Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fiction and fact

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


Peter Skov said...

A quick comment for now, this movie crossed my mind when I heard that not all the sea water had returned to the mother ship after the tsunami had inundated the land and the ocean had recalled its invading forces, the reason being that the land had sunk to slightly below sea level as a result of the earthquake.

I saw the 2006 version with Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and found it a little ridiculous, mostly because the Hero (Kusanagi) was moving around everywhere so freely on land and off shore to a ship while the country was sinking. Also, I believe in this version they say the reason for the submersion of the archipelago was because some lithophilic bacteria beneath the continental crust had exploded in population and was consuming the rock beneath Japan at an excessive rate. But maybe I missed something.

Peter Skov said...

There is also a spoof of the original film called, "All the World Except Japan Sinks" or something like that. I haven't seen it though. Just the case at the rental shop.

I recall that in the 2006 movie, volcanoes around Japan begin erupting and Fujisan is expected to erupt unless something can be done to stop the sinking process. A plan to detonate nuclear devices in the trench is devised but when the explosions fail to occur, Kusanagi-san goes on a suicide mission to set them off, thus saving Japan and Fujisan. Don't ask me for details. I didn't understand how blowing up parts of the trench was going to actually stop the archipelago from sinking further. But the new map of Japan was much smaller.

sunnybeauty said...

Our mountaineering office sent us a call today to volunteer to clear up wreckage in Miyagi. One group will be sent from April 22 to 25, and the other group will be sent from April 28 to May 1st. Either group sleeps the first night and the last night on a bus.

My prefecture has been sending volunteers to Iwate, and these volunteers are staying at a temple that survived the earthquake and tsunami. Each group of volunteers works there for three days. They need to spend two extra nights on a bus, the first night and the last night.

So, this call to volunteer in Miyagi was issued from a different source, the government. Because they need quite a few people there, these extra people need to be able to survive on their own, bringing their own tents, food, etc. Thus, our prefecture decided to ask mountaineering clubs to collect volunteers in their clubs because they think we have survival skills.

Now, I am wondering if I can volunteer for the Miyagi group. Can I be useful while trying to survive on my own...

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Peter: many thanks for filling us in on the movie versions - I haven't seen them, so the post is based only on the book. Wasn't sure about whether to post this post, given that Komatsu himself said (about the Kobe earthquake) that it was like seeing a nightmare come true ...

Sunnybeauty: thanks for providing some detail on how the mountaineering clubs are gearing up for the challenge. It sounds as if even getting to Tohoku is a struggle. As for the survival skills, mountaineers are well aware of the need to avoid "secondary accidents". I hope your club members will look after themselves - I'm sure their help will be greatly appreciated.

Kittie Howard said...

Thank you for a very timely and beautifully written post. I've heard of the book, "Japan Sinks," but not the movie. Your back story added much - nine years to write the book - I have to check this out.

My university degree is actually in science. And, since my sister is a geologist, you can safely assume that I think knowledge presented properly prevents much. What I don't like is how tabloids scare people, a conundrum, for sure.

There is great admiration here for the Japanese people and how they're coping with a truly awful situation. I think each aftershock rattles the world.

I read today that the children of U.S. military personnel in Japan will be given the option of transferring to a stateside school (they attend Dept. of Defense schools on bases now) but that, so far, most are staying put. It's the family's decision. The military person would remain on island.

☆sapphire said...

Thank you for this timely post. I saw the 2006 film but haven’t read its original novel by Komatsu Sakyo. When I saw it, strangely, it reminded me of some scenes in films and TV dramas which deal with the fall of a castle(落城)during the Warring States period. In the rakujyo scenes, on the one hand, many are killed within the walls of a castle, but on the other hand not many but some fleet or escape from the castle after being defeated in battle. I found out that both Japan Sinks and rakujyo share something in common in the feelings of people and their behaviors. It seems to me that Japanese mentality has not changed a great deal.

You remember Nao-tan, my cat? He sent some cat and dog food plus water to Japan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He wrote a card and signed it with his paw. Though we donated to the Red Cross and sent some relief goods to NPOs, it looked like he thought he must do something for the animals in the affected area(mew).

sunnybeauty said...

Sapphire, I'm glad your cat Nao-tan sent some food for cats and dogs in Tohoku. Having three cats at home, I have always been thinking about the pets and other animals that used to live with the people who are now in the evacuation sites. Thank you, Nao-tan...

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Sapphire: thanks for reading - it sounds rather as if the movie and the book are rather different. I believe that a sensei has even written a skollarly article comparing the two, but it hasn't come my way.

It's good that Nao-tan is making his contribution. I rather imagined that his ambition was to be a Station Master. But, for now, we need more Rescue Cats. And, of course, Workmen Alpinists with open wallets....

Kamoshika Bob said...

I read an English translation of Japan Sinks about a decade ago, and I've also seen the 2006 movie, which seemed to deviate liberally from the book.

But I must say, that Japan Sinks did come to mind the morning after the Tohoku quake and tsunami, when I was awakened at 3:59am March 12 in my apartment in Sakae-mura at the northern end of Nagano-ken. A magnitude 6.7 cousin of the Chuetsu Earthquake (2005) made a direct hit on Sakae, destroying tens of homes, injuring a few, cracking the roads, and washing out the tracks of the JR Iiyama line. As I took initial refuge in my car, an expert on NHK radio stated that this was a separate earthquake from the Tohoku tremor 13 hours before, but that large deep-sea earthquakes can be preceded or followed by a significant inland quake. About two days later, there was a Richter 6.4 quake in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka, that sounded like a similar geologic occurance to the one here, but I have not heard any follow-up about it on the national news since.

Although Japan Sinks is, as P.H. mentioned, science Fiction, it comes to mind when these events start to form a sequence. I hope to get out on the trails this summer, but I hope everyone takes the proper precautions, as mountains may have shifted since last season ;)

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Kamoshika: many thanks for dropping by - and for your account of the Sakae-mura earthquake. With the media (quite rightly) focused on Tohoku, it was only later that the pan-Honshu scale of this earthquake - or series of earthquakes - became apparent to us outsiders. I do hope the damage to your own apartment wasn't too great. There is a gripping account of the shaking as experienced in Tokyo over on Butuki's blog ....