I have a habit of judging books by their covers in a very literal sense. I have a particular fondness for trade paperback editions with attractive art. I refuse to buy something bent up or with a movie version cover (those are the absolute worst, making me wish to avoid both the book and the movie). The version of Shipwrecks I found at a used bookstore was not pristine, but the artwork is a beautiful Japanese wave, Mount Fuji showing behind it: simple and elegant. I knew nothing of the author at the time, but I’m always on the hunt for new Japanese literature so I bought it.
That colorful artwork, itself perfect and simple, disguises a tale of darkness and suffering that illuminates the hard life of medieval peasants in feudal Japan, their superstitions, and the lengths to which they’ll go merely to survive. The book reminds me most of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is indicative of its grim nature.
Shipwrecks takes place in an unnamed coastal village somewhere on one of Japan’s islands. It plays home to around 16 families of varying sizes who all live and die by the grace of the sea. They fish, forage along the beach for supplies and food, and occasionally, as the title suggests, scavenge from ships that break open upon the offshore coral reef. The village is a destitute place where citizens often sell themselves into bondage to neighboring towns so that their families can eat. Starvation is a misstep away. Despite the hardship, despite the struggle, no one living in this village would ever choose to live anywhere else.
This loyalty to village fascinates me; the idea of putting roots down so firmly that living anywhere else seems unquestionable. Most young people in our own society want nothing more than to get away from where they’re raised. I’ve lived in the same town for more than a decade, but I still don’t feel rooted there, and I’m usually looking for an excuse to leave. Shipwrecks highlights the villager’s fear of the outside world, the unknown, and that fear keeps them rooted every bit as much as their loyalty. We no longer possess a fear of the unknown. We are entrenched in safety, and knowledge is at the literal tips of our fingers. The villagers in Shipwrecks feel so rooted that they’d rather starve to death than leave, and banishment is the worst punishment one can receive.
The pivotal point of Shipwrecks is a shipwreck, called O-fune-sama by the superstitious villagers, and its occurrence takes on religious significance to the villagers. They perform elaborate rituals and pray to their gods that a ship will founder on the reef nearby. They even take steps to assist a ship’s course to destruction, which becomes one of the main themes of the book. While they see the O-fune-sama as life-giving and god-given, the story’s undercurrent suggests that the gods have little to do with it unless it is to serve up the retribution for their actions.
My inclusion of Shipwrecks into my curriculum was happenstance. I’d plucked it off my shelf because it was relatively modern, published in 1982, and one of the few Japanese authors I’d not yet read. It’s proving important to my larger understanding of Japanese culture from an anthropological standpoint. I haven’t yet delved into pre-modern Japanese history yet, but Shipwrecks is a slice of medieval Japan that could prove as enlightening as any textbook. I can in some ways liken it to watching The Wire or reading a Gore Vidal novel. I’ve already seen parallels between Shipwrecks and Mushishi, my manga choice for the curriculum, particularly in their depictions of small Japanese villages where superstition and tradition walk hand in hand.
I wouldn’t recommend Shipwrecks to most readers, even those interested in more popular Japanese literature. It’s not action packed. Yoshimura is a master of time, and in particular the passage of time. The majority of the book is a drawn out description of seasonal changes, with minute details about how to catch fish and make clothes from the bark of linden trees. It’s not a novel for those short of attention span, but it’s literary and beautifully written, and I feel as though the patience of reading it is rewarded. There is a drawn out tension to Shipwrecks that hovers perpetually at the edge of the page, and an undefinable longing that clashes with the villagers sense of place. It’s a novel of simple people who are caught up in something complicated, which is a timeless theme but one that never seems to wear thin.