This sweeping historical novel traces the steps of a young demobilized soldier as he rebuilds his life following Japan’s defeat in World War II.
Nobuyuki Yatabe is repatriated from Shanghai in 1946, the year after the end of the war. He is 23. When he comes down with a bout of diarrhea on the overcrowded train carrying him home, a fellow repatriate, Kōzō Ogura, comes to his aid. Ogura tells him he intends to move to the mountains and make his living as a woodworker, crafting household necessities. This piques Yatabe’s interest. Later, wanting to do something to thank the man who helped him, Yatabe seeks to track Ogura down, and in the process learns about woodworkers who are known as kijishi. The story recounts events in Yatabe’s life from the time of his repatriation until he is finally reunited with Ogura 15 years later.
When Yatabe reaches his home in Fukushima Prefecture, he finds his mother living alone in dire poverty. His father, who had made his living selling kimonos, has succumbed to an illness, and his younger brother died on the warfront in the Philippines. Yatabe begins his new life by tilling the soil, but then comes into some money when he discovers stock certificates left behind by his father, and adds further to his means when he receives an inheritance from his uncle. He had originally gone to study in Shanghai with financial help from the prefecture, only to have his scholarly dreams dashed when he was drafted into service at the front. But now he has not only made it through the war alive, he has money. As he continues to debate what he wants to do with his life, he spends time researching the kijishi and searching for his Good Samaritan.
Kijishi were “turners” who produced household articles such as trays and bowls on lathes. For centuries they had lived in small communities deep in the mountains, cultivating meager patches of land and turning the wood they harvested from the surrounding forests; whenever an area ran out of good timber, they moved on to a new location. Their communities, originating near Lake Biwa in central Japan in the ninth century, had spread over time to the east and north. As Yatabe delves further into their history, he discovers that kijishi had close ties to the imperial household and that their origins can actually be traced back even further to the Korean Peninsula; he also learns that the stories pounded into him before and during the war about the birth of Japan as a nation were fabrications.
If Yatabe’s pursuit of kijishi and Ogura is akin to a detective story or tale of adventure, another substantial portion of the work is a love story. Yatabe cultivates relationships with two different women while not choosing marriage with either of them: Yoshie, who was born into a family of artists and wishes to become an artist herself, but must keep body and soul together by selling dubious wine in a makeshift bar she runs; and Takiko, who is descended from a kijishi and has been forced by poverty to become a geisha. Eventually, Yoshie goes off to Europe to study painting, and Yatabe decides to move in with the now ailing Takiko . . .
This ambitious work reexamines not just the postwar period but Japan’s origins as a country from the perspective of the common man.