Nobody would feed those judged certain to die.

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.



Filed under Japanese fiction, Yoshimura, Akira

20 responses to “Nobody would feed those judged certain to die.

  1. Sounds like an intriguing book on many levels. I should read more Japanese literature. I have some in the queue, but always get distracted.

    A few cultural notes…

    Shinto is an animist spirituality that permeates Japanese culture, from chopsticks to festival days to sumo. It’s been around since at least the 600’s, before Buddhism’s arrival in Japan and they’ve been coexisting ever since.

    Mourning is discouraged because it’s considered an impure act, one that may upset the dead spirits. The mourning period of one day is very short by Western standards, but remembrance ceremonies occur on certain anniversaries. Passing food from chopstick to chopstick isn’t done because that’s how bones are passed after cremation, which keeps the spirit in tact.

    Correct, san is used for both genders, ie. okaasan (mother), otosan (father), Max-san, Sarah-san. Chan and kun for children or someone younger. And esteemed sama like kamisama if honoring the gods.

  2. Thanks Mish, much appreciated.

    That’s the explanation of the mourning period given in the book too. I thought it specific to this community and hadn’t realised it was a wider custom.

    Another food one I was taught is that one shouldn’t leave one’s chopsticks sticking up from the rice, as it makes them look like incence sticks at a funeral. There’s a lot of death-related superstitions, but then perhaps that’s true for most cultures.

  3. I do recall the review of Akira Yoshimura that you wrote last year; you made a wonderful case for him then, as you do now. Very different subjects, and I wonder which book you thought the strongest?

    Maybe this was not a difficult book in terms of proceeding from beginning to end, but I would find it very difficult to find a personally satisfactory stance on the issues of morality raised here. It sounds like an uncomfortable read. But I don’t object to having my complacent Western morality challenged once in a while.

  4. I guess I prefer characters from my time period who are just hanging onto survival by their fingernails, rather than ones who are going over the edge. Too scary.

  5. I have to admit that the cover reminded me immediately of David Mitchell and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. And the review indicates that I would probably like this one better than Mitchell. Thanks.

  6. I read a fascinating article about Yoshimura a couple of weeks ago, it made me feel like reading of his books. What you write confirms what I perceived through this article: this is a writer I will probably like. So he’s now on my reading list.

    In this article, the journalist mentioned that his wife, Setsuko Tsumura is writer too. They spent their whole life together, writing side by side and never reading each other’s books. Now that Yoshimura is dead, she’s discovering her late husband’s work. Isn’t it incredible? She’s a good writer too but has not found her French translator yet.

    The ethical question raised by Shipwrecks on people surviving on other people’s death is tragic and maybe more accurate than we think. Taken literally, it reminded me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These poor villagers could not reach the level of the pyramid where moral concerns count: the first level, ie basic needs, is not fulfilled. Though they know that what they do is bad, it does not matter to them as they cannot afford to act ethically.
    Taken less literally: in rich countries, aren’t we also living on the misery of people in less developed countries? We may not light ourselves the fires that will cause their death or bad living conditions, but our way of life and consumer’s choices indirectly cause the same effects.

  7. OFF


    sorry to switch to your blog from the Guardian post, but I did not want to take the conversation into another (from my point of view: selfish) direction.

    You’ve asked about some recommendations on Central-European lit; I have mentioned Péter Nádas there – he is very postmodern and pretty demanding (but very rewarding). However, his first translated work, The End of a Family Story, is quite accessible. In the more traditional line (following your Kosztolányi and Szerb line) Attila Bartis is a good start; his novel, Tranquility, won the best translated book (in the US) award a couple of years ago. Then there is Embers by Sándor Márai – I am not a big fan of his, but have to admit he is an excellent writer (died in the 80s but he did not write anything for decades (!) before his death). The Book of Fathers by Miklós Vámos is an excellent novel on the near-past of Hungary. And of course, Fateless by Imre Kertész, who won the Nobel prize for Lit for this Holocaust work of his.

    And there are others as well from the region (I stayed with the Hungarians this time), but I do not want to provoke your patience.

    Good luck,



  8. Sarah,

    Interesting question. I think for me One Man’s Justice is the stronger. There’s a clearer focus on a single character rather than a community and the issues are somehow more immediate.

    I think you identify the key thing with Yoshimura. He’s not at all a difficult read, but he is a disturbing one.

    Taking this novel again, the villagers feel justified in what they do. I thought about the present day Somali pirates and the way they are seen as heroes to the communities they come from. In the West we can struggle to see why that might be, why people would shelter and defend them. Shipwrecks speaks in part to that question. One person’s monster is another’s chief hope.

    As Shelley says, it’s scary stuff. In the 1930s people knew they were living through hard times, but there had been better times before and there was the hope of better times again. That’s not making light of their undoubted suffering, but the villagers in this book know no previous better times and have no hope of better to come. Their only hope is of surviving for more of the same (there are parallels there with Berger’s discussion of peasant thought in Pig Earth).

    They’re not living through hard times, they’re just living.

    Yoshimura makes one see the point of view of a war criminal (and the protagonist in One Man’s Justice is a war criminal) and he helps one understand why Somali pirates might be heroes to their communities. That’s challenging material, which is why he’s worth reading (though of course there’s no obligation to read him should the material not appeal, I’m not remotely arguing he or anyone else is required reading, I don’t think anyone is).

  9. Kevin, certainly it’s more than just a good story well told, which is the territory the Mitchell seems to be in. Since that’s not what you generally look for in a novel (not just that anyway) I suspect you might find this more appealing.

    While I preferred One Man’s Justice, this is a very short novel which makes it a good intro. I forgot to add when replying to Sarah that One Man’s Justice also avoids the occasional repetition this one suffers from. As I said above though, that’s a quibble and not a fatal flaw.

    Bookaround, that is incredible. The Maslow comment is I think a good one. So too I think is the one about rich countries. I wrote recently about Richard Morgan’s sf novel Market Forces. Here’s one of the quotes I took from that novel where Morgan makes precisely that point:

    ‘Do you really think we can afford to have the developing world develop? You think we could have survived the rise of a modern, articulated Chinese superpower twenty years ago? You think we could manage an Africa full of countries run by intelligent, uncorrupted democrats? Or a Latin American run by men like Barranco? Just imagine it for a moment. Whole populations getting educated, and healthy, and secure, and aspirational. Women’s rights, for Christ’s sake. We can’t afford these things to happen, Chris. Who’s going to soak up our subsidised food surplus for us? Who’s going to make our shoes and shirts? Who’s going to supply us with cheap labour and raw materials? Who’s going to store our nuclear waste, balance out our CO2 misdemeanours? Who’s going to buy our arms?’
    He gestured angrily.
    ‘An educated middle class doesn’t want to spend eleven hours a day bent over a stitching machine. They aren’t going to work the seaweed farms and the paddy fields ’til their feet rot. They aren’t going to live next door to a fuel-rod dump and shut up about it. They’re going to want prosperity, Chris. Just like they’ve seen it on tv for the last hundred years. City lives and domestic appliances and electronic game platforms for their kids. And cars. And holidays, and places to go to spend their holidays. And planes to get them there. That’s development …’

  10. leroyhunter

    I’ve commented on the other Yoshimura post so I think I’ll start with that one Max. Thanks for the pointer, I’d never heard of him.

    The parallel with Somali pirates is an interesting one. I wonder how much of the support you refer to is due to the pirates being “providers” for the communities and how much is down to their ability to inflict damage on the vast corporations and alien societies their targets represent. Mostly the latter I suspect. Whether you can relate to that or condone it is of course a matter of perspective.

    bookaround’s comment and your link to the Morgan quote are thought-provoking. I wouldn’t argue with either but interesting questions are raised. When do the actions of others, however indirect, cease to be a justification for your own? Does survival, as bookaround suggests, pre-empt ethics in desperate situations? Clearly in this book it does, but there’s a disconnect there in the pirate analogy, between the pirates themselves who appear to be powerful, well-armed cliques and their “sheltering” villagers who are no doubt considerably weaker and more desperate.

    I’m reminded as well of accounts by survivors of the Nazi camps, who have to wrestle with the shame and guilt of what they were prepared to do (or not do) to survive under that terrible duress. The suggestion in the review of the villagers awareness of possible “punishment” suggests the moral element isn’t totally absent from their actions. Is it worse that they’re aware of it, but choose to ignore it? The natural answer is yes, of course, but then we’re into judgement and as Max has pointed out that’s a risky business.

  11. The latter will certainly be an element. Whether the dominant one or a subsidiary one I don’t know enough to say.

    Yoshimura for me is a raiser of questions. There may not be answers, or not universally applicable ones anyway. The villagers fear punishment, but does that mean they recognise what they do is wrong? There are hints they may, but equally this is something they pray for.

    If Isaku existed, what right would I have to tell him his family should starve to save people he’s never met? Do I know who makes the shoes I’m wearing and what their conditions are? I don’t. Do I apply the same ethics to people across the planet as I do my neighbours? Should I?

    Judgement is risky, but so is not judgeing. If someone profits from the suffering of others shouldn’t we judge that wrong? If we don’t then we let the world become worse than it need be. But equally we judge from a position of comfort and there are beams in our own eyes.

    Tricky stuff. I think we have to judge, but I think doubt is important. Empathy too. There but for the grace of the god I don’t believe in go I.

    I think some more Yoshimura has been translated, though not I think by Mark Ealey. I’ll seek it out. He’s a fascinating writer.

  12. Max, I agree with you. I think none of us knows what we are capable of in extreme situations, as the worst and the best are part of human nature. That’s why we feel ill at ease with judging these villagers. Hopefully, we shall never have to make such a dreadful choice.

    Being French, the question “How would I have behaved during WWII, if I had lived that period ?” is a tricky one too. I’d love to think myself as a resistant but I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the courage to do it. The idea of physical pain if caught would have frozen any of my good intentions.

    It may be monstrous to say so, but I’m less disturbed by these villagers’ behaviour than I am by the gratuitous violence invented by Martin Amis in the end of Dead Babies.

  13. I think Martin Amis was aiming to shock in Dead Babies, it’s a feature of his early writing to a degree.

    Yoshimura is less flashy than early Amis, but then to be fair I don’t think Dead Babies is anything near Amis’s best novel.

  14. Max: No problem. That’s another good food one. I believe Shinto’s roots began in the small, remote fishing villages where life is harsh and at the mercy of “larger forces” as portrayed in the book. I may have to read that.

  15. Pingback: One Man’s Justice – Akira Yoshimura « A Rat in the Book Pile

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  18. Pingback: Nothing moved across the moor except the rain, which appeared as suddenly and soundlessly as a face pressed against a window. | Pechorin's Journal

  19. Rowdy

    I’m reading a new translation of a Yoshimura work, Festival of the Sea… reach out if you’d like to learn more.

  20. I’d be fascinated to know more. This is the second of his I read (the other is reviewed here too) and he’s a fascinating writer. How re you getting on with the newly translated one?

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