released in February 2011, just weeks before another killer arrived to pre-date on the Land of the Rising Sun. Most of us can recall March 11 of that year. The world stopped what it was doing and turned its sorrowful, astounded gaze to the north-eastern coast of Japan. A magnitude-9.1 earthquake had struck with so much force that it caused the earth to move 10 inches off its axis and nudged Japan a few feet closer to the US. Most - but not enough - of the inhabitants on that 400-mile stretch of Tohoku's coast steadied themselves and immediately looked out to sea, knowing what was coming. If they were lucky, they had high ground nearby.
"It was like a solid thing," one from Parry's scores of eye-witnesses remembers. "And there was this strange sound, difficult to describe. It wasn't like the sound of the sea. It was more like the roaring of the earth, mixed with a kind of crumpling, groaning noise, which was the houses breaking up." The giant wave reached inland and digested whole towns with a terrifying energy that could only be outdone by an asteroid collision or a nuclear explosion. Besides being the most costly natural disaster in history, it left one of the country's most prominent nuclear power stations, Fukushima, in a situation that to this day authorities are only barely containing.
Including those who were never found, some 18,500 lives were taken that day. "Friends, rivals, neighbours, schoolmates, nodding acquaintances, blood relatives, old sweethearts - all came out of the undiscriminating muck."
On a simply cognitive level, it is impossible to reconcile the concept of so much death being meted out in one event, for so much awesome destruction to crash-land and then retreat gently having claimed entire families. Also impenetrable is the toll on national and local consciousness when a chunk of the collective is so suddenly hacked away. Parry, who was living in Tokyo at the time, went north to ground zero to survey "the panoramic quality of the disaster".
The following summer, Parry was drawn towards a crushingly tragic community in an obscure fold of Japan called Okawa. Its primary school was a couple of miles inland from the sea. Like every school in the nation, it had official guidelines and procedures to follow in such cases. "If you are ever exposed to a violent earthquake, the safest place you could hope to be is Japan," Parry reminds us, "and the best spot of all is inside a Japanese school." Sirens rang throughout the region and tannoy announcements urged everyone to seek high ground because a "super-tsunami" was expected. How, then, out of the 78 children at the school when the water was surging inland, did 74 of them, and 10 of their 11 teachers, perish?
While Ghosts of the Tsunami is to be filed in the "literary non-fiction" cabinet, Parry's journalistic background provides the bass notes as he delves into an engrossing diorama where the stakes and surroundings are never in question. Furious, broken parents, their dead children still unaccounted for, are desperate to hold answers in their hands. Self-serving officials offer platitudes and regrets but evade responsibility. And in the oncoming rush of water, we learn of panic, chaos, complacency and befuddlement when those children should have simply been hurried up the steps of a nearby hill.
Impressively, Parry negotiates a deeper layer that is another alien world. The ghosts of the title indeed existed. They appeared in their droves in the region, walking past windows, disappearing in the backseats of taxis and leaving flowers inside shoes. A spiritual clean-up took place alongside the municipal one as the dead, unburied and in so many cases, unlocated, cried out in the minds of the living for closure.
This is a document of real people whom Parry earns the trust of, breathing and sighing individuals with names and gravities. Far-east mind maps are plotted out for the westerner as only the internal outsider - Alex Kerr's Lost Japan feels somehow related - can provide.
Japan's reverence for the dead supersedes theological creed. What, then, happens when the dead are so violently displaced within a land that has learned passive abnegation by being forever at the mercy of volcanoes, typhoons and grating tectonic plates? While we may never fully know, books like this are the closest we'll ever going to come to holding continent-sized destruction and grief in our hands.