What happened when 133-ft waves swept in? A new book documents the Tohoku tsunami

The story continued long after the news cameras left
August 15, 2017

Ghosts of the Tsunami

by Richard Lloyd Parry (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

Tohoku is a region to which most Tokyoites would never venture. Seen as a “rustic” and old-world place, the accent is hard to understand for those not originally from north-east Japan.

Richard Lloyd Parry, the Asia Editor of the Times, spent six years reporting from Tohoku in the wake of the 2011 tsunami. His new book offers a well-researched, polyphonic narrative of what happened on the day 133-ft waves swept in—and how the story continued long after the news cameras left.

Lloyd Parry painstakingly recounts the 51 minutes between the earthquake and the tsunami, which overwhelmed Okawa primary school: 74 out of 108 students died. Ghosts of the Tsunami recounts popular ghost stories rooted in the violent ends of those churned out to sea, and conversations between parents and mediums purporting to communicate their dead children’s needs.

Through extensive interviews with tsunami survivors as well as a Buddhist priest who performed more than 25 exorcisms and 200 funerals in a month, Lloyd Parry offers a rare glimpse into the history and culture of a region where entire villages were wiped out. He concentrates on two mothers who both lost daughters at the school, showing how difficult it was for the community to come together after the tragedy.

Japan is an almost impenetrable country for foreign journalists—they are barred from government press clubs. But by gaining the trust of those on the ground, the author has created an unrivalled account of how Tohoku grieved, and is still grieving.