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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Ghosts of the Tsunami

Death and Life in Japan's Disaster Zone

Richard Lloyd Parry




The first time I met her, in the big wooden house at the foot of the hills, Sayomi Shito recalled the night when her youngest daughter, Chisato, sat suddenly up in bed and cried out, “The school has gone.”

“She was asleep,” her mother told me. “And then she woke up in tears. I asked her, ‘Why? What do you mean, “gone”?’ She said, ‘A big earthquake.’ She was really shouting. She used to sleepwalk occasionally, and she used to mutter odd things now and then. Sometimes she’d get up and walk around, not knowing what she was doing, and I had to guide her back to bed. But she had never had a fright like that before.”

It wasn’t that Chisato, who was eleven, was particularly afraid of earthquakes. A few weeks after her nightmare, on March 9, 2011, there was a strong tremor, which shook the concrete walls of Okawa Elementary School, where she was a pupil—the onset of the swarm that I also experienced two hundred miles away in Tokyo. Chisato and the other children had crawled under their desks while the shaking continued, then put on their plastic helmets, followed their teachers out to the playground, and stood in neat lines while their names were called out and ticked off. But rumbles large and small were common all over Japan, and at home that evening she had not even mentioned it.

Sayomi Shito was curly-haired, round-faced, and bespectacled, an unabashed, confiding woman in her mid-forties. Japanese conventions of restraint and politesse sometimes made hard work of interviews, but Sayomi was an effusive talker, with a droll and gossipy sense of humor. I spent long mornings at her home, in a tide of jokes, cakes, biscuits, and cups of tea. She could talk unprompted for an hour at a stretch, frowning, smiling, and shaking her head as if taken aback by her own recollection. Some people are cast adrift by loss, and when Sayomi spoke of her grief, the pain was as intense as anyone’s. But anger and indignation had kept her tethered, and bred in her a scathing self-confidence.

The Shitos (their name was pronounced “Sh’tore,” like a cross between “shore” and “store”) were a very close family. Sayomi’s older son and daughter, Kenya and Tomoka, were fifteen and thirteen, but the children all still slept on mattresses alongside their parents in the big room on the upper floor. That Friday, March 11, Sayomi had risen as usual at a quarter past six. It was the day of her son’s graduation ceremony from middle school, and her thoughts were filled with mundane, practical matters. “I used to wake Chisato after everyone else had got up,” she said. “I’d sit her on my knee and pat her back, and hug her like a koala bear, and she’d lean into me. It was something I liked to do every morning. I’d hug her, and say, ‘Wakey, wakey’ and we’d start the day. It was our secret moment. But that day she got up on her own.”

Chisato had been out of sorts that morning. It came out later that she had quarreled, in trivial, childish fashion, with her older brother and sister. In the kitchen she prepared breakfast for herself; Sayomi still remembered hearing the ting of the grill when the toast was ready. The school bus reached the stop around the corner at 6:56, and Chisato always left the house exactly three minutes before. “She walked past me with her bag on her shoulder, and I realized that I hadn’t talked to her yet,” Sayomi remembered. “So I said, ‘Chi, my love, wait a moment. What’s up? Not so happy today?’ She said, ‘It’s nothing,’ but rather gloomily. Some days, I used to give her a hug before she went out. That morning, to cheer her up, I gave her a high five. But she was looking at the ground when she walked away.”

In Japanese, domestic leave-taking follows an unvarying formula. The person departing says itte kimasu, which means literally, “Having gone, I will come back.” Those who remain behind respond with itte rasshai, which means “Having gone, be back.” Sayonara, the word that foreigners are taught is the Japanese for “goodbye,” is too final for most occasions, implying a prolonged or indefinite separation. Itte kimasu contains a different emotional charge: the promise of an intended return.

All along the lowest reach of the Kitakami River, from the lagoon in the east to the hills in the west, with varying degrees of alacrity and reluctance, young pupils of Okawa Elementary School and their parents were conducting the same exchange.

Itte kimasu.

Itte rasshai!

* * *

Even before it began, Sayomi told me, Chisato’s life had had about it something fated and magical. She had been conceived on Sayomi’s thirty-third birthday; she was born on Christmas Eve 1999, a sentimental day even in Japan, where practicing Christians are few. Sayomi went into labor in the afternoon; within an hour, she was back in her bed, eating Christmas cake. The following day, on Christmas morning, the ground was covered in immaculate snow; and a week later, the world celebrated the beginning of the third millennium. The infant Chisato was as undemanding in the world as she had been entering it. “She was always with me,” Sayomi said. “In the sling on my front. On my back, when I was cooking. Beside me, in the child seat in the car, or in my lap when I was sitting down. It was as if she was attached to my skin. And she always slept beside me, in the same room, at my right hand, up until that day.”

Fukuji was a gathering of hamlets around a triangular expanse of paddy fields. On two sides were low hills, forested densely with pine; the Shito family house stood on their lowest slope. On the third, northern side was the great Kitakami River, the longest and widest in northern Japan, flowing east towards the Pacific, six miles away. Within a few minutes of the Shitos’ home, depending on the season, you could hike, toboggan, skate, hunt, fish, and swim in fresh or salt water. Chisato played with dolls and drew pictures with her sister, but what she liked most was to run at large with her friends Mizuho and Aika, and the dog and cat that belonged to the old lady next door.

She had what her mother identified as a sixth sense. “She used to do things for you before you said you wanted them,” Sayomi said. “She had that gift of anticipation. For example, my husband is a joiner. The first time Chisato saw him do his carpentry at home, she was standing watching him. And she’d know what tool or material he needed next. She’d say, ‘Here you are, Dad,’ and pass it to him. He’d say, ‘How much she understands! She’s a remarkable girl.’”

Her friends used to tease Chisato by calling her “the security camera,” because she was aware of things to which other eleven-year-olds were oblivious. She noticed, before the other girls, when a gang of boys in the class went into a sniggering cluster, plotting some prank. She knew who had a crush on whom, and whether the feeling was reciprocated. Okawa Elementary School was a small place, with barely a hundred children; in Chisato’s fifth-grade class there were just fifteen. It was a warm, close, oppressively intimate arrangement, unforgiving of anyone who stood apart. Chisato hated it.

“There was no doubt about it,” said Sayomi. “She hated the teachers. She used to say that school is where teachers tell you lies. But she never refused to go. She said, ‘If I miss school, it’s you who’ll get into trouble.’ She knew that she had to do something she didn’t want to do.”

Sayomi said, “I feel very bad now about letting her go to school with such a feeling. But I didn’t want to be the mother who stops her child’s education. It wasn’t that she was bullied, or anything like that. But perhaps there are children who are better off staying at home, who love their mum more than being with their friends. Everyone you talk to says, ‘At least when it happened my child was at the school she loved, with the friends she loved, and the teachers she loved.’ Of course, parents want to believe that. But if they asked their kids, ‘Do you really like that school? Do you really love those teachers?’ then not all of them would say yes.”

* * *

Many people spoke of it as just another day, but Sayomi Shito remembered a strangeness about that Friday.

After breakfast, she had driven to the local middle school for her son Kenya’s graduation ceremony. She took the narrow road across the fields, turned right onto the highway along the river, and passed through the larger village of Yokogawa. Just beyond the village shrine, a small hill bulged out, forcing the road hard up against the water and blocking the view of its lower reaches. Beyond it a wide and magnificent vista opened up, of the broad river with its deep reed beds and stubbled brown paddies on both sides, and huge blue skies above green hills. In the distance was the low line of the New Kitakami Great Bridge, six hundred yards across, connecting Okawa in the south with the Kitakami district on the northern bank.

After the ceremony, Sayomi and Kenya drove farther down the river to the next village, where a modest celebration was being held for the middle-school graduates. This was Kamaya, where Okawa Elementary School was also situated. Twenty or thirty teenagers and their mothers were gathering in a hall, virtually across the road from Chisato’s classroom. Friends who might not see one another again said their goodbyes and exchanged gifts; there was a table of comforting home-cooked foods. Sayomi expected the event to go on until the mid-afternoon, but soon after two o’clock people began to drift away. Kenya wanted to go home. But first there was the question of what to do about Chisato.

Lessons at Okawa Elementary School finished at 2:30, but it was always another ten or fifteen minutes before anyone began to leave, as the children gathered up their things, and the teachers handed out notices or made announcements. Should they linger in wait for Chisato, for what might be another half hour? Or should they go home now, and leave her to take the bus as usual? Sayomi stood by her car in front of the school, considering this small dilemma. And, as she remembered it later, a powerful sense of the uncanny overcame her, in this, the last hour of the old world. “It had been a clear, fine day until noon,” she said. “By the time the party came to an end, it was already becoming cloudy, but there was no wind. Not a single leaf was moving on the trees. I couldn’t sense any life at all. It was as if a film had stopped, as if time had stopped. It was an uncomfortable atmosphere, not the atmosphere of an ordinary day. I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t hear the children in the school—even when they were in their lessons, you could always hear the voices of the little ones. Normally, I might have walked in and said, ‘I popped in to pick up my daughter.’ But the school felt … isolated.”

I asked Sayomi what explained this curious atmosphere. She said, “Living here in this countryside, people coexist with nature. With animals, with plants, with all of this environment. When the wind blows, I hear the sound of the trees, and I know from that sound the condition of the wind. When it’s about to snow, I sense the snow in the air. I feel by instinct the character of the atmosphere surrounding me. That air and that atmosphere are important, almost more important than people. I think Chisato was a girl who also had those instincts.

“But then Kenya said, ‘Shall we go?’ And I thought that it was time to go home. Perhaps it was some kind of intuition that I had to leave. Perhaps that was it. But what I said to myself was: ‘If we go home now, he will have more time to see his friends.’ So we went home.”

* * *

Sayomi was upstairs changing when the shock struck. Her older daughter, Tomoka, had been at home when they returned and had had no lunch. Sayomi set a pan of noodles on the flame, and went to her room. As soon as the shaking began, at 2:46 p.m., she shouted down to the children to turn off the stove and to get outside. Her keenest anxiety was not for them, but for her elderly parents, who lived with the family on the ground floor. Sayomi’s mother was frail and slow; her father was both mildly confused and very stubborn. She ran downstairs to find him attempting to gather up the polished black funeral tablets of the family’s dead ancestors, which were tumbling from the household Buddhist altar. Sayomi gave up trying to reason with him and stumbled outside, to the big tree where the rest of the family had gathered.

“The shaking was so strong, I couldn’t stand up,” she said. “Even outside, crouching down, we were almost falling over. I looked at the metal shutters on the garage—they had ripples going through them. The electricity lines and poles were swaying. It was as if the whole world was collapsing—it was like the special effects in a film about the end of the world. I was amazed that the house didn’t fall down. I tried to get the kids into the car, but I couldn’t even get the door open. Even holding on to the car, I was afraid that it was going to roll over. So I told the children, ‘Stay away from the car,’ and then all that we could do was crouch on the ground.”

She remembered being conscious of sounds, and of their absence. Despite the proximity of the forest, there was no birdsong, or any sign of birds on the wing. But the next-door neighbor’s dog, a placid animal and a favorite of Chisato’s, was barking raucously, while the cat pelted into the hills and out of sight. “It felt as if it continued for a long time, perhaps five minutes,” Sayomi said. “And the feeling of being shaken carried on, even after the shaking had stopped. The electricity poles and wires were still wobbling, so it was difficult to know whether the earth was still moving or whether it was the trembling in myself. The children were upset. Kenya was looking around and shouting, ‘Grandpa! What happened to Grandpa?’”

The old man finally tottered from the house, without his ancestors.

But now the poles and wires and shutters were vibrating again, in the first of a long succession of aftershocks. Sayomi herded her parents and the children into the car, and drove down the lane to a spot in the rice fields where much of the population of Fukuji was already converging. Chairs and mattresses were being laid out for children and old people, and neighbors were exclaiming to one another over what had happened. But from this vantage point, it was clear that any physical damage had been remarkably slight. Apart from the displacement of a few roof tiles, none of the houses in the area, as far as Sayomi could tell, had collapsed or suffered serious damage. There was wonder, and a residue of alarm, but no one was panicking or hysterical. Like a reflection in water after ripples, normality seemed steadily to be reasserting itself.

Sayomi sent a text message to her husband, reporting on the family’s situation, and received one in return. The building site where Takahiro was working had been thrown into disarray by the shaking, but he was unhurt. She looked around, at friends and neighbors performing acts of kindness, a community spontaneously organizing itself to help the old, young, and weak. It occurred to her then that the returning bus, which would bring Chisato home from school, was due at any moment. After settling her parents and children among their neighbors, she drove the few hundred yards to the river to meet it.

* * *

Half a dozen cars had pulled up on the main road along the river; their drivers stood beside them, discussing the situation. Wood from a timber yard was said to have spilled onto the road up ahead, making the way hazardous. None of the drivers had seen the obstruction for himself. But none made any move to investigate. People were calm; none gave any sign of impatience or trepidation. But in the inertness of the scene, Sayomi intuited anxiety and strain. She tried to text her husband again. Immediately after the earthquake, messages had gone through without difficulty, although voice calls were impossible. But now the network had shut down.

Over the next hour, Sayomi drove back and forth between the road, where she waited for the appearance of the school bus, and the rice field, where she checked on the well-being of her family. As she shuttled to and fro, the soothing sense of normality winning out over disaster drained rapidly away.

Sayomi’s attention was drawn to one of the channels that connected with the great river, part of a network of slack creeks that irrigated the paddies. Its level rose and fell with the cycles of the rice crop, but it was never completely dry. Now, though, the water in it had almost entirely disappeared; the muddy bottom was visible, glistening grayly. The next time she looked, the situation had reversed: the stream was engorged with surging water from the river, and pieces of dark unidentifiable debris were racing along its churning surface. Soon the adjoining fields were flooded with water. The spectacle was remarkable enough for Sayomi to make a film of it on her mobile phone. The brief clip recorded the time, 3:58 p.m., and a snatch of news from the car radio: “… as a result of the tsunami which hit Onagawa, houses are reported to have been inundated up to their roofs and vehicles have been washed away. Maintain strict vigilance…”

The word “tsunami” was well known to Sayomi, of course; stronger earthquakes, if they occurred under the sea, were commonly followed by a tsunami warning. The size of the waves would be reported on the television as they came in: thirty inches, fifteen inches, four inches—phenomena scarcely visible to the untrained eye, often measurable only by harbor gauges. But the radio was speaking of O-tsunami—a “super-tsunami,” twenty feet high—and all of this in Onagawa, a fishing port just an hour’s drive to the south. “I knew that twenty feet was big, although knowing it is different from feeling it,” Sayomi said. “But to hear that it was capable of washing away cars, that brought it home. I tried to stay calm. There was nothing else I could do.”

Sayomi went back to the main road and waited for her daughter, as dusk swallowed up the day.

She had been standing in front of Okawa Elementary School an hour and a half ago; it should have been the most natural thing in the world to drive back down the road along the river to collect Chisato. It was only four miles downstream, but there were no cars at all coming from that direction. The drivers loitering at the lock said that the way was dangerous, although no one seemed willing to explain exactly why. Wet, sleety snow had begun to fall. The river was behaving as if it was possessed. The surface of the water was bulging and flexing like the muscles beneath the skin of an athlete; large, irregularly shaped objects were dimly visible on its surface. Sayomi lingered by the river, watching the road, until after it was dark.

* * *

At home, she found her house intact, but littered with fallen and broken objects, and without electricity, gas, or water. She improvised a meal out of leftovers, and forced herself not to worry about Chisato. Plenty of families in Fukuji were waiting for children who had not come back from the elementary school, and none showed excessive concern. Chisato’s teachers were trained to deal with emergencies. The concrete school was built more strongly than the wooden houses of Fukuji, all of which had ridden out the earthquake. Most reassuring to Sayomi, who had attended the school herself, was its position immediately in front of a seven-hundred-foot hill. A track, rising from the back of the playground, ascended quickly to a point beyond the reach of even a “super-tsunami.” Without electricity, people in Fukuji had no access to television or the Internet; none had yet seen the images of the devouring wave, which were being played over and over again across the world. Instead, they listened to the local radio station, which was retailing the cautious, official casualty figures: scores confirmed dead, hundreds more likely. Then came an unambiguous report, which everyone waiting up that evening remembered: two hundred people, locals and children, were sheltering in Okawa Elementary School, cut off and awaiting rescue.

Sayomi’s relief at hearing this was a measure of the anxiety that she had been reluctant to admit even to herself. “One of the other mums was saying that they were probably staying in the upper gallery of the gym, and enjoying a pajama party,” Sayomi remembered. “We said to one another, ‘Poor old Chisato. She’s going to be hungry and cold.’ We were no more worried than that.”

But when Takahiro finally reached home that night, after an exhausting journey along cracked and congested roads, the first thing Sayomi said to him was “Chisato’s not back.”

The family spent the night in the car, as a precaution against aftershocks. Squeezed side by side in the upright seats, no one slept much. Sayomi was kept awake by a single phrase, which sounded over and over in her head: “Chisato’s not here, Chisato’s not here, Chisato’s not here.”

It was bitterly cold, and the darkness was overwhelming. Everyone who lived through that night was amazed by the intense clarity of the sky overhead and the brightness of the stars. They found themselves in a land without power, television, telephones, a place suddenly plucked up and folded into a pocket of time, disconnected from the twenty-first century. Sayomi got up at dawn, stiff and cold. Gas and water had been restored, so she could at least make tea and cook. Then came news that spread excitedly among the mothers of Okawa Elementary School. A helicopter was flying there to pick up the trapped children and to lift them out. Takahiro and the other men of the village were preparing a place for it to land. Chisato was coming home at last.

Copyright © 2017 by Richard Lloyd Parry