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Japan's stoicism in the face of natural disaster, and the tragedy of the tsunami-hit school: a British journalist investigates

Discussing the weather with an Englishman is, you might think, like talking to an Englishman about soccer, or beer, or gardening: stereotypical par for a stereotypical course. But during two conversations with journalist and award-winning author Richard Lloyd Parry, weather, often in its most extreme forms, becomes a subject of philosophical, spiritual, political and national significance.

Nor is there anything narrowly English about Lloyd Parry's interest, or indeed the man himself. Born in Merseyside, northwest England, and educa­ted at Oxford University, he has lived for almost 25 years in Tokyo, Japan, where he is currently Asia editor for The Times of London newspaper. The English may apparently spend five months of their lives chatting about the weather, but the Japanese are no less attuned to their meteorological environ­ment.

"Natural disasters are Japan," Lloyd Parry says at one point. "It's the ground beneath your feet. It's the weather. The typhoons."

Richard Lloyd Parry. Picture: Alamy www.scmp.com>Ghosts of the Tsunami (2017), winner of 2018's Rathbones Folio Prize, a literary award that recognises the year's most ambitious work of fiction or non-fiction. The book's ostensible subject is the Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami that, on one freezing winter's day in March 2011, killed more than 18,000 people and destroyed the lives of countless more. "It was Japan's greatest crisis since the second world war," Lloyd Parry concludes in his examination.

In graceful, analytical but ultimately compassionate prose, Lloyd Parry zeroes in on one infinitesimal corner of the overwhelm­ing catastrophe: the deaths of 74 children at Okawa Elementary School, in Ishinomaki, after the tsunami transformed the nearby Kitakami River into a roiling, black ocean devastating everything in its path.

"The story of the school was a distillation of the tragedy," Lloyd Parry says, during our initial meeting, in England. "There were so many tragedies that day, but in terms of the number of lives lost in one place, and how those lives were lost, there was no worse story that I heard."

"This includes a six-year-old boy on a school outing," Lloyd Parry says. "My son is six. His school outing to the zoo was cancelled. They went to an air-conditioned museum instead. It's very serious. The summers here are hot anyway. For a few weeks, it's as hot as Thailand. But the past two or three weeks, it's been a good deal hotter: high 40s, and with a heat index even higher. It really feels toxic. It's merciless. You just can't go out for long."

His conversation, which exemplifies the virtues of his precise, intelligent and thoughtful writing, makes it easy to forget that Lloyd Parry is effectively now a stranger in his own land: his 23-year residence in Tokyo means he can no longer vote in British elections, which makes him suitably cross. In this, a closer literary parallel than Austen is Charles Dickens' Arthur Clennam, who, in Little Dorrit, returns to England from the Far East and finds he is an outsider in both places.

His relationship with Japan began in just this speculative spirit. In the late 1980s, he won a television quiz show for students, called Blockbusters. First prize was a trip to Japan. The country made enough of an impression that Lloyd Parry returned a couple of years later, during a gap year before university. "I am amazed I had the nerve to do it," he says. "I just turned up and got by for six months. I didn't have much to lose because I had a place at university and a family to go back to. Still, it was quite bold for an 18-year-old. I don't think I would do it now."

Memories of this youthful adventure would return when he wrote People Who Eat Darkness (2010), which investigated the death of Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old Briton who was murdered in 2000 while work­ing as a hostess in Tokyo's Roppongi district. Arriving "untethered and alone", Blackman, like Lloyd Parry, was simul­taneously bewitched and bewildered by Tokyo. "The strange­ness of it, the loneliness of it, the isolation, but also the excitement. I was quoting from [Blackman's] diaries, but I was also in a way describing my own experience. It's one common to many people who come out [to Japan] when they're young and unsupported."

Briton Lucie Blackman was murdered while working as a hostess in Tokyo in 2000. Picture: AFP

Lloyd Parry cites a lesson taught during his first visit: that every 70 years, Tokyo is destroyed by an earthquake. "The last time was in 1923," he says, "so it's overdue."

Pitted against this looming apocalypse is the reality that "Japan, in every other way, is an astonishingly safe, secure and benign environment. There is virtually no street crime. I never worry about my partner going out for the evening. Women can walk on their own in any part of Tokyo at any time of night. Kids at my children's school walk there and back on their own. You are not going to have your car broken into. You are not going to be beaten up because you look at someone a funny way. But Tokyo could be destroyed by a mega-earthquake at any moment. That's what you live with."

Indeed, challenging stereotypes about Japan is another theme that runs through both books. Of Blackman's murder, Lloyd Parry says, "There was so much cultural bulls*** covering that story. This notion that Japanese men are constantly hungering after blond, white female flesh is just rubbish. This story was a bizarre aber­ration and not illustrative of anything except being the exception to the rule that Japanese people don't hurt one another, or anyone else, very much."

Nevertheless, the writer speculates that the proximity of natural disasters "has bred a deep strain of fatalism or acceptance [in the Japanese psyche]. One of the many para­doxes of Japan is that it is a very conservative place: things change very slowly, society changes very slowly. But the physical environment changes constantly. Japanese cities are constantly being torn down and rebuilt."

Speaking for himself, Lloyd Parry hypothesises that such constant menace creates a complex frisson of excitement. "Tokyo is such a thrilling city. The vibrancy of the place was " as [Irish journalist] Peter Popham has written " an almost erotic thrill. I think it's because of earthquakes. The place could be gone at any moment."

If this fundamental fasci­nation with earthquakes was one spur for Ghosts of the Tsunami, the seeds of the book proper were sown when Lloyd Parry covered the 2004 tsunami that laid waste to Aceh, in Indonesia. "I always thought, 'Someday, I want to write a book about that,'" he says. Then the 2011 earthquake struck. Lloyd Parry experienced it from his office in Tokyo, before reporting on the damage from around the country.

A "black wave" crashes over the concrete breakwater in Shinkawa Town, Miyako, Iwate, on March 11, 2011. Picture: Shinya Kumagai

The facts are these. At 2.46pm on March 11, 2011, Japan was struck by an earthquake. A magnitude 9 quake, it was the most powerful recorded in the country, and the fourth largest in history. As Lloyd Parry writes: "It knocked the Earth six and a half inches off its axis; it moved Japan thirteen inches closer to America."

Three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant went into meltdown, causing the worst nuclear incident since Chernobyl. Hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed. Millions were affected by power cuts and water shortages. The total cost of the quake, according to the World Bank, was US$235 billion, making it the worst natural disaster in economic history.

What caused the most grievous and widespread damage was the ensuing tsunami that hit Japan's northeast coast about an hour after a series of aftershocks. Measured in places at more than 40 metres high, the surging waves deposited cars on top of buildings. In Sendai, the tsunami reached 10km inland. Its force broke icebergs from the Sulzberger Ice Shelf, 13,000km away in Antarctica.

The tsunami reached Okawa Elementary School rather faster. For Lloyd Parry, its apocalyptic progress along the Kitakami dramatises his broader sense of Japan's often stark contradictions. He remembers visiting Okawa for the first time some months later.

"When I actually got there, the feelings of dread at having to face this story fell away," he says. "What impresses you about that place is how beautiful it is, how quiet, how still. There is nothing left. There is mud and the school. But you have the river. All around is green. It was September, so still summer. Blue sky. The sea. I was trying to convey the horror, but also the beauty. Sometimes the two were inseparable: death in life."

On March 11, however, death crushed the life out of Okawa. One of the countless tragedies is that it really should not have done.

"Japanese schools are possibly the best places you can be in an earthquake," Lloyd Parry says. "They are strongly built. The teachers and the children are drilled and know exactly what to do. Okawa school was not an accident waiting to happen. Nor was it characteristic of Japan."

Of the 75 children who died in schools across the country, 74 were at Okawa. The causes can be summarised as inadequate plans and vague wording in the school's disaster manual combined with desultory, divided and flawed decision-making by panicked teachers who ignored the obvious escape route (the steep but climbable hill directly behind the school) in favour of one that led the children directly towards the tsunami.

"The story at Okawa school was about human failure. It was completely avoidable," Lloyd Parry says. "It was a way of telling the story of this natural disaster, but also of looking into the way human institutions failed and how people dealt with what was left: the physical remnants but also more importantly the psychological aftermath."

Ghosts of the Tsunami traces these aftershocks through a series of hauntings: survivors who saw and heard gaki, "hungry ghosts" con­demned to wander between worlds by a violent or premature death. In the years after the tsunami, the gaki seemed to be everywhere. "Personally, I don't believe in ghosts," Lloyd Parry says. "But the important thing is these experiences were intensely real to the people having them."

The gaki were seen not only by grieving parents, siblings and friends, but also by those not immediately affected by the tragedy. "What I think they are is evidence of the massive emotional trauma that was experienced by the whole region," Lloyd Parry says. "It got into people's souls, this horror. And it came out in this remarkable and vivid way."

Chieko Kawasaki, 60, retrieves dishes from the spot where her restaurant once stood. The remains of her home are seen left, background. Picture: EPA

"One of the most amazing things was the resilience, self-control and initiative shown by the survivors," he says. "Hundreds of thousands of people suddenly homeless, crammed literally head-to-toe in these gymnasiums and sports halls and temples. Everyone just got on with it, shared what they had. They didn't expect to be helped out. They weren't whingeing. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, gaman is a tremendously valuable social commodity."

The downside of this stoicism, however, is a tendency to accept the status quo. "Like the lies told by the operators of a nuclear power plant," Lloyd Parry suggests. To illustrate his point, he imagines the response if a tsunami had hit his British birth­place. "People would be fighting and looting; they would be selfish. But, if a nuclear plant melted down and spilled poison over a whole region, that would bring govern­ments down. You would have millions on the street. It would change things permanently. In Japan that didn't happen."

One exception was a small group of grieving Okawa parents. Gaman evaporated when members of the Ishinomaki Board of Education continually evaded fundamental questions of responsibility for the 74 deaths. Instead of offering "personal warmth and empathy", Lloyd Parry writes, "Their loyalty was to a higher cause [...] that of protecting the organisation from further damage to its reputation, and above all from legal attacks in the courts."

If that was the intention, they failed on both counts: after a lengthy legal case, the Okawa parents were awarded 1.43 billion yen (US$13 million). But as Lloyd Parry notes: "In some ways it was a hollow victory because it changed nothing." The judges failed to address vital issues: the inadequate response of the school's headmaster, Teruyuki Kashiba; the failings of the teachers and Ishinomaki's board; and the subsequent untruths of the one teacher who saved himself amid the catastrophe, Junji Endo.

Little has changed since Ghosts of the Tsunami was published. The education board has continued to duck responsibility, launching two appeals disputing the verdict against it. The first was rejected, with an increase in the damages to the parents. The board has now appealed again, to the Supreme Court.

Lloyd Parry sounds genuinely disgusted. "For the local govern­ment, paying these lawyers is an item in the budget," he says. "For the parents, prolonging the whole thing is agony: months more of strain and tension and wondering. I do feel very indignant about that. [The board] should accept defeat. For anyone with common sense, employees of the local government failed to make very obvious decisions."

The centre of Tokyo following an earthquake on September 1, 1923, that claimed about 143,000 lives. Picture: Alamy

Lloyd Parry says his long-term future remains in Japan, although this would probably have come as a surprise to his younger self. "I would certainly have been staggered if anyone had told me 23 years ago that I would still be here at close to 50 years old."

Nevertheless, last year's political grandstanding between the US and North Korea did give him pause. "I have been covering North Korea for 23 years and have got very used to playing down the anxieties of foreign news editors when one crisis or another comes up," Lloyd Parry says. "I have always been right to be less concerned. But around September, I did for the first time think about practical questions. What would we do with the children, what would my partner do if it looked like a war was going to break out with North Korea and I was going to have to cover it."

It is characteristic that Lloyd Parry's concern was not his own annihilation but the challenges of becoming a de facto war reporter. His own life is increasingly dictated by the insatiable appetite of the 21st century's 24-hour news cycle. Few recent stories proved harder to sate than the drama at the Thai cave. "The demand for copy was so high," he says. "I was filing four times a day on various internet editions. You really didn't have time or the mental space to step back and contemplate."

Rescue teams pump water from a cave complex in which 12 boys and their soccer coach are trapped. Picture: Royal Thai Navy via AP

Lloyd Parry spoke to a local politician, a "practical-minded sort of chap [who] was quite sure the boys had been kid­napped by the princess-goddess as a kind of publicity stunt", the writer says. "He said [it was] because she hadn't been getting enough attention. The result is that everyone in the world knows about these caves."

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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