The Reading Life Japanese Literature Project
島尾 敏雄 Shimao Toshio
Shimao Toshio (1917-1986-Japan) is very well known in Japan (according to the excellent introduction by Kathryn Sparling to The Sting of Death and Other Stories in which this story is included) and was quite influential.
There are not a lot of novels or stories written about WWII by those who fought on the Japanese side. The reasons for this are pretty simple. The death rate was very high, the returning soldiers were not proud of what they had done, the Americans for a long time more or less prevented the publication of such works and the Japanese public wanted to forget the war and move on. There are a few brilliant works and I think Toshio's stories can be added to that list.
"The Farthest Edge of the Islands" is very much an autobiographical story. Toshio was sent to the island in early 1944 to be trained to be a junior officer on a naval Kamikaze attack of some kind. He was days away from being sent to his death when the war ended.
As the story opens our lead character is conversing with a woman living in a cave. The woman seems to either be learning disabled or have mental issues of some sort. She and others on the island have heard there is a big air raid coming. She has seen omens and is regarded as kind of primitive shaman by others who live near her. The lead character is trying to keep calm and trying to keep up his belief in the great glory of dying in the service of the Emperor. The unfolding of the story is done very well and the characterizations are first rate. I really felt I had a little bit of the feeling of what it must have been like on this remote island in 1944. All the people on the island know or have been told is that for no reason at all, just pure evil, the Americans are going to totally firebomb them all out of existence. Of course the central character modeled on the author does not have to go on his mission. I do not want to give out any more plot data of this interesting story.
There are five other stories about the WWII era in The Sting of Death and Other Stories. Kathryn Sparling has included a very interesting and informative introduction. Toshio was a productive award winning author but this collection seems to be the only place to find his work in English. We are very lucky as in this case the University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies has chosen to make the full work available to be read online. I hope to read the other five stories in 2011.
You can read this and five other of his stories here.
I recommend this story too anyone interested in the literature of WWII in the Pacific Theater and to anyone who would like to read a new to them Japanese author. It is a good short story well worth the few minutes it will take you to read it.