Shipwrecks, by Akira Yoshimura
Last year I read Akira Yoshimura’s novel One Man’s Justice. It was an impressive work in a fine translation by Mark Ealey. I was left wanting to read more.
One Man’s Justice isn’t the only Yoshimura that Ealey has translated. The other, also published by Canongate, is Shipwrecks. Like One Man’s Justice it’s a cleanly written novel which doesn’t flinch from challenging moral questions. In One Man’s Justice the issue at hand (to simplify horribly) was the relationship between justice and power. Here, the issue is the morality of survival.
At the start of Shipwrecks its protagonist Isaku is a nine year old boy. He lives in an isolated fishing village in Feudal Japan. The village is desperately poor with starvation a constant possibility. By land it can be reached only by means of a single mountain path. The approach by sea is littered with sharp rocks capable of tearing the hull out of even the most robust ship. It is a marginal place and the villagers’ entire lives centre around the daily struggle for survival.
The village lives by fishing, by catching octopus in the right season, by trading with a town on the other side of that mountain pass for pitiful amounts of grain and when the fishing has been poor by family members selling themselves into indentured service for periods of between three and ten years. As the novel opens Isaku’s father has just sold himself for a three year term. Those who leave in this way do not always return. Their owners feed them but work them hard and it is not unusual for them to die of disease or exhaustion.
This then is their life. Each part of the year is defined by the activity it generates. There are times when sardines are plentiful, times when another fish called saury is the prey, there are the octopi and the times for gathering forest mushrooms. And all the time there is the question of which family member will be sold next into service so that they money they bring can be used to buy much needed grain stocks.
These are Isaku’s father’s parting words to his wife and to Isaku:
‘I’ll be back in three years. Don’t let the children starve while I’m away.’
Isaku’s father is large and strong and the money received for him is significant. Isaku is short and weak, but now he is the oldest and must take his father’s place fishing and providing for his family. All he has to look forward to is his father’s eventual return, his barely understood hope of love with a village girl named Tami (assuming she is not sold into service before he can woo her) and the possibility of O-fune-sama.
Before I continue, a quick note on Japanese. O is an honorific. Using it as a prefix indicates the giving of respect to a thing. Sama is a politeness level. When addressing a person the Japanese use San as Westerners would tend to use Mr (I believe it’s used for both genders, but I can’t swear to that). Sama is the same as San, but is used when a person of lower status is speaking to a person of higher status. O-fune-sama then is a form of address which gives both honour and high status to the thing addressed.
O-fune-sama is the gift of the gods which lets the village survive. The fishing, the sales of family members, all this is insufficient ultimately to keep the village viable. The coming of O-fune-sama changes that, bringing plenty that enables villagers to live well sometimes for several months and to avoid selling their loved ones into quasi-slavery. O-fune-sama is prayed for, rituals are carried out to encourage the gods to bring it, it is a magical and wonderous thing.
O-fune-sama, as you’ve probably guessed, is the wreck of cargo ships on the rocky shore next to the village.
The villagers then survive because others do not. They are horrifically poor. All their efforts are aimed at survival, and still they barely manage. The coming of O-fune-sama brings with it rice, oil, spices, lacquered bowls, cloth (their clothes are made from woven tree fibres), all manner of marvels. O-fune-sama is so important that not only are there religious rituals to encourage it, there are practical ones too.
The villagers trade salt for grain with the nearby village. They obtain the salt by drying out sea water. They do this by night, not because it’s a better time for the task but because the fires under the salt-drying pans can look to a ship in trouble at sea like homefires. A ship that is at risk of sinking in a storm may be lured in by those fires believing they mark safety. If so, the rocks in the bay will rip its hull apart and destroy it.
This then is the heart of the novel (and don’t worry, those aren’t spoilers above, that’s just the setup). The villagers live by preying on others. Their prayers, and more than their prayers, are aimed at the deaths of innocent sailors who have done them no harm. The sailors’ prayers are also of course pleas for survival. O-fune-sama is repugant, but the novel’s perspective is Isaku’s and to him it’s a near-mythical piece of good fortune.
Shipwrecks has a clean prose style. There is on a small number of occasions a problem with repetition. For example, it was explained at least twice that the bodies of suicides were thrown into the sea as opposed to cremated and I got it the first time, but that’s a quibble. In a little over 150 pages Yoshimura describes a community and the rhythms of its existence in surprising detail while at the same time bringing it all to life.
As I read I came to know and care about these people. Just to pick a handful, there is Isaku’s mother who is hard and practical but lonely for her absent husband; there is the tragedy of an unhappy couple where the wife was sold into indentured service and the husband has been tortured since her return with his belief that she was unfaithful; there is Isaku’s best friend Sahei who intimidates him with his greater knowledge and sophistication but who it becomes apparent has his own fears and insecurities.
The novel traces Isaku’s coming of age, but it does more than that. It explores the tragedy of his community and for me it raised difficult questions. Can there be any sense in which the villagers are justified? They know that if the wider world learns of O-fune-sama they will be subjected to horrific punishments (which means that no sailors may survive a shipwreck) so there is no easy excuse of ignorance here. To me, sitting comfortably at a computer screen of course it’s unjustified. But if I were faced with the choice of selling family members or watching them starve, would I act so differently?
Yoshimura shows the knife-edge the village survives on. The villagers reflect on whether this is a good sardine season and on the prospects for the saury catch this year. Their religion and their superstitions are geared around survival too, with even mourning discouraged (they believe it might upset the dead and cause them not to go properly to their rest, but I couldn’t help wondering if the impact on people’s ability to work might have given birth to that belief).
The time came for the women to go up to the narrow terraced fields to gather millet and other grain, which they would carry back in bags to their families, but the soil was stony and barren, yielding only the meagrest of crops. Isaku’s mother went to their field and come back with a pitiful amount of grain to store away in their larder.
Down at the shore, the men started catching autumn octopuses. Normally they began to appear about the time the eulalia grass came into ear, but this year they were coming in to shore unusually early. Isaku took his boat out on the water among the rocks and occupied himself catching octopuses. He stopped working the oar and slipped the barbed spear with its red cloth into the water, moving it towards crannies in the rocks or clumps of seaweed. When an octopus mistook the waggling red cloth for food and showed itself, Isaku would hook it on the end of the spear. Before too long, around all the houses in the village, octopuses could be seen hanging out to dry in the sun.
… [The year's octopus catch proves a poor one]…
The men were puzzled by the small octopus catch. Normally octopus would be dried and then sold to merchants in the next village or to people in mountain villages for the New Year, in exchange for grain. The octopus was essential to acquire enough provisions to see them through the winter, and a poor catch would have a serious effect on the village’s food supply. An air of gloom set in among the fishermen.
The villagers lives are bounded in superstition, faith, tradition and duty. With survival so challenging, departing from what is known is reckless but what is known is so plainly insufficient.
All the above makes this sound a difficult read, but it isn’t. While I did find it challenging the spare prose is a pleasure and the whole situation and place so well evoked that I found myself reading on just to better understand it all. Equally, as the story develops and O-fune-sama comes I wanted to know what would happen, because its arrival brings with it things other than the rich cargo the villagers had hoped.
Yoshimura provides as a viewpoint character a young boy whose dearest dream is the death of men he does not know. Deaths that would bring with them safety from starvation and a temporary prosperity. Deaths that would mean no need for village girl Tami to be sold so making it possible that she’d be available for wooing when the time comes. I liked Isaku and I rooted for him. As with One Man’s Justice, Yoshimura has taken a character who it would be easy to consider a monster and shown his point of view and his humanity.
Here’s one final quote. O-fune-sama has come and brought with it enough rice that every family in the village has an ample supply of it. Isaku’s mother cooks some for the children:
In the evening his mother put the rice from the offering into a pot and started to boil it. The smell drifted up and brought to mind his last memories of rice; he stared at the seething white mass in the pot where the swollen grains jumped up and down. His mother served him some of the rice gruel. He was overwhelmed as soon as he put it to his lips: a rich and elegant taste. He felt as though he were being filled with strength. His little brother and sister ate speechlessly, but there was no mistaking the astonished look in their eyes.
That’s rice gruel there, not a bowl of rice. Isaku’s mother is a prudent woman and where other villagers enjoy whole bowls of rice she ekes out her family’s portion. A bowl of rice is too rich a prize to be treated lightly.