Japan Sinks

By Sakyo Komatsu

I have no idea where I got the idea to read this book. None. It’s Japanese sci-fi, in translation, from 1971. It’s not on any lists that I might have encountered, and I can’t think of what else I might have been reading reviews of that would have had someone mention this; people at Amazon often refer to other books that I fairly often investigate to some degree. But I went searching for this book, and requested it from Central Storage at the library. It was waiting for me. I don’t know how many registered patrons there are of our library system, but no one wanted it. Fate? Perhaps. Apathy? Perhaps. I read it in a few days but kept it for six whole weeks, and not once did anyone appear on any kind of wait list for it. It’s weird to think that of the millions of people who could have wanted to read it, I was the only one in the city who did. One could spin this circumstance in a variety of ways… I’ll stick with being a ridiculous dork. I already expressed my interest in plate tectonics in an earlier post. That’s probably why I went so far as to get and read this book.

The premise of the book is actually quite interesting: Geological processes are effecting a giant rift in the sea bed that topples the Japanese archipelago right into the chasms below. Everything is going to go. One lone scientist has predicted it. Who will listen? Is it even possible to evacuate everyone in time?

Nerds break!

You can’t really type and eat Nerds, and I can’t really have Nerds in the house and not eat them.

So this is a book I read in translation, and I’m not sure how that affected the book. It’s also 1971 science fiction, which is not like really like modern science fiction, in that the characters don’t have a lot of character. There are also no women in it, except for two, both of whom are brought into the story for the sole purpose of giving the main character someone to have sex with (not at the same time). Not having women in a novel really limits what the novel can do. The science actually wasn’t too bad. Now I’m no earth scientist, and I wouldn’t even call myself an educated fan (although I am a fan) but the phenomena described in the book–the ones that did all these horrible things–work for the story. They’ve got a high-tech deep submersible submarine, which is pretty cool. I forgot everyone’s names, sadly, but the two main guys are a skilled pilot of said sub and the Eccentric Scientist who makes the discovery. The two women end up having sex with Sub Pilot.

This is the first Japanese science fiction book I have read in a while, so I am not sure what uniquely Japanese science fiction conventions are at play that I am not recognizing. But basically no one believes the scientist until it is really too late to save everyone. That’s pretty common. In real life, I like to believe that with earthquakes killing people here and volcanoes killing millions of people there, at a frequency of about every couple of weeks, people would believe him and take action long before they do. More than the first half of the book is about the scientist gathering data and being frustrated and not being listened to, or being heard but no one in the government doing anything. The disaster stuff is horrifying at the edges, but you don’t see it up close until the very end.

By far this most interesting part of the book is the government’s confusion about what exactly they can do. The book is set in current times, and I have every reason to believe that it’s a pretty reasonable snapshot of Japan’s place in the world. The government really doesn’t know what to do. They are afraid to ask other nations to house their refugees. There is this striking several pages where officials are reporting on their discreet enquiries to Australia asking if it would be OK if five million or so people set up shop in the Outback if they promised not to be any trouble. The world is portrayed in the novel as generally hospitable and concerned, and countries step up with real estate and airplanes and ships to start evacuating, once the evacuation plans are in place, but it was so sad to see the Japanese characters worry about asking for help. No way would that happen in an American book. We get warning that this supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park is going to blow in two years, we are announcing to all our friends and political relatives that we’ll be moving into their garages and that we’ll be bringing our pets. Japan has had a very unusual century, and it is even now struggling with balancing its past reputation with its present one. (I had some sense of this already but) Wikipedia tells me that the late 1960s were just when Japan was starting to pit itself against international manufacturing competition and finding success–and there were still plenty of former prisoners of war around that were still pissed off and talking. It’s never addressed outright in the book, but one gets the impression from the characters that the Japanese people don’t quite think they deserve humanitarian aide considering, well, you know.

The other noteworthy character dilemma is the struggle with what it will mean to the Japanese people and culture to establish a diaspora. Even though people are being relocated by the tens of thousands to the same places, it’s considered a death knell for the Japanese way of life. (Which it probably would be, although Jewish people have kept it up for a very good while now.) The government is by no means forbidding anyone to leave, and is actively negotiating with other countries for space, but it’s actually wondered aloud if it would be better for everyone to die and for the world to remember the great nation of Japan and its glorious history instead of letting it trickle away ingloriously. That is not anything you would see in an American book, at least not in a regular character. Maybe in an unintentional villain–maybe. TRITENESS ALERT: They say that a picture paints a thousand words, but that one sentence (I’d tell you which one but it’s gone back to the library already) captures just about everything there is to say about what makes this a Japanese book. /TRITE If I were more conscientious, I’d read it myself, or if I had a Japanese literature scholar friend I would ask, but I’m not and I don’t, so I’ll limit myself to wondering how this 1971 novel compares to a contemporary Japanese science fiction novel. I can’t personally think of any book I’ve read from any culture or era or genre that expresses that sense of futility and hopelessness and stubborn pride at the global level.

I overuse the word “interesting.” Sorry. But I am sick of thesaurusizing.

It’s interesting that the author shows so much of this mental and internal turmoil, especially when he shows a world that positively leaps to Japan’s aid when finally asked. The island disappears, but Sub Pilot survives, so it’s not even a particularly depressing book. It makes me think of Deep Impact, which I never saw. I have the impression that Deep Impact is very depressing. This book, though, is more of a disaster romp and political crisis than swan song. I will confess that I started flipping through pages towards the very end. One gets the point once all the decisions are made. Yep. Japan sinks way far down. Eccentric Scientist was right.

A few years ago they made a disaster movie out of the novel, with all the requisites of a made-for-cable-television production: Nihon Chinbotsu

Watching this trailer reminds me of that supervolcano movie that was on the Discovery Channel a few years back–the one that had an unusual amount of British actors and characters in it for a disaster set in the great plains of North America. They’ve obviously beefed up the role of women, by actually putting some in the film, although the main female seems to be cast in a nurturing and sacrificing role. I do like that graphic at the end of Japan seen from space, sinking below the waves. Poor Japan! This version appears to be one of those over-special-effected remakes of disaster movies from the 1970s, but with a power ballad a la Celene Dion in the Titanic. It’s compared unfavorably to the original 1973 version, which nonetheless has a worse review. One reviewer complains that no one in the film seems to feel like there’s any hurry, but that comes straight out of the book. Cataclysm movies are what they are. I don’t think I am going to seek it out. You’ve seen one bad disaster movie based on implausible science, you’ve seen them all. Some building fall down and waves rise up. People are crushed and drowned respectively. Old men meet terrible ends with dignity and courage. Beautiful young girls have superficial injuries, like breaking their wrists. Paper houses catch fire. Guilder, of course, is blamed for it all.

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