published January 15th, 1990
Cover Image by Jorg Schmeisser
Kugai jodo: Waga Minamata-byo (Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow: Our Minamata Disease) is Ishimure Michiko’s classic account of the tragedy of the victims of Minamata Disease, a neurological disorder arising from the consumption of fish and shellfish polluted by industrial effluent containing methylmercury. Kugai jodo relates the history of Minamata Disease from its discovery in 1956 to the declaration issued by the Japanese government in September 1968, in which the responsibility of Chisso and Showa Denko as polluters was first publicly acknowledged. Ishimure uses medical reports, newspaper articles, inner monologues, oral prose poems and poetic dialect to create a powerful document which is painstakingly authentic, lyric-visionary and dramatic. The book’s immediate impact was phenomenal: some critics called it the most important literary event since 1945; many readers gave up their studies or professions to help the Minamata victims in their struggle for survival. — Livia Monnet, intro to Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow
Do we, today’s travelers and sojourners, with our jet speed recognize ourselves as heirs to this ancient and honorable tradition of venturing into the unknown (never mind the books, movies, TV reports) to test our mettle in search of some new good? If so, we should heed the mythic warnings and arm ourselves well with skills and knowledge for cultural understanding, set out with a light heart and courage, be alert and open to all we encounter, recognize pitfalls, accept assistance when offered, and never lose sight of our goal.
Nowadays it is almost a cliche to speak of culture shock or culture stress, words suggestive of ill health and destructive forces, implicitly assuming a pattern of adjustment. A newcomer to Japan may say, “Oh this is just my ‘honeymoon’ phase. There’ll be a letdown sooner or later.” Another, after a year’s stay, might say: “I never noticed any particular culture shock or had any difficulty.”
—Helaine K. Minkus, Understanding Misunderstanding
If you’ve lived in Japan for any length of time, you know it’s unusual to be invited into a Japanese home. Foreign residents often complain about never having seen the inside of one. For some reason I’ve never craved such an invitation. I’m curious, like everyone else, but I feel that the customs are the customs. Life, however, is perverse: we often get what we don’t want. I should say, rather, we often get what we don’t crave. If there’s anyplace in the world where craving doesn’t work, it’s in Japan. What you crave in Japan, you’ll never get. I didn’t crave an invitation, and here I was getting one from a complete stranger.
— Michael Fessler, The Householder