Japan Sinks – Sakyo Komatsu

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Japan Sinks (novel) by Sakyo Komatsu
Original: Japanese, 1973
Translated by Michael Gallagher, 1976
Destruction of a country, integrity of a man

Sakyo Komatsu is perhaps Japan’s most famous translated science fiction, but for all the wrong reasons. Komatsu wrote Japan Sinks for nine years and finally published the novel in 1973, in which he won two awards: the Mystery Writers of Japan Award and Seiun Award. He also has two pieces of short fiction that can be found in English: the grisly and hard-hitting “Savage Mouth” (1968/1978) and the poigantly psychological story “Take Your Choice” (1969/1987).

In popular culture, please recall the films of the 1970s… if you need a reminder of the popular films of the time, here’s a short list: Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), Earthquake (1974) and Tidal Wave (1975), to name a few. This was a the golden era of the disaster film, which, in turn, spurred the disaster novel: Scortia and Robinson’s The Glass Inferno (1974) and Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer (1977), to just name two. Likewise in Japan, after the novel’s publication, a string a similar films were produced.

While disaster films and novels were at the peak of popularity, Japan Sinks was translated by Michael Gallagher and published by Harper & Row. Was Japan Sinks translated and published for its artistic merits or to meet a consumer demand for destruction? Regardless, the novel is of two parts: the external disaster inflicted upon Japan and the internal conflict within the protagonist, Toshio Onodera.

It all begins when construction of the Super Express train line is stalled due to the inaccuracies in measuring the land, almost as if the entire landscape had shifted up and down. Then there’s a report of a recently made volcanic island disappearing—simply vanishing into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. On the professional side of things, this scares a number of people who host a number of theories; on the government side of it, the entire scenario of Japan sinking is simply absurd; and as for the public, they don’t have any idea of what’s to come.

Soon, earthquakes strike major metropolitan areas, volcanoes erupt in spectacular fashion, and the death toll begins to climb through the thousands and tens of thousands. The psyche of the Japanese people had become inured to national disasters, so they collectively remain strong and unaware of greater calamity.

Meanwhile, Toshio Onodera has his own sinking feeling. The theory, tests, results, and observations all point to the certain destruction of Japan and the “death of the dragon” isn’t in the distant future:

 The dragon was stricken.

A fatal illness was eating at him, destroying his very marrow. Racked with fever,his vast bulk covered in bleeding wounds, he thrashed about, vainly struggling against fate that was tearing at him. The encroaching blue sliding over him was like the shadow of death. (169)

Amid the turmoil, Onodera sits on the cusp of allegiance to his government and allegiance to his people. The Japanese people take the destruction in stride, adjusting to their despair with acceptance followed by renewed vigor for accepting lives challenges. But they don’t know the future extent of the damaging being wrought. The government insists that if the Japan’s forecasted destruction is revealed to the public, an even greater chaos will ensue.

As he continues his research into how and when Japan will sink into the ocean, Onodera experiences an internal conflict: Should be be faithful to the organization or to the people? He asks, himself, “Have I become a faithful bureaucrat?” (130). But he scuttles this idea immediately because a true bureaucrat would never ask themselves that question. With this realization, Onodera know what he must do.

Overwhelmingly, this is a disaster novel through and through. It’s also very geocentric with lots of obscure Japanese place names: volcanoes, islands, villages, mountains, oceanic features, subterranean faults, etc. This doesn’t distract from the story, but it does leaden the weight of its progression. When one is unfamiliar with Japanese geography, one island sounds the same as another; one town sounds the same as another.

The book’s saving grace is the chasm within Onodera. Just because Japan is exploding and subsiding, this doesn’t mean that Onodera must also perish; rather, he sees the cataclysm as a test of his self-worth, his loyalty, and his honesty. Much like Japan is between tectonic plates being driven together by deep, fierce forces, so too is Onodera the center of similar intrinsic forces—to be a loyal salaryman or to be a loyal human. In all too many instances, Japanese men have chosen the former and, in Onodera’s eyes, the latter is a choice for the greater good. Japan may sink, but Onodera plans to rise above it… at all costs.

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One thought on “Japan Sinks – Sakyo Komatsu

  1. Thanks very much about for the review.

    I’ve wondered about this book for years, especially after reading “Take Your Chance”, one of those sf stories that I think reveals a central truth about humanity.

    The character of Onodera reminds me a bit of the character of Kurosawa’s Ikuru.

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