Julian Sedgwick talks honouring Japanese culture and philosophy in Tsunami Girl

"Amidst the trauma and sadness there was humour, and a determination to build new, possibly even better, communities."


Tsunami Girl, inspired by the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami in 2011, leads the non-Japanese reader into an examination of Japanese life and culture, featuring a mixture of folk tales, modern-day ghost stories, and Manga.  

Fifteen-year-old Yuki goes to Japan to stay with her beloved grandfather, a well-known manga artist. But during her visit, a Tsunami occurs – and her beloved Grandpa is lost. Yuki, and her friend Taka, must make sense of the terrible situation and come to terms with immense loss – and see that through renewal and with resilience, they can emerge from this tragedy with optimism for the future.

We had the honour of chatting with Julian Sedgwick on his Carnegie Medal shortlisted novel.

Congratulations on being shortlisted! And thank you for introducing this important part of history to readers. Can you recommend one piece of documentary/news story that is related to the recovery in these 10 years after the Fukushima disaster?

Thanks, I feel very glad to be shortlisted! For a really good video documentary about the aftermath of the 2011 disaster, try Peter Barakan’s exploration of the spiritual and ghostly impact of the tsunami in North East Japan, here

Also, I’m in touch with an extraordinary Zen priest called Taiou Kaneta, who did everything from innovative therapeutic work with traumatised survivors, to more supernatural help. You can see his reflections on encounters with ‘Tsunami Spirits’ in the episode of that name in Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries series 2. [the series as a whole is rated 18, but nothing inappropriate in this episode beyond the ghostly!]

What was the process like working with Chie Kutsawada? Did she draw the manga after you had finished writing the story or was the process more intertwined?

For Tsunami Girl I had pretty much finished the whole book, including manga script in screenplay style, before approaching illustrators. I spent a long time working out how both parts would fit together to tell a whole – in order to persuade publishers that the unusual format would work! I was so lucky then to be introduced to Chie, who used her great manga skill to panel, pace and bring to life the visual counterpoint to the prose.

For our new book though, wonderfully supported now by our publisher Guppy Books, we are working together from day one. And really enjoying the collaborative weaving of text and manga…

How did you pick which words for Yuki and other characters to say in Japanese within Tsunami Girl?

Ah, interesting question. I wanted to have just enough Japanese to keep reminding the reader that most of this story is happening in that language, and to help maintain the atmosphere. Then I chose high frequency, everyday phrases that are easy to read and remember. Hopefully the context makes it easy to follow!

You featured some Japanese folk tales in Tsunami Girl and I am sure many readers would love to learn more about them. Can we one day get some retellings like Percy Jackson but for Japanese deities?

Well… 😉 Not giving too much away, but this is very much what Chie and I are working on right now! The new book will explore a lot more Japanese folklore and ghost stories, in a combination of classic stories, modern re-inventions, and a manga exploration of ghosts and yōkai. Thanks for that well-judged question!

What do you like most about Japanese people and their culture and how did you honour it in Tsunami Girl?

That could be a huge answer. But in brief: from my early teens Japanese culture and philosophy has given me a lens which helps me make sense of the world.
For Tsunami Girl I’ve had so much kindness, help and support in Japan, and most importantly I was enormously inspired by the resilience, inventiveness and hope I found in the damaged towns of Fukushima. Amidst the trauma and sadness there was humour, and a determination to build new, possibly even better, communities. The processing of a disaster as big as 2011 works on so many levels, and at different speeds for everyone, but I hope Tsunami Girl honours that complexity – from overcoming grief to facing the unknown to rebuilding after crisis.

Tsunami Girl by Julian Sedgwick (Guppy) has been shortlisted for the 2022 Yoto Carnegie Medal. The winners of the Yoto Carnegie Greenaway Awards 2022 will be announced on 16 June. For more information visit carnegiegreenaway.org.uk.

Grab your copy of Tsunami Girl here.

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