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'Ghosts of the Tsunami' Shows How 2011 Event Transformed Japan


On March 11, 2011, Japan took a devastating seismic one-two. First an earthquake, and then a tsunami that rose 120 feet high out of the Pacific. More than 18,000 people died. In the villages on Japan's Sanriku Coast some 250 miles north of Tokyo, the tsunami's toll was breathtaking.

In his new book "Ghosts Of The Tsunami," the British journalist Richard Lloyd Parry describes how that day transfigured both the physical landscape and the interior mental landscape of the people who survived. Richard Lloyd Parry is Asia editor for The Times of London as well as Tokyo bureau chief, and he joins us from Tokyo. Thanks for being with us today.

RICHARD LLOYD PARRY: That's a pleasure.

SIEGEL: When I think back to March 2011 and the tsunami that struck Japan, I think mostly of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. But you focus on a different catastrophe, what happened at the Okawa Elementary School. And I want you to describe what happened there.

PARRY: Well, the Okawa Elementary School was a very ordinary little school in a village in the far northeast of Japan. It was by a big river. It was a small school for hundreds of kids. And like other schools all over the area, when the earthquake struck that afternoon they knew exactly what to do. They got under their desks at first. Then the teachers escorted them outside, they lined up in their classes, and their names were ticked off. And everyone was fine.

The problem is that unlike many other schools along that coast, they stayed put. They stayed in the playground. There was a hill behind the school where within five minutes they could have been safely out of reach of any disaster. But they didn't climb it. And 51 minutes later the tsunami came and rushed in. The children scattered. And all but four of the 78 children and all but one of the 13 teachers who were in the school at the time perished.

SIEGEL: And in part what you're writing about, although you're writing about much more than that, was the question of, was that a case of negligence? Should those children have survived? Should better decisions have been made at the school during those 51 minutes?

PARRY: That's right. I mean, one of the things that drew me to the story is that there are several elements to it. But one element is this kind of mystery, in a way, almost a conspiracy story - why the children died, why this had to happen. And after the initial shock and horror of what had had happened, a number of the parents who'd lost children at the school started to ask questions, started to push for answers, and became very involved in trying to uncover the truth.

SIEGEL: You came to know some of the families it seems pretty well. What was it about them that you found so compelling that you went back to interview them several times?

PARRY: I mean, this - in this disaster on that day, almost 18,500 people died. It was a colossal catastrophe. And the problem when you're trying to turn this into a story is making it manageable. I mean, how do you comprehend disaster on that scale? And fairly early on, I heard about the school. And it struck me then that this was possibly the worst of all the many terrible stories that happened that day.

But also, it wasn't just a natural disaster. I mean, a country like Japan has suffered from tsunamis for as long as there have been Japanese islands. It's just part of the seismology of that part of the world. You get earthquakes and the waves that follow them. And Japanese have been dying in tsunamis as long as there have been Japanese. But this wasn't just an act of God. This was also a human disaster. It was avoidable. And there was a story behind it and a politics to it which also made it fascinating and fearful as well.

SIEGEL: A theme that runs throughout your book is the tension between the grief and resolve of the parents whose children died at Okawa Elementary School, the need for some accountability, some acceptance of responsibility by the authorities for not having evacuated the area properly and, on the other hand, an officialdom that could be, as you describe it, very gracious. They bowed very deeply. They could be very polite. But they couldn't admit that something terrible had gone wrong here that might have been their fault.

And there's a conversation you relate with Sayomi Shito where she describes that conflict in an interesting way. I'm wondering if you could just read that passage.

PARRY: (Reading) The children were murdered by an invisible monster, Sayomi Shito said once. We vent our anger on it, but it doesn't react. It's like a black shadow. It has no human warmth. She went on, the tsunami was a visible monster, but the invisible monster will last forever. I asked, what is the invisible monster? I wonder myself what it is, said Sayomi. Something peculiar in the Japanese, who only attach importance to the surface of things. And in the pride of people who cannot ever say sorry.

SIEGEL: It's a very trenchant criticism of the bureaucracy that she was up against at that time.

PARRY: Yes, that's what she was talking about. She was very bitter about the way the authorities dealt with the disaster not only because through incompetence all these children had been allowed to die, but also because of the really, I mean, very candid and half-hearted way that the mistakes were covered up, when attempt was made to cover them up afterwards. That - you know, that was a very just criticism. And Sayomi and other people who lost kids in the school felt that very bitterly.

SIEGEL: Here in the U.S. we have a number of people in Texas and Florida and in Northern California, Puerto Rico recovering from natural disasters, none so lethal as the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. I was wondering, is there any takeaway as Americans pick up the pieces of their broken lives, anything that they could learn from the experience of the families who survived the tsunami?

PARRY: It's very difficult, isn't it? There are no - there are no easy answers. And I think what I learned in the course of following this story and writing this book is that there isn't any easy consolation. There are no easy answers. And anyone who offers glib answers is fibbing. But I suppose what you can say is that these disasters, you know, although they bring out conflict as well - one has to acknowledge that - they also show up in very stark form, you know, the strength and weaknesses of societies. And that's something that you can learn from not at the moment of the disaster and the immediate aftermath, but afterwards.

I mean, I've been observing those various disasters in the United States which you listed from afar, you know, out - from out in Japan. But I suspect that they do reveal strengths, but also weaknesses and flaws in the societies where they occurred and fissures in the politics of the United States as well, to put it mildly. And that's something you can reflect on and learn from. And people in Japan, I think, have been trying to do that, too.

SIEGEL: Richard Lloyd Parry's book is called "Ghosts Of The Tsunami: Death And Life In Japan's Disaster Zone." Thanks for talking with us today.

PARRY: It's been a great pleasure, Robert. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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