Writers responded to the triple disasters of 11 March 2011 with a new genre of Japanese literature: shinsai bungaku or “earthquake literature”. Almost 13 years later, it’s easy to forget just how terrible 11 March 2011 really was. The Great East Japan Earthquake triggered a tsunami that may have reached heights up to 40 meters. It rushed as far as 10 kilometers inland at the speed of a passenger jet at cruising altitude. It caused massive destruction along more than 400 kilometers of Japan’s eastern coast, wiping away coastal towns in minutes.
The earthquake and tsunami also disabled the reactor cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant causing explosions and other problems with 3 different reactors. The plant released radiation at 10,000 times normal levels. Within a few weeks, Japanese authorities created a 20 kilometer no-go zone around the plant. More than 300,000 people were forcibly evacuated because of the meltdown.
The government in Tokyo released official death numbers around the 10th anniversary of the disasters now collectively referred to as “3/11” in 2021. It reported 19,759 deaths; 6,242 injuries, and 2,553 missing persons—most of whom are presumed dead. Hundreds of thousands of people who evacuated the affected region in the northeast of Japan’s main island—the Tohoku Region—still haven’t returned home. Many never will.
Writers’ contributions were deliberate; they considered shinsai bungaku their best means to help the people affected by the disaster. Early accounts of 3/11 had called the event soteigai or “beyond imagination”, but shinsai bungaku provided means to imagine. Makoto Ichikawa, editor of Waseda Bungaku wrote that shinsai bungaku could be a “method of mourning” and “a means for reflecting”.
A small number of shinsai bungaku titles have been translated into English. The collection March Was Made of Yarn (edited by Elmer Luke and David Karashima) contains some of the genre’s most important short stories, including one of the first, Hiromi Kawakami’s “God Bless You, 2011”. Hideo Furukawa’s Horses, Horses in the End the Light Remains Pure (translated by Akiko Takenaka and Dougslaymaker) appeared in English in 2016; Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge (also Slaymaker) in 2019; and Seishu Hase’s The Boy and the Dog (Alison Watts) in 2021.
Even though The House of the Lost on the Cape is a children’s book, Kashiwaba doesn’t pull any punches.
Sachiko Kashiwaba’s The House of the Lost on the Cape is the first shinsai bungaku written for children to appear in English, translated by frequent collaborator Avery Fischer Udagawa. (Kashiwaba’s other full length title, Temple Alley Summer, also translated into English by Udagawa, was an inadvertent entry of sorts because it was a book about death that came out in 2011; Kashiwaba noted, “I happened to publish this book about life and death during a year when many people lost their families and wished for their loved ones to return.”) The House of the Lost first appeared serially in the Junior Weekly section of the Iwate Nippo newspaper in summer 2014; Iwate Prefecture is Kashiwaba’s home and also located in the Tohoku. It decidedly belonged in the children’s section of a Tohoku newspaper. It’s a beautiful and joyful story for all children about living through trauma.
The narrative centers on three characters—a girl, a grown woman, and an elderly woman who isn’t all that she appears. The three strangers meet in a shelter shortly after the earthquake and tsunami. The elderly woman presents them to the shelter staff as a family—Granny Kiwa, her daughter Yui and her granddaughter Hiyori. (The kind of intergenerational friendship that develops is a delightful feature of Kashiwaba’s writing here and in Temple Alley Summer.) Together, they move into a house Yui and Hiyori think of as “from a folktale” and make a new life together—a life of any imaginative child’s dreams in the aftermath of a terrible disaster.
Even though The House of the Lost is a children’s book, Kashiwaba doesn’t pull any punches. She doesn’t hide the fact that 3/11 was a traumatic experience for the children—and adults—in Tohoku. The town of Kitsunezaki is in ruins. Shops have been abandoned. Shopping districts have turned into meadows in just a few short months. Abandoned pets are becoming a problem. Roads are “cracked, ribbed like a washboard, or passable only on one side”. The children, too, are traumatized. Some of them, including Hiyori, have been rendered unable to speak. (A character in Seishu Hase’s The Boy and the Dog was also speechless.)
But in Kashiwaba’s telling, the greatest trauma for the children was being left behind, not just by those who died, but by those who left by necessity or choice. Where other adults might assume children might be more upset about material hardship, Kashiwaba’s focus on loneliness shows real empathy for her audience. This is how Kashiwaba describes Hiyori’s elementary school:
The students in their class … had decreased by about half this spring. Some students had moved to cities so that their parents could look for work. Others were staying in shelters farther inland, and still others had moved in with their relatives in different towns. They all said that they were only temporarily evacuated but no one knew for sure if they would actually return to Kitsunezaki. The students who departed were anxious, and the students who stayed felt left behind.
The students and members of their community fear being forgotten. The novel’s climax plays on this fear, and it is truly frightening—even to an adult reader. A monster impersonates the loved ones Kitsunezaki’s residents most miss or fear. The döppelgangers tell the townspeople that “having dreams for the future doesn’t make sense” in a town like theirs—and tempt them to throw themselves in the sea. (Fortunately, Yui and Hiyori save the day with some supernatural helpers.)
This is how Granny describes the feelings of the people of Kitsunezaki:
Right now, this town has many feelings and thoughts swirling around, and not happy ones. When the earthquake struck, I should have done this. I shouldn’t have done that. Many people harbor feelings of deep regret. Some are also nursing loneliness due to being left behind by the ones who fled. Some are suffering terrible guilt that they survived when others died—or grief for their deceased loved ones. When you boil all of these feelings down, you end up with that same question that has no answer: Why did this have to happen to me?
Events like these and other topics covered in The House of the Lost might surprise English-language readers in a story for children, especially given the novel’s presentation. Its tone is generally light. The volume is lovingly illustrated by Yukiko Saito and presented in a soft water color cover. But the problems facing the characters are not light—and they began before 3/11. Yui and Hiyori are hiding, and their pasts are only gradually revealed. Yui is a victim of domestic violence, still avoiding her abusive husband. And Hiyori is an orphan, frightened to go into the custody of an uncle she has never met.
Kashiwaba’s focus isn’t unusual in Japanese children’s fiction. Since World War II, “contemporary” children’s fiction has helped children face some of the most difficult issues encountered by Japanese children. Tomiko Inui’s The Secret of the Blue Glass (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) was one of the first of these kinds of titles, though it wasn’t translated into English until 2016. In that novel, the protagonist had to face evacuation from Tokyo and food rationing during the Pacific War. The assumption is that children encounter trauma in real life. They, too, deserve the kinds of books—like The House of the Lost—that help them cope.
As The House of the Lost progresses, Yui and Hiyori come to love their life together in their House of the Lost. But they soon find themselves fighting an ancient foe unleashed by the earthquake. Granny Kiwa is there to help, along with a cast of some of Japan’s most colorful folk monsters.
The family is visited by kappa, cucumber-loving water monsters. The Buddhist Jizo statues that decorate temples and shrines travel from all over Japan to guard Kitsunezaki, especially its children. Granny takes Yui and Hiyori to search for a mayoiga, a mysterious abandoned house that appears out of nowhere in some Japanese folktales.
The presence of these creatures is doubly important because of the novel’s setting. The Tohoku Region isn’t just the region most affected by the 3/11 Triple Disasters. And it’s not only the home of Sachiko Kashiwaba, who has spent most of her life in Iwate Prefecture. (Iwate Prefecture was also the home of children’s luminary Kenji Miyazawa, who wrote the classic Milky Way Railroad.) Tohoku is also the home of some of Japan’s most celebrated folklore. For example, Kunio Yanagita famously collected the Tales of Tono in the early 20th century to preserve those stories for posterity—a kind of Japanese Brothers Grimm. (Mangaka Shigeru Mizuki Tono Monogatari drew his own homage to the volume a century later.)
Eventually, Yui and Hiroyi meet an entire cast of folk characters at Granny’s invitation:
All the guests had been mysterious ones of Tono—mountain men, women, and grannies, and the old lady of Samuto. The horse and the lovely woman had been Oshirasama, the paired deities of silkworm farming. The boy who had spoken to Obachan [Hiyori’s Granny] last was a god named Okunai-sama, and the lion heads in the hunter’s hands had been Gongen-sama, who wards off fire.
The centrality of folklore in the story is both a tribute to the Tohoku Region and an opportunity for Kashiwaba to once again explore the story-within a story device that was one of Temple Alley Summer’s most notable features. It’s also a chance for Ugadawa to show off her skill as a children’s translator, incorporating new vocabulary and cultural content for young readers while skillfully weaving in stealth glosses so nothing is beyond their reach.
For all readers, The House of the Lost on the Cape is a lovely book about a specific historic moment, as well as a well-written introduction to Japanese mythology and life in a small, coastal Japanese town. For children recovering from traumas of their own, it is perhaps a rare book that is both gentle and understanding; for other young people, it is an invitation to empathy. It really is a delightful read for children. And for adults, The House of the Lost is that special kind of children’s book that has something to say to readers of any age.
Alison Fincher (@FincherAlison) is a student of Japanese and an independent researcher of contemporary Japanese fiction. Read Japanese Literature is her podcast about Japanese literature and some of its best works.