A Conversation with Richard Lloyd Parry, Author of ‘Ghosts of the Tsunami’

In a powerful new account of Japan’s earthquake and subsequent tsunami, Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone, Richard Lloyd Parry, author and Asia Editor for The Times of London, focuses in on the tragedy at one small coastal school, Okawa Elementary School, where 74 out of 108 children and 10 out of 13 teachers died during the tsunami.

In Ghosts of the Tsunami, named one of the best books of 2017 by The Guardian, NPR, GQ, The Economist and Bookforum, Richard Lloyd Parry explores exactly what happened at the school that led to the failed evacuation, and how the nation struggled to find consolation.

I caught up with Richard Lloyd Parry at the Japan Society in March, where he had been invited to discuss his book. He was joined by Ian Buruma, editor of The New York Review of Books and author of the recently published, A Tokyo Romance.

I want to thank you for Ghosts of the Tsunami. It’s a beautiful book, intensely evocative. Gives voice to the voiceless. It breaks new ground.

Thanks. I worked to put the human face at the forefront of the story.

How did you come to Okawa Primary School? How did you determine that documenting this community’s tragedy might come to stand for the whole? You describe, “finding the way in” to the story. What was your way in?

The story of Okawa School was widely known. But I was interested in telling the human story. In Ghosts of the Tsunami I try to recount exactly what happened, and how it felt for people caught up in it.

The central story was about the death of young children. A terrible thing. The worst thing one can imagine, especially if you’re a parent yourself. I was often told, “I couldn’t open a book like that – it’s just so sad.”

So there was the need to make the story something more than a tale of utter inconsolable loss. The narrative had to go forward. I was not telling a story of redemption or consolation. But perhaps about a sense of regeneration.

I’m especially indebted to a Japanese journalist, Ikegami-san, who did the spadework, it was good work. He collected and analyzed the documents, established facts. He also worked closely with the families.

Perhaps one could say your story describes a new birth. After an exorcism, “the sense of power discharging at the end of pain as the newborn child finally enters the world.” A teacher in the audience said that her class expressed a special fascination and enthusiasm for your stories of the ghosts. And with the exorcisms.

In fact the central story was first published as an essay in the London Review of Books. I used it as a starting point, “digesting” it out into the book overall.

You’ve said “I don’t believe in ghosts” but the stories are so vivid. Like the one of the old obaachan (grannie) who visits her neighbors for a cup of tea and “no-one had the heart to tell her she was dead.” What was going on there?

My cold rational answer – there is no such thing as ghosts. Like the taxi driver story – an urban myth. I’ve heard it all over. They are stories rather than reportable incidents. I don’t believe in the supernatural.

I think these stories stem from overwhelming psychic trauma. In the two reported cases of possession neither person was directly affected by tsunami. Neither lost family or friends. Or property. Not directly affected. But this trauma reached in to these people- into their psyches.

Japan was in a funny state at that time. People were edgy. You know the feeling when you think your phone is vibrating in your pocket – but it’s not? People suddenly started getting married. Needing a sense of security. That was the meaning of the ghost stories. The stories were not evidence of survival after death…but symptoms of overwhelming damage.

These stories also tended to occur when people finally had time to think about things other than survival. At first they were always busy thinking about practical things. “Where will I get my next onigiri (riceball)? Where will I sleep?” Then they began to focus on things other than survival. They were living in hovels but had a big TV to watch, ways to cook their meals, and now, the leisure to reflect on what it all meant.

That is when the trauma emerged: PTSD. It not on the battlefield, but when you’re home with family.

You speak of the tsunami’s dismantling of the contract between the living and the dead. Is this one possible reason for the hauntings?

After death takes place, the deceased person becomes a hotoke-sama – or someone who is becoming a buddha. Everyone who has died is a hotoke-sama.

The spirit then progresses to the other side. At O-Bon [the Festival of the Dead,] the spirit comes back. But the spirit can be vulnerable, especially if the person has died under bad circumstances. If the spirit does not receive proper funeral services and burial/cremation it becomes a gaki or hungry ghost.

‘Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone’ by Richard Lloyd Parry. 320 pp. MCD

The family must tend the ihai (burial tablets) housed in the butsudan (god-shelf, a kind of cupboard.) This care for the ancestors must be carried out every day. If that doesn’t happen connections with the ancestors are lost.

After the tsunami the butsudans and ihai were scattered and lost – they vanished. The ancestors were gone! All gone. A terrible thing. Like being orphaned in reverse.

For an extended discussion of the theology of the cult of ancestors read Robert J. Smith’s Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan.

You’ve pointed out that the dead in Japan “are not as dead as they are in other countries.”

Yes. In Okawa mothers talked to their dead [aloud, freely]. In Iwate-ken someone set up a phone box (unconnected) so that people could go and talk to their dead.

I always wondered – when people go to the shrine, to pray to the dead, what are they saying? Are they praying? How literal is their belief? In the dead? We know that the living place rice cakes and tangerines on the butsudan [for the dead to consume] – the food sits there for ages, but is not eaten.

The point is that communication is made possible.

Rituals for dealing with the dead have evolved because they do the job. After death there are various time periods when the life of the deceased is commemorated. After certain time periods have elapsed, the family can go forward. People dressed in black attend memorial services. They are happy. Smiling. Their grief is no longer so raw.

But the central story in your book is a discussion of why and how Okawa failed to protect its children from the tsunami. Some Japanese think of themselves not as a sea-going people, but as townspeople. In a small town like Okawa, the people think the tsunami can’t happen here. Is this one reason?

In the fishing villages, on the coast, everyone evacuated. They knew about the tsunami. Knew about evacuation. But in Okawa, they thought no tsunami could come here. At the school you couldn’t see or smell the sea. Just the river. Nobody in this town thought of themselves as “sea people.”

But Okawa place names like shioden (salt field) reflect the effects of salt and the sea. People have commented that the sea will find itself and its home no matter what humans do with the landscape.

Tell us how the post-tsunami landscape looked. About the images of jigoku.

Images of Japanese hells are very disturbing. Visceral, with bodies hanging about. The bodies are naked. Torn apart. Gray mud is everywhere. Okawa, after the tsunami, mirrored these images of hell.

Have you visited that part of Japan? It’s very lovely. A classic landscape. A perfect little piece of ukiyo-e (woodblock print.) But in the center of this beautiful landscape there was sticky, stinky mud from the bottom of the sea. It stank of fish.

The priests who marched through this area, horrified by the sight, were stricken by aphasia. They couldn’t speak. They couldn’t do much at all for the villagers at that time.

You describe Rev. Kaneta as a hero. A Zen Buddhist priest who helps everybody in distress performs exorcisms, including some cases of multiple possessions. He nearly dies from exhaustion.

Kaneta is a natural leader. But he says he has no interest in an active position in politics. He is contemptuous of political life. It’s a sad thing. In Japan, politics tend to be left to politicians. Politicians are seen to be in a caste of their own. And the people are excluded. One can’t help them. Politics are seen to be a natural disaster.

Rev. Kaneta created “Cafe de Monku,” a way for people devastated by grief to come together and talk to each other. The invitation is quite wonderful: “Come have a little moan (monku, in Japanese) with us.”

I went to a couple of them. They were relaxed and simple. There were a couple of tables; people were chatting. But over in a corner, [unobtrusively] Kaneta would engage with people who were in extremis. Traumatized.

I should note also that there were chaplains to assist him. Notably the Rev. Yozo Taniyama, also a Zen Buddhist priest. American educated. A trained psychologist.

Your book gives a voice to women and children. Naomi, for example, is a woman who gets a license to operate a giant yellow digger to find her family’s bones and other family’s bones. What an image! Was her story also one of “your ways in”?

Yes. Naomi was the first person I met in Okawa. I’d heard about her. I drove up and there she was, standing by the shrine. Talked to her then and also to Shito-san, the two women, mothers, whom I knew would be central to the story. I went back many times to check with them. They are key to the book.

And you even give a voice to a tree, the “miracle pine.” Which is now artificial.

It’s no longer a living tree but a lump of plastic. But it lasted for a remarkable period of time. It’s a symbol of something uniquely Japanese- hopeless heroism. A single ronin fighting on regardless.

You portray a society so different from ours in the West. And you say some interesting things about “gaijin-ness,” being foreign in Japan.

Note that it is highly unusual to go to another society and attempt to blend in. It’s not straightforward.

Ian Buruma’s book A Tokyo Romance, is also about gaijin-ness, how he lived as a gaijin in Tokyo in the 1970’s.

Buruma commented that for him, the thrill of gaijin-ness had worn off. How do you feel about being a foreign journalist in present-day Japan?

Privileged! It’s much more fun being a gaijin in Japan than being Japanese. Japanese society is stratified, with a net of obligations, hierarchy, and status. It’s fascinating. But for gaijin participation in society is optional.

Buruma also writes about different categories of gaijin. Some bitterly resent the fact you can’t ever belong in Japan. But I like it!

There is a periodicity of gaijin-ness: I went out to Japan as a young single man. What a a banquet of sensation! Then I lived in Japan as a couple with kids. Now we’re parents of shogakko kids. It’s fascinating. Three kinds of experiences.

I work for a foreign news organization. My partner is British. Our kids go to Japanese schools. I engage with Japan on my own terms. Often feel I am in the basket of a hot air balloon. Every morning I winch it down! Or up! And float! I am an opportunist!

I also think my job is valuable.

You touch also on other admirable aspects of Japanese character. Such as the reactions of Okawa families awarded damages in their case against the School Board. They were dignified. Showed no joy.

Yes. And the trial and the court case are great narrative devices. They’re a story in themselves. There are two sides. There is conflict. In public. Documents, records, are obtained and used. There is a storyteller.

Ghosts of the Tsunami turns ordinary Japanese people into heroes. Yet their voices are no longer much heard in public life. Do you see any positive change?

Many of Japan’s troubles derive from the fact that the political system isn’t working. All the working parts do work. As they should be working. There is a solid educational system, a transparent political system. But it doesn’t feel like a democracy.

The German system generates coalition governments. The process is messy but ends with agreement, with compromise. Compromise often works well in Japan. So the German system might lend itself to Japan. But we have to beware of reaching for cultural explanations.

The Japanese people’s dedication to harmony and aversion to confrontation can be both a great source of strength and a potentially bad thing.

After following stories of 3/11 for years, I keep looking for signs of new public reactions, for signs of positive change in Japan or even more broadly, to the danger of nuclear power? Do you see any such signs? Of uprisings?

Political change in Japan happens slowly and not according to the expectations of foreign political scientists. In the end I’d say that the society is successful.

Japan has a deeply rich educational system, culture, traditions of crafts and arts, creativity. It’s a wonderful place to live. We have to take these points into consideration.

Nuclear power, the many experts I have consulted with, believe that in the long run nuclear power is on the way out. There are huge costs. And there is great danger especially in countries like Japan. When things go wrong it is catastrophically expensive to fix them.

I don’t think Japan should have nuclear power. The danger is one issue- but consider this. The issue of nuclear waste. Nuclear waste fuel has to be kept for 10,000 years. I can’t imagine doing this.

Renewable sources are needed. But I’m an agnostic about this.

Can you share with us your plans for the future?

I’m currently working on my day job. I love it but it’s very demanding. My next book might focus on North Korea. But that is a dangerous and precarious situation.

The Okawa families’ court case was appealed and the verdict will be handed down in April. So I’m going up there to see the verdict of the case in April 2018.

We can exchange meishi (cards.) Thank you!