Most victims of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake — which convinced Voltaire there could be no God — perished not in the six-minute tremor, but in the tsunamis which foamed up the Tagus soon after, causing devastation as far away as Brazil. These towering sheets of water can have an impact greater than that of a nuclear explosion. The most powerful earthquake yet recorded, in 1960 off Chile, sent 80-foot waves across 10,500 miles of ocean — and struck Japan, half a world away, killing 142 people there.
Japan is a magnet for super-tsunamis, which recur at intervals of 800 to 1,000 years, with lesser waves striking the north-east Sanriku coast roughly every 30 years. In 1896, 22,000 died after a moderate tremor out at sea; in 1933, 3,000 were killed by waves as high as 100 feet.
Arriving in Tokyo in 1986 as an 18-year-old, and finding it a place that ‘answered to something in my loneliness’, Richard Lloyd Parry (now the Times’s Asia correspondent) was swiftly reconciled to destruction and loss. ‘The first thing you learn about Tokyo is that it won’t be there for much longer.’ Twenty-six years on, the time was ripe for another tsunami.
My family lived in both Lisbon and Lima, where the rumbles in the earth were announced beforehand by dogs barking: this strange phenomenon, as if the animals possessed a canine sixth sense, was a sign for us to get up and move quickly into the garden and wait until the rumbling died away. Early in 2011, a supernatural premonition disturbed the sleep of an 11-year-old schoolgirl at Okawa primary school on Japan’s Sanriku coast. Chisato Shito woke up in tears, crying out: ‘The school has gone… A big earthquake.’
A few weeks later, when the first tremor was felt on a cold, sunny afternoon, most of Japan’s urban population reacted like Lloyd Parry in his reinforced tenth-floor office. At 2.47 p.m. on 11 March, he tweeted: ‘Another earthquake in Tokyo.’ Sliding drawers in his cabinet gaped open; books fell to the floor. But a ceramics shop did not lose a single plate, and at a nearby kabuki theatre the actors played on. Reports of 23 deaths on the evening news prompted Lloyd Parry, insulated by ‘modern engineering and strict building laws’, to tweet: ‘Not megadeath.’
He was wrong. Outside the capital, the fourth largest earthquake in history had just shifted Japan four feet closer to America, shut down 50 nuclear reactors, and in one stroke of its whale’s tail killed 18,500. The initial shock accounted for a tiny percentage of these deaths: 99 per cent drowned in the 120-foot waves which less than an hour later had overwhelmed the Sanriku coast, like ‘a brown-snouted animal hungrily bounding over the earth’. At 3.37 p.m, these waves submerged Okawa primary school.
Perhaps because Lloyd Parry had first clapped eyes that morning on an ultrasound image of his embryonic son, he felt a kinship with young victims like Chisato Shito. Although the disaster affected mostly the old — only 351 of the 18,500 deaths were children — Okawa’s school stood out as a terrible exception. Here, more than two miles inland, in a remote and marginal corner of Japan best known for its goblins and barbarians, 74 of the 104 pupils, and ten of the 11 teachers, had drowned at what was designated an official evacuation point. ‘The death of the children was the single grossest tragedy of the whole immense disaster, a distillation of its arbitrariness and horror.’
Six months on, Lloyd Parry decided to visit the school in order to piece together that traumatic afternoon with the survivors’ assistance. He haunted the scene with his reporter’s notebook over the next five years. His persistent enquiries, which ‘often made them cry’, played a modest but increasingly authentic part in helping 54 stricken families frame an answer to one parent’s heart-stopping question: ‘Why did the children of Okawa primary school have to be killed?’
As with Lisbon in 1755, where the receding water exposed lost shipwrecks on the harbour floor, there was a ghostly moment in advance when the sea withdrew, before surging back with full force. To Chisato’s mother, the uncanny silence was ‘as if a film had stopped, as if time had stopped’. Lloyd Parry writes that sounds and signs became ‘unnaturally noticeable’. The school fish-tank slopped over. Manhole covers lifted under pressure of the rising water.
Then came a ‘mysterious noise’ — partly the rushing water, but also ‘the crunch and squeal of wood and concrete, metal and tile’, as a scummy tide, reeking of brine, mud and seaweed, tumbled all in its path. One person flung into the water compared it to ‘being in a washing machine’. Forget Hokusai’s iconic woodcut of a blue elegant wave. This protean monster was brown, grey, black, white, and had a halo of pulverised dust hovering over it. Frothing inland at a speed of 40 mph, it seized houses and carried them off like floating lanterns. It uprooted an entire forest of 20,000 pines, and turned the 60-foot trunks into battering rams. It chucked 130-ton catamarans onto hotel roofs. Afterwards, the scenes along 400 miles of coast ‘resembled those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945’.
Okawa parents when describing that March afternoon used the same word. Jigoku: hell. But this was nothing to the hell of not knowing where, in the evil-smelling mud, their missing children lay, or what had happened to them in their final moments of life. Did they feel cold? Who was the last person they spoke to? What words were exchanged?
Inevitably, a natural disaster exposes the flaws of the human world, as Lloyd Jones discovered in his memorable account of the 2010 Christchurch earthquake, A History of Silence. The tsunami on 11 March 2011 not only removed surfaces from roads, but it stripped away the social lacquer that paralyses Japanese behaviour — ‘the cult of quietism’, as Lloyd Parry diagnoses it, ‘that had choked this country for so long’. Under their glazed calm, the tensions among many hitherto docile parents released a crazed quality. For them, the hunt for what had happened at the school replaced the hunt for bodies. ‘We couldn’t find Hana,’ one mother said. ‘So we had to find the truth.’
Antigone’s compulsion to bury her dead brother against the rules of petty officials is the unspoken myth that hovers over Lloyd Parry’s remarkable and harrowing book. His dossier reads like an interim report into ‘the fiery fact of death’, as he spades further into the events of that day and its aftermath. At Okawa, grief had converted ‘in trickles and drips’ into an unstoppable rage directed at the weak and pampered bureaucrats of the school committee who, like bloated ornamental carp, refused to take responsibility for a series of lamentable decisions and actions. In the 51 minutes between the earthquake and the tsunami, which froze the hands on the school clock at 3.37 p.m., there was time enough to evacuate pupils to higher ground. Why wasn’t it done? ‘We consider this as a murder,’ one parent said. The unexpected court case which ensued, and resulted last October in a guilty verdict against the inert authorities, drove Lloyd Parry to a deeper recognition: ‘The tsunami was not the problem. Japan was the problem.’
It is risky and premature of Lloyd Parry’s publishers to advertise Ghosts of the Tsunami as ‘a classic of non-fiction’. Certainly, it is a first-rate investigation, patient, stubborn, sensitive and even more resonating than his book on Lucie Blackman, the 21-year-old British bar hostess who in 2000 disappeared in Tokyo. Yet, as in a Tanizaki novel, there is, for all its force, an incompleteness about Lloyd Parry’s project. Time does not always start up again, or heal the grief of losing a child. Quite often, it does the opposite. A bereaved mother tells the author about her son: ‘The feeling of desperately wanting to see him, but never being able to see him, is getting stronger and stronger.’
Having invested in the tragedy of a small and obscure community, Lloyd Parry has created for himself an obligation to Okawa’s surviving relatives: to follow their hard journey through to the point where each individual has completed what one priest calls ‘the task of acceptance’. Until that moment arrives, an overbalancing horror and absence is likely to haunt their lives. The book ends with a poem by Anthony Thwaite, titled ‘Shock’, from which Lloyd Parry has chosen to leave out the final stanza. These are the missing words:
The flavour of fear,
Something fragile in the air.
Gone, it remains there.