Guest blog by Julian Sedgwick

Researching his next novel, author Julian Sedgwick arranged to make a journey right into the heart of the lands devastated by earthquake, tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. In our first guest blog, he writes about his travels in Japan, gives us an eyewitness account of a landscape that, eleven years after its triple disaster, hovers between decay and blossoming life. He meets its residents, and its ghosts.

Map of the exclusion zone around Fukushima, Japan, from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, by Dolmarva Design for US political and financial magazine, Harpers.


It is a chilly, dark March night in a sushi restaurant in Odaka Town, Fukushima prefecture, seven years almost to the day since the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, its ensuing tsunami, and the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi. My wife Isabel and I have made our way here through the darkened streets – the town still only partially resettled since being designated as ‘safe to return’ last year – and are having dinner with Tomoko Kobayashi in the only restaurant open in the evenings. Tomoko-san is down-to earth as she talks about building a new life and community from the ruins of the old. With her husband she runs the Futabaya Ryokan where we are staying, and it has been a colossal task to get the inn back up and running. Indeed all day we have been talking with people about the practical issues of urgent evacuation, resettlement, clean up and rebuilding caused by the unprecedented triple disaster that befell these communities. The building of new sea walls, the stripping of radioactive topsoil, the overcoming of PTSD, trauma and grief, the planting of crops to take radioactive caesium from the fields. But now as we finish our sushi the subject has turned to something far less practical: ghosts.

Isabel in Okuma Town, Fukushima full exclusion zone, March 2018

Of course, there are the stories,” Tomoko says, as if it’s a very natural part of the post-tsunami story.
Have you ever seen anything? Felt anything?” I ask, tentatively. It seems almost to belittle what we have been discussing all day to bring in something as frivolous as ghost stories. But Tomoko seems un-phased.
Me? No.” She smiles. “But you hear the stories. The taxi drivers who pick up soaked people in the middle of the night, drive a short way – feel odd – and turn around to find there’s nobody there. Mobile phone calls from missing and dead people, that kind of thing . . . it’s natural, isn’t it?“
I remember what Tomoko has said about being one of the first people to revisit the town once regulations eased, about the blank spaces where houses once stood, the emptiness . . .
Did you ever feel uneasy when you visited in the early days?”
No,” she says. “Even on my own the town just felt kind of empty.” She adds something to our interpreter Karin, with a big smile. Something about ‘upstairs’ and ‘sounds’.
What did she say?”
Well, Tomoko apologizes for mentioning it just before you go to bed, but for years she and her family have thought they’ve heard footsteps upstairs in the inn when there couldn’t be anyone there . . . but they think it’s friendly.

I never really set out to tell ghost stories, or even to go looking for them, but somehow they keep finding their way into my writing. And life. The pull quote on the back cover of the last part of my Ghosts of Shanghai trilogy quotes Ruby – the central character – looking back on her life from knowing old age. “The thing about ghosts,” she says, “is sometimes we create our own. And sometimes they find us, no matter what we do.” In that series I tried to explore the effects of a trauma (in this case the loss of Ruby’s beloved little brother Tom) on a young, impressionable and imaginative mind. Growing up in 1920s Shanghai steeped in Chinese folklore and myth, it is only natural that – left to her own devices – Ruby can’t help but process her trauma and grief through stories of fox sprits, hungry ghosts and the Otherworld. Are the ghosts real? Or ‘just’ in her head? (Do those questions even make sense ultimately?) As a therapist for over twenty years I have become fascinated with the ways in which minds, particularly young minds, seek to cope with and work though shock and trauma and difficulty. For my generation, and even for today’s, children often set about this task on their own, making up their coping strategies as best they can – finding skilful ones at times, less skilful ones at others. As a therapist I am often picking up the pieces from those latter, less effective coping strategies, and in my writing I want to explore stories about that process.

In the Mysterium series – beneath the fast-paced thrills and spills – I wanted to look at a boy coping with the sudden death of idolized (but flawed) parents, and of the sudden loss of a world he thought of as a kind of Eden. His ‘ghosts’ are the quietly whispered words of his parents, encouraging him, guiding him, until one day in a snowy Berlin he finally stands at their grave, grown, more experienced, more knowledgeable. Many of my favourite books deal with similar loss of innocence and journey to experience (whilst trying to regain elements of that lost past): Nabokov’s Speak, Memory is the sublime example of that for me; in children’s writing I love Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World; and it is no accident that (ridiculously maybe!) I made a big Proust reference in the second Mysterium book Palace of Memory as my Danny strives to regain his beloved circus childhood. And always what interests me in the healing and growing process is the way our own storytelling can be either helpful or not helpful, within our control at times – and, at other times, not at all. And that is where ghosts find the door open and creep in.

Closed side roads on no-stopping route through the exclusion zone.

For my new projected book, provisionally entitled Tsunami Boy, I needed to spend some time in and around the current Fukushima Exclusion Zone. With the help of Karin Taira of Real Fukushima we arranged to travel through and around the zone and talk to people affected by the disasters of March 11 2011. From Fukushima City we hired a car and drove towards the coast and the town of Namie. Soon the traffic thinned away into the pale afternoon light and for long stretches we were the only car in sight . . . This road is one of two arterial roads that cross the current zone and which are open to motorised traffic as long as you don’t stop and get out to explore on foot. Passing through a checkpoint we saw that every side road was now blocked by metal barriers, the passing houses slowly giving way to weeds and decay – rather like something from the numerous post-apocalyptic TV programmes or films that have colonised all our subconscious minds over the years. Turning away from the zone proper after twenty or so kilometres we passed through the town of Namie, still far more blank spaces than re-occupied houses, a strangely unreal air hanging over the streets.

Julian Sedgwick with residents at the Odaka platform home.

But in Odaka, though still eerily quiet (particularly after the bustle of Tokyo) there seemed a bit more life to the streets. And here we met Karin and started our tour. At the ‘Odaka Platform Pop-up Home’ we spoke to residents who have moved back into the town, including Yuko Hirohato who helps to run this relaxed, friendly community centre. Over tea and coffee she and the others spoke of their desire to build a new community, rather than rebuild the old. Of being positive and thinking of the future, but of not allowing the anger and grief over what they have suffered to be forgotten. From there Yuko drove us to a low hill and shrine beyond the devastated low-lying areas of her town. “The tsunami here was over four metres,” she said as we drove, indicating with a wave of her hand somewhere far over the car roof. “Many neighbours drowned . . .”
I asked her what it was like, running from the wave. What sound it had made. For a moment I thought Yuko had misunderstood my limited Japanese, but then she made a ball of a fist with that free hand and moved it inexorably forward towards the windscreen making a deep rumbling sound at the back of her throat. “A sound like this DOOOOOOOOOFFFFFFFFFFFF”

Yuko Hirohato standing where she ran to escape the tsunami. New sea walls and inundation zone behnd her.

The PTSD was still evident in her eyes a few minutes later as we stood on the spot she ran to, chased by the wave, waiting for news of her son, her neighbours. The scale of the event, the struggle of the rational mind to calculate and process all that, was clear to see. But then her mood suddenly brightened. “But I like to joke and be funny still,” she said. And performed a determined, energetic jig of a dance on the spot, whilst in the background the tsunami inundation area was a blank space, and cranes and lorries worked away at the new sea walls being built to protect the town from the blue-grey of the Pacific beyond.

Remains of the Port Area of Odaka. Foundations of houses hidden in the weeds.

We thanked Yuko and drove on. From a viewing tower in the old port area we surveyed the weed strewn foundations of dozens of houses and businesses, some still marked on Google Maps but all now wiped away by the force of the tsunami. Even this far south of the main ‘tsunami towns’ the destruction was massive. And in the mid-distance to the south, Karin pointed out the towers of Fukushima Daiichi – already surprisingly close. It was there that the wave smashed into the reactors and triggered the first major nuclear incident since Chernobyl. It all suddenly seemed very real – and yet my imagination was struggling to conjure the wave, to hear the explosion from the plant, to feel the force of the water sweeping away houses and lives.

Tsunami hit road near Odaka.


The Empty entrance hall of the school

Weaving along tiny coast roads, dodging construction traffic brought us to our next stop: Ukedo Elementary School. Its stark, proud modernist architecture stands broken and empty behind high wire fencing, the ocean just audible just two hundred metres or so beyond. Karin pointed out the clock high on the school tower, frozen at around 3.40pm, the moment when the monster tsunami cut the power supply. Empty shoe shelves were visible just inside the main front door, the entire lower level scoured clean by the tsunami. Miraculously all the children at Ukedo School survived, with staff and children running through earthquake damage to a low hill some 2 kms away . . . but the gutted and stained building, the weeds, the silence was still haunting. Empty windows and spaces.

Clock stopped on the tower of Ukedo Elementary School.


Entering the full exclusion zone, passport and vehicle checkpoint.

We moved on, Karin showing the radiation reading now and then as it crept higher. As we headed back into the zone along Route 6, more and more damage and neglect became evident as we passed shuttered shops, abandoned garages, empty houses. Turning into Okuma Town we had our passports checked against a list of permissions to enter the full evacuation zone. And beyond that the change was stark: whereas on the no-stopping routes there is some traffic, here the road was totally empty. We drove slowly down the street, through the usual cluttered Japanese townscape of vending machines, convenience stores, the mesh of overhead wires – but everything changed by the stillness and silence. Weeds, blanched by winter, cracked through the pavements and tarmac. Rubbish, so unusual in Japan, lay in small drifts in doorways and kerbsides.

Abandoned Family Mart, Okuma Town

We paused at a Family Mart, transformed from the mundane into something sinister, its wares and contents scattered across the floor, a stack of newspapers in the open doorway still boldly showing the date 3.11. We drove a short way further, and then got out to walk down the main street. And now this was a real ‘ghost town’, frozen in time by the radiation and evacuation, nature slowly reclaiming buildings and parked cars. We walked in silence, taking photographs and short video clips as we passed buildings what were once homes and businesses, full of life – and suddenly the full impact of the radiation and evacuation order really hit home. Lives interrupted abruptly, changed forever. A glance at the Safecast radiation reading told us why – the level was now significantly higher, still within what Karin had forecast we would experience, but there is a lot of clear up work to be done evidently until readings here match those in re-opened Odaka. As we got in the car and moved back towards Route 6 we saw just two other signs of life: a crossing light flashing needlessly on the otherwise empty street. And then, beyond the crossing, a fox slipping silently from the shadows on one side of the road and into deeper shadow on the other. With fox spirits on my mind these last years of writing Ghosts of Shanghai, what else would I have expected to see occupying the blank space left by the disaster?

Exiting this part of the zone we re-crossed Route 6, passed through another checkpoint, and with dusk gathering headed closer to the plant itself, past huge areas set aside for ‘mid-term’ storage piled high with bagged radiated topsoil and general clean up. The counter peaked as we passed these and we felt glad to keep moving. Climbing a low hill covered in pine we rounded a corner and swept up a driveway to perhaps the most unsettling part of the visit: Sun Light Okuma, an abandoned old people’s care home perched above the power plant. Apart from the now familiar sight of flat-tired cars and winter weeds, there was something very moving about the signs of the hurried evacuation of the facility. A stretcher in the main doorway, overturned chairs and discarded shoes visible inside, all evidence of the haste with which the elderly residents had to be moved. So poignant the thought that a once desirable last home for so many became a place to flee in fear. You could sense the terror here, and – uncomfortable – we lingered for a moment gazing at the stricken reactors in the below us, before hustling back to our car and chasing back down the hill to make the 5pm deadline for leaving the checkpoint.

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, seen from the remains of the Sun Light Care Home.


Police Car memorial.

Karin took us to one last port of call as the evening drew on. Outside the police station in Tomioka, a memorial has been created from the crushed remains of a police car, swept away by the tsunami and lodged under a bridge as the police officers tried to warn residents of the incoming disaster. One body was retrieved some 30kms from the bridge, the other never found and remains one of the tsunami missing. A kendo practice sword belonging to one of the officers rested on the mangled wreckage, fresh flowers from the recent anniversary contrasting with the twisted metal. It was a very sombre moment, and I couldn’t shake it as we headed back to Odaka for dinner with Tomoko-san.


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration charts showing projected travel times of tsunami waves as the spread across the Pacific Ocean, through the Polynesian Islands, and towards Australia the west coastline of the Americas.

The unimaginable nature of the disaster here fills our talk before we get to the ghosts. Tomoko tells us about the planting of rape around the towns to absorb caesium from the soil. She tells us how there was no colour and no sound in post-tsunami, post radiation Odaka and how she planted flowers the length of the street to bring back colour and nature. And then we turn briefly to the ghosts. In Chris Harding’s recent (and excellent) Radio 3 documentary about tsunami ghosts in Tohoku, a Zen priest discusses how things can have different kinds of reality. The fact that we often don’t seem to be able to control where and when we see phantoms could be interpreted as indicating they do have some kind of ontological status. (And my philosophy graduate and Zen-loving brain kicks in hard here!) From the unbidden, strong thought-impression of what a dead parent might say to us, to the lone, water-soaked taxi passenger beckoning a fearful driver on a dark road – the sprits of the dead do, in a way, have independent existence. In other words we don’t just create them at will from our memories and imagination, but somehow – in our need for their stories to help heal or understand our own – we open a space for them to ‘exist’. And in the face of disasters as huge and difficult to mentally process as Fukushima, or Chernobyl (and Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer deals so brilliantly well with this) it is only natural that the blank spaces of exclusion zones will become populated by other kinds of being.

So I fell asleep thinking about ghosts.That night in the silent Futabaya inn we were untroubled by spirits, and slept surprisingly soundly after what we had seen and felt. But next day in the ‘Futaba Gift’ memorial/museum, gazing at thousands of personal possessions pulled and washed from the tsunami mud, feeling the push and pull of countless lost lives as we gazed at photos, trophies, guitars, mobile phone cases, I knew that my projected book was shape-shifting in my head. The original concept of the adventure – a granddaughter going to rescue her grandfather from a soulless refuge shelter and lead him back to the ancestral family home deep in the Zone – wasn’t originally intended to contain ghosts. But as an almost inevitable part of a healing process as complex as this, they were – inevitably – forcing their way back into my imagination once again.

Now I’ve just got to do justice to their stories.

Tomoko Kobayashi replanting her part of Odaka Town seven years after the tsunami. Photo courtesy Kazuto Sugeeta.



Photo: Alexandra Beckmann / Leighton ParkYou can follow Julian Sedgwick on twitter @julianaurelius and on Facebook on his author page. Schools can find the hashtag #SmallTravelsJapan on Twitter for images of the journey appropriate for primary schools studying Japan and the tsunami. The trilogy: Ghosts of Shanghai, Shadow of the Yangtze and Return to the City of Ghosts; and the Mysterium trilogy are all published by Hodder Children’s Books. Dark Satanic Mills, written jointly with Marcus Sedgwick and illustrated by John Higgins and Marc Olivent is published by Walker. You can find out more about Julian Sedgwick, contact him to arrange a school visit, or find out about his other books on his website