Tag Archives: Japanese fiction

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

One Man’s Justice

One Man’s Justice, by Akira Yoshimura

Japanese literature isn’t nearly as well known as it should be. Fashionable authors such as Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami cross over (both deservedly, to be fair) but authors such as Shusako Endo or Junichiro Tanizaki get nothing like the same fame, despite their brilliance. Japan has a literary tradition which, as best I can tell, is the rival of England or France, but with nothing of the recognition in the West.

To an extent that’s natural, and a tendency to see the Japanese as stranger than they of course are makes it worse, but it’s a loss because Japanese literature contains stories which are funny, bleak, profound, whimsical and which in many cases show an appreciation for style and craft which shines through the page. South of the Border, West of the Sun. Foreign Studies. Diary of a Mad Old Man. These are rewarding works, as well as classics such as I am a Cat (which I own, but haven’t got to yet I have to admit).

Akira Yoshimura, born in 1927 and who died in 2006, was president of Japan’s writers’ union. He wrote the novel which later became the masterful film Unagi (The Eel), a surprisingly tender story about the slow rehabilitation of a man who brutally murders his wife. So far however, only two of his novels have been translated into English (sadly not including the source for The Eel), Shipwrecked and One Man’s Justice. I’ve just finished One Man’s Justice, I’ll be buying Shipwrecked.

One Man’s Justice, written in 1978 and here published by Canongate and ably translated by Mark Ealey, is the story of Lieutenant Takuya of the Western Region Anti-Aircraft Defence Group. A highly efficient officer, Takuya is part of the wartime air defence control network for Western Japan, a man with an intimate knowledge of US aircraft, their flight paths, fuel capacities, payloads and who through his instructions to anti-aircraft crews and defensive fighters plays a key role in defending his region. Night after night, US bombers fly from bases in China to bombard Japanese cities, the numbers growing as the war goes against the Japanese, fire bombs raining down and killing civilians in huge numbers. The US of course is trying to break Japan’s morale, but Takuya knows nothing of this, to him the bomber crews are monsters, men slaughtering the innocent even in cities wholly devoid of military targets.

In the early part of the bombardment, however, many of the American crews don’t make it home. Before the anti-aircraft batteries and landing strips are destroyed, Takuya and men like him organise the defences effectively, bringing down a great many American planes. Most of the crew die with their planes, but not all, and though some are ripped apart by angry Japanese mobs where they land some survive to be taken prisoner.

As anger mounts, the air raids continue and increase in severity, food runs scarce, many of the cities of the Western region lie in ruins, officers return home from their reinforced bunkers to find their homes destroyed and relatives killed. Throughout, the American prisoners are fed, cared for, but increasingly resented. When Takuya learns through a translator that on the way home from a raid the Americans would listen to jazz, swap pornography, joke, his loathing of them becomes even more furious.

It occurred to Takuya that these twenty-four American airmen in front of him were the embodiment of an enemy which had slaughtered untold numbers of his people. They had come back again and again to devastate Japanese towns and cities, leaving behind countless dead and woudned civilians. The idea that these men were receiving rice balls despite the virtual exhaustion of food supplies for the average Japanese citizen stirred anger in Takuya towards those in headquarters responsible for such decisions.

When Takuya hears the prisoners have been tried for war crimes, sentenced to death, he welcomes the news – sad only that sentence is delayed in his own region. For him, injustice lies in feeding them, not killing them.

So then, war crimes. To Takuya, the American flight crews are war criminals, evil men who kill civilians in their thousands then relax to jazz as they fly home untouched. He sees their executions as a moral imperative, not a crime against a prisoner of war, but an act of justice. He is a product of the Japanese military machine, a loyal soldier, proud to serve and proud to fight for Japan and the Emperor.

The Americans invade Okinawa, but the strength of the resistance gives the mainland Japanese cause for hope, the Americans are bogged down, fighting is horrifically fierce, every inch of ground contested. When the Okinawan defenders arefinally defeated, there is no surrender, rather they fight to the last man killing as many Americans as they can before their inevitable defeat. The US is overstretched, if the same can be repeated on Japanese mainland soil, there is hope that the war could yet be won.

Meanwhile, some of the captured airmen in Takuya’s district are executed. Some are sent for medical experimentation, others are used for testing the efficiency of new weapons, none of this strikes Takuya as remotely problematic. Rather, he is pleased that these criminals are being put to some good use, the question of whether their treatment is justifiable, whether the crimes he regards them as having committed merit such punishments, does not occur to him.

As the war draws to its close, the order comes to execute the remaining prisoners, to destroy all papers relating to them, if Japan loses the story will be that no executions took place, the prisoners were destroyed in an air raid while being moved between facilities, for that to be credible there must of course be no survivors. Takuya takes part in the executions, himself decapitating a prisoner, proud again to be of service and regretting only that he was allowed to kill but one of them.

This is challenging stuff, the point of view of a man who is a war criminal, who executes a prisoner and who when he does so does it not because of that prisoner’s own crimes (real or perceived) but because higher command wishes to cover up the treatment of other prisoners. This doesn’t occur to Takuya, he sees himself as delivering justice, but it is quite clear that his justice is the instrument of the fear of others, fear of retribution should the Americans win.

The Japanese prepare for invasion, for a scorched Earth partisan war, for a no-surrender battle over the entire soil of Japan. That is, until Hiroshima. Until Nagasaki. Until the Emperor’s surrender, an announcement so shocking that grown men weep, that Takuya has to explain to some of his men that the war is over, the idea of surrender so alien some have not understood the broadcast. And with the war over, with the occupation, it is no longer the Japanese who are deciding what constitutes a war crime.

The bulk of One Man’s Justice is not the above, this is not military fiction in any meaningful sense, rather it is the story of Takuya’s flight in a devastated and defeated country, despite the efforts of high command the Americans do learn that their airmen were executed, orders are given for the arrest of those involved. Takuya goes from being a loyal soldier, an example of Japanese honour and martial spirit, to a hunted fugitive and increasingly to a reminder of a Japan nobody now wishes to admit having been part of.

This then, is a psychological study, a study of defeat, despair, fear and the choices made by a man who knows that if caught he will surely be hanged. Takuya approaches family, friends, but they cannot help him or will not, and in any event the police are relentless in pursuing war criminals and all those he knew before will be subject to surveillance and interrogation.

The power of this novel lies in its detail, it is not an especially long book, under 300 pages, but it is painstaking in showing Takuya’s life on the run and its terrible cost. The nights spent sleeping rough, the pleas for aid, the oiling of a pistol for use to kill himself should he be about to be taken. Constantly moving, imposing himself on distant acquaintances and living in spare rooms for a week or so, while his hosts grow more resentful and the risk of his being reported increases. One of the reviews on the back cover refers to this book as “a haunting and beautifully rendered tale of enduring optimism”. No. This is a tale of the cost of living in fear, Yoshimura is not a man who believes that no matter what, you cannot be stripped of your dignity. You most certainly can.

More often than not, Takuya spent his evenings sitting in the little room at the back, squashing the fleas crawling over his clothes. Most of those he dispatched were a pinkish colour, gorged with blood which spilt out on to his fingernails as he crushed them. Occasionally he would hold a piece of underwear up to the electric light and find lines of delicately formed eggs, like tiny rosary beads, sitting neatly inside the stitching. He pierced each of them individually with a needle before going on to check the next piece of clothing. Other times, after he had got under the covers on his futon, he would take the pistol out of his rucksack and caress it in the semi-darkness. He wiped the barrel with a cloth and tested the tension of the trigger with his index finger. When he held it up to his nose, he could just detect the faint smell of oil.

Yoshimura of course lived through the post war years, and his descriptions are highly convincing. Millions die of starvation and disease, lice and vermin are everywhere. There are few jobs to be found, even the most basic materials are hard to come by, prostitution and black marketeering are rife. Among all this, the American troops travel Japan with the confidence of conquerors, effortlessly aware of their own victory.

Takuya could hear the crowd of urchins still calling out to the soldiers, ‘ Haroo, Haroo!’ He could not understand what on earth these children, and the adults standing behind them, could be doing milling around American military trucks.
As he sat contemplating the scene, he saw something quite astounding. The children had stopped calling out, and were now bent over, frantically scramblign to grab something off the ground. The adults who had been bystanders seconds earlier were also racing helter-skelter among the children, picking things up off the road. The soldiers in the truck were throwing small objects out from under the furled canvas hoods. A black soldier in one lorry purposely threw them as far as he could, and one of his white comrades in the other one watched in fits of laughter as adults and children responded to his feigned throws. Takuya sat there aghast, transfixed by what he saw.

The newspapers each day carry news of trials for war crimes, men are executed for having slapped prisoners, levels of violence normal within the Japanese army and so to Takuya wholly blameless. To him, the trials are mere revenge, but then it becomes apparent that those of his colleagues who like him went on the run are slowly being captured, their photos up in every police station, his superiors denying all knowledge of the incident and claiming Takuya and his comrades acted without orders. He cannot risk being seen in public, any encounter with the police could lead to his recognition, and so his execution, he dreams of taking dangerous work in the mines, where nobody will see him.

This is a claustrophobic novel, suffused with dread, Takuya comes to fear every stranger he passes in case they recognise him. Avoids anywhere he might meet anyone he knew, lives in a state of constant paranoia, that may or may not be justified. I will not say here where this leads, but it is fair to say the title is of course a definite play on words. Takuya, one man, exercises his justice in killing an American airman, but he too receives his justice living as an exile in his own land as the Americans and the new government pursue all those involved in such offences. Takuya is both perpetrator and victim, an instrument of justice from one perspective and a target for it from another. Yoshimura makes nothing easy here, the text exhaustively sets out the scale of the US bombardment, the toll of civilian lives, the viewpoint of the Japanese soldiers and their grounds for feeling themselves justified in their actions to the prisoners. And yet, there is no sense that medical experiments, weapons testing, pointless executions in forest clearings, that any of it is justified in return. Justice here is a social construct, an idea held by men, influenced by politics and expediency. This is not the territory of facile equivalency, rather it is a lack of any comforting answers at all.

As the occupation continues, as time passes, Takuya is changed by his constant hiding. Troubled by memories of the man he killed, cowed by the sheer physical presence of the American troops, worn down by constant flight and concealment. The war is passing into memory, quicker than he could have dreamed, his sense of righteousness – of justification, fades and although at first the sight of a Japanese girl with an American enrages him such anger cannot be maintained in the new reality he now inhabits. Takuya is in microcosm Japan, humiliated, defeated, powerless. His certainty, his superiority has been destroyed along with the cities he once defended, within a few short years nobody talks any more of the civilians dead in the bombings, of whether the US’s conduct of the war was justified. The only man who raises at his trial a defence of justification, that he executed prisoners who had been lawfully tried and who were punished themselves for the targeted bombing of civilians, is of course hanged. Under the Japanese and the Americans both, only the defeated are ever on trial.

Although dryly written (at times perhaps a little too much so), this is a powerful novel that deals in themes of patriotism, the cost of war, justice, defeat and how history is both remembered and forgotten. It addresses extremely difficult themes and a disturbing period of Japanese history, and it is unsettling and ambiguous offering no reassuringly hateful villains. The novel opens with Takuya on a train crammed with people, so tightly packed a young boy is at risk of suffocating, Takuya ensuring he has space in which to breathe. These are the first words of the novel, it’s entire story in microcosm:

The boy’s eyes were no longer on Takuya.
Each time the train lurched, the boy’s head, covered in ringworm, was buried in the gap between Takuya and the middle-aged woman standing in front of him. Takuya would lean back to create enough space for the boy to breathe. The boy looked up at Takuya repeatedly. There was a shadow of resignation in his eyes, a recognition of his powerlessness in the mass of adults, as well as a flicker of light, an entrusting of his well-being to this man who kept shifting back for him. Before long, however, the boy’s head dropped. The strain of leaning to one side may have been too much for him, for now he hardly moved his head when he was pressed between the adults. The woman standing in front of them seemed to be the boy’s mother, and Takuya could sense that he was holding on to the cloth of her work trousers.

Before we learn of Takuya’s crimes, before we learn of his isolation and despair, we see his humanity. We see that he is a patriot, a soldier, a man who believes he is doing his best for his country. That morality, that generosity, makes this book all the more challenging. If Takuya were simply evil, his crime would be so much easier to understand, he would be easier to condemn. Instead, we are put as readers in the difficult place of understanding a man who does a terrible thing, of empathising with him, raising question of what justice is and whether victor’s justice (from whatever source) can ever be anything of the kind.

One Man’s Justice. For those wanting another perspective, there’s a good review of the book at the Guardian, here.


Filed under Japanese fiction, Yoshimura, Akira