Thursday, February 16, 2012

“Shipwrecks” by Akira Yoshimura

The great wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai


“Shipwrecks” introduced me to the work of the Japanese grand master Akira Yoshimura (1927 - 2006) and I really enjoyed his short novel which has all the characteristics of a parable or a moral fable.

“The Wreckers” tells the story of the villagers of a tiny fishing community. Their village consists of a handful wooden, thatched-roof, houses, clinging to the rocks between sea cliffs and a mountain. The isolated hamlet can only be reached by a steep and windy path, three walking days away from the nearest neighbouring village. Details and descriptions hint that the setting is the northern Japanese coast, somewhere in medieval times.

Not only are the villagers living at the edge of the known world, they are also literally living on the edge. Actually, they are more surviving than living. Hunger is their daily worry. It is not that food is scarce, on the contrary there is enough food available in the nearby shoals and reefs and the people are skilled fishers and indefatigable reapers of seafood. It is just that the number of people has grown to a level which is matching the available food supply. It is some kind of terrible equilibrium. When there is more food, there is room for a few more mouths to feed and the number of people grows. If the available food diminishes, the elders and children die. While the people are free, in the sense that there are no wicked rulers or invasive colonials, they still remain slaves, slaves of their human condition, slaves of hunger and poverty.

Starvation, Yoshimura seems to underline, is our true heritage.

Can the condition of the fishermen be improved? Not really. While the villagers would not waste food on dying older or sick family members, they do not kill their new-borns as they know is done in other villages.

There are two ways how the villagers can break their vicious existential circle and improve their condition, but both come at a cost. A first one is to sell themselves into servitude for a number of years to work as servants or labourers in a far away town. The money paid to the families is used to buy grain, which adds to the daily staple but we understand that the real benefit is that there is one less mouth to feed. It comes at a cost for families are ripped apart, younger girls, we imagine, are likely to be abused, couples separated. Few of the ones who leave come back to their village and the ones who do are stigmatized by their years of absence and shame.

A second way to improve their daily lives is to collect and use what they find on the beach, the reef and the shoals: the flotsam, the driftwood and sometimes a wreck with its load. When a wreck gets stuck on the reefs in front of the village the positive effects of this are such that the village greatly improves its daily life for a couple of years: wood for construction, textile for clothing, ropes and even abundant food. This bonus is such that the villagers have come to help chance a bit. They have turned into wreckers. With fires they lighten on the beach, they lure ships to the coast in the hope to get them stranded. Survivors are killed and the hulk plundered.

The point of view, Yoshimura uses in his book, is that of Isaku, a nine year old boy, in his transition years from boy to man. He is the oldest of four and has been left behind with his mother. His father, a strong fisherman, has sold himself into indenture service at the birth of his youngest daughter. He hopes in this way to keep his family together. Isaku should have been sold in stead of the father, but he is still too young and too weak to catch any money. It is a risky gamble for the father to be away for three years and his son Isaku has to grow up very fast to become the “man” in house.

Yoshimura takes pains to build up his story carefully. Using the point of view of an innocent child and immersing his readers in the harsh daily life of the village, Yoshimura tries to instil in us empathy for this small community. The novel is deliciously slow paced and through repetitive use of descriptive details, it gains a soothing seasonal pacing. Life is regulated by the cyclical repetition of seasons; death is accepted through the cyclical logic of reincarnation and their religion highlights only a few days: New Year, a ceremony which demands for bountiful fishing and the mysterious ceremony of “O-fune-sama”, or ‘the blessing of a boat’. The villagers actually pray for an accident to happen, they pray for a ship to run into the reef.

By now, the reader is so immersed in the life of this fishing community that we refrain from judging this vilest crime. When a ship indeed gets stuck on the reef, we witness the scene from afar. Isaku has been send away to the top of the cliff as a lookout and he sees the happenings only from a distance. The reader however can easily fill in the blanks of the narration: the villagers heading towards the derelict, like scavengers surrounding an ailing animal, the killing of survivors begging and praying for help, the disposing of the bodies. For Isaku and his people, killing the castaways is as evident as spearing an octopus.

Yoshimura illustrates here a situation of what you could name “contextual” morality. The existential conditions of the villagers justify actions that would otherwise be condemned. An accident and the ensuing criminal acts are lived as a blessing. For the villagers, the stranding of a boat, this “O-fune-sama”, this ‘blessing of a boat’, is some kind of gift of the gods.

But the blessing of the “O-fune-sama”, can and does turn into a damnation. Not everything that washes up on the shore is a blessing. Rather than giving his story a moral end, a retribution for a community who has committed crimes, I think Yoshimura wants to say that traditions and proven usages are inadequate when unforeseen or hitherto unknown things happen.

In the end, it will be the failing of the collective memory of the elders and deeds dictated by their religious beliefs that will ultimately proof to be the greatest danger for this vulnerable community. 

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