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Posted October 14, 2016 by

Shipwrecks – Akira  Yoshimura – 2000

Posted by Hanh on 21/3/2003, 21:50:57

I don’t know much about Japanese literature, having only read a few Mishima books (Andrew’s timely joining of our club is Fate smiling on us all), so I nabbed these excertps from Dr. Richard Hooker’s excellent web narrative at

http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/ANCJAPAN/LIT.HTM.

He wrote it to accompany a course he was teaching at Washington State University. I tried to find him to ask for permission to repost, but he’s no longer at WSU. I don’t think he’ll mind if I quote him here, but in case I get sued, I’m getting free legal advice, right?

Dr. Hooker’s narratives are much more extensive on Japanese Literarture and culture, but I have extracted only what I think is relevant to our reading of “Shipwrecks”, specifically:

1. Characteristics of the classic Japanese literary style

2. The Shinto rituals and concept of the ‘kami’

My comments/clarifications are added to Dr. Hooker’s texts in [] brackets.

STYLE

In the eighteenth century, the group of [Japanese] scholars and poets that dedicated themselves to ‘kokugaku’ , or ‘Native Studies’ considered the ‘Manyoshu’ to be the single most important work of literature in Japan. [The Manyoshu is the first collection of Japanese poetry, compiled in the 18th century. It is an anthology of 4,500 poems composed as early as the 6th century by people ranging from unknown commoners to emperors.]

Within this work [the ‘Manyoshu’], [the scholars]discovered what they felt were the essential characteristics of Japanese literature as a whole and the Japanese mind. Chief among these characteristics was ‘mono no aware’ , or a sense of the sadness of things. What does this mean? For the [scholars] , the poems of the ‘Manyoshu’ are distinguished by their perception of how all objects, no matter how inconspicuous, betray the ultimate sadness or tragedy of life on earth. This isn’t a “teenagers dressed in black” kind of tragedy that you see all around you, but rather a calm, sedate, and meditative sense of the universality of loss and sadness. In addition, the ‘kokugakushu’ found that the essential spirit of Japanese poetry was one of sensitivity (aware ) to the things of the world. For the [scholars] , the ‘Manyoshu’ showed that the Japanese mind had a special connection to the things of this world and their beauty and meaning. The aesthetic of ‘aware’ and ‘mono’ ‘no aware’ became one of the dominant principles of modern Japanese writing and film.

The style is simple and direct, evoking meaning not from florid language or elaborate metaphors, but from the object or event being described. In T’ang China at this time, a debate was raging among poets about style: one camp believed that florid language and elaborate metaphor made good poetry while another camp believed that poetry should describe concrete events in simple and direct language. In Japanese poetry, the emphasis on concreteness and simplicity was always the norm.

SHINTO

Above everything else, it was Shinto which embodied the spirit and character of the Japanese.

Several things, though, can be said about Shinto. First, it was a tribal religion, not a state one. Individual tribes or clans, which originally crossed over to Japan from Korea, generally held onto their Shinto beliefs even after they were organized into coherent and centralized states.

Second, all Shinto cults believe in ‘kami’ , which generally refers to the “divine.” Individual clans (uji ), which were simultaneously political, military, and religious units, worshipped a single ‘kami’ in particular which was regarded as the founder or principal ancestor of the clan. As a clan spread out, it took its worship of a particular ‘kami’ with it; should a clan conquer another clan, the defeated clan was subsumed into the worship of the victorious clan’s ‘kami’ . What the ‘kami’ consists of is hard to pin down.

‘Kami’ first of all refers to the gods of heaven, earth, and the underworld, of whom the most important are creator gods (all Shinto involves a developed mythology of the creation of the world). But ‘kami’ also are all those things that have divinity in them to some degree: the ghosts of ancestors, living human beings, particular regions or villages, animals, plants, landscape–in fact, most of creation, anything that might be considered wondrous, magnificent, or affecting human life. This meant that the early Japanese felt themselves to be under the control not only of the clan’s principal ‘kami’ , but by an innumerable crowd of ancestors, spiritual beings, and divine natural forces.

As an example of the potential for divinity: there is a story of an emperor who, while travelling in a rainstorm encountered a cat on a porch that waved a greeting to him. Intrigued by this extraordinary phenomenon, the emperor dismounted and approached the porch. As soon as he reached the porch, a bolt of lightening crashed down on the spot his horse was standing and killed it instantly. From that point on, cats are, in Shinto, worshipped as beneficent and protective kami; if you walk into a Japanese restaurant, you are sure to find a porcelain statue of the waving cat which protects the establishment from harm.

Thirdly, all Shinto involves some sort of shrine worship, the most important was the Izumo Shrine on the coast of the Japan Sea. Originally, these shrines were either a piece of unpolluted land surrounded by trees (himorogi ) or a piece of unpolluted ground surrounded by stones (iwasaka ). Shinto shrines are usually a single room (or miniature room), raised from the ground, with objects placed inside. One worshipped the kami inside the shrine. Outside the shrine was placed a wash-basin, called a ‘torii’ , where one cleaned one’s hands and sometimes one’s face before entering the shrine. This procedure of washing, called the ‘misogi’ , is one of the principal rituals of Shinto, which also included prayer and spells. One worships a Shinto shrine by “attending” it, that is, devoting oneself to the object worshipped, and by giving offerings to it: anything from vegetables to great riches. Shinto prayer (Norito ) is based on ‘koto-dama’ , the belief that spoken words have a spiritual power; if spoken correctly, the ‘Norito’ would bring about favorable results.

~~

Posted by Hanh on 21/3/2003, 22:06:08, in reply to “Shipwrecks”

Just a few thoughts to get us started with discussions:

1. Do you think “Shipwrecks” fits Dr. Hooker’s description of the classic Japanese style?

2. O-fune-sama: Andrew gave us an excellent explanation of this in his “Forms of Address in Japanese” post. Fune = ship, boat. “O- is reserved for gods/goddesses and very important things”. -sama is a very formal form of address. In this address, the elevation of the ships to god-like status in the Shinto tradition is succinctly and classically rendered. What do you find are other examples of similar compactness of form and explanation?

3. What do you like best about the novel? What do you dislike about the novel. Would you classify this movel as “modern literature” (as opposed to run-of-the-mill commercial fiction)?

4. Comparatively-speaking, does this style remind you of any other author, genre?

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 22/3/2003, 14:11:28, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Hanh, thanks for all the useful background information. I have read just a couple of Japanese novels, and know absolutely nothing about Japanese literature in general, so getting some perspective was very helpful. Now I will try to answer your questions, being the dutiful girl that I am.

: 1. Do you think “Shipwrecks” fits Dr.

: Hooker’s description of the classic Japanese style?

Yes, I think it does:

a) “all objects, no matter how inconspicuous, betray the ultimate sadness or tragedy of life on earth”

Although I can’t quite put my fingers on obvious examples, this feeling seems to permeate the novel. There is also acceptance of this sadness, or an attitude of fatalism if you want to be unkind. Unlike modern western man with his selfhelp manuals and positive thinking, the predominant attitude here seems to be that most of life is sad, that it has always been sad and that it always will be sad. There is little you can do to change this, even if you work yourself nearly to death and perform the right rituals, because ultimately your life is in the hands of capricious gods. The inevitability of everything is also reflected in the ever returning cycle of seasons, of the fish arriving according to the same cycle, of the mountain turning red and the blossoms appearing every year, of funerals and pregnancies. Life is defined by these events. For the villagers life is not what you make it.

b) “the essential spirit of Japanese poetry was one of sensitivity (aware ) to the things of the world” and “the style is simple and direct, evoking meaning not from florid language or elaborate metaphors, but from the object or event being described”

Obviously there are no elaborate metaphors in this book, nothing florid, only unadorned descriptions of what is going on. It is clear that the writer wants these, even if nothing much is happening, to speak for themselves.

: 2. O-fune-sama: Andrew gave us an excellent

: explanation of this in his “Forms of Address in

: Japanese” post. Fune = ship, boat. “O-

: is reserved for gods/goddesses and very important

: things”. -sama is a very formal form of

: address. In this address, the elevation of the

: ships to god-like status in the Shinto tradition is

: succinctly and classically rendered. What do you

: find are other examples of similar compactness of

: form and explanation?

In this book? Not sure, but what I found very telling and powerful was the ambiguous red of the clothes of the dead men in the boat. Red can be a festive colour, so the villagers whose lives are one bleak struggle for survival and for whom stranded ships mean life, come to associate it with joy and luxury. But it is also the colour of alarm, of blood, a stop sign, an alert. As readers I think we all knew that this is going to end badly because of the red clothes.

: 3. What do you like best about the novel? What do you

: dislike about the novel. Would you classify this

: movel as “modern literature” (as opposed

: to run-of-the-mill commercial fiction)?

I really liked this book, in spite of its bleakness. It is a quiet and delicate book, not spectacular, and you have to read between the lines to appreciate it. What I think is especially well done is that we learn about the ship luring business through the eyes of an innocent 9 year old (Isaku) who is struggling to keep his family alive. We become participants instead of just observers. Isaku doesn’t the question the morality of causing shipwrecks and killing the sailors. It is simply something that has been done for ages and that is necessary for the survival of the village. The extremely isolated village has developed its own set of morals and therefore none of its inhabitants feels guilt or compunction over what they do, only fear of being found out and punished. In their view the ships are sent them by the gods. Because of the way Yoshimura makes the readers part of this, it is hard for us to condemn these starving villagers, even if what they are doing is so obviously wrong. The overwhelming feeling is one of compassion.

: 4. Comparatively-speaking, does this style remind you

: of any other author, genre?

Would haiku be the correct answer, professor Vu? There’s the same simple language, the same focus on description and an acute sensitivity to the natural world and ordinary, small things.

Oddly enough I also was reminded of Cormac McCarthy, of whom I read “All the Pretty Horses” and “The Crossing”: no florid language, just descriptions of objects and the surrounding world, no descriptions of state of mind, and the same ultimate sadness. It is also about the introduction of a boy to the harsh realities of life. McCarthy is even starker, however.

The book made me think of Gail Tsukiyama as well, which is much more obvious, since her father is Japanese. The quiet tone of her novel “The Samurai’s Garden”, its seaside setting, the acceptance of fate by the people in the mountain village, the overall delicacy have the same resonance as “Shipwrecks”. It is much more joyful than “Shipwrecks” however.

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 24/3/2003, 10:51:43, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

I appreciate the background information provided thus far. Thank you.

I liked the book. I liked the teamwork and the discipline of the villagers. I liked the communal life. Village chief assigning tasks to individuals … the work is shared, the gains are shared.

It reminded me a system that used to exist in Turkish villages (I don’t know if it is still in practice, the world has become way too individualistic for such traditions): The people of the village work all together to build/repair one family’s home/water pump/outdoor toilet/barn/whatever and then once that work is done they all move to another family’s home. Everyone’s building/repairing is done by everyone. It is called “imece” (pronounced e-meh-djeh). In Ottawa, some families use this system to build their basements/decks.

Unfortunately, when this book was first proposed by Hanh-chan, I had made the mistake of trying to locate it in amazon. I was not meaning to read any reviews (and I did not, you know that I don’t even read the backcovers or introductions of books for fear of details being revealed), just to see how it looks like, the general “air”, price, availability… I caught sight of one word, in the editorial review: smallpox.

That editor who wrote that review must be denied “rice” for a decade. He/she basically gave away the major plot twist and the ending of the book.

The book was thus ruined for me, even before I bought the book. I knew all along that one of the ships would bring them smallpox.

The book is simply written and becaue of its simplicity it is beautiful. Two complaints:

1. Repetition: Not only the repetition of the day-to-day routines (the life is simple and it is hard to talk too much about a scenery when nothing different is happening, “I took the boat out”, “I cut some firewood”) but the repetition of some observations. Let me try to explain by an example:

“Isaku imagined that Takichi’s demeanor meant that his cousin would not teach him how to catch saury after all.”

This sense was repeated a few times without bringing a new angle. there are other examples but I cannot find them now. I’ll look for them later on.

2. There were at least two places where the work at hand was not very well described. Did you guys understand how one catches saury? Yes, holding the head with your hand, that part I understood. But why is the fishing mat? How does the fishing mat help? They go out with these mats (which I imagine to be like today’s fishing nets), they spread them in the water, then they lie down in the boat not to scare the saury with their shadows, then they start gathering the net (at this point one assumes that there is fish in the net and by gathering the net it’ll all belong to the fisher), then they start putting their arms through the holes of the net and try catching the saury by hand??? Anyone understood that?

Or, look at this:

“When the sun set, the salt-making began on the thin strip of sand by the shoreline. The women carried thirty shallow boxes from the village chief’s storehouse, lined them up on the beach, filled them with sand, then poured in tubs of seawater. Once the sand had dried in the sun, it was again washed with seawater. The heavily salted water (??? the water that has passed through the sand, presumably) would be drained (??? I thought the sand was doing the draining) into tubs and transferred to two large cauldrons placed on the shore.”

– boxes

– fill sand

– pour seawater

– let dry

– pour seawater again

– you have heavily salted water (where?)

I don’t get it.

In any case, I liked the book. I don’t think it was a literary masterpiece but I found it interesting to read about this particular Japanese village’s way of life. I imagined how the village looked like, how the people looked like, how their clothes made from linden bark looked like … Very different from life as we know it.

Lale

Posted by len on 24/3/2003, 15:18:37, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Lale asks about the process of extracting salt:

: – boxes

: – fill sand

: – pour seawater

: – let dry

: – pour seawater again

: – you have heavily salted water (where?)

Each drying cycle leaves more salt in the sand. The sand dries by the water in the seawater (basically salt dissolved in fresh water) evaporating, leaving the salt behind. Pour more seawater in, let it dry, more salt left behind.

What I don’t understand is the need for the sand, and how the salt is ultimately separated from the sand. Sea salt (fleur de sel) is made elsewhere by concentrating seawater to brine in shallow ponds, and then skimming by hand the crust of salt that forms on the surface.

Maybe the sand just provides more surface area for the seawater to evaporate from?

len.

 ~~

Posted by moana on 28/3/2003, 7:48:04, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Although you can use shallow ponds and simply evaporate the water that way, the sand is helpful because it retains much more heat to evaporate the water – sand dries very very quickly and gets very very hot quite fast. So it’s probably the most efficient way.

To separate the salt from the sand, all you’d need is a sieve that lets the salt crystals through but not the larger sand particles; the salt would break off the surface of the sand easily enough.

Or maybe you don’t even need to separate the salt from the sand if you’re just doing something like salting soup – the sand would just settle to the bottom and be avoided easily enough.

~moana

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 29/3/2003, 0:26:21, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Moana,

How come you are so knowledgeable on the salt-making process? Are you working part-time, to help pay for your studies, in a saltern?

Thank you for the explanation.

Neither the saury fishing nor the salt-making were described properly in the book. I learned both of them thanks to the discussion here.

Maybe some things were lost in the translation. When a really good story teller writes about fishing or salt-making or landing on the moon or repairing carburators, the reader can actually visualize the process.

Lale

 ~~

Posted by moana on 29/3/2003, 1:33:56, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Do you suppose that this book was written without a Western audience in mind? Ostensibly the intended audience would already know the finer points of salt-making as part of tradition… And although I think it’s REALLY interesting to have all the process and detail explained out, in some books it just doesn’t fit in or isn’t integral – the most obvious example for me is Hugo’s extensive explanation of the sewer system in Les Miserables. What seems like an omission to some might be redundant or inessential (or boring) if told to others. But yeah, yeah, I’d like to know what was going on there myself. And it’s not as though the book is too long for some more detail…

~moa

Posted by Hanh on 25/3/2003, 6:21:50, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

: 2. There were at least two places where the work at

: hand was not very well described. Did you guys

: understand how one catches saury? Yes, holding the

: head with your hand, that part I understood. But why

: is the fishing mat? How does the fishing mat help?

The mat encourages the saury to come closer. It acts like seaweed patches in the middle of the ocean, attracting fish. In the open ocean, small fish flock to patches of seaweed to hide from predators and to attach their eggs to the weed, big fish hang around seaweed patches because small fish are there.

With the hand-method of saury fishing described in the book, I think the trick is (1) get the fish to come close to the boat (the mat handles that), (2) hang your hand down and let the fishies think it’s just something innocuous floating in the water, then (3) pinch the fish between your fingers when they flit by, yank them up and shake them into the bottom of the boat, then return hand for more fishies.

 ~~

Posted by Hanh on 25/3/2003, 6:07:42, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

: There is also acceptance of this sadness, or an

: attitude of fatalism if you want to be unkind.

: Unlike modern western man with his selfhelp manuals

: and positive thinking, the predominant attitude here

: seems to be that most of life is sad, that it has

: always been sad and that it always will be sad.

: There is little you can do to change this, even if

: you work yourself nearly to death and perform the

: right rituals, because ultimately your life is in

: the hands of capricious gods. The inevitability of

: everything is also reflected in the ever returning

: cycle of seasons, of the fish arriving according to

: the same cycle, of the mountain turning red and the

: blossoms appearing every year, of funerals and

: pregnancies. Life is defined by these events. For

: the villagers life is not what you make it.

Anna, that is a very perceptive insight: I had previously thought that the ready acceptance of fate is “Buddhist” or “Shinto” in tone, but as you noted, it is more general than that: it is Eastern and not necessarily circumscribed by religion or philosophy. This same sense of acceptance of Fate can be found in Viet Namese and Chinese literature as well.

: the ships are sent them by the gods. Because of the

: way Yoshimura makes the readers part of this, it is

: hard for us to condemn these starving villagers,

: even if what they are doing is so obviously wrong.

: The overwhelming feeling is one of compassion.

Yes, I agree. This is not a story about morality. I find the choices of the villagers very honest and very human. The reality of starvation and the lives of the villagers were quite real to me–I could imagine myself there doing what they did, feeling the same fear, wishing the same wishes. At the end of the book, I felt very humbled by it. I can definitely see myself in those shoes.

: The book made me think of Gail Tsukiyama as well, which

: is much more obvious, since her father is Japanese.

: The quiet tone of her novel “The Samurai’s

: Garden”, its seaside setting, the acceptance of

: fate by the people in the mountain village, the

: overall delicacy have the same resonance as

: “Shipwrecks”. It is much more joyful than

: “Shipwrecks” however.

I must read that book. I NEED to read a book with a happy ending. Soon! 🙂

 ~~

Posted by len on 24/3/2003, 15:29:44, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Hanh writes:

>In this address, the elevation of the ships to god-like status in the Shinto tradition is succinctly and classically rendered

Is the ship “elevated to god-like status” or is the event of the shipwreck deemed an act of the gods?

>What do you like best about the novel?

I was struck by several things.

The “forced maturity” of Isaku, necessitated by the subsistence level of the village’s existence.

A world and life circumscribed almost entirely by a beach.

The supreme irony of such complete integration of these people into the natural world around them, and their destruction by another part of the natural world unknown to them.

Measuring the passage of time by the succession of natural events — the changing of the color of the distant hills, the waxing and waning of the catches of different sea life.

len.

 

Posted by Andrew on 24/3/2003, 20:38:14, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

My take is that the villagers refer to the ships as gods. O-Fune-Sama is a high honorific that, while not restricted to gods, the villagers would have had contact with no other objects to which they would use the O-XXX-Sama title (Emperor, Shogun, High Feudal Lords, etc) I think this is more significant than their arrival being an act of the gods. Shinto has no Mythology (beyond creation myths) of interaction with the gods, as the Greeks and Romans had.

What is interesting to me is that they revere the ships as gods, yet basically ‘eat’ them rather than worship them! Sounds like the ‘Cargo Cults’ of the South Pacific.’

Andrew

–Hanh and Len write–

:In this address, the elevation of the ships to god-like :status in the Shinto tradition is succinctly and classically :rendered

:Is the ship “elevated to god-like status” or is the event of :the shipwreck deemed an act of the gods?

 ~~

Posted by Hanh on 25/3/2003, 5:36:40, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Len, eloquent and insightful observations. The maturity of Isaku and the care Yoshira took to describe the details of the saury fishing technique reminds me of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”.

Additionally, what strikes me as very “Japanese” in this novel is also the collectivism of life in the village (in ancient Japan/Samurai tradition where villagers can be killed by any daimyo without question/trial), the uncomplaining acceptance of Fate among all the villagers–young and old, and the ritualistic practice of kami-appeasement (pregnant woman in boat).

In general, what I like most about the novel is the raw, succinct, no-excuse tone in which reality is described.

“for the last few days his family had been giving him nothing but water. Nobody would feed those judged certain to die.”

In such few words, a whole world is created for the reader.

 ~~

Posted by Andrew on 25/3/2003, 6:27:45, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

In theory yes. It’s a facet of Japanese Feudalism that is one of the more widely known in the west. However, in practice killing a peasant was strongly frowned upon for a very practical reason: Samurai for the most part would starve rather than farm rice, an end entirely possible if they killed enough peasants. Killing merchants was a little more acceptable, especially if the samurai was in debt to them (a fairly common circumstance in late medieval times)Merchants were despised because compared to farmers and artisans/craftworkere, they contributed no wealth, but took a percentage off the goods that passed throught their hands. It’s ironic that Samurai, who were entirely consumers of wealth particularly hated merchants for that reason.

One aspect of this story is unusual. Nearly every village belonged to one ‘Han’ or fief, and is periodically visited by a representative of the lord of that fief (Daimyo were lords of large fiefs) to collect a portion of whatever harvest the village produced. We never read any mention of a lord or to whom the village belongs. It is clearly known to those neighboring villages with whom they trade, where they go to sign up for indentured servitude. This absence of any lord puzzles me, since every lord was always on the lookout for ways to enlarge their fief and rice/food production capabilities, and to get footsoldiers.

–Hahn/len write–

: (in ancient

: Japan/Samurai tradition where villagers can be

: killed by any daimyo without question/trial)

 ~~

Posted by Hanh on 25/3/2003, 7:25:48, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

: This absence of any lord puzzles me, since every

: lord was always on the lookout for ways to enlarge

: their fief and rice/food production capabilities,

: and to get footsoldiers.

Perhaps that serves to reinforce the idea that this village is alone and must take care of itself, that there is no lord to protect them, and only “brigands” who would harm them. At least that’s how I felt about the village–that they are entirely helpless in front of a merciless world, with no protector, human or divine.

 ~~

Posted by Andrew on 25/3/2003, 8:23:09, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

The only difficulty I find with what you say, Hahn, is that few villages looked at their lords as sources of protection. They were a distant entity that hopefully kept far away and didn’t tax them overly much.

The significance of the Clans/Lords can be understood from the villagers’ fear of causing the shipwreck of a Clan ship. This would provoke a search (merchants didn’t have the resources for this) and if came out that the village had seized a lord’s ship, in all probability the entire village would have been slaughtered in unpleasant ways.

I wonder whether the plague ship wasn’t sent by some merchants who had a good idea what the village had been doing. Did this occur to anyone else? It makes sense in that they sent an old ship, with nothing of value (not even food) on it to the village. What I can’t figure out is the red clothes and monkey flag. Any ideas?

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 25/3/2003, 12:18:21, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

– Andrew wrote: –

: I wonder whether the plague ship wasn’t sent by some

: merchants who had a good idea what the village had

: been doing. Did this occur to anyone else?

I felt it was simply fate, not an extremely cunning revenge. But that’s just a feeling. It ties in with the fatalistic attitude of the people in the book.

: What I

: can’t figure out is the red clothes and monkey flag.

: Any ideas?

One of the villagers who has heard about the smalpocks has also heard that wearing red clothes is used to ward off the disease. So the clothes do make sense. I don’t know about the monkey, though. It seems to convey a clear message to Isaku when he thinks about it, but I can’t figure out what. We seem to be missing something here, some symbolism maybe.

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 27/3/2003, 8:54:01, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Howard, Dave, Christopher, Suat ???

Where are the rest of the commentaries?

Lale

 ~~

Posted by Christopher on 27/3/2003, 19:00:10, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Sorry for the delay, Lale…

I like criticism to be a positive activity. I find it much more enjoyable and rewarding to talk or write about things that I really love. Which is the reason why I’m having trouble motivating myself to write this – Shipwrecks simply didn’t captivate me in a very strong way. I finished reading it two weeks ago and have been hoping ever since that it would elicit a retrospective enthusiasm on my part (often, these types of nostalgic yearnings for something not initially appreciated are the strongest, don’t you think? – for me they include the wonders of Roquefort cheese, tripe, Chagall and Hemingway). What’s perhaps worse about Shipwrecks is that after two weeks it has become a distant, inanimate memory which has left me indifferent. For me, there’s nothing worse. It’s kind of like when you go to a movie and can’t remember what you saw the next day.

I do remember things about Shipwrecks (thank God – otherwise I’d be getting myself checked in). I remember that there are an awful lot of descriptions of fishing. So many, in fact, that the novel seems to express a certain idea of bounteousness that doesn’t fit with the impending starvation that haunts the village. Saury aren’t enormous, I know, but visions of fishermen hauling ashore buckets filled to the brim doesn’t reinforce the theme of starvation. Likewise, Isaku’s time at home always coincides with meals – gruel, no doubt; but there is always food on the table. Given this, one has to wonder about the purpose of indentured servitude. Wouldn’t the family have been better off with the combined forces of Isaku and his father at the homestead (such a strong man afterall)? They certainly didn’t appear better off for his absence.

I feel that the novel could have gained power had the narrative timeframe been more concise: one year is basically all that would have been needed to explore the themes the author sets himself to treat. Rather than decreasing the symbology of the changing seasons and the villagers intimate relation to nature, I feel that it would have increased its significance. To hear about the red hills in the distance for the third time just seemed heavy-handed to me rather than “profound”. Even the “coming of age” theme surrounding Isaku could have been more successfully explored in a more focused narrative. I did enjoy how the reader learns about the village and its customs at the same time as Isaku. It was innocent to see the workings of the village through his vantage point (which explains why the author puts Isaku in a position of observation rather than one of action with the first coming of O-fume-sama). This perspective also had its drawbacks, however. Truth may perhaps only be seen through the eyes of a child, but the problem of interpreting truth only becomes apparent with experience and knowledge. Isaku’s experience is limited, and the interpretation of the truths around him (his sister’s death, the departure of his family into banishment, for example) do not speak with great emotional force. The submission inherent in fatalism does not imply emotional reticence (Isaku’s mother – distraught and anxious for the return of her husband exhibits this), however Isaku’s own emotional response to situations seems naïve to the point of being implausible. At certain points in the novel when he thinks back upon the death of his sister it is almost humorously ironic because he seemed to have invested so little emotion at the time of her death.

The part of the novel that I most enjoyed was the descriptions of the smallpox outbreak. This was absolutely captivating (I don’t deny that it was also topical, here in Canada we’re on high alert for SARS and West-Nile disease). The smallpox twist was a good one and raises a number of questions that have already been addressed. How do we interpret the coming of this last, fatal, O-fume-sama? It is enigmatic in many ways and certainly provides an ethical punch that Isaku was doubtless too naïve to consider.

I had envisaged a different ending early on in my reading: O-fume-sama would arrive and Isaku’s father would be one of the sailors on board. Did anybody else have this premonition? It would have made for an albeit different, but certainly interesting twist as well.

 ~~

Posted by Suat on 27/3/2003, 21:35:29, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Very interesting, Christopher.

When I was half-way through the book, I told Lale I know the ending (I didn’t say I guess, I said I know). When I finished I reported that I was wrong. Note that I read the book long before Lale did, so I didn’t elaborate on my comments.

The other day, while discussing this book, I said exactly what you wrote. I was so sure that O-fume-sama would arrive and Isaku’s father would be one of the sailors on board (dead). Nevertheless, the book didn’t let me down on the level of catastrophe.

 ~~

Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 28/3/2003, 18:50:32, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Finally I’m jumping in into the discussion. First let me tell you a little story about myself and this book. If it bores you, skip it. Last Tuesday was just one of those days. I went out early and came back late, from an ugly day when everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I came home, fixed myself a drink and decided to forget the troubles of the day by going back in time and far away. I started reading Isaku’s travails in the village, and suddenly I thought “Oh my God, here’s people leading repetitive, boring lives, struggling every day just to make it alive, and some don’t even make it”. And here I am, surrounded by comfort, with a nice, hard-working wife greeting me without having to wait three years while I’m away being the slave of someone. When I’m hungry and there’s nothing to eat in the fridge, I go to the supermarket and choose among many good things, and pay with a credit card. But Isaku has to perform many tasks, just think about that: being nine years old and having to walk up the trail, returning with a load of wood (after having cut it). Fishing must be an extremely tiring work, not to mention Isaku’s mother’s travails walking three days with a load full of fish. Not to think about the constant smell.

I liked the book. I don’t consider it a masterpiece of literature, but it’s good sometimes to read about the simple and exacting lives of other people. I liked the fact that it never descends into cheap melodrama. As everybody here has pointed out, the tone is one of simple resignation to an unmerciful nature. Contrary to Chris, I think that the repetition of season really brings home the monotony of rural life, the sense of time passing slowly but at the same time bringing the same routine every year. Isaku is my friend and I felt for him, while admiring his neverending sense of responsibility, of caring for his family. He’s not too emotional, you just can’t let your emotions overcome you because there are no shrinks nor talk-shows where to show your weaknesses to other people, simply because everybody goes through the same suffering. We can be emotional because in our societies playing victim pays off. Isaku works every day, no weekends. He struggles, he cares, and he doesn’t complain. I have said before that for me, character development is usually the key to my enjoying a book, and this one was certainly successful in that account.

 ~~

Posted by len on 28/3/2003, 20:29:52, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Guillermo writes:

[a lot]

Bravo!

len.

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 29/3/2003, 0:16:22, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

: back in time and far away. I started reading Isaku’s

: travails in the village, and suddenly I thought

: “Oh my God, here’s people leading repetitive,

: boring lives, struggling every day just to make it

: alive, and some don’t even make it”. And here I

: am, surrounded by comfort, with a nice, hard-working

I did not prefer my own life to Isaku’s, actually. Maybe you guys will find this weird. I wished I was there, I wished I was one of the villagers.

I thought the hard-work, simplicity of life, the team-work, the discipline, the communal life, the respect, the wild weather, the night-long sounds of the waves, the snow storms etc. were all very very attractive and enviable.

Their lives (their helplessness in the face of starvation and their hard work to prevent it) didn’t made me appreciate the bountiness in my own life, it just reminded me our laziness, individualism, selfishness, corruption, dishonesty and wastefullness.

I found their life purposeful, more so than our own. To work for survival is quite something.

Anyone who felt similarly?

Lale

 

Posted by Hanh on 29/3/2003, 3:52:41, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Lale, your post reminds me very much of the ending in Nadine Gordimer’s book “The Pickup”. I don’t want to blow the ending before you got to it. I read it on recommendation from Stephen. Have you read it?

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 3/4/2003, 9:39:44, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Hanh-chama,

: Lale, your post reminds me very much of the ending in

: Nadine Gordimer’s book “The Pickup”. I

: don’t want to blow the ending before you got to it.

: I read it on recommendation from Stephen. Have you

: read it?

Sorry for the late reply: no, I haven’t read The Pickup or any other Nadine Gordimer book. Actually, I was thinking of proposing her The Conversationist for the May-book-club-book but then I thought I should suggest something from the French literature.

I will put The Pickup high on the list. I’ll make a post here when I finish, so we can talk about it.

: don’t want to blow the ending before you got to it.

Yeah, don’t say a word.

Lale

 ~~

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 29/3/2003, 6:14:46, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

: Anyone who felt similarly?

: Lale

No, not at all. This is not a rural idyll. What do these people have to look forward to in their lives? Very little, except backbreaking work. If they are lucky, and O-fune-sama arrives, they get to work themselves to death in their own village, if they are not so lucky they will have to do slave labour somewhere else and ruin either their health or their chances of marriage or both.

As for the working closely together, the community spirit: would you like to live in a hut with just one room, with no privacy? Would you like to sacrifice your individuality for the collective good? Besides, they could not afford to be that helpful all the time: none of the fishermen, except his cousin, was willing to teach Isaku how to fish for saury. The others were too busy with their own survival to waste valuable time on a non-relative.

There is nothing idyllic about a life of poverty with starvation always just arond the corner. No wonder these people are obsessed with food. It’s the most important thing in their world. Only we can afford to worry about trivial things.

 ~~

Posted by Andrew on 29/3/2003, 8:42:36, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

In many respects, Lale, I agree. However, making love with the kids sleeping a few feet away is not a big selling point with me. Cats, well….

Don’t forget, these people lived on the constant verge of starvation. I suspect had we seen a film of this story rather than the book, it would seem a far less attractive place to live

 ~~

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 29/3/2003, 9:33:21, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

: I thought the hard-work, simplicity of life, the

: team-work, the discipline, the communal life, the

: respect, the wild weather, the night-long sounds of

: the waves, the snow storms etc. were all very very

: attractive and enviable.

This is exactly what attracts me to the trips I make into inhospitable corners of the world. The trips are hard physical work, the weather can be inclement, we work together as a group since there is no one else we can rely on, all you hear is birds, the wind and streams, and suddenly life becomes very simple: all rubbish is cleared out of your mind. BUT: I confess that it is only great because it is just for three weeks and because I know I will be able to return to the comforts of my regular life soon.

You should try it, Lale. Come with me on my next trip. In 2004 I want to hike in the Himalayas again, probably in Nepal but maybe in Sikkim. It will enrichen your life much more than citytrips in luxury hotels 😉 (although I can’t deny the attractions of those)

 ~~

Posted by len on 31/3/2003, 21:33:04, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Lale, in an apparent fit of depression, writes:

>Their lives (their helplessness in the face of starvation and their hard work to prevent it) didn’t made me appreciate the bountiness in my own life, it just reminded me our laziness, individualism, selfishness, corruption, dishonesty and wastefullness.

Speak for yourself. My life, and the lives of many of my friends, are considerably more meaningful than this.

>I found their life purposeful, more so than our own. To work for survival is quite something.

No music. No art. No books. I think you’re confusing desperation with purposefulness.

>Anyone who felt similarly?

Not even close.

len.

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 31/3/2003, 21:58:13, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

: Lale, in an apparent fit of depression, writes:

: >Their lives (their helplessness in the face of

: starvation and their hard work to prevent it) didn’t

: made me appreciate the bountiness in my own life, it

: just reminded me our laziness, individualism,

: selfishness, corruption, dishonesty and

: wastefullness.

Well, when you put it that way 🙂

OK, I admit that what I wrote sounds really stupid when quoted, but the comparison was not to my, your or Guillermo’s lives, it was to our “world”, the entire western world, as we call it.

>We worry about non-survival things. What we do is trivial to what a person in need of food does. Maybe.

I was just opening that up for consideration.

: No music. No art. No books. I think you’re confusing

: desperation with purposefulness.

They were not in desperation. They still fell in love and got married for instance.

Lale

 ~~

Posted by Rizwan on 31/3/2003, 23:28:13, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Very interesting discussion. Just to tempt you guys a little more: this dilemma about choosing a life of “art/books/music”/modernity vs. choosing a simple life which shuns the “laziness, individualism, selfishness, corruption, dishonesty and wastefulness” of that modern life is exactly the ultimate theme addressed in “The Lost Steps,” by the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier.

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 1/4/2003, 8:41:40, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Riz-chama,

I am very happy to see that you have re-directed your one-book-all-the-time obsession to The Lost Steps.

Has anyone ever seen an email or a posting by Rizwan in the last 20 days that did not include the words “the”, “lost” and “steps” in it?

Riz’cim, just kidding, I will most definitely read it. I swear.

People already showed interest in this book (Len, Anna, Christopher, Hanh), so it will be fun to talk about it all together.

Love

Lale

 

Posted by Rizwan on 1/4/2003, 18:08:10, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Lale’cim,

It’s true: I do tend to get carried away over books that impress me. My current obsession revolves around Italo Svevo’s “Zeno’s Conscience.” Incredibly witty and funny and very insightful psychologically. Svevo’s work was “discovered” and championed by James Joyce, but from a stylistic point of view, it resembles Joyce’s work not at all. Great book that I highly recommend to you all.

In case you want to know more about Svevo, J.M. Coetzee wrote a nice long survey piece on him in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books…

 ~~

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 29/3/2003, 6:01:40, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

: Contrary to Chris, I think that the

: repetition of season really brings home the monotony

: of rural life, the sense of time passing slowly but

: at the same time bringing the same routine every

: year.

: Isaku’s not too emotional, you

: just can’t let your emotions overcome you because

: there are no shrinks nor talk-shows where to show

: your weaknesses to other people, simply because

: everybody goes through the same suffering. We can be

: emotional because in our societies playing victim

: pays off.

On both counts exactly what I thought. The book made me see the world through other eyes. You can’t quite judge the villagers by our own standards.

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 29/3/2003, 0:01:11, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

: haunts the village. Saury aren’t enormous, I know,

: but visions of fishermen hauling ashore buckets

: filled to the brim doesn’t reinforce the theme of

: starvation. Likewise, Isaku’s time at home always

: coincides with meals – gruel, no doubt; but there is

: always food on the table. Given this, one has to

Christopher, I made the same observation. There were a lot of octopuses and stuff. I thought, either the author was not able to give us a sense, an idea of the looming starvation or he was not giving it to us on purpose, as Guillermo suggests, not to turn it into a melodrama.

Taking the clothes off of corpses that had scars (even blood and pus) was very reckless. Suat and I attributed it to greed. They were able to figure out that these people were somehow banned to the open sea in an old ship for reasons of sickness and/or punishment. They only needed to take their thoughts one step further but chose not to.

Lale

 ~~

Posted by Andrew on 29/3/2003, 9:01:59, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

–Lalushka writes–

: Christopher, I made the same observation. There were a

: lot of octopuses and stuff. I thought, either the

: author was not able to give us a sense, an idea of

: the looming starvation or he was not giving it to us

: on purpose, as Guillermo suggests, not to turn it

: into a melodrama.

I think a key issue here is that all their food was seasonal, and they didn’t have many refrigerators or Iceboxes, though they did pickle and preserve veggies. The upshot, is if they had a poor season with one ‘harvest’ they desperately needed to make up for it with the next harvest.

One of our esteemed posters wondered about the folks selling themselves in indentured servitude. It was a very practical matter. When harvests were bad, the amount one person could come up with fed less mouths. So, paradoxically, having one less mouth to feed was sometimes worth more than having one extra worker. Also, the biggest and strongest were sent off for indentured servitude for two reasons: they’d command a higher price, and they tended to need to eat more than smaller, weaker ones.

Non of this applies to Attorneys, y’understand. We eat first and get rice instead of gruel.

Andrew

 ~~

Posted by Christopher on 30/3/2003, 2:28:32, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Andrew said:

: Also, the biggest and strongest were sent

: off for indentured servitude for two reasons: they’d

: command a higher price, and they tended to need to

: eat more than smaller, weaker ones.

Still, I wonder about the real benefits of indentured service. Wouldn’t a family expect to have a more comfortable standard of living (all things being relative, of course) with one of their members in indentured service? However, Isaku’s family does not seem to have benefited in anyway. In fact, one gets the impression that things have been complicated further by the father’s absence and that there lingers a pervading fear that the children might die. I see that maybe the father is a mouth less to feed, but his servitude should be at least slightly beneficial to the family.

I mean, I understand how the whole system works in reality, and furthermore I wouldn’t want anybody to suspect that the little enthusiasm that I have for the novel is somehow a reflection of my views about the culture being depicted. That’s an entirely different can of worms. My problem is with how this reality is depicted in literature: is the narrative, are the characters entirely convincing? I admit that they are in many ways successful, but are they beyond criticism?

 ~~

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 30/3/2003, 9:09:23, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

: However, Isaku’s family does not

: seem to have benefited in anyway.

Yes, they did. They received a sizable amount of much needed money, without which would not have been able to get by.

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 30/3/2003, 12:42:22, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

: My problem is with how this

: reality is depicted in literature: is the narrative,

: are the characters entirely convincing? I admit that

: they are in many ways successful, but are they

: beyond criticism?

It is not beyond criticism. I agree, Christopher, I thought it could have been much better. Apparently Akira Yoshimura is a very prolific writer. I had the feeling that some of the repetition was due to carelessness. Some sentences are repeated without extra effect. And then, in other parts, he omits a couple of words that would have clarified the situation (the salting, the fishing). As if written in haste. Maybe some of the problems are due to translation.

I did not find some situations very convincing either.

The other thing I noticed was, until halfway through the book, there is no “village elderly”, the right hand man of the chief. He appears out of nowhere in the middle of the story, because he will become part of the plot to come. Definitely and afterthought. This elderly will be the one to say the final word on the infected red clothes and he will eventually commit suicide.

Lale

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 30/3/2003, 16:26:13, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

–Lale wrote–

: Until halfway through

: the book, there is no “village elderly”,

: the right hand man of the chief. He appears out of

: nowhere in the middle of the story, because he will

: become part of the plot to come. Definitely and

: afterthought.

He only appears out of the blue if you would not know that every village had elders, as is probably the case. Could not this just be a cultural thing? Every Japanese reader would most likely take it for granted that a village had several elders, just as many European cities have aldermen to assist the mayor (called “wethouders” over here). It would not be necessary to introduce any of them before they had any role to play.

I don’t find introducing a minor character halfway through a sign of bad authorship. Happens all the time, even in very good novels. And the guy’s not that important.

Anna

 ~~

Posted by Howard on 30/3/2003, 18:00:28, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Hi all, sorry for joining in so late in the discussion.

I liked Shipwrecks for its the simple narrative and the way it explored, through Isaku’s eyes, the villagers attitudes towards life, death and their belief in reincarnation. I felt that the story was convincing up to the arrival of the smallpox ship. My reasons for this are:

1. The mysterious ship was not carrying bales of rice, had an unfamiliar red monkey mask and had diseased corpses on board. The villagers had recently escaped detection by the shipping agents men and had not forgotten the incident of the government vessel. In these circumstances they had good reason to be cautious.

2. Seeing the red monkey mask and the corpses must have aroused some suspicions in the minds of these superstitious people even if they did not understand the significance of the mask.

3. The inhabitants not only traveled to the next village to trade but many were also working there and further afield as indentured servants. The number of villagers involved in indentured servitude meant that the village was likely to have had more contact with the outside world than if its inhabitants had been solely engaged in fishing and cultivation of its meagre crops. Moreover two men had recently returned prior to the outbreak. Would news of outbreaks of smallpox elsewhere not have reached the ears of these people?

 ~~

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 30/3/2003, 18:21:44, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

: Would news of outbreaks of smallpox elsewhere not have

: reached the ears of these people?

The next village was two to three days travelling away. Contact was minimal. Just imagine that: you had to walk a number of days, not hours to get news from the outside world. You could fly around the world twice nowadays in that amount of time. For me it is almost literally unimaginable to live a life so isolated.

Besides that, knowledge of how exactly contagious diseases are spread has only come about quite recently. Even today many people, especially in Africa but elsewhere too, are only very vaguely aware how AIDS spreads and a lot of what they think they know about it is wrong. Also remember how easily the plague spread in medieval and renaissance Europe. People simply had no idea how to deal with epidemics.

The ship is of course a sort of punishment, not from some vengeful shipowner, but just from fate; the O-fune-sama turning against the village; the inhabitants ultimately accepting this punishment. By the way, this does not mean that they don’t suffer. Just consider the last lines, as Isaku sees his father returning, realizing that he will have to tell him that he has lost almost his entire family (who was it again that said that the boy showed no emotion?):

“The power drained from Isaku’s body and his head felt empty. An undescribable groan erupted from his throat. He grasped his oar and turned his boat back towards the shore.”

 ~~

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 30/3/2003, 17:55:56, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

–Christopher wrote–

: My problem is with how this

: reality is depicted in literature: is the narrative,

: are the characters entirely convincing? I admit that

: they are in many ways successful, but are they

: beyond criticism?

I think that the question whether a novel is successful depends largely on what the author sets out to do and what his ambitions are. I think we will all agree that this is not an ambitious blockbuster. It is a modest sketch, that uses relatively few lines to paint life in a village which is both remote in space and time.

Also important to realize is that this book is not about character, i.e. it is not a psychological study. So the first thing we should judge “Shipwrecks” by is not by its characters (though of course they should come across as real people, which for me they do), but whether it succeeds in conveying the picture it sets out to paint.

To answer the question, yes I think the novel succeeds in its aim: first of all it gives a genuine feel of the kind of life these people are leading (see Guillermo’s excellent contribution), PLUS there is also the extra dimension of ethics, without which it admittedly would have been a lot less interesting. By ethical dimension I refer of course to the practice of causing ships to run ashore, killing its sailors and appropriating its cargo. The question the author here asks the reader is whether the villagers should be condemned for this or not, in other words, whether the threat of starvation justifies killing and stealing. To me this was the most important and most interesting aspect of the novel (but maybe that’s because I am a lawyer). I also think the author handles this aspect of the novel quite well. Instead of crude black and white lines he paints subtle nuances, showing that there is no simple answer. If we had not come to know the villagers intimately through the eyes of Isaku we would probably have condemned these practices at once, but making us see everything from the villagers’ perspective the novelist teaches us (without the least hint of the preacher) that the answer may not be so easy. This make “Shipwrecks” a truly humane book.

So, to sum up, I think that within the modest ambitions of this book Yoshimura has done a good job.

 ~~

Posted by Christopher on 30/3/2003, 21:22:01, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Anna writes:

: The question

: the author here asks the reader is whether the

: villagers should be condemned for this or not, in

: other words, whether the threat of starvation

: justifies killing and stealing. To me this was the

: most important and most interesting aspect of the

: novel (but maybe that’s because I am a lawyer).

: If we had not come to know the

: villagers intimately through the eyes of Isaku we

: would probably have condemned these practices at

: once, but making us see everything from the

: villagers’ perspective the novelist teaches us

: (without the least hint of the preacher) that the

: answer may not be so easy.

These are very good observations. However, I don’t think that the author is so heuristic in his presentation of the ethical problems that loom here. After all, it was he who created the narrative (not the characters) and his choices of what to include within that narrative are entirely his own. No matter what Isaku sees, it is the author that is allowing us to see what Isaku sees.

Given this, the ethical problem for me is not enirely “from the villager’s perspective” in as much as they are fictional creations.

The second coming of O-fume-sama, I believe, weakens the novel because we are, all of a sudden, confronted with an ethical response by the author in black and white. I think that we all grasped the ethical conflict inherent in O-fume-sama without the arrival of the second ship. I think that we all simultanously sympathised and disagreed with the practice of lighting the cauldron fires. Personally, I could imagine the sailors on the ship, stranded on the rocks, awaiting certain death. I could also imagine the villagers, desperate for food and thanking the Gods for this unexpected bounty. There is an ethical problem here (it may be more precisely a moral problem, but maybe more on that at another time) – are their actions justified and justifiable? Does it demand a resolution? – do we need the explicit intercession of the author? Can’t it be left up in the air without the question being resolved (in the same way that Hemingway so masterfully concluded For Whom the Bell Tolls)?

The second coming of O-fume-sama however, in so much as it is a writer’s fictional creation, evidently seeks to respond to this ethical problem. It responds to the greed of the villagers and implicitly (but heavy-handedly) once again raises the question in black and white: are they doing the right thing? The fact that so many people die in such a horrible fashion, that the survivors are sent into banishment, etc. is a pretty strong message that what they are doing is seen (by the author) as being incorrect. The village is punished for O-fume-sama, and this punishment is the author’s creation.

That said Yoshimura probably had other things on his mind as well, specifically, the need for a narrative highpoint or climax. For me, this is belaboured and (dare I say) contrived. Why do these people have to be punished? why does the ambiguity of their actions have to be brought so blatently to the fore? If he wanted to describe the village and its life and customs he could have done so without the tragedy; in doing so, the novel’s aims (those that you speak about) would also have been fulfilled.

Perhaps by avoiding catastrophe the novel would have been a little bit “boring”. But, of course, it would have been Yoshimura’s responsibility to keep us captivated without the crutch of an unexpected twist.

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 31/3/2003, 12:07:13, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

: Why do these people have to

: be punished? why does the ambiguity of their actions

: have to be brought so blatently to the fore? If he

: wanted to describe the village and its life and

: customs he could have done so without the tragedy;

: in doing so, the novel’s aims (those that you speak

: about) would also have been fulfilled.

: Perhaps by avoiding catastrophe the novel would have

: been a little bit “boring”. But, of

: course, it would have been Yoshimura’s

: responsibility to keep us captivated without the

: crutch of an unexpected twist.

Good point, Christopher. I have been thinking about this a little and realised that the reason why I did not find this plot twist unexpected or heavyhanded was because I knew it was coming from the text on the back cover. I did not know it was going to be a disease, but the blurb text was very clear that tragedy was on the way. I wonder how the incident would have struck me if I had not been prepared for this. Maybe then I would have thought it heavyhanded, too.

I also wonder how Japanese readers think about the ending. Are modern Japanese more fatalistic in their attitude towards life than us and will they nod and say, “yes such is life, that’s the right kind of ending?” (Andrew?)

And now for something completely different: don’t you think we should do something about publishers who sum up complete novels in blurb texts? Lale had even read that the village was going to be struck by a ship carrying smallpocks and Saramago’s “The Cave”, which I finished recently, has a complete summary of the book only excluding the last 20 pages or so. Maybe we should send publishers who are guilty of this an indignant letter and threaten them with something (not sure what, though).

By the way, is anybody else reading this? Hey gang, are you still paying attention? Professor Vu, where are you?

 ~~

Posted by Christopher on 31/3/2003, 17:58:58, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Anna writes:

: And now for something completely different: don’t you

: think we should do something about publishers who

: sum up complete novels in blurb texts? Lale had even

: read that the village was going to be struck by a

: ship carrying smallpocks and Saramago’s “The

: Cave”, which I finished recently, has a

: complete summary of the book only excluding the last

: 20 pages or so. Maybe we should send publishers who

: are guilty of this an indignant letter and threaten

: them with something (not sure what, though).

I’m in complete agreement. Let’s start a world-wide petition against back-cover teasers!

I know Lale would be in agreement. It explains why we both love the yellow-cream colours of the beautiful NRF editions adorned with nothing more than the title and the author’s name.

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 31/3/2003, 21:47:01, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

: sum up complete novels in blurb texts? Lale had even

: read that the village was going to be struck by a

: ship carrying smallpocks and Saramago’s “The

: Cave”, which I finished recently, has a

: complete summary of the book only excluding the last

It is awful! It is a crime. We have three lawyers here, we should do something about this.

: 20 pages or so. Maybe we should send publishers who

: are guilty of this an indignant letter and threaten

: them with something (not sure what, though).

20 million dollars in damages.

: both love the yellow-cream colours of the beautiful

: NRF editions adorned with nothing more than the

: title and the author’s name.

These books are not even in hardcover and cost as much. But they are so beautiful.

Lale

 ~~

Posted by Andrew on 31/3/2003, 18:01:18, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

–Anna-Hime writes–

: I also wonder how Japanese readers think about the

: ending. Are modern Japanese more fatalistic in their

: attitude towards life than us and will they nod and

: say, “yes such is life, that’s the right kind

: of ending?” (Andrew?)

For starters, I think (we’re talking generalizations here) the average Japanese reader would be a lot more OK with the ending than I was, or probably than the average western reader. By that I mean there was no conclusion to speak of. It must have just seemed like a good place to stop (publisher’s deadline?) It’s a not-uncommon phenomenon in Japanese literature and ESPECIALLY TV serial dramas. One of my favorite modern Japanese novels (The Barren Zone, by Yamazaki Toyoko) ends with the main character about to make a major decision. Can’t say I enjoy this feature. My guess is that acceptance of ambiguity is such a forceful factor in Japanese life, that it gets reflected in mass culture.

Andrew

(‘Hime’ means Princess)

 ~~

Posted by len. on 31/3/2003, 21:37:05, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks”

Lale writes:

>They only needed to take their thoughts one step further but chose not to.

I don’t think they chose not to, I think they were unable to. As I mentioned earlier, one of the most appealing things about this story was its stark contasting of harmony with and ignorance of the world they lived in.

len.

 ~~

Shipwrecks: Mono no Aware

Posted by Andrew on 24/3/2003, 6:13:52

As Hahn-san pointed out, Mono/-no-Aware (pronounced “a-wa-rey”) is a fundamental concept in Japan, not only but in literature and the arts, but in daily life as well. I have two examples that illustrate this. The first is a poem from the Manyoshu, and is one of my alltime favorites:

In the days when my wife lived

We went out to the embankment nearby,

We two, hand in hand

To view the elm trees standing there

With their outstretched branches

Thick with spring leaves.

As abundant as their greenery was my love,

On her leaned my soul.

But who evades mortality.

One morning she was gone,

Flown like an early bird

Clad in a heavenly scarf of white

To the wide fields

Where the shimmering Kagero rises

She went and vanished like a setting sun.

The little babe, the keepsake that my wife has left me

Cries and clamors; I have nothing to give

I pick up the child and clasp it to me.

In her chamber where we two used to sleep together,

Days I spend alone, brokenhearted,

Nights I spend sighing until dawn.

Though I grieve, there is no help,

Vainly I long to see her.

Men tell me that my wife is in the mountains of Hakkai,

Thither I go, toiling along the stony path.

But it avails me not,

For of my wife as she lived in this world,

I find not the faintest shadow.

Tonight the autumn moon shines,

The moon that shone a year ago.

But my wife and I who watched it then together,

Are divided by ever widening wastes of time.

When leaving my wife behind in the Ikitci Mountains,

Leaving her there in her grave,

As I walk down the mountain path,

I feel not like one living.

The second is the opening paragraph to one of the most famous sagas in Japanese culture and history, The Heike Monogatari (The Story of the War between the Taira and Minamoto Clans, which took place btw 1181-1185)

The sound of the Gion Shôja bells echoes the impermanence of all things;

The color of the sâla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline.

The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night;

The mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.

 ~~

Posted by Michael sympson on 24/3/2003, 13:48:59, in reply to “Shipwrecks: Mono no Aware”

It’s a bit like Virgil’s “lacrimae,” isn’t it?

Michael

 

Posted by Hanh on 25/3/2003, 6:32:30, in reply to “Shipwrecks: Mono no Aware”

That does it. Now I must get my grubby hands on a translation of the Manyoshu. Recommendation on the edition to get, Andrew?

The first poem reminds me of a story I heard as a child. On the main road to Vung Tau, a beach resort in south Viet Nam, there is a rock formation that looks like a woman holding a child. I used to see it everytime my family drove there for vacation. The first time I asked what it was, I must have been around 7, my nurse told me that rock was a woman waiting for her husband to return from the war. She had stood there so long that she and her child turned into stone from the elements, but the husband never came back. I remember feeling very sad for her and hoping her husband didn’t come back to see her that way, else he too would be sad. Mono-no-aware.

 ~~

Posted by moana on 28/3/2003, 7:51:35, in reply to “Shipwrecks: Mono no Aware”

The last few lines really speak about the Japanese culture –

: The sound of the Gion Shôja bells echoes the

: impermanence of all things;

: The color of the sâla flowers reveals the truth that

: the prosperous must decline.

: The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a

: spring night;

: The mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the

: wind.

We were talking about the sadness of life and all things – this certainly echoes the sentiment that tragedy is brought about to individuals, and that everything good or bad is ephemeral. Not quite so bleak as the novel, but…

~moana

 ~~

Posted by len on 28/3/2003, 15:25:22, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Mono no Aware”

Moana writes:

>The mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.

>everything good or bad is ephemeral.

And the Faustian (by way of Goethe) sentiment

Alles vergangliche ist nur ein gleichnis

loosely, everything transient is only an illusion

This final verse of Faust has been set to music by two masters of the romantic idiom, Franz Liszt (in his Ein Faust Symphonie) and Gustav Mahler (in his Symphony No. 8).

I have been fortunate to hear both of these works in live performance many times, and this is an experience that words simply cannot do justice to.

 ~~

Posted by Rizwan on 28/3/2003, 17:18:55, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Mono no Aware”

Len, I think you will love Carpentier’s “The Lost Steps.” You must let me know what you think of it when you read it. And perhaps you can explain to me some of the musical references that surely went over my head…

: This final verse of Faust has been set to music by two

: masters of the romantic idiom, Franz Liszt (in his

: Ein Faust Symphonie) and Gustav Mahler (in his

: Symphony No. 8).

: I have been fortunate to hear both of these works in

: live performance many times, and this is an

: experience that words simply cannot do justice to.

 ~~

Posted by Andrew on 28/3/2003, 19:26:43, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Mono no Aware”

Reminds me of one of my favorite Poe Poems:

(Words in all uppercase are italicized in original)

“A Dream Within A Dream”:

Take this kiss upon the brow!

And, in parting from you now,

Thus much let me avow–

You are not wrong, who deem

That my days have been a dream;

Yet if Hope has flown away

In a night or in a day,

In a vision, or in none,

Is it therefore the less GONE?

ALL that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar

Of a surf-tormented shore,

And I hold within my hand

Grains of the golden yellow sand–

How few! yet they creep

Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep — while I weep

O God! can I not grasp

Them with a tighter clasp?

O God! can I not save

ONE from the pitiless wave?

Is ALL that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

–len-san schreibt–

: And the Faustian (by way of Goethe) sentiment

: Alles vergangliche ist nur ein gleichnis

: loosely, everything transient is only an illusion

Ja, aber mann auch sagen kann:

Es geht alles voruber, es geht alles vorbei

Auf jeden Dezember, folgt wieder ein Mai

(Everything passes, it all goes by,

After every December, follows again a May)

 ~~

Shipwrecks: Some Background

Posted by Andrew on 24/3/2003, 6:49:45

I can’t remember whether it was mentioned or not, but the island on which the story takes place is on the Sea of Japan side of Japan, as opposed to the Pacific coast side. I know of no significant inhabited islands on the Pacific side, which gets far less snow than the west (Sea of Japan coast) And there was far less shipping along the Pacific coast – it was simply too dangerous.

This village appears not to have engaged in rice cultivation, perhaps the land was unsuitable for it. That’s why the rice barrels recovered from the ship were such a treasure. Making the rice gruel (porridge) was a way to make the same amount of rice produce more food than steamed rice, and it was more nutritious. But it was bland, so people preferred the steamed rice.

Selfishness is a very strong emotional dynamic in Japanese culture. Telling someone they’re being selfish is a very strong statement. What constitutes selfishness in Japan is somewhat at odds with how we in the west define it. Remember when Isaku’s friend mentions that his grandfather is sure to die soon, and keeps asking for food. The boy says this is selfish on grandfather’s part because he’s going to die and he’s jeopardizing the chances of the others by taking food they need. My reaction was the opposite: the boy and his family were being selfish by denying him food and increasing his suffering. But it’s a cultural thing. Avoidance of appearing selfish is why the villagers who had recovered went off into the mountains without protest when they were told that their continued presence in the village endangered the others. Even though they all knew it was a death sentence.

At one point the narrator mentions how Takichi had taken to ‘visiting’ Kura at night. This was common practice in village life. Premarital sex was not frowned upon. In fact, since Kura and her parents undoubtably lived in a one room hut, they were aware of this ‘courtship.’

Any other questions?

Andrew

 

Posted by Michael sympson on 24/3/2003, 14:27:42, in reply to “Shipwrecks: Some Background”

“At one point the narrator mentions how Takichi had taken to ‘visiting’ Kura at night. This was common practice in village life. Premarital sex was not frowned upon. In fact, since Kura and her parents undoubtably lived in a one room hut, they were aware of this ‘courtship.”

Maybe this can be seen in the context of a residual matriarchy. For referene see the article on my page “When the Matriarchs ruled.” Sei Shonagon’s pillow book struck me always as prime example for a society which, although ruled by male policy makers, has preserved from prehistory many of the matriarchal structures. I might be wrong, the way marriages were employed to create alliances between the clans in the Heian era could have been the cause for the creation of structures similar to a true matriarchy. Besides the Heian society was an era of profound peace (in Japan) and true matriarchies make a rather agressive neighborhood (see the Spartan society for reference.)

I know it’s way off on a tangent, but I always suspected, that the fact of only 500 family names (of which 400 are rare exceptions) for 1,5 billion Chinese, has something to do with a comparably recent past of matriarchies who seem to have occupied the Chinese plains until the early bronze age. In matriarchal societies, women alone control all the available real estate, while men are only permitted to own the movable chattels. The emergence of roaming pastoralists may be due to the fact that men got fed up with the old system. Incidentally the custom of ritual elopement at the wedding (the pretended abduction of a bride) is often associated with pastoral societies.

Rome descended from matriarchal Etruscan societies. (So did gladiatorial combat). So you find in the founding myth of patriarchal Rome the abduction of the Sabien maidens. Of interest for the attorney’s visiting this page might be that in matriarchies the couple doesn’t move under one roof. The man visits his spouse only at night and returns to his dorm at daybreak. Meanwhile the spouse seems to be free to trade her favors to the occasional visitor without risk for her reputation. If the groom belongs to a different clan, the bride’s clan is obliged to recompense the groom’s clan for the time of his absence.

michael

 ~~

Posted by Hanh on 25/3/2003, 7:22:01, in reply to “Shipwrecks: Some Background”

: Selfishness is a very strong emotional dynamic in

: Japanese culture. Telling someone they’re being

: selfish is a very strong statement. What constitutes

: selfishness in Japan is somewhat at odds with how we

: in the west define it. Remember when Isaku’s friend

Great comment, Andrew. Collective thinking vs individualistic thinking is one of the clear cultural demarcations between East and West. In the East, selfishness is measured against how it affects the Collective, how it denies benefit to the group–this is a group-centric definition. In the West a selfish act is defined based on the Individual–a me-centric definition.

: At one point the narrator mentions how Takichi had

: taken to ‘visiting’ Kura at night. This was common

: practice in village life. Premarital sex was not

: frowned upon. In fact, since Kura and her parents

: undoubtably lived in a one room hut, they were aware

: of this ‘courtship.’

Andrew, please critique my following comments and put me back on the track of truth if you see I’m meandering down into the pit of falsehood. These are impressions I gathered from 7 days (yes, 7 whole days!!) of travel to Tokyo and Kawasaki.

Japan is a culture of amazing contrast. In ancient Japan, civility and social courtesy were escalated to an art form. Yet, the samurai-tradition nurtured brutality and humiliation to egregious degrees. Modern Japan is no longer brutal, but along with the fading of traditions, it has also lost some of the ancient styles that marked exquisite graciousness.

Regarding sex, on the one hand, Japan is outwardly prudish, on the other hand, sex is viewed with much less puritanical angst and religious guilt than in America. Geishas are models of prudish erotica–only in Japan can those terms be non-contradictory (is this a fair statement?). It is not having sex outside marriage that is tabu, it is the breaking of the vows of marriage in doing so that is not acceptable. Love hotels are a given in any city–there is no cultural stigma placed on visiting them, and the sex comics sold in shops at children’s eye-level!

And here, I must admit to something that yes I am embarrassed to admit to, but in the interest of informed discussion, I feel I must divulge this to explain that I have this information from first hand knowledge and not from spurious third-hand rumors.

In Japan, pornographic films blur out the private parts. (Is that ironic or … what’s the word I’m looking for here … uh … defeating the purpose?) Is this not Contradiction in its most cloudless manner?

Now, to extricate myself from any salacious reputation that may result: how this bit of information arrived at my information archive. I was staying at a hotel in Kawasaki during a week-long work trip. As I was flipping around the channel looking for something/anything in English, suddenly wham, Japanese porn! Naturally, I paused the channel surfing, initially from shock (a family-run hotel offering porn?) but after that, from the idea that here is a unique cultural experience that may not be available to the general American public. I OWE it to myself to learn from this. But alas, it was only a 3-minute preview to the pay-per-view real thing. Then when I asked my friend (a current resident of Japan) about the strategic blurring of private parts, he indicates that is the norm.

Prudish pornography?

 ~~

Posted by Andrew on 27/3/2003, 7:45:55, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Some Background”

–Hahn Writes–

: In ancient

: Japan, civility and social courtesy were escalated

: to an art form. Yet, the samurai-tradition nurtured

: brutality and humiliation to egregious degrees.

Hahn,

Brutality was for some infraction rather than arbitrary. Japan was and is a country where everyone knows where they belong and what they are entitled to. The dynamic of the old British ‘Speak, that I may know you.’ is felt in nearly every aspect of Japanese life. You dressed, acted, spoke, bowed at a certain angle, ate food according to your station. Transgressions were punished severely. Arson was punished by as extreme forms of torture as could be put into practice, killing a lord was punishible by having your entire family wiped out.

Courtesy was a method of indicating you understood where you fit with the person with whom you were dealing, there being a great variety of ways to express this idea. There is an old saying “The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hammered Down.’

Most westerners are appalled at the level of sex, mostly rape, and violence (often directed at women) in ‘Manga’- the weekly comic books (especially in those directed at young adults) the size of the Manhattan telephone book. But no private parts.

: Modern Japan is no longer brutal, but along with the

: fading of traditions, it has also lost some of the

: ancient styles that marked exquisite graciousness.

: Regarding sex, on the one hand, Japan is outwardly

: prudish, on the other hand, sex is viewed with much

: less puritanical angst and religious guilt than in

: America.

In Japan, it’s harder to get hardcore porn, but easier to get an ‘escort.’ There’s an outfit in my old neighborhood that makes housecalls on pink scooters. (I do NOT know this from firsthand experience.)

There’s less importance about marrying a virgin than in parts of the US (let along the Middlev East) and I prudish is not the first word that comes to mind – censorship of private parts excepted.

: In Japan, pornographic films blur out the private

: parts. (Is that ironic or … what’s the word I’m

: looking for here … uh … defeating the purpose?)

: Is this not Contradiction in its most cloudless

: manner?

Hey, isn’t imagination a powerful stimulus? Nah, lord knows why they censor it, but they do.

 

Posted by Lale on 27/3/2003, 8:42:54, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Some Background”

By the way folks, I think Anna, Stephen and I would like to re-recommend Amélie Nothomb’s “Fear and Trembling” (I think the title is stolen from Kierkegaard) at this point.

Nothomb is a Belge, writes in French. The English translation is very good. It is a small and funny book. It provides a lot of insight into the – no, sorry not into the hardporn and escort service but – into the business life in Tokyo.

Those of you who are interested in Japanese culture will enjoy this book.

Read it quickly (it is a book for one or two days) so that we can talk about it.

Apparently there is a movie of it, being made or just out, I am not sure. But I heard people talking about it.

Lale

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 27/3/2003, 8:48:50, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Some Background”

Yesterday, I impressed my classmate Keiko-chan with my knowledge of O-fune-sama 😉

I have a few Japanese classmates. Andrew-chan, can you give me some day-to-day words to say to them: bonjour (not “good morning” but a more general greeting because I see them in the afternoon) and “see you tomorrow” and “have a nice weekend”.

Lale

 ~~

Posted by Andrew on 27/3/2003, 19:54:17, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Some Background”

Use the general “Ogenki-deska?” (How are you?)

or for good-bye: “sorey-ja, ney?”

This for casual use, not to a teacher or your feudal lord.

Andrew

 ~~

Posted by Hanh on 27/3/2003, 20:41:40, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Some Background”

The only word I remember is the phrase for ‘good morning’: Ohayu gozaimasu (or as I need to remember it phonetically: Ohio-goes-I-mas).

I only remember this because every morning for a week, whenever I passed the guard at the gate of my company building, he yelled–and I mean YELLED–at me: OHAYU GOZAIMAAAAAAASSSSSSSSS! Very much in Samurai-fashion. I loved it.

~~

Posted by Lale on 27/3/2003, 20:49:25, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Some Background”

: or your feudal lord

😉

I don’t speak to my feudal lord unless I am spoken to.

Lale

 ~~

Posted by Andrew on 28/3/2003, 2:24:50, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Some Background”

A wise survival practice indeed.

And may I remind you to keep your nose touching the floor, the sake warm, and don’t make eye contact under penalty of having to go clean your monster-in-law, er…mother-in-law’s apartment. Unless, of course, you are lucky enough to have the demon, er…delightful lady living with you.

Apropos of nothing really, in recent times eldest sons in Japan have a harder than average time finding mates. The thought being that since he inherits the family home and business, he also get what comes with it, i.e., he takes care of the elderly parents. Or, more realistically, his wife does. Lale-chan, maybe is that why you and your family keep moving around the world? Maybe I could sell your current address to your mother-in-law for, oh, enough to buy next month’s Talk Literature Feature?

Posted by Lale on 29/3/2003, 0:29:00, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Some Background”

: Or, more realistically, his wife does. Lale-chan,

: maybe is that why you and your family keep moving

: around the world? Maybe I could sell your current

: address to your mother-in-law for, oh, enough to buy

Don’t they have a practice in far east where they take their elderly up to the mountains and leave them there?

Lale

~~

Posted by len on 28/3/2003, 15:18:18, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Some Background”

Lale writes:

>I don’t speak to my feudal lord unless I am spoken to.

I just ignore my futile lord.

However, I have to pay rent to my suite lord, with apologies to George Harrison.

len.

 ~~

Posted by Hanh on 28/3/2003, 18:50:12, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Some Background”

Len, the source of your brilliant witticism mystifies me, my friend. Must be divine intervention.

 ~~

Posted by len on 28/3/2003, 20:26:10, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Some Background”

Hanh inquires:

>Len, the source of your brilliant witticism mystifies me, my friend. Must be divine intervention.

I usually attribute it to froot’a da’vine intervention.

len.

 ~~

Posted by Hanh on 29/3/2003, 0:40:47, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Some Background”

I’m telling ya, you must have a program or something churning this out. May be it’s your thesis from the M.I.T. days. Secret Wit program or something.

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 29/3/2003, 0:50:39, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Some Background”

: I’m telling ya, you must have a program or something

: churning this out. May be it’s your thesis from the

: M.I.T. days. Secret Wit program or something.

Hanh, please don’t encourage him.

I agree with the program part. Len do you have it C++ ?

~~

 Posted by Hanh on 29/3/2003, 3:49:07, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Some Background”

C++, pshaw! He probably wrote it in Assembly. 😉

 ~~

Shipwrecks: Additional Background

Posted by Andrew on 2/4/2003, 10:41:43

I don’t know exactly when the novel takes place, but it’s a good bet that it is some time between 1600 and the middle of the Nineteenth Century

The reason is this: The Tokugawa Shogunate (Government) was established at the very beginning of the 17th century (1602 or so) and warfare of any kind ceased. We hear nothing of war or battles, so this is negative evidence (circumstantial). But given the tremendous impact the almost constant warfare from the 12th century onwards had on every aspect of life, we surely would have come across some mention of it if there had been any fighting.

Not too long after the end of the Shogunate and the Restoration of the Emperor, the clans were abolished. It has no real bearing on our story, but the abolishment of the Clans, by creating a ‘nation’ as opposed to a collection of feudal states, was perhaps the singlemost significant domestic change that enabled Japan to deal with the European powers from a position of greater strength than nearly all other Asian countries of the time. We of course remember that the villagers were greatly concerned about what would happen if they were caught ‘harvesting’ a clan ship. Being crucified upside down or slowly boiled in a large kettle were two common rewards for egregious misbehavior. So it would seem the novel takes place before the abolishment of the clans around 1868.

So it’s a fairly good certainty that the novel takes place betweem the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Restoration.

Why is this important? The shoguns tightly controlled every aspect of life in this time period. In order to do so they ordered some things that might seem a ittle strange, such as giving up the manufacture of guns and training in their use. But by far the most significant action was the ban on construction of ships capable of ocean voyages. The ships that were allowed were all coastal vessals (I’m not an expert on the details of the naval architecture, but I believe it had something to do with flat bottoms and relatively useless keels)

Water transportation being far more efficient than overland in such a mountainous country, there was a great business in shipping trade along the coast. The inability of the ships to ride out storms by sailing far enough out to sea to be safe from the rather rocky coast made shipwrecks a more common occurence than we might otherwise assume. Think of it as the 17th/18th century equivalent of driving while talking on your cell phone.

The Shogunate policy was called ‘Sakoku’ or ‘Closed Country, sealing Japan off from outside influence. The restriction on ships built to be able to travel overseas was so that no one would come back with ideas that might challenge Shogunate supremacy. In fact, if a sailor/ship were blown out to sea and returned, they were executed (this ended with the Restoration)

The ship thing is no doubt a fact well known to most Japanese from their Jr High School history classes so the author probably felt no need to mention it. The translator, on the other hand might have served us a little better had he (she?) included this information in the translators notes (not that a whole lot of us read that stuff anyhow…) You see, in a storm, it is safer for an ocean capable ship to sail further out to sea and avoid the danger of the rocky coast. The types of ships allowed in this period, only had the options of trying to enter a bay or harbor which would afford some protection from the storm, or hoping to run themselves aground safely on a sandy beach.

In this respect. O-Fune-Sama was an inevitability brought about by the ways in which Sakoku was enforcd.

Now I’m sure I’ve told you more than you ever wanted to know. Blame Anna and Lale for inviting me into Talk Literature!

Andrew

 

Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 2/4/2003, 17:35:41, in reply to “Shipwrecks: Additional Background”

Excellent information, Andrew. I was irritated at the cover blurb of my copy which says: “A wonderful tale of murder and retribution in the wild seacoast of Medieval Japan”. First I thought: “It must refer to a Japanese Middle Ages, since it makes no sense to apply Western time frames to Japan”. Or maybe it implied that the tale was set in what we call Middle Ages. But then I read that some of the ships transported tobacco, a crop indigenous to the Americas and which started to be sent to Europe and the rest of the world precisely after the end of the Middle Ages. So now I have a better idea of the time when the tale is really set in.

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 3/4/2003, 9:51:54, in reply to “Re: Shipwrecks: Additional Background”

: Excellent information, Andrew. I was irritated at the

: cover blurb of my copy which says: “A wonderful

: tale of murder and retribution in the wild seacoast

: of Medieval Japan”. First I thought: “It

I have the same book, I guess. I read the same blurb which made no sense whatsoever.

Andrew, I agree with Guillermo, excellent info, thanks.

Lale

 ~~

The very last “Shipwrecks” posting

Posted by Lale on 10/4/2003, 14:20:51

Picture of an old Japanese ship (a possible o-fune-sama), courtesy of Andrew-chimsa.

Japanese Ship

 

Paul ~ 13 July 2006

I just finished reading Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura and found your online discussion helpful. The fact this discussion may have took place years ago leads me to wonder what significance my contributions to this panel will prove. However, I do have the following to say in response to a complaint made by “Lale” concerning the repetitions found in the novel. In mythology such as the Iliad and in books of the Old Testament repetitions were used to describe daily events or religious practice. The phrasings are identical as though they were “cut and pasted” into the narrative.

“Dawn with her rose-red fingers,” is one example that comes to mind from the Iliad. “And there was morning, and there was evening…” is an example from Genesis.

While much of the reasoning behind repetition was based on the oral tradition and the daunting task of reciting such lengthy tales, the duplication these phrases helps me get a sense of the passing of time and the return to the familiar. In Shipwrecks the seasons were marked based on the condition of the sea, land, and the food harvested from both. The repetitions of the stormy sea, swelling sea, calm sea gave me a sense of the actual events that were going to take place during these times, as did the changing mountainside colors, snow drifts, plume of snow dust, blossoms, etc.

I did not find the repeated phrases dull or unimaginative, but rather fitting given the concrete, simple style characteristic of Japanese literature.

I did find obvious westernizations in the translation such as “fork in the road” [p. 20] and “pipe dream.” [p.96] distracting. Do medieval Japanese villagers use forks (pitch or otherwise), and do they know what a pipe is? There are others that I can’t remember. I think a translation by a Japanese-American poet/author would do for Shipwrecks what Seamus Heaney did for Beowulf.

Thank you for your discussions and the vital background information on Japanese literature and history that I lacked coming into this read.


ReadLit Team

 


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