Japan Sinks

Japan Sinks
Sakyo Komatsu

In Feb. 2011, I started reading Japan Sinks, in which earthquakes run rampant and sink all of Japan into the ocean. In March 2011, an earthquake ran rampant and a tsunami smashed my former home in Northern Japan into oblivion. The parallels were disturbing.

Real life aside, Japan Sinks is a puzzling book. Not on the surface, of course, as the story is a fairly typical disaster story. Earthquakes pound Japan, millions die, frantic leaders try to save everything, and, finally, Mt. Fuji erupts gloriously. James Cameron really needs to make this into a movie. Forget the Titanic – this is a whole archipelago going down. (Apparently there is a 2006 Japanese version, but 1) it stars someone from SMAP who was later arrested for running naked and drunk through a Tokyo park, and 2) it has an unacceptable happy ending.) I’m not sure I recommend reading Japan Sinks right now, but once tender feelings from the real life Armageddon have healed a bit, the disaster bits are pretty amazing.

Taking a peek below the surface, however, is a bit more puzzling. Komatsu has claimed that he wrote the book as a warning to Japan, not of impending doom, but of the need for Japan to integrate more fully with the rest of the world. Japan Sinks came out in the early 1970s, just as Japan was starting to take over the world. This was the decade when people finally realized that Japan had roared back from the devastation of WWII and were single-mindedly devouring all foreign competition. These were the early days, before Ezra Vogel wrote Japan Is Number One and hysteria peaked in the 80s, but people in the know realized that something amazing was happening. More importantly, the Japanese themselves knew.

If Komatsu is cautioning the Japanese about their insularity and rigid adherence to tradition, he’s going about it in a roundabout and vague way. (This would be wholly appropriate, considering the Japanese way of dealing with disagreement.) Indeed, parts of the book are downright effusive, praising the Japanese for their stoicism and discipline in the face of disaster. One is reminded of the incredulous newspaper articles in March 2011, describing the baffling lack of riots, looting, or general disorder in the aftermath of the tsunami. It also highlights the efficiency (ruthlessness?) with which the Japanese leadership moves to secure Japan’s future, and the tendency of the Japanese to work themselves into the ground for the perceived greater good.

It’s harder to see where the criticism may lie. Certainly the Japanese leadership misleads the general public and obfuscates the truth, as they do in real life, but I’m not sure this is an exclusively Japanese phenomenon. There has always been a casual disregard for the hoi polloi among Japanese elites, but the book is subtle in its expose. No brazen class warfare here. Komatsu’s other point of attack seems to be Japanese attitudes towards the rest of the world. Things might be a little better now, but Japan is notorious for thinking itself somehow apart from everyone else. The most egregious examples come from the trade wars of the 80s, but even now, the Japanese like to talk about their Four Seasons, as though the rest of the world doesn’t make an annual progression from summer to winter and back again. Komatsu doesn’t say so directly, but implies to his Japanese readership that the day may come when Japan needs the rest of the world, and that Japan might want to play well with others just in case.

There is one last bit that may be a warning, or may be a flaw of the book. The lead scientist has a team of several men who do a lot of the grunt work and are the focus of most of the novel. I’m trying to remember how many of them there were, but I can’t, because they all blend together into one. (“All you Asians look the same to me!”) I wonder if Komatsu is intentionally making his men faceless as a comment on contemporary Japan, or if the lack of characterization is bad writing. Regardless, it makes their personal tragedies and triumphs less compelling.

To sum up, Japan Sinks is frighteningly prophetic in many ways. Japan in 2011 is not so different on a fundamental level than Japan in 1973. Some might argue with that statement, but the reaction in Sendai mirrored the reaction in Japan Sinks far too much for comfort. Stepping back from the cultural analysis, Japan Sinks is all kinds of disaster fun. How can a person not enjoy Fuji blowing its top and Tokyo sinking dramatically beneath the waves? All we need now is a giant monster attack.

Rating: Well, wholesale tragedy, collective national heartbreak, individual acts of heroism overshadowed by official incompetence and a cruel world… how about the English National Team?

5 thoughts on “Japan Sinks

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  5. If you wish to compare Sakyo Komatsu’s fictional prophecy of Japanese catastrophe with the real thing, by all means read “3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan” by Richard J. Samuels. This is a non-fictional, absolutely accurate account of how the Japanese people and their government handled the catastrophe of March 11, 2011, when Japan was struck by the shockwaves of a 9.0 magnitude undersea earthquake originating less than 50 miles off its eastern coastline. The most powerful earthquake to have hit Japan in recorded history, it produced a devastating tsunami with waves reaching heights of over 130 feet. The tsunami in turn caused an unprecedented multireactor meltdown at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, located in the city of Fukushima. This triple catastrophe claimed almost 20,000 lives, destroyed whole towns, and will ultimately cost hundreds of billions of dollars for reconstruction.
    I have it on good authority that dear ol’ Uncle Pep at one time resided in Fukushima. I also know the same dear uncle read “Japan Sinks” about a week before the real-life catastrophe of 3.11.11. Spooky, huh? Since Pep is married to a beautiful Japanese princess, has two wonderful kiddos who spend large amounts of their summer vacation in Japan, and often visits that enchanted land himself, the well-being of Japan as a whole and of Nagano Prefecture in particular is of significant concern in Pep’s household and among the members of his and of Lady Pep’s extended families.

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