Richard Lloyd Parry’s account of the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan is difficult to read: not because the words and sentences are poorly written, but because the suffering they describe seems incredible. He focuses on an elementary school in a small town named Okawa some 2 ½ miles from the coast. Of the 108 students at the school, only 34 survived the March 11, 2011, tsunami that killed some 23,000 people. Of 13 teachers and other personnel at the school, only three survived. Parry’s main interest is the personalities of the children who were lost, and of their families, especially of their mothers. He focuses on a small number of parents who lost children and structures his narrative around their memories and experiences. He also examines how they fared after the disaster. Japanese cultural traditions and beliefs, especially the convention of ancestor worship, had a major impact on what parents did. It was crucial to them that they find the bodies of their children and of other relatives so that they could be properly honored and buried. One woman becomes so frustrated with the slow progress of efforts to find her missing daughter that she learns how to use excavation equipment to search for her daughter’s body, and the bodies of other children. Other parents are unhappy at how the school failed to protect their children as the tsunami approached. There was an escape route, to the top of a hill near the school, but teachers and others resisted taking the children there. Instead, after much confusion, they marched the children towards a point of supposed safety that was, in fact, directly in the tsunami’s path. These parents eventually join together in legal action against the school and the local school board. Parry examines these horrible events from a number of angles—political, cultural religious, historical, and human. But the book is at its strongest in its descriptions of the people involved, of the parents who lost their children.
It’s difficult to read about people deep in the throes of grief over the loss of children. It’s difficult to read about the deaths of so many children, of so many people. One feels like an intruder, a gruesome sort of voyeur to tragedy. But with delicacy, respect, and sympathy in Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone (2017), Parry opens up and reveals the agony of the days and weeks that followed the March 11 tsunami.