“The Former Postmaster” recounts walking the pilgrimage path to deliver a telegram to the opposite side of Shiraishi Island, “The Cargo Ship Captain” remembers celebrating a new boat at the last launch party on the island, and “The Stonecutter” describes working at the old stone factory before retirement. These are just a few of the eponymous chapters in Amy Chavez’s The Widow, The Priest and the Octopus Hunter: Discovering a Lost Way of Life on a Secluded Japanese Island.
Like other rural areas of Japan, Shiraishi is undergoing depopulation. Although the aging residents have many stories about local life and culture, there are few young people to share them with. What began with her curiosity about the previous inhabitant of her house, ultimately led Chavez to interview many of her neighbors. The result is a fascinating narrative that includes photographs, anecdotes, and memories from the people living there. They are referred to by nicknames, often based on their professional or group identity. “An Accidental Hermit”, who is poised to take over the Buddhist temple, emphasizes the importance of honoring the stories of ordinary citizens:
So one of the most important things for me as a Buddhist priest is going to houses at the end of the year to pray for the ancestors, for protection of the house and for the happiness of the family. During those visits the old people talk to me. They want me to listen to their stories, so I do. And their stories are important. They are once-in-a-lifetime experiences and it’s sad that people will soon forget these things.
Local businesses, fishing methods, and annual festivals are just a few of the things that are in danger of fading from collective memory. Cultural events that have taken place over the generations include the Insect Festival (bidding farewell to pests in hopes of a good harvest), Fall Festival (carrying portable shrines along the streets), and tondo (burning New Year decorations in mid-January). The Shiraishi Bon Dance, which according to island lore originated in the late 1100s to honor fallen soldiers of the Genpei War between the Taira and Minamoto clans, is performed every summer. But because of the declining population, the tradition is difficult to maintain—there simply aren’t enough people to fill the numerous parts, and “The Dance Director” wonders how the tradition will be able to survive in the future.
Every area in Japan has a Bon dance, but because ours is an Intangible Folk Cultural Property it carries a lot of weight. So we can’t quit doing it just because we don’t have enough people. The saddest thing is that the elementary school closed last year and next year the junior high school will close. There’s no chance to continue the tradition without children inheriting it.
With the closure of the school, an important venue for intergenerational contact will be lost. Despite the obstacles, residents want to strengthen community ties and at the same time, attract visitors from the mainland. New ideas for tourism have emerged: “The Weekenders” have already started hosting art exhibitions on the island, and the “Second Generation U-Turns” have organized a public display of traditional Hina Dolls in celebration of Girl’s Day. In the future, “Stay-at-Home Dad” suggests appealing to people who work from home in order to attract new residents.
Chavez, who moved to the Shiraishi in the 1990s, bookends the collection with her own story—“The Foreigner”. From the lively neighbors to the exquisite views of the Seto Inland Sea, it is easy to see why she has continued to call it home.