Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura
Translated from the Japanese by: Mark Ealey Harcourt Brace & Co., (1982), 180 pp.
This haunting short novel is set in a tiny fishing village on the coast of Medieval Japan, in a village continually on the brink of starvation. Main character nine-year old Isaku is the oldest son in his family, thus, when his father must sell temporarily himself into slavery – in order to bring money back for the family – he is the man of the house.
Selling a member of the family into slavery, or prostitution, is not uncommon in the village. Often the time period is limited to a year or two but occasionally the person is never seen or heard from again. Such is the dire situation they’re in, that such things become necessary. There’s no taboo against those who leave, no shame. Rather, it’s taken for granted as a simple fact of everyday life.
The villagers live by both fishing and producing salt they sell to villages further inland. In order to harvest the salt, every night during winter one young man must sit up all night and watch vats filled with boiling water, keeping the fires going. By morning the water has evaporated, the salt clinging to the sides of the vats, collected by the women at dawn.
The fires do not have to be lit at night; salt harvesting could be done in the daytime. The reason the villagers perform this task at night is to draw passing ships in, to fool them into thinking the fires are lights indicating areas of safe passage. Occasionally ships run aground on the rocks and coral off the island. When this happens the crew is killed, their cargo and every bit of the ship dragged to the village. There’s no item so insignificant they can’t use it; nothing left they can’t carry away:
“The sea would become rough when the autumn colors faded and the leaves would begin to fall. If there were two days of calm, the next few days would be marked by angry, surging seas and spray from the waves raining down on the houses. But sometimes the rough seas would bring unexpected blessings, so much more bountiful than anything from the beach or the barren fields that no one would have to be sold into bondage for years. Such manna was all too rare, but the people lived in constant hope. The autumn colors heralded the time when the village might be visited by this good fortune.”
While it’s brutal trickery, the reader comes to know the villagers so well it’s difficult not sympathizing with their plight. Every year they go hungry, eating only gruel with bits of fish to sustain life, even if the fishing season has gone well. They trade with neighboring villages, which are days away, exchanging fish and salt for grain, but still their lives hang by a thread. If every few years fate brings them bounty it’s hard not celebrating with them.
However, at some point a ship runs aground with cargo the villagers could never have anticipated, bringing a new disaster no one could have guessed. Is this retribution for the sailors who’ve lost their lives or just a random event of bad luck?
The style of the book is one very common in Japanese literature: spare and quiet, no matter the plot’s ups and downs. Isaku, and the other villagers, are easy to identify with, their hopes and troubles not appreciably different from our own, despite the distance in time and location.
A small young man, not nearly as strong as his mother, Isaku is often mocked for his inability to shoulder burdens. He dreams of living up to expectations by becoming a great fisherman, falling in love and one day marrying the young girl he has a crush on. In the meantime, he works as hard as he can to help keep the village from death’s door. Life is very simple, yet dangerous. Disaster is never more than one bad harvest away. Can he help his mother keep their family alive until the return of his father?
I wish I could remember where I learned of this book, how I came to request the title via Inter-library Loan. I’ve read little Japanese literature but what I’ve read has been every bit as lovely and quietly moving as this little gem.