This period novel turns the spotlight on characters who?like beach sand shifting with the current?drift through their desolate lives in a licensed Tokyo pleasure quarter a decade after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, which opened Japan to the tides of modernization and did away with the shogunate, the samurai class, and life as people at the time knew it. The setting is Nezu, one of the seedier of Tokyo's red-light districts. Sadakuro works there as a tout for the brothel Misenro, but is forever making stupid mistakes that expose him to the ire of his boss and the ridicule of the errand boy, who is younger than he is. Originally a samurai, Sadakuro had left home after the Restoration and floated into Nezu following stints in several other pleasure quarters; now 26, he has no place of his own and sleeps nights in women's homes or in a corner of a gambling den. Then a tough named Kichiji asks him to cooperate in a scheme to lure Misenro's star courtesan over to a rival establishment. Around the same time Sadakuro meets his older brother again after ten years, only to discover that the man he once looked up to as a proud samurai heir is now a rickshaw driver. Despairing, Sadakuro attempts to use Kichiji's plan to milk enough money out of him to leave the brothel, but fails. The story perceptively portrays the sorrows of those living through the early years of Japan's modernization, which despite grand talk about new Western ideals such as freedom and equality remained for many a time of poverty, frustration, and uprooted values.