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This World of Woe

Japan Sinks

By Sakyo Komatsu (Translated by Michael Gallagher)

1 Oct, 2020



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Sakyo Komatsu’s 1973 Japan Sinks is a geological disaster novel. The English translation is by Michael Gallagher.

Submarine operator Toshio Onodera of Sea Floor Development accompanies Professor Tadokoro to investigate a seemingly minor mystery. A small island, far from anywhere interesting and boasting no permanent residents, has suddenly vanished. 

Islands do vanish, washed away by tsunamis or blown to smithereens by volcanic eruptions. Touring the site of the vanished island in Onodera’s deep sea craft Wadatsumi, the researchers discover that the insignificant island has done something new: it simply sank. Polynesian sailors who had the misfortune to be on the island at the time add a temporal dimension to the event: the island sank rapidly. At a rate of 200 feet per day. 

That’s unprecedented. However, at the time this novel was written, scientists had been studying plate tectonics for a mere decade. Surprises could have been expected. 

To their increasing horror Japanese scientists realize that such rapid subsistence is going to happen on a much larger scale. The Japanese island chain is poised on the border of two moving plates. The forces driving the plates are now revealed to be unbalanced. Japan is doomed. 

Of course in the long run we are all dead (true of individuals, species, planets, suns …). It’s merely a question of how long that run might be. In this particular case, the scientists’ initial models are fuzzy. Japan might have as long as half a century. It might have as little as two years. The sensible thing to do is to assume the worst-case scenario while hoping for the best. A new home for over a hundred million people needs to be found and it needs to be found soon. 

It turns out that the models are not just imprecise. They are also optimistic.


Apparently, there is a sequel. I don’t see how a sequel could be possible, but my inability to imagine something does not mean it cannot exist. 

It is odd that a book about constructively dealing with a natural disaster that seemed so passé when I first read the book thirty years ago now seems timely. 

Poor Onodera! He does his heroic best to mitigate the disaster with the limited means at his disposal. He loses his immediate relatives (who did not flee Japan early because Onodera didn’t warn them; he feared a premature news leak and subsequent chaos). He fails to save the alluring, unconventional woman with whom he falls in love. Had he been more self-centred, more people would have been dead but he would have been happier.

Public service despite monumental personal sacrifice is a recurring theme in the book. The Prime Minister doubts that he is the heroic figure Japan needs in this crisis, but since he’s the person they have, nothing for it but to do the job to the best of his abilities [1]. Some Japanese voluntarily reduce the strain on the evacuation teams by opting to die with their homeland. The teams return again and again until a stroke of bad luck kills them. In the end, many die, but many are saved. 

From the perspective of 2020, Japan Sinks seems sunnily optimistic for a book that ends in the utter destruction of an island chain. Not every nation enthusiastic about receiving a million or more Japanese refugees. Some nations have long histories of entrenched anti-Asian racism. Other nations have painful memories of the Co-Prosperity Sphere. Nevertheless, the world does a pretty good job of accepting that the crisis is real and finding homes for tens of millions of refugees on no notice. 

If only the real world were so kind … 

Due to the brevity of the novel and the speed at which events progress, the book is quite compressed. It switches between Onodera’s limited perspective and a bird’s eye view of the disaster. But the brevity is handled well; one is never confused or bored. 

Japan Sinksis available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: I can imagine a hilarious modern adaptation: England Sinks! With Boris Johnson leading the efforts to save as many Tory insiders and English oligarchs as possible while leaving the rest of the island to drown.