Re-reading a 1970s science-fiction story after the disaster in Tohoku. And a call to action
Japan Sinks is a novel by Sakyo Komatsu, a yokozuna of Japanese science fiction. Back in February, I ordered a copy of the English version from Amazon, meaning to write a blog post about Japan’s mountain geology. But the book arrived in April, a month after the Tohoku earthquake and tidal wave. A different post is called for.
Komatsu’s novel was first published in 1973, when big earthquakes were a distant memory for most Japanese. The story opens when a fishing boat anchors for the night in the lee of a small island, south of Japan. The next morning, the fisherman find themselves adrift in an empty ocean; the island has vanished overnight.
The Meteorological Agency sends a deep-sea submersible to investigate; its crew find evidence of a titanic geological disturbance. Then a series of earthquakes and eruptions leads an elite group of scientists to conclude that Japan is about to sink – and this within the next year. The authorities start to plan the immediate evacuation of 110 million people …
Like Jules Verne at his best, the science that underpins Sakyo Komatsu’s fantasy is solid. (The novel took nine years to write, partly because Komatsu’s editor insisted that he got every detail right.) Sometimes the writer even scoops the scientists. As when Onodera, the novel’s hero, takes his submersible 24,000 feet down into the abyssal gloom of the Japan Trench and sees broad ruts patterning the sea floor:
They ranged from fifteen feet in width to twenty or more. They extended east and west beyond the limits of the submarine’s field of vision. Something had caused the sea floor to shift. Some force of unimaginable power.
It wasn’t until 1995 that a real-life submersible called Shinkai (Deep Sea) 6500 descended into the Japan Trench and discovered strikingly similar cracks – which the savants now attribute to the tensional forces racking the sea floor as it is pulled into the subduction zone under Japan.
Geological verisimilitude wasn’t the main reason why Japan Sinks became a best-seller that begot two films. The novel raises some interesting cultural questions, even if its galloping tempo doesn’t allow time to answer them. And there are some handsome tributes to the national character:
“The Japanese relief organizations – government officials, soldiers, civilians alike – have been performing with incredible courage. I’ve seen situations where even veteran Marines would have held back but these people rushed fearlessly ahead …you might say they’re all soldiers at heart. Why, even the supposedly weaker younger generation has fitted right in.”
Komatsu puts this speech into the mouth of a hard-bitten brigadier-general of the US Marines. The American soldiers are working side by side with the Japanese forces (as they are now in Tohoku) while the country is being evacuated by a fleet of ships and aircraft.
Hyakumeizan fans will note the scene where Onodera, now flying in a rescue helicopter, spots a group of stragglers on Takazuma (Famous Mountain no.35). As the area is supposed to have been evacuated, Onodera is enraged at the hikers’ folly:-
“What the hell did you people have in mind? Did you have any idea what was going on?” he asked.
“Yes, we did,” said a youth with high cheekbones in a weary voice. “Our parents and everybody else tried to talk us out of it. But we love mountain climbing. It’s what we live for. If these beautiful Japan Alps are going to disappear from the face of the earth, we wanted to bid a last farewell to them. What’s so bad about that?”
This is the bit that Komatsu may not have got quite right. Today’s real-life mountaineers are behaving differently. Instead of planning mountain trips for their Golden Week break at the end of this month, many are volunteering – from all over Japan – to help clear up the wreckage in Tohoku and look after the homeless.
Mountaineers living outside Japan might find it a stretch to join them. But it’s always possible to volunteer one’s wallet for the Japan Red Cross. I trust that Workmen Alpinists everywhere will do what they can.
Sakyo Komatsu, Japan Sinks, translated by Michael Gallagher – in the (abridged) Kodansha edition reprinted after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. This version has a note from the author that concludes: “In a world where the barriers between nations are steadily being brought down, it is my hope that Japan Sinks will be seen, not as a story concerning Japan alone, but as a message about the global environment that the peoples of the world all share.”
Photos of Shinkai 6500 by courtesy of JAMSTEC