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Old 11-13-2019, 05:58 PM   #1
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Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry

'On 11 March 2011, a massive earthquake sent a 120-foot-high tsunami smashing into the coast of north-east Japan. By the time the sea retreated, more than 18,500 people had been crushed, burned to death, or drowned.

It was Japan’s greatest single loss of life since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. It set off a national crisis, and the meltdown of a nuclear power plant. And even after the immediate emergency had abated, the trauma of the disaster continued to express itself in bizarre and mysterious ways.

Richard Lloyd Parry, an award-winning foreign correspondent, lived through the earthquake in Tokyo, and spent six years reporting from the disaster zone. There he encountered stories of ghosts and hauntings. He met a priest who performed exorcisms on people possessed by the spirits of the dead. And he found himself drawn back again and again to a village which had suffered the greatest loss of all, a community tormented by unbearable mysteries of its own.

What really happened to the local children as they waited in the school playground in the moments before the tsunami? Why did their teachers not evacuate them to safety? And why was the unbearable truth being so stubbornly covered up?

Ghosts of the Tsunami is a classic of literary non-fiction, a heart-breaking and intimate account of an epic tragedy, told through the personal accounts of those who lived through it. It tells the story of how a nation faced a catastrophe, and the bleak struggle to find consolation in the ruins.'


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There are two phases of discussion. The first begins immediately and may contain conversations about anything pre-completion of the selection including reading progress, section thoughts, outside info, etc. The second begins on the 1st and also includes anything post-completion. These are recommended to help us discuss things in a similar timeframe but anyone can discuss any part or aspect at any time.


This is the MR Literary Club selection for November 2019. Everyone is welcome so feel free to start or join in the conversation at any time; the more the merrier!



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Old 11-18-2019, 12:36 AM   #2
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I started reading the book this weekend, and it is pretty powerful so far and haunting. It starts out with a statement on life with the ultrasound compared to what follows. Also it reminds me of the Joan Didion memoir and that life change change in an instant, an ordinary instant.

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Old 11-18-2019, 01:17 AM   #3
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I began the book today and am through the prologue. I considered listening to an audio version but decided to go with the ebook because of the pictures and maps I saw reading the preview during the vote.

As you say, it's haunting from the beginning and I want to find out the story of those kids who could've been so easily saved.
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Old 11-23-2019, 04:30 PM   #4
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I am very interested in Japanese culture and have a reading and listening comprehension of the language, though my spoken skills are still meh. I follow the NHK and a few shimbun (newspaper) twitters to keep my skills fresh. I was following all of them the day the tsunami hit. I had the NHK live stream on in my office the whole day and many of the days that followed.

I think there is something to be said that maybe the book doesn't address the way I had hoped it would - Japan is still one of the most disaster-prepared nations in the world. This once episode of the school was a tragedy, but it was the exception to the rule in many ways. The government reaction, however, was not.
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Old 11-23-2019, 08:13 PM   #5
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I haven't started yet but am looking forward to getting into it as NZ is exposed to tsunamis, especially the lower Eastern side of North Island from an earthquake in the Hikurangi Trench which is very deep and close to the coast - on the basis of average return periods it is due for a 8.5-9 earthquake and consequent big tsunami. But we get them arriving from around the Pacific, particularly South America. So took a particular interest in the Japanese tsunami.

There is actually a nationwide cellular emergency warning system test here tonight, it is tested about once a year. It has been in place for 3 or 4 years now but I think it is already getting into "cry wolf" mode as I am told it was used during a building fire in the Auckland CBD recently warning people to not come into the area because some streets were closed off for fire fighting and due to smoke - so no real emergency at all, more a convenience thing.

Many people, us included, take the radio warnings of potential tsunamis issued by Government Civil Defence with a bit of a grain of salt too because the radio stations exaggerate them for news effect. I suppose we get one of those a year, on average for tsunamis generated around the Pacific, for those many of us now just log on to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center based in Hawaii instead and make our own minds up based on the models they immediately generate for each event showing estimated height and time of arrival on a Pacific wide map.
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Old 11-30-2019, 12:31 PM   #6
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I'm over halfway now and really enjoying it. Well, enjoying may not be the right word for a book about such a disaster and in particular such a senseless mass of deaths at this school, but the writing is really, really good for a non-fiction book.
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Old 11-30-2019, 05:34 PM   #7
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I'm over halfway now and really enjoying it. Well, enjoying may not be the right word for a book about such a disaster and in particular such a senseless mass of deaths at this school, but the writing is really, really good for a non-fiction book.
I have had a book about the tsunami in my top 10 for at least 3 years now. Parry's book is the most recent. There was also:
  • Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey by Marie Mutsuki Mockett, whose family runs a Buddhist temple 50 miles from Fukashima. Her memoir about visiting Japan in the aftermath and watching her brother and fellow priests work was amazing.
  • A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki which is a fiction work. From Goodreads: Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
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Old 12-01-2019, 11:57 AM   #8
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I also am about halfway through. It’s a very good book. I did not realize that Japan was so prepared for disasters, but it certainly makes obvious sense now. Tsunamis were not something I was really aware of until probably the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. I experienced earthquakes when I lived in Seattle but don’t remember any talk about tsunamis.

Thanks for the recommendations on other books, astrangerhere. I have wanted to read something by Ruth Ozeki.
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Old 12-01-2019, 11:25 PM   #9
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I am about 85% through and finding it an interesting book. I have a couple of things to pick apart but best left to later (no surprise in that, I'll wager ).

Bookworm_Girl: Your comment is very similar to here. Despite the severe risk from the Hikurangi Trench and damage from a quite big tsunami in a relatively unpopulated area in 1947 and flooding damage in several places from the 1960 Chile tsunami it has also really only been since the Indonesian tsunami that there has been much public interest in them here in NZ and that was heightened after the Japanese one.

My mother lived in the area of the 1947 tsunami as a teenager and later when we were children we were told by her to be careful of the signs (we lived on the banks of an exposed river estuary facing out to the East). As mentioned before we now have a cellular based alert system, some places have sirens and some blue lines painted across roads at the estimated maximum wave run-up heights so people know to evacuate inland from those; all just in the last couple of years.

Back when I was at school we were told what to do in an earthquake, nothing at all about what to do if there was a tsunami even though I was schooled in a seaside town.
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Old 12-18-2019, 05:17 PM   #10
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As I said I have a couple of things to pick on in this book, this is the main one. Picky and the meanderings of someone brought up associated with the sea maybe, but with the author being a practising journalist it made me wary of the rest of the book.

He claims at the beginning of the book that "At its peak, the water was 120 feet high." (the writer of the frontmatter also makes the claim). This figure, or something near it, I've seen repeated elsewhere too, but while it is valuable to journalists creating their stories it is very misleading and in the way they present it without clarification they either do not understand where the figure comes from or are intentionally distorting the actual situation in order to create tension in their story.

The 120 feet (or figures around that) is in fact the estimated maximum wave run-up height experienced during the Japan tsunami, it is not the height of the tsunami wave. The run-up height of a wave is the maximum elevation of the point on land that it reaches. So if one watches a wave arrive on a beach, for example, the run-up height is the highest part of the beach that it washes up to. If the beach is not steep the wave will run inland losing its energy to friction and turbulence and the run-up height will not be as high as on a steeply sloping beach where the wave will lose its energy by being forced to climb. The run-up height is inversely proportional to the steepness of the wave so steep waves have smaller run-up heights that less steep ones of the same height (which may seem counterintuitive). Tsunamis can have big run up heights compared to their wave height if faced with sloping ground because they are not very steep waves.

The 120 feet (an estimate) is from a location where the ground was steeply rising from the sea so the wave had to lose its energy very quickly by climbing the slope rather than losing to friction and turbulence if progressing inland over flat land. In fact, the tsunami's maximum height when it reached land was around 10m (an estimate because tide gauges were washed away in the area of maximum height) that diminishing rapidly as one moved North and South from the point of maximum. Therefore the updated official warnings issued about the impending tsunami and quoted in the book were for a 10m wave and they turned out to be correct, but nowhere that I found does the author clarify that it is those that were correct, not his claim that the tsunami was nearly four times that at "120 feet {37m} high".

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Old 12-18-2019, 05:53 PM   #11
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So I got off to a bad start encountering a misleading wave height right at the beginning of the book . I also confess that after having the inside information on a considerable number of reported people and business situations, and being present during natural events in all of which I have seen the distortions applied by practising journalists to create their stories (including, without any care, incorrectly demolishing the careers of people) that I regard them all with some sort of wariness, bordering on supressed contempt, until the rare case they prove to be trustworthy. So a book written by a practicing journalist was approached warily by me.

But in the end I found it to be a worthwhile read. I commend him on leaving out the meal that is usually pounced and built on by journalists out of the Fukushima Daiichi power station. I am satisfied that the general presentation of those involved with the loss of the children is a representative depiction of the events. Because of my wariness I do wonder about the veracity of the words he puts in the mouths of the many players in the story, and especially so the matters around the court case.

That said it was part of a big disaster and even if his story was to be historical fiction it carries the message of the disaster. I don't recall though him mentioning that the Sendai area was that which faced the maximum tsunami height and I thought that he should have.

I did find his wandering off into the metaphysics of priests and exorcism tiresome and I rushed over the lengthy and bogging down section around that at the end of the book. Whether it truly represented the beliefs of the locals in general as being some primitive peoples in that respect I do not know, but whatever is the case I felt he made an unnecessary meal of it.

So after lots of complaining on my side I still thought it a worthwhile read .

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Old 12-19-2019, 10:51 AM   #12
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I did find his wandering off into the metaphysics of priests and exorcism tiresome and I rushed over the lengthy and bogging down section around that at the end of the book. Whether it truly represented the beliefs of the locals in general as being some primitive peoples in that respect I do not know, but whatever is the case I felt he made an unnecessary meal of it.

So after lots of complaining on my side I still thought it a worthwhile read .
Mockett's book, which I mentioned further up in the thread is ALL about how the various religious workers and participants dealt with the loss. Japan's culture is so intertwined with Buddhism and Shinto (Japan's iconic Torii gates are Shinto) that it was not at all unrealistic. It is still very, very common for new homes to be blessed by priests and to see paper wards hanging in homes both new and old.
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Old 12-20-2019, 12:47 AM   #13
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Mockett's book, which I mentioned further up in the thread is ALL about how the various religious workers and participants dealt with the loss. Japan's culture is so intertwined with Buddhism and Shinto (Japan's iconic Torii gates are Shinto) that it was not at all unrealistic. It is still very, very common for new homes to be blessed by priests and to see paper wards hanging in homes both new and old.
Thanks for the info on Japanese culture. I thought the discussion about the culture of ancestors was very interesting, especially how the loss of homes and shrines in addition to the loss of children left people feeling disconnected from both the past and the future. I was surprised by the sections about the ghosts and exorcisms. Also I did not expect so many parents to consult mediums looking for a connection to the children. I did not expect that such a reaction would have been accepted in the culture.
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Old 12-20-2019, 12:53 AM   #14
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My mother lived in the area of the 1947 tsunami as a teenager and later when we were children we were told by her to be careful of the signs (we lived on the banks of an exposed river estuary facing out to the East). As mentioned before we now have a cellular based alert system, some places have sirens and some blue lines painted across roads at the estimated maximum wave run-up heights so people know to evacuate inland from those; all just in the last couple of years.

Back when I was at school we were told what to do in an earthquake, nothing at all about what to do if there was a tsunami even though I was schooled in a seaside town.
It's interesting how different geographical areas prepare for different types of natural disasters. I did not know that they painted lines on the roads for tsunami evacuations. I remember traveling to Savannah, Georgia for the first time and seeing "barrier arms" (like train-track crossings) at ramps on and off highways so that they could evacuate the area safely having cars go in the wrong direction during a hurricane. I grew up in an area where we had drills for earthquakes and tornados and of course sirens for tornados. Where I live now it's extreme heat and monsoons (dust storms) that are the big weather problem.
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Old 12-20-2019, 10:13 PM   #15
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Our front gate is a bit less than 100m back from the water's edge and we face out to the Tasman Sea on the West coast of North Island. As best I can figure we are around 3 meters, at least, above sea level but there is a rise of another 1 to 2 meters between us and the sea. Modeling for a 9.2 earthquake off the East coast of North Island in the Hikurangi Trench with the tsunami coming through Cook Strait and wrapping up the West coast towards us gives a wave run-up height here of around 2 meters and takes about 1 hour to get here, so I'm hoping we're safe from that. At worst, maybe just stay upstairs so we don't get wet feet .

As a low risk area we don't have blue lines on roads or sirens locally but are warned that an ordinary fault out to sea from us ("ordinary" as there is no tsunami generating subduction zone in the Tasman Sea) may generate a tsunami of concern but it would be generated very close and arrive before any warnings could be given. Despite that, we do have people here who get angry and worried because we don't have those pretty blue lines and mournful sirens to test every year like high risk places do.

I haven't been to the North Island East coast cities of Napier and Gisborne that face the Hikurangi Trench since it became fashionable to have blue lines just in the last couple of years, but in Lower Hutt City at the Northern end of Wellington Harbour and which faces the narrowish harbour entrance 7 miles away I've noticed blue lines as far as a couple of miles inland in areas adjacent to the river that runs through the city.

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