Ten Years after 3.11, The Tale of Hamaguchi Gohei Still Resonates

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok, and Sako Ikegami, Kobe

The SCBWI Japan (then SCBWI Tokyo) Translation Group launched this blog in April 2011, partly in response to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, or 3.11. One of the first posts published was The Tale of Hamaguchi Gohei and the Tsunami, which, in the decade since, has remained both the most commented-upon and the most viewed post. Yearly views have increased twentyfold over time, from 141 in 2011 to 2,873 in 2020. Something about the story of Hamaguchi Gohei—as told by Lafcadio Hearn in Gleanings in Buddha-Fields—continues to strike a chord, as Sally Ito reflected on the fifth anniversary of 3.11.

Today, on the tenth anniversary, we would like to share a bit more information about the tale, which describes a man warning his village of a tsunami by setting fire to his harvested rice.

The story is based on Hamaguchi Goryo, seventh-generation owner of the Yamasa Shoyu (soy sauce) company in Wakayama. Several organizations maintain web pages about him:

In addition, Goryo’s story is the subject of picture books and kamishibai in Japan, including Tsunami!! Inochi o sukutta inamura no hi (Tsunami!! The Rice Fire That Saved Lives, Chobunsha, 2005; Japanese).

Of further interest amid the Covid pandemic is Goryo’s involvement in education and public health. Sako writes that Goryo was “very involved in education with close ties to Fukuzawa Yukichi and others, who went to New York to have a funeral for Hamaguchi when he passed in 1885 during a tour of the U.S. and Europe.”

Goryo “sponsored the education of Kansai Seki, a leading physician who helped spread modern medicine in Japan, allowing him to study Rangaku (focused on modern medicine from Holland) in Nagasaki. Goryo built schools in his native Wakayama for students of Rangaku, thus contributing to the proliferation of western medical knowledge in post-Edo Japan. He was a philanthropist who believed firmly in preventive medicine and was a supporter of vaccination, providing funds to rebuild a vaccination center (for smallpox) when it burned down.

“Today, as the world eagerly awaits inoculations to allow us to return to a more normal state of life, especially for the children, it seems fitting to reflect on the life of Goryo who not only could act on the spur of the moment to save a village from a tsunami, but also possessed the foresight to ensure the entry of modern medicine into Japan by providing opportunities for education. And further, by supporting the type of preventive medicine that will save the world today.”

We would be keen to see his story published in English in a setting for children.

Meanwhile, we hope that our blog continues to serve as a source of information about both the effects of 3.11 on children (see the Children of Tohoku page), and about Japanese children’s literature in English translation.

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