The story is set in the eastern Hokkaidō city of Nemuro, where the “Northern Territories”?the southernmost of the Kuril Islands, whose possession continues to be under dispute ever since they were occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II?can be seen across the waters. The action spans a period from 1960 to about six years later.
Point-of-view character Tamaki Kawanobe is the second of three daughters born to the owner of Kawanobe Fisheries, Nemuro’s largest fishing company. She leaves home at 15 to become a geisha under the tutelage of her Aunt Ryōko, who runs a high-class Japanese-style restaurant. Five years later she entertains Shigeyuki Aiba as a customer and falls in love at first sight. As it happens, Aiba is scheduled to go to prison the next day after taking the rap on an illegal gambling charge for a senior member of his quasi-yakuza gang. When his term is up and he returns to Nemuro, Tamaki and Aiba get married. At about the same time, her older sister Chizuru marries Senji Ōhata, heir to the family that owns Ōhata Transport, one of the largest companies in the area. Senji is preparing to run for national office in the next election.
Senji campaigns on a promise to revitalize the local economy, which has suffered from reduced catches due to the territorial conflict with the Soviet Union, and he also calls for the return of the Northern Territories to Japanese sovereignty. If Ōhata Transport, Kawanobe Fisheries, and the Sugihara family’s banking interests are the marquee businesses of the local economy, Aiba Contractors, founded by Aiba after his release from prison, works in the shadows in many of the ways the yakuza are known to do, pouring money into political coffers as well as a variety of economic ventures. As a native of Kunashiri, one of the islands that make up the Northern Territories, Aiba enters into a secret pact with Soviets from the island to fish outside Japan’s designated fishing grounds, raking in the profits on his big hauls and channeling them into political donations.
Tamaki remains in the dark about the nature of Aiba’s business dealings, but resigns herself to being essentially a yakuza boss’s wife?which includes looking the other way when her husband cheats on her with a woman her own sister introduced him to. Then, on the very day Senji wins national office, Aiba and his lover are gunned down in his lover’s home. The crime is attributed to two employees who disappear after the killings, but remains unsolved.
With a compelling sense of realism, the story portrays a woman who continues to live for love even as her life is buffeted by a sister transformed into a major figure of power. A masterwork by an author in peak form.