So I was looking for a book to read before Christmas and looking at The Economist’s Books of the Year List when I saw them mention Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lee Parry, the Toyko editor of The Times. I’m not sure what appealed to me about this book, particularly as a feel-good Holiday read, but I downloaded it to my Kindle and went to work.
It is an excellent book. If it was just about the tsunami, there would be plenty of material. Something about these kinds of disasters leads to cliches….so far I have barely avoided descriptions like “unimaginable,” “indescribable” and “biblical.”
Luckily, Parry doesn’t have this problem. Here is the thing. This is not like a hurricane that tracks down the coast for days. This is not like a tornado where you know a storm is brewing, perhaps for hours. A tsunami starts with an earthquake and earthquakes come without warning. After the earthquake hit–one of the five strongest earthquakes in recorded history–there were only about thirty minutes between the earthquake and the tsunami.
Parry puts you right there, speaking of survivors struck miles inland by a mountainous wall of water dragging pine trees like battering rams. He tells the story of a city manager dumped to the bottom of the wave and feeling the asphalt of a parking lot. He tells the story of people who reached high ground and watched their home be swallowed up with their entire family inside. And he tells the story of a school where 74 children and 10 teachers died, inexplicably close to the high ground where they could have been saved.
Here he finds his focus. It has been said the crises don’t build character, they reveal it. In this case, the same can be said of tragedy. As good as Parry’s description of the tsunami is, his best writing comes when he tells the story of the aftermath, both from the grieving parents and the school leaders as they attempted to evade responsibility.
In one sense, there’s nothing too surprising. A parent’s grief is the worst grief I have ever seen. No parent is prepared to outlive their children…especially when the child disappears in a wave of water, with no chance to say good-bye and a lifetime of self-doubt about whether the parent should have picked their child up between the earthquake and the tsunami.
If there’s a better description than this, I’d like to see it:
Grief was in their noses like a stench; it was the first thing they thought of when they woke in the morning, and the last thing in their day.
The true mystery of Okawa school was the one we all face. No mind can encompass it; consciousness recoils in panic.
Just like anywhere else, those who survived felt guilty. Those whose world’s were in turmoil looked for meaning. And that included a demand that somebody be held accountable.
But within these univeras truths, the reader finds one more truth that is wrapped in a paradox. Turns out, it is also true that people’s reaction to a tragedy is largely determined by their culture.
I don’t think most people in the West have an understanding about the gulf between the West and the East when it comes to deciphering the world we all live in.
For example, we know, as a fact, about the stoicism and dignity that are part of the Japanese culture. Reading this book, we understand how deeply rooted it is, as we see the parents painfully mount a challenge to the school leadership, seeking an apology for failing to save the children from the tsunami, a disaster that was a question of when, not if.
I had had enough of Japanese acceptance; I was sick with a surfeit of gaman. Perhaps, at some level of superhuman detachment, the deaths of the Okawa children did make possible insight into the nature of the cosmos. But long before that remote point, in the world of creatures who lived and breathed, they were something else as well—an expression of human and institutional failure, of timidity, complacency, and indecision. It was one thing to recognize a truth about the universe and man’s small place within it; the challenge was how to do this without also submitting to the cult of quietism that had choked this country for so long.
Beyond that, we see the spiritual and mystic side of the Japanese culture. Parents dream constantly of their children and mediums are engaged to try and speak to the dead children. In the West, such behavior would be on margins, but for the people of this book, it is a mainstream pursuit. There were also exorcisms as ghosts and evil spirits were routed.
Here, though, we see the limits of spiritual pursuit. After 9/11, I heard ministers say that there is no explanation of how God could allow such suffering. In Japan, a Buddhist monk said this:
“We realized that, for all that we had learned about religious ritual and language, none of it was effective in facing what we saw all around us. This destruction that we were living inside—it couldn’t be framed by the principles and theories of religion. Even as priests, we were close to the fear that people express when they say, ‘We see no God, we see no Buddha here.’
This is a fascinating book, well-researched and well-written. It is a study of humanity and culture under the most extreme stress-test possible. It is a great piece of writing and a great reading experience.