About a month ago, I went to Shinjuku to meet the new English teacher that was coming to my school; we went for sushi. However, before we met I went to the Kinokuniya Foreign Bookstore – for anyone who doesn’t know, this is a bookstore next to Shinjuku Station that sells books in languages that are not Japanese. Their biggest selection is English but they also have books in German, Chinese, French, etc.
I love bookstores so I mostly went just to window shop and maybe pick up a book for studying Japanese vocabulary. I decided on the vocabulary book I wanted but just as I was going to the cash register to pay, a special looking book caught my eye. That book was Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry. Today, I am going to share that book with you in the hopes that you might consider picking it up and giving it a read yourself.
As the title suggests, this book is about the tsunami that ravaged the Northeastern coastline of Japan following a massive magnitude 9 earthquake on March 11, 2011. Most people know this due to the meltdown it caused at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant. It was a triple disaster that killed over 15,000 people and displaced and injured thousands more – not something to be forgotten in my opinion. Having been to one of the communities that was virtually wiped off the map by this tsunami (twice!), the continuing issues are something I hold close to my heart.
In this book, Parry, as a journalist and resident of Japan, spent a lot of time in these areas in the years following the disaster. His book is about one particular incident – the deaths of 70 children and several of their teachers at Okawa Elementary School, an elementary school that was located in the rural outskirts of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. The school wasn’t even that close to the shore. The tsunami funneled up the river next to the school and swept them all away.
The image that Parry weaves for the readers as he first describes the initial reactions to the disaster and then narrows his view to individuals (parents, local residents, etc.) are extremely well thought out and written with extreme care. He talks not only of the aftermath of the disaster though (the lawsuits, attempts to rebuild, the spiritual healing) but also speaks of the heart and soul of the area – Tohoku. He speaks of a place where the people learned to take care of their own, that are rough but also considerate, and of people that can persevere even in the harshest conditions. In this book, while the story is bleak and without a happy ending for any of those involved with Okawa Elementary school, he also manages to describe a place of immense beauty that is shrouded in mystery.
My love for the Tohoku region runs deep – it reminds me a lot of home. Reading this book caused restlessness and tears but it also opened my spirit. This disaster should not be forgotten. Tohoku, a place still struggling through recovery and extreme depopulation, should not be forgotten. If this review (thought brief) causes even one more person to read and remember and love then I will be happy. Remember – this kind of thing could happen to any of us.
For convenience, I am also linking an article written by Parry for The Guardian where he writes a briefer version of the story he fleshes out in his book. Both the article and the book are equally chilling. The article also contains colour photos taken shortly after the tsunami hit and is therefore worth reading just to see those images. Here’s the link: The school beneath the wave: the unimaginable tragedy of Japan’s tsunami