REVIEW: Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Perry

The original vision for this blog was a place for me to write about ‘hauntings’ in the most expansive sense of the word. What I mean by that is that while I definitely wanted to write about ghosts and ghost-stories, I also wanted to write about memory, trauma, and all the ways in which the past imposes itself upon the present and helps to shape the future. While this original vision may have never come fully to pass, I remain deeply fascinated by this more expansive conception of the haunting. Evidently I am not alone in this fascination as Ghosts of the Tsunami is a book about just such a form of haunting written by the Asia editor of the London Times.

Ghosts of the Tsunami reminds me quite a bit of both Sam Knight’s The Premonitions Bureau and David M. Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men in so far as it is an example of a journalist trying to produce a book about a complex phenomenon by stringing together a series of long-read pieces about different facets of a single thing using their personal relationship with the thing as a means of bringing the whole thing together. Interestingly, while I felt that Sam Knight and David M. Ewalt both rather struggled with the format, Lloyd Perry deploys it with real elegance as he will often introduce an idea in quite general terms, leave it to prove for a hundred pages, and then return to it in a subtly different context thereby reinforcing both the book’s sense of cohesion and the force of his ideas. But I am getting ahead of myself…

On March 11 2011, the fourth largest earthquake in recorded history occurred 72km off the coast of Japan. This earthquake is so violent that it is believed to have knocked the planet several degrees off its access and moved Japan some 40 feet closer to America. Having taken place under water, the earthquake triggered a tsunami that is reported to have been over 40m tall, to have travelled at over 700km/h and, when it hit the Japanese coast, it travelled over 10km inland causing nearly 20,000 deaths and the displacement of 250,000 people. While reporting on the damage caused by the tsunami may have been dominated by the ensuing meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the tsunami also decimated a number of towns and destroyed communities all along the Eastern coast of the Tohoku region. It is these ghosts that most concern Lloyd Perry.

The book opens with Lloyd Perry experiencing a swarm of small earthquakes while in his office in Tokyo. He talks about swinging lights, rattling doors, triggered car alarms and a mobile phone network that struggles to keep up when the entire city decides to start calling their families to check on them. While this short interlude serves to introduce us to Lloyd Perry as a narrator, it also introduces us to the idea that the quake would have been experienced in different ways by different people. For Lloyd Perry, a well-connected and internationally-respected journalist, the earthquake was nothing but a mild inconvenience that is rapidly transformed first into an amusing anecdote, then into a profitable and career-enhancing book deal. To others, the earthquake was somewhat less kind.

Japan, we are repeatedly told, lives in the shadow of intense seismic activity and has devoted a lot of time and effort into developing rules and guidelines governing everything from preferred construction techniques to methods of building evacuation in case of tsunami. Tokyo’s ruling elites would have first experienced the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in much the same way as Lloyd Perry: Some distant rumbling, a few toppled ornaments, and maybe a broken window. Beyond that, meetings had been attended and memos had been issued. Civil servants had been trained and even children had been drilled in what to do. Systems were in place. The problem with systems is that, much like tsunamis and earthquakes, they tend to be experienced in different ways by different people. So while the ruling class may have experienced the tsunami as a minor inconvenience followed by an ocean of paperwork, some people experienced it as death, calamity, and the end of the world.

The book primarily focuses upon a small rural elementary school that was destroyed by the tsunami, killing dozens of children and a sizeable number of teachers. The school was situated so far in-land that the local residents did not consider themselves a coastal population and so, when the tsunami alarm was raised, a lot of people pointedly refused to seek higher ground. This is one of those ideas that Lloyd Parry introduces, abandons, and then returns to with devastating effect as you would wonder why the self-perception of local villagers should matter when an alarm is sounding.

The problem was that while the school did have detailed plans for what was to be done in the case of tsunami, the plans were somewhat ambiguous and this ambiguity created an opportunity for interpretation and debate that consumed the 50 minutes between the sounding of the alarm and the arrival of the tsunami. Some of the students suggested that the teachers should lead the children to higher ground by climbing the steep hill behind the school. Some teachers responded that this was inappropriate as climbing a steep hill could be dangerous and many locals insisted that no tsunami could reach that far in-land. Eventually a compromise was brokered between the people who wanted to climb the hill and the people who wanted to stay inside the school and the teachers started leading the children to a nearby traffic island, at which point the tsunami worked its way up the nearby river and consumed the entire village killing dozens of people.

Lloyd Perry is particularly adept at describing the look and feel of the tsunami. Like many people who have never been anywhere near that kind of phenomenon, I visualised the tsunami as a giant wave and while that is what a tsunami looks like off-shore, it changes the second it makes landfall. Suddenly, the wall of water becomes a wall of earth and detritus; a black ripple in the land that uproots, carries, and destroys everything before it. If you seek out some of the aerial footage, you’ll see that the tsunami included burning houses and the proximity of pine forests to the coast meant that when the tsunami hit the school it was full of uprooted trees meaning that the black earthen ripple contained dozens of 60-foot battering rams meaning that those who did not drown in the waters were often bludgeoned to death by the wall of detritus. There is also an incredibly harrowing and near-psychedelic description of a survivor who was literally sucked out to sea through his office window only to be hurled back in-land by the force of the wave. However, as striking and percussive as Lloyd Perry’s descriptions of the tsunami may be, the real psychological force of the book lies in his treatment of the aftermath and of the ways in which the tsunami altered the lives of its survivors.

Still focused on the rural elementary school, Lloyd Perry writes about how some parents become obsessed with the supernatural; claiming possession as well as hauntings they seek out various monks and psychics in an effort to either rid themselves of unwanted visitations or to gain some final fleeting contact with the families they have lost. Other parents throw themselves into practicalities such as gaining licenses to operate diggers and earth-movers in an attempt to recover the bodies of their children. These two broad sets of responses soon ossify into opposed camps and membership of a particular camp often depends upon how quickly you recovered the remains of your child. For example, those who are able to bury their children often seek comfort first in the supernatural and then in the political by trying to extract answers first from the afterlife and then from the government bureaucracy that failed their children. Conversely, those parents who are forced to spend weeks and months searching for the remains of their children are so terrified that local authorities will call off the official search that they come to resent the parents who are ‘making a fuss’.

About two thirds of the way into the book, there is a chapter in which Lloyd Perry tries to explain different local responses to the tsunami by referring first to Japanese cultural values and then to a broader culture of alienation, apathy and pessimism that dominated Japanese politics. According to Lloyd Perry, while Japan is subject to social change, that change can never come from below as the institutions that govern Japanese life have insulated themselves from any and all popular pressure or accountability. For example, the country has been ruled by the party of the right for so long that even when progressive politicians do manage to gain some degree of power, their lack of experience and social capital ensures that they are incapable of pushing through any reforms and so they are almost immediately booted out of power. Though not unique to Japan, this problem manifests itself in Japanese culture as a sense of political pessimism so profound that making a fuss, raising awareness, or trying to create positive change is seen as not just pointless, but an actual nuisance meaning that those people who do try to change things come to be viewed as rude and disruptive, thereby making it even harder to provoke political change.

This really hit home as I feel that Britain is getting itself into a similar position. More and more British institutions have leadership positions that are subject to political patronage and so there is a growing sense that these institutions are all on the same side and that side is largely that of enriching and advancing the careers of the people who are already wealthy and well-connected. To speak out means endangering one’s relationship with institutions and so nobody dares to speak out. Meanwhile, politics is increasingly the purview of one party with the opposition trying to syphon off a few votes by suggesting that rather than breaking with government policy, they would implement the policies in a slightly more efficient way. Any attempt to make meaningful changes or put pressure on big institutions is treated with scepticism and hostility by a media class who are quite content to bully members of the public who dare to step out of line. All of this seems particularly striking following the death of the Queen as rather than debating her legacy and discussing which direction Britain should take in the future, elites seem to be falling over themselves to profess obeisance lest the dread Eye of Tabloid Sauron turn upon them. This kind of hostile introspection born of pessimism and alienation may be metabolised differently in each country as the sense of futility and desperation filters through values and habits born from centuries of cultural drift but the root is the same. With no way to make things better and no legitimate way to express dissatisfaction people turn on each other, and themselves.

Ghosts of the Tsunami is a fascinating, cleverly-executed and beautifully-written book. Each chapter brings a new perspective on the catastrophe but while the perspectives multiply, the thematic focus grows deeper and more complex. This is a book about the end of the world, the people who survive the end of the world, and how those people react when the world cannot be saved and its inhabitants cannot be brought back. This is an absolutely devastating portrait of a political culture so static and disconnected from the people it professes to serve that it would rather encourage madness and self-destruction than allow for even the possibility that it might be wrong.

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