Reading Japan: Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura

It’s been my practice with this blog to just read one book per country, since I’m already walking this long path at a very slow pace. But not for Japan!

After really enjoying my first selection, which I found courtesy of OhioLINK, I decided to check out my own bookshelves. I’m definitely a proponent of tsundoku, a Japanese word that roughly translates to buying a lot of books and leaving them stacked up everywhere, unread. It’s not just a habit for me; it’s a lifestyle. Because of that, my search yielded many excellent choices, but I went with Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura, translated from the Japanese by Mark Ealey.

A 16th-century Japanese Atakebune coastal warship.
A 16th-century Japanese Atakebune coastal warship. (Image in the Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Stark is the main word I would use to describe this book. Mr. Yoshimura is a masterful writer; the chilly tone and repetitive scenes he puts to paper convey perfectly the experience of the protagonist, a young boy named Isaku. I’ve not quite experienced such brilliant use of language and structure like that in a novel; when I realized what he was doing, I almost stopped and clapped. The translator deserves a well-earned shout-out as well, for keeping that framework so beautifully intact.

As I often tell you at the end of my reviews, read this book!


Paradise for Sale – Reading about Nauru

Well. This was not happy reading time. At all.

Nauru is a small, isolated place. Its economy is almost entirely based on phosphate deposits that originate from sea-bird poop. These deposits made Nauru one of the richest countries in the world in the 1970s, but a combo of dwindling supplies, market adjustments and bad investments have sunk that ship. Today, the country deals with a devastated landscape from the mining, high unemployment, and the distinction of being one of the most obese nations on the planet. And to add to all of that, it’s now home to Australian-run detention camps for refugees and asylum seekers, which the Aussies creepily call “The Pacific Solution“.

(Image by US Dept of Energy, via Wikimedia Commons)

The title I chose for Nauru, Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature, discussed most of the above. It’s a cautionary tale about the many ways our species goes off the rails: greed, imperialism, environmental destruction, the ability to ignore what is happening directly in front of us, what we lose when we sacrifice the future on the altar of Now…the list goes, depressingly, on and on.

I found the book to be informative in a general sense, about how the issues that plague a small country like Nauru are really just lying in wait for the world at large. You can push an ecosystem so far out of balance that things won’t right themselves for a very long time…it’s a lesson we would all be smart to heed. I’m sure we’ll get right on that!

However, I didn’t really come away feeling like I’d learned much about the people of Nauru. The authors of the book took a very high-level view; they certainly were not dismissive, but I never got a sense that they made a deep connection with anyone on the island. I don’t think that was a goal of the book, so it’s not really a criticism – just a little off the mark for my mission of trying to get a sense of real life in a place.