A destroyed section of the Japanese coastal city of Kesennuma, in Miyagi Prefecture, the day after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, March 2011

Miyagi Prefecture, Japan

At first it was just a thin white line, seemingly painted far out onto the eastern horizon between the sky and the sea. But then the line steadily thickened and raced closer and closer to shore, until all too swiftly it was translated into the onrushing tsunami of March 11, 2011. The contorted coastal topography of this part of the Tohoku coast of northeastern Japan divided it into filigrees that licked lethally—as many as seven times, some said—into and out of the fjords, at the head of one of which stood the small town of Minamisanriku. The succession of gigantic torrents of Pacific Ocean water utterly wrecked the community’s heart, killed hundreds, and all but erased it from the map.

But this town, like many others nearby, is now being energetically rebuilt, and the best way to view its reconstruction is from the sea that destroyed it. So I went a mile or so out into the bay with a cheery local fisherman named Yoshiki Takahashi. Once we were bouncing gently on the waves above his oyster beds he pointed back at the immense construction site that has temporarily replaced the town in which he grew up.

Dominating the scene, as though painted onto the western horizon between the mountains and the sea, was a thin white line again, a reflected memory of that devastating wave of six years before. But while that line of 2011 had been made of water pregnant with destructive power, this line of 2017 is made of enormous concrete hexagons, heavy with boulders and cemented tons of riprap. It is the shiny new municipal seawall, sloping up to forty feet high, which the town is building fast to ensure—and to hope—that those who live here now and in the future can be protected from the occasional seismic fury to which all Japan is prey and to which its people have become necessarily accustomed.

Nineteen thousand people died in the 2011 catastrophe, a third as many more were injured, and a swath of rockily indented coastline, with some three hundred fishing villages like Minamisanriku and a scattering of deepwater ports—and the now infamous Fukushima atomic power station—was wrecked. Because the tsunami and the earthquake that caused it hit an advanced and prosperous industrialized country, and one that has a sophisticated actuarial perspective on such events, it is singled out as probably the costliest disaster in world history—an estimated $300 billion for the rebuilding.

Other natural events have been far more lethal, however. The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 killed more than a quarter of a million people, mostly poor—not unlike in this respect the similar numbers who died during China’s Tangshan quake of 1976 or the immense Bengal storms of 1970. Natural disasters that affect the developing world are all too swiftly forgotten. Those who are most able to afford—financially, spiritually, psychologically—to deal with them have the added advantage of having their sufferings memorialized in writing and imagery for decades, maybe centuries.

So we can thank Voltaire for allowing us to remember Lisbon’s great earthquake of 1755, and Jack London for making the 1906 destruction of San Francisco a permanent fixture in many readers’ imaginations. Tangshan, though a vaster tragedy, has on the other hand been all but forgotten; the Indian Ocean catastrophe is fast becoming little more than a distant blur of wreckage and flotsam. But Japan’s Great Tohoku Earthquake of 2011, affecting people who used iPhones and drank cappuccinos and took airplanes and knew the market price of salmon roe and fresh oysters, is set in stone already.

That memory of this disaster endures is thanks in no small measure to books like Ghosts of the Tsunami, a lively and nuanced narrative by the British journalist Richard Lloyd Parry, the longtime and widely respected correspondent in Tokyo for the London Times. Though in part he presents vivid accounts of what was a very complex event, with this book he wisely stands back—after what is now a decent interval—to consider the essence of the story, the manner in which the earthquake might have in some way effected a change of sorts upon Japan.

He does so by way of one especially charged and poignant event: the fate of a single ill-starred primary school just a few miles south of Minamisanriku, most of whose students were drowned or crushed by the waves—and, appallingly, most of whom could obviously have been saved.

All Japan remembers the sorry details: there was a hill behind the school up which the children, waiting outside in freezing limbo after the earthquake but before the arrival of the waters, could easily have fled to safety. Some mothers who had arrived to collect their children were told to go home, the staff saying it was safer for the youngsters to remain at the school. And then a teacher panicked, the children were told to stay where they were and obediently, they never moved—until the waves tore in and swept them away on the flood. Dozens of small bodies were dug out of the thick black mud, days and weeks later.


The dreadful consequence of the dithering incompetence of the more culpable of the staff at the Okawa Primary School makes for heartbreaking reading. What happened next—the smoldering anger and eventual furious reaction from the bereaved parents, then a near-unprecedented communal lawsuit that resulted in a victory of sorts for them (a substantial payout, and a formal judicial scolding of the authorities)—might serve to reinforce what a less curious Western journalist might hope for: that Japan is currently a society in some kind of ferment, and that the sheer size of the earthquake acted as a catalyst for a shuddering societal change. For within this saga there were indeed behaviors quite alien to a widely admired cliché about the Japanese people—their dignified stoicism, their endless patience, their trust and respect for those in command.

But in his account Parry is careful not to suggest that anything akin to a major change is in the works, or that the Japanese are, as a result of so huge a disaster, at last becoming comprehensively distempered and litigious—are becoming a little more like us, in short.

To be sure, public anger has erupted on many occasions in Japan, but even protests are often more polite and ritualistic than in other countries. The morning I left for Tohoku the Tokyo streets were filled with noisy demonstrators furious at some policy decision. But after the courteous intervention of the police the crowds wheeled around and marched sullenly away. This was certainly no Occupy! movement in the making.

Parry does however recognize, and shrewdly, that something is in the wind—that some kind of behavioral shift might be taking place, even if not necessarily the profound one many less measured observers might prefer. He quotes a local man named Takahiro Shito, the father of a child who died at the school, and who perhaps best summed up the exasperation with Japan’s customary attitude of complacent acceptance: “If they don’t take this opportunity, even now when so many people have died, you can’t ever expect them to change the way they think or act,” the grieving father tells Parry.

That’s why we are pursuing the real cause of the tragedy. If they consider this disaster, but refuse to look into its core, the same tragedy could be repeated. But that’s how Japan functions, which the national government can do nothing to change.

And yet just who, in this brief harangue, was the “they” that Shito accused? Parry has little doubt. “The Shitos were victims,” he writes, “but the shame was theirs too. ‘They’ meant ‘us,’ meant everyone. The tsunami was not the problem. Japan was the problem.”

Such a remark, even as merely a casual aside, gives pause, for by making it Parry hints at an all-too-common trope among Western writings about Japan. Here is the detached Western observer, gazing down with cool intelligence at a shattered Eastern people exposed as in a petri dish, and declares their social system to be “a problem.” Might not a Japanese reader detect the slightest essence of condescension here? Or does it go deeper? For all must surely admire and envy the manner in which Japan, so crowded and so beset by natural risk, organizes itself so efficiently. Once in a while there is a stumble—a teacher panics, a tragedy ensues, the seamless fabric tears a little. How exactly do we then feel upon pointing this out? Melancholic? Sympathetic? Or something rather less kindly?

A small clue is offered by Parry’s earlier book about Japan, People Who Eat Darkness (2012), which told—and like Ghosts, told very well—a story that is somewhat similar, if not in the details, then in allowing for critical puzzlement at the perceived behavior of many in this country. The tale, lurid enough to whip the British tabloid press into a frenzy, told of the disappearance in 2000 of a young blond Englishwoman, a former airline flight attendant become Tokyo bar hostess, who turned out to have been chloroformed, killed, dismembered, and buried by one of her customers.

The Tokyo police, xenophobic to the core, were initially entirely unsympathetic, though they bowed eventually to pressure from the press and from the missing woman’s father. In the book, a long pursuit through the seedy side of Roppongi life ensues: awful perversions are described, several villains are found, one suspect of consuming strangeness is arrested, a trial takes place, a verdict is announced. All of this is grist for Parry’s vividly unrolling narrative, which served not just to render suitably exotic what was a particularly grotesque murder, but also to reinforce the notion among all too many unschooled Westerners that even within the prevailing strangeness of the East in general, the Japanese had, and still apparently have, a particular penchant for sheer oddness.


And Parry, offering the same kind of casual aside as we find in his tsunami book, regrettably betrays some sympathy with this view. He speculates, for instance, on the eventual victim’s initial puzzled reaction to Tokyo, wondering (and the italics are mine) at “the demeanor of the people on the street and in the cars and the trains—unobtrusive but purposeful; neat, courteous, and self-contained but intent, as if following secret orders.”

What is thus implied, whether in matters criminal, or tragic, or in ordinary life, is that the Japanese behave differently. Oddly. Are following secret orders. Are behaving in ways that can be described as disturbing. Such plays well in many Western minds. And Western journalists are generally content to promote it, not least because the normally well-oiled running of Japanese life produces all too few of the kinds of stories that are the common coin of the popular foreign press.

Before the tsunami destroyed it, Minamisanriku had been a prosperous and well-oiled fishing port, if declining slowly in population and importance. Though it stood at the head of a large sheltered bay, few of its fishermen troubled to venture out into the Pacific Ocean itself. There was no need. Just beyond the headland cliffs the commingling of two marine currents, one warm, the other cold, created a marine environment that was amply suited to a wide variety of harvestable sea creatures.

Simon Winchester

Yoshiki Takahashi on his fishing boat off the coast of Minamisanriku, August 2017

The local fishermen farmed oysters and scallops, octopus and salmon, and a peculiarly ugly creature called hoya, or “sea pineapple,” which has something of a following among the more adventurous Tokyo chefs. The bounty would be put on the evening train to the junction at Sendai, and then onto one of the southbound expresses to the city, two hundred miles away: bidders at the Tsukiji morning market would buy it for good prices. Minamisanriku was in consequence well off, contented, and settled—though eternally aware of the ocean beyond the cliffs and the violence it could do. Considerable damage had already been done by a tsunami in 1960; since it had been caused by an earthquake in Chile the Japanese chose an Easter Island moai as an additional town mascot, to act as co-talisman with the more venerable figure of the town octopus.

In no more than one hour on Friday, March 11, 2011, everything that had for so long been so settled about Minamisanriku was rendered into splintered driftwood, twisted iron, and broken and drowned bodies. Though outwardly similar violence wrecked a score of communities up and down the Tohoku coast, Minamisanriku did have its own peculiar poignancy, a tragedy in kind if not in scale like that of the Okawa school. A twenty-five-year-old woman named Miki Endo was employed to warn the community of tsunami dangers, and on that cold March day she remained dutifully at her post in the town’s Crisis Management Center as the freezing floods rose around her. Just as with the musicians on the Titanic, she carried on sounding the sirens and playing her warning music and broadcasting details of the incoming waves’ heights and locations over the municipal loudspeakers, until the water shorted the power supply and they went dead.

Film clips show the waters climbing higher and higher up the center’s three stories, until figures can be seen gathering out on its flat roof, then a few of them clamber up the radio antennas until only one or two remaining men can be seen, holding on grimly, for hours, until the waters begin to drop. Behind them in one scene immense gray waterfalls are gushing through the upper windows of the town hospital, as apocalyptic a vision as it is possible to imagine. But there is silence from the loudspeakers, a lack of sound that tells of the fate of Endo, who remains the town’s local heroine today, for shouting out the warnings until she drowned.

The rust-red iron frame of the building in which she was entombed still stands. There is currently a vigorous debate about whether it should stay to remind, like the Dome at Hiroshima. Many locals want it torn down. The town has yet to decide.

Endo was but one of some 1,200 who died at Minamisanriku, out of a total population of 17,000. The steep hills surrounding the fishing port provided sanctuary for many thousands who either lived there among the pine and cedar forests, or else drove frantically up roads that normally require tire chains in the icy weather—and it did snow that afternoon, though mercifully only a little. From up high they watched helplessly as their community was inundated by the seven great wave fronts and was methodically wrecked beyond recognition. But then they all came downhill, and by all accounts patiently and uncomplainingly they cleared up the mess, and got back to work.

The survivors buried their dead and mended their own injuries and—generally away from the blinding lights of publicity, since most outside were rather more interested in the Fukushima reactor disaster and the irradiated landscape it had left behind—they developed a plan for recovery and reconstruction. This involved, in the main, abandoning the center of town as a place for habitation—people would now be compelled to live in the hills above—and building instead a new commercial center in its place that would be amply protected from any future assaults from the sea.

Accordingly an entire mountain to the north of the town was razed; the detritus was moved to the old town center and sculpted into a brand-new zone, thirty feet higher than the old. A new town was, in other words, being created on top of the ruins of the old. Great ziggurats of new earth are now rising on all sides, and cranes and excavating machinery roar day and night. The new seawall was built around it all, that great line of white I could see from Yoshiki Takahashi’s little fishing boat, a mile out over his newly reseeded oyster beds.

Takahashi-san is a well-known figure around town, a somewhat chubby, invariably chortling figure who had long recovered, at least outwardly, from a disaster that had killed dozens of his friends and fishing partners. He had contributed a brief essay to a privately published book of photographs of the aftermath,1 and locals had generally applauded his sentiments. For he had asked, with more candor than was usual, just why it was that society was still compelling him each working day to display the quality of ganbaru, of uncomplainingly doing his best?

Ganbaru is widely regarded as one of the most admirable qualities of the Japanese people, whose entire existence is subject to challenge—pitiless geological whim being just one of them. From northern Hokkaido to the tropical islands south of Okinawa, Japan is an endlessly mobile roil of seismic instability: Japanese people are said to suffer this reality with an ancient, inbred silence, to deal with such challenges bravely and boldly and without complaining. Except, asked this most cheerful fisherman, and not just rhetorically, why so? Why should I not complain at my lot? Why may I not howl with despair instead?

Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian historian and politician, has lately become fascinated by the Japanese concepts of ganbaru and its often-remarked-upon sister concepts of gaman and shoganai, which roughly translate, respectively, as toughing it out and accepting your fate. He embarked on a Carnegie Endowment–sponsored journey to a succession of troubled places with the idea of looking closely at local passions, to inquire into the existence or otherwise of a globalized system of ethics, to ask whether there might be something that one could call a universal moral language. His venturing took him to Brazil and South Africa, to Bosnia and Burma, to Jackson Heights in New York and to South Central Los Angeles—and brought him as well to what is broadly called the Tohoku region, the legendarily ghost-infested coastline of northern Japan that bore the brunt of the 2011 earthquake.

Ignatieff tried here to take stock of how the local people had dealt with, or had come to terms with, what he saw as a trifecta of the unimaginable—the immense earthquake, the vastly destructive tsunami, and then the nuclear accident that spread radioactivity over much of the consequent ruin. In The Ordinary Virtues, he ruminates usefully on the three features that, taken together, illustrate the necessary resilience of a people who are constantly being tested by natural forces of far greater power than can be imagined or countered. But is this resilience, he asks, a passive phenomenon of submission to divine will, or is it an active elasticity that permits the tested—whether they are human or inanimate—to spring back to their original condition after the stress is removed?

Ignatieff’s conclusion, after much listening and a considered examination of the complex subtleties of the Japanese language, makes for illuminating reading. Most surprising, most illuminating, is his belief that the use of words like gaman and ganbaru during a crisis can in fact “become an exercise in moral cruelty,” since in his view they tell the volunteers, or the survivors, or the victims—or men like Takahashi-san—not so much that they are heroic in their stoicism, but that they are on their own, are left to their fates, while leaving time and space for “the unharmed to wash their hands.”

Far better, Ignatieff reckons, is for those who are accustomed to bear the unbearable to prepare and prevent and imagine the unimaginable, to learn from experience and minimize the possibility of it causing harm and debility ever again. And yet if such disaster does occur, then to deal with it in a spirit of hope and enthusiasm, rather than with customary fatalistic acceptance. Such qualities, he writes, are in fact all recognized components of the global moral code that his world-wandering convinces him does exist—along with tolerance, forgiveness, and trust. It would take only a slight shift to incorporate such kinds of resilience into the domestic social code of Japan, and to leave shrug-shouldered fatalism behind as an example of worthless institutionalized backwardness.

Why do I have to display an endless supply of ganbaru? wails our Minamisanriku fisherman. I suspect that Ignatieff would readily agree that Takahashi-san is accepting that there is no true virtue in such acceptance, no real use, and no real future in doing so. But even by questioning it in his brief essay he has already crossed the line, and is probably all the better for it. His endless good cheer is testament. Indeed, the prudent rebuilding of Minamisanriku hints that on this occasion, and in the community at large, something more than simple stoicism is at work.

Japan has developed in recent years a reputation for expertise in the making of objects of unyielding precision: lenses immaculately ground and polished, cameras fashioned to tolerances unattainable by most other manufacturers, engines and measuring devices and space rockets and mechanical watches of a quality envied by all others—the Germans and the Swiss most notably—for whom precision is a byword, is part of the national religion. But there is a difference, a singular quality that uniquely marks Japan out. And it has some relevance here, I believe. For while there is a national reverence in this country for the precise, there is also a formal recognition of the inestimable value to society of craftsmanship, of the true worth of the handmade and the flexibly imprecise.

A very visible manifestation of this reverence for the nonexact, or working with natural materials, is the concept of the Living National Treasure, a corps d’élite of men and women, usually of considerable age, who have over their lifetimes developed and honed skills in such defiantly imprecise arts as lacquerware and ceramics and wood- and metalwork, and who are officially accorded honored status in society. Their art, in a way, celebrates impermanence. To be sure, firms like Canon and Nikon and Mitutoyo and Seiko, for whom ultra-precision is essential to their commercial success, are revered also. But few other societies make it so abundantly and officially clear that equal weight, respect, and admiration must be accorded both to the precise and to its opposite—to titanium on the one hand, and on the other to that most classically Japanese plant, bamboo. Indeed, many Japanese suggest that their reverence for so flexible a material, one that bends with nature rather than seeking to dominate it, lies at the heart of the longevity, stability, and, yes, the success of their society.

And as illustration—what, one might ask, remains standing today, beside the ruins of a town like Minamisanriku, and in the three hundred other little fishing ports that are dotted, recovering, around the fjords of Tohoku? Precious little, for certain, that had been made of titanium, or steel, or glass. Ships were wrecked, cars were tossed like chaff, electronics failed, and buildings like Miki Endo’s were torn apart and left to rust. The evidence of the impermanence of the precise was everywhere.

The imprecise, though, was still there. In the forests around the town there still were the groves of bamboo, growing in abundance. The cedars had gone, splintered to shreds. The pines were devastated. Bamboo, much used in art,2 is technically a grass, though it appears most commonly as a strong and fast-growing tree. It is always certain to grow back and to flourish—and then to be useful to mankind for a myriad of purposes—no matter how many more tsunamis may be inflicted upon it. It bends, it springs back, and it grows again. It is a plant at once mathematically imperfect and yet quite perfectly useful.

As with bamboo trees, so with Japan and her people. Pliable and resilient, with for the most part an attitude of ganbaru of their own. Perhaps others of the fishermen are beginning to wonder at the value of stoicism, but I daresay that most in Minamisanriku, with the new white line of their grand riprap seawall offering them a layer of comforting protection, still see themselves as a pliable and resilient people, busily preparing for the time when yet another seismic catastrophe arrives to challenge them, as it surely one day will.