In a medieval Japanese village starving fishermen use fires to lure passing merchant ships toward their shore and onto rocky shoals. When a ship runs aground, they slaughter the crew and loot the cargo. One day a ship founders, but instead of booty the cargo turns out to be smallpox.
During the course of this enchanting story, which reads like a fable, I fell prey to the rhythmic comings and goings of the seasons during which a young boy cares for his family. His father has left home to become an indentured workman for three years in order to save his family from starvation. While awaiting his father’s return, the young boy anxiously awaits and is eager to experience o-fune-sama.
I was very enchanted with this tale which talks about people who depend on the sea for life itself. I usually don’t read stories about medieval times, but this story seemed kind of timeless. It was more about survival, tribe, and family. I found the customs fascinating and was not sure, even by the end of the book, whether the story was simply a fabricated tale or based on real occurrences. For sure, having read this book, I’ll be now seeking the answer to my own question.
Now the catch is the ships do not crash accidentally, but they are actually lured to the reefs by the fishermen who set up fire underneath two large cauldrons by the shore, in such a way that ships who get caught in storms at night see them the fires and think that it's safe to reach the shore. When they inevitably run into the reefs, the fishermen come to the ship, kill any sailors that have not drowned, and collect the cargo. In the end, most of the villagers, men, women and children, die because they captured one ship where all the crew members were wearing vivid red clothing, that the villagers took and brought to their homes to wear. It turns out that this particular ship was loaded with people from another area who had caught small pox, and that town had placed all the sick people in the ship to get rid of them. The village gets retribution for all the killings they had inflicted.
Naturally, the story is much richer than what I have depicted above. Family relationships take center place. The main character is a young boy just 10 years old, Isaku, who is forced to become the head of the family when his father assumes bondage for a three year term in order to get some immediate income for his family- otherwise they would starve to death. Sacrifices such as this are made to maintain the cohesion of the family and the village. But outsiders can be sacrificed for the benefit of the family or the village.
What I found disturbing in this story is that there is very little contrition among the village people from the killings of innocent sailors. Although Isaku is surprised when he finds out the real purpose of the cauldrons, he does not dwell on the morality of the situation. He just does as he is instructed, perhaps because he is just a boy. Nonetheless, adults do not mind the killings- they continue to participate and even pray for ships to come by so they can obtain their cargo.
To stave off starvation they often sell themselves or family members into long servitude. Men, women and children once they become teenagers go off to work, and the money is used by the family to buy food. Often the enslaved never return. They may die in service, or become dishonored, or the teenage girls, too old to marry when they return.
The POV of the book is a young boy who has been promoted to head of his family before his time. His father has sold himself and Isaku at 9 has to take his place in the family.
The story follows Isaku as he tries to fill his father's shoes, and learn the ways and secrets of the village. Isaku must fish and collect from the forest to keep his mother, younger brother and baby sister alive.
At the same time Isaku has to make a place for himself outside the family with the men of the village. He has to learn quickly, show proficiency, and respect so he will be accorded the status a head of family must have. He wants to become a trusted member of the village. Isaku loves the village even with all the hardship and work required.
The sea in front of the village is full of rocks and reefs. It is very treacherous and sometimes during storms sailing ships wreck upon the them. When that happens the villagers take advantage of whatever is on the boat - as long as the boat isn't flying the flag of nobles or the emperor. Those boats must have their cargo returned. Merchant ships are fair game and their cargo is taken and any left alive among the crew are killed. Living crew would inform on the village -because what they do is illegal. But the goods, mostly food, can keep the village fed and free for years.
As part of his introduction to manhood and head of family, Isaku finds out a terrible secret, and takes part in it. As the story progresses they seem to have good fortune. Then they have a shipwreck that turns the tables and may be the destruction of the village.
I enjoyed this book. It was well (though simply) written. Isaku was a wonderful and believable character. He tried to keep a spark of life alive in himself, rather than let the poverty, hunger, constant work, and unfeeling mother grind it out of him. You see the struggle they all have to survive and how it drives the decisions they make.
The book is short and yet the story and setting are done well. A wonderful glimpse of medieval Japan. The setting is beautifully described and a clash with the inability of the people to live well, even though they work hard.
You hope against hope that all will be well with the characters in the story, but life and perhaps Karmic justice intervene.
Interestingly the village has developed its own religious practices and beliefs since they would have to chose between religion and life otherwise.
a very quick read that is interesting and enjoyable - though sad at times.
a brief overview:
Isaku is a small boy living in a village on the ocean that is very poor. Because of the poor fish catch & other hazards of life, Isaku's father sells himself into indentured servitude (as do other men & women of the village) to leave behind food for his family. As he leaves, he tells Isaku to take care of the family and not to let them starve. These are words Isaku does not take lightly. Mom has three other children to take care of, and life in the village is dependent on the fish catch, the octopus catch & making salt to trade in the other villages. Yet, handed down from generations is another method of survival: at night, during the harsh winter season, the cauldrons used to make the salt sit on fires that can be seen out in the ocean; in rough weather, ships seeing the fires naturally head for them. But there is a reef hidden by the sea, and of course, it goes unseen by the ships until it is too late and the ships wreck. So, each year, a bizarre ritual is performed to make the gods happy enough to send a ship their way to be wrecked.
The first part of the story describes life in general in the village, and how even a small drop in the fish to be caught can mean impending disaster & starvation. It is here we meet all of the characters and watch how they interact as a community all with the same destiny in the village. The second part discusses the origins of O-fune-sama, the shipwreck which brings the chance for survival in the harshest of conditions. The third part I won't discuss because it is at the heart of the story.
Reading a book like this, it is inevitable that you, the reader, will begin asking yourself questions. How far would you go to ensure your family's survival? Would you let yourself be swept along in events just because the rest of the group does it, even if you know that what you're doing is wrong?
An awesome read, one that I won't soon forget.
At the moment I find it difficult to know how to rate this book. With my knowledege of medieval Japan being absolutely zero I struggled to have a context to put the villagers lives into. They seem to be totally trapped by their environment and constantly on the verge of starvation. I would have liked to have known more about Japan at that period to know if there was any alternative for them. The villagers belief systems are so very different - they believe that to cause the shipwrecks and murder the surving crew is a practice that has been handed down from their ancestors and so must be followed at all costs.
This is a beautifully written book and one which I think I might reread - but perhaps after having read somthing about the history of Japan first.
The novel generates a rhythmic flow as the seasons change from the harsh winter to the busy spring and summer before sliding into autumn. Isaku, a young boy whose father had indentured himself for three years, matures and learns how to provide food for his mother and siblings. It is through his eyes that the reader is introduced to the village’s impoverishment, their rituals, and their pragmatic brutality. Nevertheless, a sweet tenderness underlies the relationships of the people in the village; it is easy to look past their xenophobia and cherish their few triumphs.
The conclusion of the novel feels like a natural outcome, and the author refrains from intruding on the narrative. Shipwrecks is a bleak moralistic tale without a moral, leaving the reader with an uneasy sense of emptiness and questioning.
This isn't your typical coming-of-age story; there's not a whole lot of psychological development there, besides Isaku's longing for a certain girl. Instead the seasons just pass by and the reader learns the ins and outs of the poor, brutish and short life of a villager, including salt making, fishing, cloth making and barter. The ending is devastating, but not entirely without hope, and I can picture Isaku and the villagers maintaining their way of life for decades to come.
If you don't mind the fact that it's got no plot, I think the book is well worth reading for the setting alone. It would probably be a good choice for a Japanese history class.
Yes, the prose is frequently repetitive. Yes, the protagonist often seems worldlier than his young age. And yes, the sheer art school bleakness of the ending risks moving it into near-hilarious parody.
But it's not any of those things. You eventually learn to just gloss over the repeated phrases and descriptions. You mentally add a year or two to the protagonist's supposed age. And you just roll with the sudden lurch of the final chapters.
In the end, the only tangible item that I can pin down as being a source of major dissatisfaction is the translation. Now, I realize that a common complaint of professional translators is that they frequently become the scapegoats for any sins a work commits that found unforgivable: such a flaw could not have been in the original, so it must have been introduced by the translator. As such, I try to avoid making this criticism whenever possible, but in this case I find that I can't avoid it.
Aside from the usual stylistic quibbles over inappropriate word-choices (e.g. "breadwinner" in a village where bread is not present, and would be an unimaginable luxury if it was), and the use of clichéd English phrases, my primary complaint seems to boil down to inconsistency, particularly in the translation of terms.
A pair of examples:
The novel covers the period of roughly three years in an impoverished, remote fishing village in shogunate-era Japan. In this village, the arrival of spring is signified by the appearance of blossoms on the prunus mume trees that grow in the nearby mountains. As should be expected, this event is described three times, and these spring-related passages represent only times that the trees are mentioned over the course of the narrative. The first occurrence of this refers to the trees and their blossoms solely with the word "ume", the Japanese name for the tree. The second and third times, however, forego the previously chosen word in favour of "plum", the standard English translation of it.
Likewise, times of day are referred to using the historical zodiac-derived system, e.g. "the hour of the tiger", "the hour of the goat". In one section in the middle of the book, these times are accompanied by a parenthesized phrase giving the approximate time using the current clock. Occurrences of times before or after this section, however, are not accompanied by approximations.
Now, while the latter could in fact be a problem in the original manuscript, the former most certainly is introduced by the translation. Overall, it leaves me feeling like I've read a draft translation, rather than a ready-for-publication version, and in the end it is little things like this that hamper my enjoyment of the work.
The story begins with a 9 year old boy, Isaku, and what he deals with growing up here. We get a look at a lot of customs I was unfamiliar with. I read this as a story rather than as a depiction of a possible reality.
The story unfolds slowly setting up a routine and seasonality to lives of the villagers that is in way serene and peaceful. The fish caught in the bay and along the reef come and go with the changing of the seasons, what little food that can be gathered or traded for is collected, villagers wed, children are born, the elderly die, the villagers practice the Shinto and Buddhist rituals to ensure good tidings are performed; life as hard as it is goes on as it has always gone on. Even when disaster befalls the village the Yoshimura never alters to clam and sometimes passive tone that is prevasive throughout the novel, instilling a sense that even this too shall pass. Shipwrecks does not culminate in dramatic flourish of life altering revelations or major life changes. The surviving villagers pick up the their lives where they left off; accepting the good and the bad as apart of what life has to offer. There is a sense that they will simply rebuild and hope that when the sea offers up its bounty it will once again bring prosperity and security to the village.
A very dark but worthwhile and powerful read. Shipwrecks is almost lyrical in its presentation, my reservations of Yoshimura as a writer can now be totally dismissed.
Young Isaku is on the brink of manhood, perfecting his fishing and taking on the responsibilities of his absent father. His mother is hard and practical, there is little room for affection. The seasons come and go while the village pray for O-fune-sama, a shipwreck, to grace their shores with supplies to last them the coming lean months and to supplement their typically low rations. A ship does wreck nearby that provides the village with a wealth of goods which are greedily collected and distributed. Then it starts to come to light what the ships hold really held.
This book is short, powerful and not a word is wasted. There isn't a word or aspect of it that I would change.