On March 11, 2011, an earthquake sent a twelve-foot-high tsunami crashing into the coast of northeast Japan, setting off a national crisis and the meltdown of a nuclear plant. Award-winning foreign correspondent Richard Lloyd Parry was there to feel the destabilizing first shakes and witness all that came after. Parry spent six years reporting from the disaster zone, where he immersed himself in the communities tormented by loss and uncovered the harrowing stories of how the resulting trauma manifested. Ghosts of the Tsunami is the definitive account of this catastrophe, vividly told by those who survived and now struggle to find consolation in the ruins. Richard Lloyd Parry made a rare trip to New York City to speak at the Japan Society in conversation with Ian Buruma, the editor of The New York Review of Books, where they discussed how Lloyd Parry’s research evolved into a book, his experiences reporting in Japan as an outsider, and how cultural differences impacted his approach to telling this crucial story.
Ian Buruma: Richard, it’s a huge pleasure to do this because I’ve admired your book very much. I’d like to start with a very obvious question, which is, how did you first get involved in this story? Did you start covering the event immediately, and how did it evolve into a book?
Richard Lloyd Parry: I first became involved in this story when I was sitting in my office in Higashi Ginza on the tenth floor, and the window started to rattle, the desk was shaking, the partition was wobbling. And that was 2:46 p.m. on the 11th of March, 2011, or probably a minute or two later, because of course, even in Tokyo, it was one of the strongest earthquakes that I think anyone living has felt. And then of course I was immediately plunged into covering it for The Times as a reporter. I went up there the next day and spent about a week and a half or two weeks in the disaster zone going from place to place and reporting on what the tsunami had done. And I think quite early on I recognized that this was an event of such a scale that it was one of those stories that’s difficult to do justice in daily journalism, even when you have quite a long piece of a couple thousand words. There’s such a lot to it, and it obviously lent itself to treatment in a book. But for a long time I couldn’t find the right way in. I didn’t want to produce a kind of broad academic or sociological survey of the whole thing, I didn’t have that ambition. I wanted to find the right story or stories which I could tell in cursed detail—from the inside, to tell the bigger story—and eventually, after a few months, I found the story of Okawa School, this terrible tragedy where nearly all the children and the teachers died, and people were reporting ghost stories, and there were exorcisms. And those got me the way in.
Buruma: In some ways, Okawa School could be seen as a kind of microcosm of Japanese society. Was this something that you were conscious of from the beginning, or is it something that gradually dawned on you as you were getting to know people involved? Perhaps you could tell the story, for those who haven’t read the book.
Lloyd Parry: Yes, Okawa Elementary School is in a village by a river, on the Kitakami River, which is a broad river that empties into the Pacific Ocean, close to where the epicenter was. And the impressive thing is that of 18,500 people who died in the tsunami, only seventy-five of them were children in school, and seventy-four of them were in one single school. For some reason, unlike all the other schools, the teachers did not evacuate the children to higher ground, and after fifty-one minutes, the wave came in, and when at last they made a run for it, it was too late. All but four children and one teacher died. Within the greater disaster, it was one of the single most acute tragedies. And there was a mystery about it, why it happened. I mean, it’s not representative in that it was an aberration—it was the only place it happened—but what I realized afterwards was that in some ways natural disasters are hard to write about because they are natural, they come and they go and they always will, they are Acts of God, if you like. They don’t have a lot of politics. But this incident at Okawa School did. It was a human tragedy, it resulted from human failure, and afterwards it revealed a lot of dividedness and conflict within the community.
Within the greater disaster, it was one of the single most acute tragedies. And there was a mystery about it, why it happened.
Buruma: What was Japanese about it was how people dealt with the responsibility for the failure. I think there’s a parallel, which was often drawn by anti-nuclear activists—the way that World War II, too, is remembered and written about very often in Japan as though it were a kind of natural disaster, where responsibility was so diffuse that everybody was a victim. Do you see a parallel in it?
Lloyd Parry: Yes, well, in the school, at least, the failure was bureaucratic. But the thing that made it worse was that, after this disaster, parents began to ask the obvious question: why was this the only school where this happened? And the answers were not forthcoming. The local government could, I think, have quelled a lot of the anger by simply showing a human face, if they had someone who had the human empathy and vision to step forward and simply say, “We’re so sorry, this is a disaster,” and wept with the parents. But they didn’t. They were defensive, they were bureaucratic, they used jargon. And this made the already unbearable feelings of the parents even worse. So that was where it came from. And people sometimes, certainly outside Japan when you tell this story, respond by saying, “Oh, well, that is very Japanese, isn’t it?” The Japanese we all know like to go by the book, by the manual, and the manual doesn’t tell them what to do if they don’t know what to do—as if this explains the tragedy on the playground where the children died. But in fact, everywhere else was different. There are plenty of examples of schools and institutions where people took the initiative and avoided disaster. And also, part of the subject of this book is the Japanese parents of the children who perished at the school, who stood up and behaved in a manner that is very different from the stereotype of Japanese. They stood up and showed their anger. In the public meetings, they pointed their finger at the bureaucrats and shouted at them, called them bastards, and fought for answers. Japan is a very diverse place, and despite appearances, it contains a lot of conflict. That was one of the things I wanted to bring out and dramatize. I think, as a stereotype, like all stereotypes, there’s a kernel of truth, but it’s also quite off the mark, because if we look at Japanese history, even recent Japanese history in the twentieth century, there are lots of protests and conflicts and demonstrations, and so on.
Buruma: Why do you think this one didn’t go anywhere? Why did it peter out?
Lloyd Parry: It was a very extraordinary, emotional time in Japan after the eleventh of March, 2011, and one powerful element of it was the nuclear disaster, in the sense of threat that that brought. There were power cuts, the lights were turned off in Tokyo. It felt very different. And I went up there, as some of the other foreign journalists did, and one of the things we talked about, speculated about, quite early on, was whether this would be a turning point for Japan. Because, of course, if you look back at Japanese history, there had been a number of moments where a catastrophe, a disaster of one kind or another, has proved to be the agent of regeneration. It was the coming of the Black Ships, of course, in the nineteenth century, and most obviously, the defeat in the Second World War, which within twenty years had been turned around into regeneration. And I wondered, could this be the end of the Lost Decades? Could this be the shock that Japan needs to galvanize it? And it wasn’t only people like me. Naoto Kan, who was then the prime minister, wrote a piece in The Washington Post where he said exactly that. He said this is a terrible thing that has happened, but we’ve suffered tragedies before and we’ve bounced back strongly, so watch us do it again. And that promise has not been fulfilled, and it reached its high water mark, really, in the summer of 2012 when there were very large anti-nuclear demonstrations, the biggest being in Yoyogi Park. It’s difficult to find equivalents, but I think if something like the Fukushima disaster had happened in Western Europe, we’d just have millions on the streets, and governments would have fallen. The government of Germany abandoned nuclear power because of what happened in Fukushima. The government of Japan has really not changed the policy very much at all. I went to the big demonstration in Yoyogi Park—I was in my mid-forties at the time, and I was one of the youngest people there. They were led by a pop star in his sixties, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and a novelist in his seventies. It was the usual suspects. It didn’t kindle protest, really, among the young, and not much changed.
And I wondered, could this be the end of the Lost Decades? Could this be the shock that Japan needs to galvanize it?
Buruma: I think their analysis at the time was that this disaster was very much a reflection of collusion between what was de facto a one-party state—even though at that moment, ironically, the opposition was in power. But the LDP and the nuclear industry were in cahoots, supported by a lot of people in the United States, of course, and the hope was that that would be broken, and that didn’t happen at all. In fact, Naoto Kan, in some ways, was the victim of the earthquake as much as anybody else.
Lloyd Parry: Yes, ironically, the political force that was broken by it was the Democratic Party of Japan, which had come in two years earlier on the back of this tremendous election victory, and there’d been almost nothing like it. And it seemed then that finally a competitive two-party system was being established. The eleventh of March was really the death knell for them. And there we were: the Liberal Democratic Party, this extraordinary political zombie that refuses to lie in its grave no matter how many times it’s dispatched, came back again and had Japan by the throat.
Buruma: Which is deeply sad. But then the collusion is, of course, not only between the Liberal Democrats and the nuclear industry. I think the role of the press is very important, too, and I think one of the things that is so moving about the book is how close you got to the people who were the real victims of what happened, and you got to know them, and they come to life in your pages, and not just those people but also the ghosts that they felt were still present, and so on. We’ll get to the role of the foreigner in a situation like this in a minute. In a way the mainstream press in Japan was complicit with the nuclear industry and the government—they were told to back off, keep a distance, not get too close to the disaster. That must have added to the victory of the conservatives in the end, no?
I think one of the things that is so moving about the book is how close you got to the people who were the real victims of what happened.
Lloyd Parry: I mean, there are different views on the way that the Japanese press dealt with the disaster. I think in many ways they did a good job. I mean, to a British journalist, one of the most remarkable characteristics of the Japanese media is how amazingly over-resourced they are. All of the big newspapers have a helicopter, for example. NHK has a fleet of them. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, everyone will remember the footage those helicopters shot actually coming in live. And the job of reporting the plight of the survivors, the stages of emergency, I think really wasn’t too badly done. The failure in reporting was in the decades before that, as you said—reports of the nuclear industry, because it’s become clear that the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi was a human, corporate, governmental disaster. I think it was a result of decades of arrogance and greed, and deliberate blindness to risks that had been clearly pointed out by experts. And at the core of it, the key absurdity was—I’m not so sure in this country, but certainly in Britain—if you go to people in the nuclear industry, they will justify what they’re doing and they’ll show you the risks are low, that most of the time, nuclear plants are safe. In Japan, the claim was that nuclear power was 100 percent safe and always would be, that absolutely nothing could go wrong. And that was obviously a lie that should’ve been probed by journalists, but wasn’t.
Buruma: You were telling me in the green room just now that somebody in Japan told you that only a foreigner, gaijin, could have written this book. What do you think this person meant by that?
Lloyd Parry: Yes, a couple of people have said that. And I think that by that they mean a couple of things. I mean of course it’s written for a foreign audience—I hope it’s accessible to people who aren’t particularly knowledgeable about Japan, so there’s that. It doesn’t make assumptions about general knowledge that you could make of Japanese readers. But also it has, in its descriptions, a quality, perhaps, of rawness that Japanese reporters would avoid. One of the things I discovered as I went back to this community—this school and its children—was that one of the consolations that people take in disaster, when consolation is badly needed, is this idea that disaster brings people together, and it makes communities stronger and it brings out our best qualities. And there is truth in that, but it is also true that overall, the balance of a tragedy is negative, and tragedies like that bring about conflict and anger and can break up communities as well. And I write about that, and there’s one moment where I describe two of these bereaved mothers who came to hate each other because they had very different views of the best thing to do, and that, I think, is one of the things that a Japanese writer would not necessarily have been able to write.
Buruma: One of the refreshing things about Japan now if you’re there as a foreigner is that people don’t fall about in astonishment every time you open your mouth and say something in Japanese. Whereas when I was living there in the ’70s, you could tell the taxi driver where to go, and there’d be a moment of stunned silence, and that doesn’t happen anymore, which is extremely pleasant.
Lloyd Parry: Yeah, no one stares in Tokyo at all.
Buruma: I always try to describe individuals, as you’ve done, and yes, I was an outsider, because no matter how much you think you can be sort of accepted as an insider in Japan, you won’t be. And I suppose in the end, I found that frustrating. We talked earlier about the concept of gaijinitis.
Lloyd Parry: Yeah, what is gaijinitis?
Buruma: I knew an American who later became an Australian who spoke fluent Japanese, and he was very annoyed when people didn’t treat him as a Japanese. One day we were sitting in a Chinese restaurant, and a waiter was hovering at our table to wait for our orders. He ordered in Japanese, and the waiter looked a little bewildered and answered in English, and he said to the waiter, “Why can’t you speak in Japanese?!” The waiter turned out to be Taiwanese. That’s gaijinitis.
Lloyd Parry: I think it’s something we have in common. Japan is a country which is beset by stereotypes, and to be fair, Japanese propagates started to talk about themselves and it’s been encouraged. But when you get down and look into these stories, the diversity is remarkable. I mean, it’s never black and white. It’s always gray.
Richard Lloyd Parry is the Asia editor and Tokyo bureau chief of The Times (London) and the author of In the Time of Madness and People Who Eat Darkness.
Ian Buruma, editor of The New York Review of Books, is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and Year Zero: A History of 1945.