March 11 2011 was no ordinary day. An earthquake shook Japan. However, the earthquake which moved Japan four feet closer to America and caused the earth to move ten inches off its axis was a precursor to something more disastrous. It led to a tsunami that killed over 18 thousand people. In Ghosts of the Tsunami, Richard Lloyd Parry evaluates the effect of the Tsunami on the Japanese and particularly its impact on the people of the Tohoku region with a specific focus on what happened at Okawa Elementary school.
At Okawa Elementary school 74 of the 78 students who remained on the school field after the earthquake died. In Ghosts of the Tsunami, Parry explores not just the circumstances surrounding their death but the trauma and grief that their death has caused their parents. All of these are done within the context of how grief is processed within the Japanese culture. This is a society where seismic shifts have defined daily life. Evacuation drills and emergency processes are part of every school curriculum. In exploring this disaster, Ghosts of the Tsunami examines what went wrong at Okara Elementary School that day. Were the school officials negligent or ill-prepared? The answer to that question is not provided but the ways in which the government officials are evasive impact the grieving process of the parents in a very moving way.
In reference to the Japanese society, Herman Ooms once said that “The dead are not as dead there as in our own society”. This point is brought alive in how the grieving parents in The Ghosts of the Tsunami cope with their losses. Ancestor worship is a big thing in Japan and investigating how they cope we see the thin line between the living and the dead, in their view. This makes their pain even more palpable and enables their perseverance in searching for the bodies of their dead loved ones.
Ghosts of the Tsunami is a very well-written memoir. The topic is not upbeat and in fact very depressing but the author manages to explore a great depth of the grief that enveloped the survivors of this natural disaster while dignifying the dead and the living. The only issue I had with the book was that fewer survivors would have been focused on as the sheer volume of survivors covered in the book, making it harder to keep track of whose grief was being explored at each point in time.