The Island Stays with Us, by Mizuki Tsujimura, Kodansha 2013 [no English translation available]
Elementary school graduates on the island of Saejima have a tradition of drawing pictures (Doraemon, Hello Kitty, Pikachu) and slogans all along the embankment facing the ocean. Kinuka, Genki, Akari and Arata wrote 島はぼくらと(the island stays with us) with a picture of a whale when their class of four graduated.
This graduation is more of a milestone than it would be for other children because Saejima has no high school. If a child wants to attend a high school that is not close enough to the ferry landing, they have to board or live with relatives on the mainland. These four all attend the high school near the ferry, but the rush to catch the ferry means that they are not fully part of high school life. Arata wants to become a playwright but cannot even be a full member the drama club.
Their travel to the mainland every day and the compromises they make mean that these four are not innocents, secluded in some island paradise. Nor is the island itself isolated. In the first chapter, the four handily foil a brash writer who has come to the island to find the “phantom play,” a lost masterpiece that a famous playwright is rumored to have written when he lived on the island. They are not taken in by the writer’s talk of celebrities and night clubs nor his fake alligator bag, and manage to dispose of him before he can make the connection between Fukiko, a young single mother living on the island with her daughter, and the Olympic gold medalist who abruptly disappeared from the public eye several years ago.
Single mothers like Fukiko are a key part of island life. The mayor spends much of his time off the island, appearing on TV and in newspapers to market Saeijima. His role is to encourage both U-turns—one-time locals who return to their hometown—and I-turns—people who leave cities and try to establish roots elsewhere—to move to the island. Although his frequent absences earn him criticism, he believes that the island will close off and collapse as soon as it forgets the outside world. There doesn’t seem much risk of that—the island’s residents seem almost painfully aware of the outside world, both the safety net it provides and the threat it represents in drawing away its children.
This acknowledgment by both children and parents that they face an early parting is poignantly reflected in the maternity health record book, used in Japan by women and their doctors from pregnancy to record a child’s health and growth. Genki’s mother, a graphic designer who lived on the island only briefly before she left Genki and his father for another man, noticed that island mothers had filled the margins of their books with what were essentially parting words for their children. She redesigned the book to allow more room for these messages before she left.
However, Kinuka does not have the option of leaving the island. She is the daughter of the amimoto, a traditional role passed on through generations. Literally “net owner,” the amimoto is the boss of a team of fishermen who risks his own capital in the form of boats and nets and also supports his amiko (“children of the net”), the households who form the fishing team, during bad seasons. An Internet search led to several academic journals that told me that this system has been around since the late middle ages, when large (and expensive) fishing nets began to be used, requiring more capital, labor and strategy. Even though there are fishing unions now, in (fictional) Saejima, Kinuka’s family has continued to occupy a special place in the island’s hierarchy. Especially among the older generation, people tend to go to the amimoto with their problems before the mayor (which he is not happy about).
Akari’s father died at sea, but the mayor was her father’s “brother,” a custom that the island has had for generations in which young men pledge to be brothers (Akari always thinks it’s a little like yakuza). They can be brother to more than one person, and when they pledge to another brother, this relationship then expands to include their other brothers. These relationships are all interlinked like the mesh of a net. Akari lives with her mother and grandmother, and the island’s aunties and uncles—her father’s “brothers”—helped to raise her. Everyone plays a role in raising the island children, and Akari figures this must be why the island is such a good fit for single mothers.
Such ties within a fixed population developed naturally on an island where this kind of lifeline for emergencies can be crucial. This is particularly true on Saejima, which has an active volcano. The volcano last erupted when Akari’s grandmother and Kinuka’s grandfather were teenagers, just 10 years after World War II. No one had expected anything worse than the war to happen. The amimoto stayed until everyone had been evacuated, and was the first to return when the evacuation order had been lifted. For that reason, the amimoto family members can never leave the island. Not everyone came back after the volcano—some had lost their houses and started over again elsewhere—and the island’s population fell by half.
I don’t mean to give the impression that this book is a social studies lesson in island traditions. The picture comes together gradually over the course of the book through Tsujimura’s stories about Akari, Kinuka, Genki and Arata. In addition to the mystery of the phantom play, which is resolved by the end of the novel, there is the search for a friend of Akari’s grandmother who left the island after the volcano erupted and never returned; the mystery of why Motoki, an I-turner, received an envelope with information about Saejima and an empty house there when he was still living in Tokyo; and the drama around plans to film a documentary about Saejima’s small company of housewives who make and market island specialties. The way Tsujimura ties up the mystery of the phantom play at the end of the novel and links it to Fukushima, where evacuees are just now returning after the nuclear plant disaster, was brilliant and so touching.