Monday, September 24, 2007

This sea is the world where we live after we die

Chisso Corporation factory at Minamata, today.

During the 1950's and '60's the Yatsushiro Sea was contaminated with methyl mercury pollution from the Chisso Corporation factory complex at Minamata, Japan. Thousands of fish, fowl and humans living in the region were horribly disabled, disfigured (the toxin is also mutagenic) and many died from the resulting mercury poisoning of the marine ecosystem.

Japanese writer Shusaku Endo, in his novel "Deep River," treats these events allegorically, via his character Numada (a writer of children's stories):

Shinkichi's grandfather and grandmother had lived in a village by the Yatsushiro Sea. His grandfather had died eight years before, but in his vigorous days he had been known as a master squid-catcher, and he was famed as a fisherman throughout the village. He had, though, been very fond of his liquor, and Shinkichi's father had grumbled that drinking was what had killed him.

Shinkichi lived in Tokyo, and seldom visited his grandfather's house. Three years before, he had returned to the Ariake Sea for the obon festival of the dead. During the day, an elder cousin taught him how to swim in the glimmering Yatsushiro Sea, and at night they took him out fishing. He could not believe how much fun he had every day. When he looked out from the beach, the torches from the squid catching boats stretched out like a bridge of fire. On the night of the Feast of Lanterns, his grandmother and kinsmen lit lanterns and from their boats set them afloat into the sea.

All around them the candle-lit lanterns floated in the water.

"Your grandpa has become a fish and lives in this sea," his grandmother told Shinkichi with a serious face. "This sea is the world where we live after we die. When your grandma dies one day, I'll have them cast my body into the sea, and I'll become a fish and be able to see your grandpa again."

His grandmother seemed to believe everything she told him. When Shinkichi asked his cousin, "Is that true?" the elder boy with a sober look answered, "Of course it's true. That's what everyone in this village believes. My sister died when she was in elementary school, and swims around at the bottom of this sea."

Numada had written this fable as a tentative study while he was still in college, but it remained one of his favorites. He had gone on to write that a large factory was built near the village, and that waste from the plant had polluted the sea, afflicted the fish, and made the people of the fishing village ill. But he had cut out that part, feeling it was too painful a story for a fable. The villagers had complained about the factory, not because it discharged waste that made them ill, but because it had destroyed the next world where their ancestors and and their dead parents and relatives and siblings were living, and where they too would be reborn. Numada had wanted to include in his fable that journalists, who did not believe in a life to come, had emphasized in their reports of the problem not these ephemeral concerns, but the problems of environmental pollution and sickness.

Yatsushiro Sea at dusk

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