Saturday, 16 August 2014

Travellers to the North

北へ行く旅人たち (Kita e iku tabibitotachi, Travellers to the North, 1977) is a children's book by KAWAMURA Takashi (川村たかし, 1931-2010), a historical novel set in Meiji Japan, the first in what became a series of ten books, published between 1977 and 1988. The story follows the internal migration of villagers from Totsukawa in Nara prefecture, to Shintotsukawa (New Totsukawa) in Hokkaidou. In 1889 after torrential rain, massive floods and landslides killed 168 villagers in Totsukawa and destroyed hundreds of houses. The Japanese government was trying to develop Hokkaidou at the time, and the homeless villagers were offered new homes in the uninhabited country north of Sapporo.

For most western readers, the most comparable books will probably be the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The main difference is that Wilder's book is a fictionalised account based on her own childhood experiences, but Kawamura's book is straightforwardly a historical novel. It is also probably aimed at slightly older children, probably a little older than the main character, who ages from nine to eleven in the book. This is Fuki (フキ), the youngest of three children who are orphaned in the catastrophe described in the first chapters. This is the first of several partings for Fuki. Her older sister stays in Nara, making a hasty marriage to the man she had been promised to. Fuki goes to Hokkaidou with her older brother, Terukichi (照吉). They share the journey with a neighbouring family, NAKAZAKI Kikuji (中崎菊次) a friend of their father, his wife Shina (しな), son Toyotarou (豊太郎) and daughter Yukino (ゆきの).

In Hokkaidou the new homes are not ready for the settlers; and they spend their first winter there in communal huts across the river from the land they will be taking. Many of the migrants start to despair and think of running off (a dangerous desperation, as they are far from any town). Others spend the waiting time gambling away their money.

'It's not there,' Fuki rubbed her eyes. 'The one yen that sister gave me is gone.'
Everyone folded up the futons, and opened everything, even Terukichi's carrying cloth, looking for the money. It was nowhere to be found.
'Stolen,' Matsukichi said angrily. 'Gone, is it? If it's a thief, he'll likely have taken more than one yen.'
But Fuki seemed to be the only victim. Yukino came to her where she sat despondent on the floor and whispered, 'Yesterday evening, Terukichi was looking in your bag.'
'I'm sure I saw him.'
Toyotarou pulled at his sister's sleeve, 'You sure about that? Not got something confused? Maybe you forgot it somewhere, Fuu?'
Fuki was sitting there dazed. She knew that Terukichi was gambling every day. It was hard to believe, but maybe he had taken it out without telling her.
'Oh yes. I just remembered. It wasn't stolen,' Fuki forced herself to smile. 'I forgot I told Terukichi he could have it, didn't I? I'm such an idiot.'
Nobody answered. The undried wood it the open fireplace split open with a sizzling sound. The gruel in the pot was boiling.
Fuki bowed to Yukino, 'Thank you,' and ran outside. She checked that no-one had followed her, then kicked the snow up with all her strength.
'Eei, idiot brother!'

The narrative moves between three viewpoints, Fuki, Kikuji and a more detached, historical, narrator, particularly in the description of the disaster in Totsukawa. The focus on Fuki increases after the settlers get to Hokkaidou and again when they get to their first homes.

For Japanese learners, I suspect that this might be more difficult reading than many books for adults (it was for me). There is a lot of dialect, and a lot of historical and rural vocabulary. Also, like books for adults the book is printed with minimal furigana.

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