Often the haibun—a traditional Japanese literary genre—takes the form of a travel journal, with authors periodically reaching points in the narrative where prose is no longer sufficient to describe their experiences: the only way the can express what they see and feel is through haiku.

Santa Barbara native Gretel Ehrlich has taken the haibun and made it her own in this haunting account of the tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011. Cell phones, closed circuit television cameras, and news helicopters brought the disaster into homes around the world, and many of us can still easily bring to mind videos of the enormous waves cresting seawalls, carrying boats and cars and houses with them as they surged inland.

However, as with any news story, coverage faded as viewers became acclimated to images of desolation and despair. Ehrlich’s account of the nine months that followed fills in the blanks that occur when global news crews pack up their gear and head for the next big event.

Like the travel books of V. S. Naipul, Facing the Wave allows interviewees extended opportunities to relate their experiences in their own words. In page after page we hear of the earthquake’s initial roar, then the several tsunami waves—the second was worst than the first—the snow and darkness, and the fatal difference between those who immediately heeded the sirens and headed for high ground and those who did not.

Several times during the book, Ehrlich includes a verbatim transcript of a blog from fisherman Hirayama Masayuki. His entries are typical of the survivors’ stoicism and desire to return to a normal life. Writing from temporary housing three weeks after the tsunami, he notes: “One rice ball, two slices of apple, and a bottle of juice. This is our usual evening meal. Early start tomorrow so going to bed. I’m worried about nutrition but can’t complain. Good night.”

The many aftershocks and the partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant immerse Ehrlich in the aftermath of the tragedy. As she travels along the Pacific Coast of the northern prefectures Honshu, we have the clear, if usually muted, sense that her extended first-hand reporting among the radiation zones may be taking years off her life.

Despite the refugees’ surprising sense of humor, it’s grim stuff, and the tally of tragedies in Facing the Wave can be mind-numbing. (Click the Google Maps street level view of the small coastal town of Ayukawaomachi, for instance, and you quickly realize how difficult it would be to accurately render the totality of the devastation.)

Ultimately, though, the story Ehrlich wants to tell is one of hope and courage. Toward the end of the book, she talks with the abbot of the Rinzai Buddhist monastery. He describes seeing the wave coming through a gap in the mountains: “I had to face it. I had to face the wave coming when we didn’t expect it, and it that moment I knew I had to survive so I could help others.”

That feeling of generosity and communal responsibility is present throughout the book, as is the Buddhist sense that calm acceptance allows one to overcome suffering. The abbot concludes his account of the disaster and its aftermath by smiling and telling Ehrlich, “The tsunami wasn’t important. There was no Wave.”


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