by Richard Lloyd Perry
Setting & details: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Authenticity of Japanese characters & dialogue: N/A
Represents real life in Japan: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Entertainment value: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
My recommendation: Full of fascinating details and well worth reading
Ghosts of the Tsunami is a page-turningly readable piece of narrative non-fiction, written by the Asia Editor of The Times of London. And while it centers around a terrible disaster (Parry spent months reporting from the Fukushima area right after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami), it’s anything but depressing. Instead of dwelling on the spectacle of destruction, the author delivers deep and poignant insights into the fascinating way that the Japanese deal with life, death, and what you do the day after your world is washed away. And he does it through compelling, personal stories.
For example, Buddhist priests found themselves in a very strange situation right after the disaster. They desperately wanted to help with humanitarian efforts, but people were reluctant to allow them to join the search for survivors. Buddhist priests have a close association with death (they perform all Japanese funerals), so rescue teams were worried they might jinx the chances of finding the missing alive.
Instead, priests found themselves dealing with an avalanche of requests for rites they barely knew. Like…exorcisms. In the wake of the disaster, scores of people were seeing ghosts.
So many loved ones had been wrenched from life in an unexpected and untimely way, the living were having a hard time letting go of the dead and allowing their spirits to move on to the next life. Perry talks to a number of people who had vivid supernatural experiences in the wake of their loss, and through these eyewitness accounts, we begin to understand the relationship the Japanese have with their ancestors. Why a graveyard washed away by a monster wave leaves an extended family grieving for the dead as well as the living. Why haunting in Japan is the flip side of what happens in the West. And why so many Japanese died because they went back to rescue the ancestral tablets on their home altars as the wave loomed.
The author writes with a keen journalistic eye and the veteran reportage chops to winkle out the most interesting bits and deliver them with insight. I’ve found myself sharing things I learned from this book long after reading it, and I hope you will too.
If you’re already a Japanagram subscriber, you’re automatically entered in the March giveaway of Ghosts of the Tsunami, but if you’re not and you’d like a chance to snag a copy, sign up for Japanagram and check the April 2020 issue to see if you won! All subscribers are automatically entered to win.
How I pick the book giveaway winners: On the last day of each month, I load all the email addresses of Japanagram subscribers into a random name picker on the Web and ask it to choose subscribers to match however many books I’m giving away that month. Then I publish the emails in the next day’s Japanagram (all emails obscured in a way so only the subscriber will be able to recognize it as their own, of course!)