An Alaskan Tale

Author: Jirō Nitta
Translator: Motokuni Eto, Elissa Hendry, and Nicholas Teele
U.S. publisher: University Press of America
ISBN: 9780819173898
Released: December 1990
Original release: 1974

An Alaskan Tale was the first novel by Jirō Nitta, the pen name of Hiroto Fujiwara, to be translated and released in English. Only two other works by Nitta are currently available: Death March on Mount Hakkōda and Phantom Immigrants (both of which I’ve read.) Nitta was a historical novelist with a background in meteorology who was particularly well known for his writings about mountains and the arctic. All three of his historical novels available in English were meticulously researched. An Alaskan Tale became a bestseller in Japan when it was originally published in 1974. A team of translators—Motokuni Eto, Elissa Hendry, and Nicholas Teele—worked on the English-language edition of An Alaskan Tale, released by University Press of American in 1990. The English edition of the novel also includes reproductions of many historic and family photographs.

Kyosuke Yasuda, later known as Frank Yasuda, was born on November 20, 1868 in Ishinomaki, Japan. The middle child in a family of doctors, he had a good understanding of medicine but was otherwise directionless early on in his life. Eventually, Yasuda ended up serving as a cabin boy aboard the United States revenue cutter Bear. When the cutter became trapped in an ice pack in 1893, Yasuda rescued the ship and its crew by crossing the ice alone, seeking help in Barrow, Alaska. Yasuda would remain behind in Point Barrow and was accepted by the coastal native Alaskan community that lived there. He became an important and respected figure among them and he cared deeply for their welfare. As the native population started to decline due in part to over-hunting and poaching by newer residents, Yasuda went to great lengths to establish a settlement along the Yukon River for them. In 1906, he would guide more than a hundred people to the newly formed community of Beaver, Alaska.

One of the things that I particularly like about Nitta’s historical novels is the final chapter of the book which generally focuses on Nitta’s experiences writing the work, his inspirations, and his research methods and process. I can understand that other readers might not be as interested in this material, but I think it makes the novels more personal and relevant. Unfortunately, this final essay isn’t translated as part of the English edition of An Alaskan Tale. Although it is summarized, I did miss having the opportunity to read it in its entirety. I was glad to see that other notes from the author were included at the end of each chapter, further explaining the story’s historical basis and significance. Comments from the translators which make any necessary clarifications and provide additional information were also included.

Frequently, An Alaskan Tale reads like an adventure novel. It is a dramatized account of Yasuda’s life, but most of the events portrayed actually did occur. Yasuda led a very eventful and exciting life on the Alaskan frontier. That fact, and the influence he had on the region, makes him an ideal subject. An Alaskan Tale begins with Yasuda’s treacherous ice crossing to rescue the Bear and follows him closely as he becomes ingrained in the native Alaskan community. He learns traditional hunting and whaling skills and gains a greater understanding of their culture, becoming one of the first outsiders to be accepted so completely by them. Yasuda became an important bridge between the native Alaskans, white society, and even other groups of native Americans, all while still encountering prejudice for being Japanese. An Alaskan Tale is an exciting and engaging narrative with an great mix of adventure, survival, and diplomacy. Based on a true story, it’s a good read.

Phantom Immigrants

Author: Jirō Nitta
Translator: David Sulz
U.S. publisher: David Sulz
ISBN: 9780968560808
Released: October 1998
Original release: 1979

Phantom Immigrants is one of three historical novels available in English by the Japanese author Jirō Nitta, the other two being An Alaskan Tale and Death March on Mount Hakkōda. After finishing Death March on Mount Hakkōda, I was interested in reading more of Nitta’s work. Of the three novels, Phantom Immigrants is the most difficult to find in print. (Fortunately, a digital edition is readily available.) As of 2009, only about three hundred fifty copies of the English edition of Phantom Immigrants have been printed, handmade by the translator David Sulz. Phantom Immigrants was first published in Japan in 1979. Sulz completed the English translation of the novel in 1998 after several years of work; he continues to make revisions and additions, such as a bibliography of materials available in English that relate to the people, places, and events of the novel.

Born in 1854, Ryoji Onodera was a precocious boy destined for great things. The third child of the Masubuchi village head, he would eventually marry into the respectable Oikawa family at the age of 21, changing his name to Jinsaburo Oikawa. For a time, Oikawa worked closely with his father-in-law in the coal transportation business, but soon his attention wandered to other opportunities and industries. In 1896, Oikawa heard rumors that the fishing companies in Canada discarded the salmon roe from their catches. Sensing a profit to be made, Oikawa left his family behind in Japan to investigate the situation in Canada. Once there, his dreams of exporting salmon roe back to Japan grew into a desire to establish a Japanese colony on the Fraser River. Going so far as to illegally smuggle immigrants into the country, over time Oikawa would be directly and indirectly responsible for the arrival of more than four hundred Japanese in Canada.

Although Phantom Immigrants is a novel, the book is the result of extensive research and travel on Nitta’s part. As with many (if not most or all) of his historical novels, while the story of Phantom Immigrants has been somewhat dramatized, the events on which the novel is based are absolutely true. Nitta makes good use of primary and secondary documents, and even includes excerpts of those resources in Phantom Immigrants. He traveled across Japan and Canada in order to interview those who knew Oikawa as well as their descendants, incorporating their oral histories into the novel. Large parts of Phantom Immigrants are based on Oikawa’s autobiography. Written in an older style of Japanese, his autobiography is difficult to read. As is mentioned in the author’s notes, one of Nitta’s goals in writing Phantom Immigrants was to “revive his story and make it accessible.” Nitta also made extensive use of the memoir of Souemon Sato, one of Oikawa’s business partners, which Nitta uncovered while traveling in Canada.

I can’t say that I have a particular interest in Oikawa, salmon fishing, or the history of Canadian immigration. I primarily read Phantom Immigrants because it was written by Nitta. However, I still found portions of the novel to be utterly fascinating. What intrigued me the most was Oikawa’s efforts to create a Japanese utopia in Canada while at the same time striving for acceptance by white society. Particularly engaging was the story of the Sui-an-maru, the ship Oikawa chartered to smuggle Japanese immigrants into Canada, and its passengers. The colony that Oikawa was able to establish along the Fraser River was among the first wave of Japanese immigration to Canada; their descendants became an important part of the Japanese-Canadian community. Still, despite Nitta’s fictionalization, Phantom Immigrants can be somewhat dry in stretches and will probably appeal most to readers who already have an interest in the novel’s subject matter.

Death March on Mount Hakkōda: A Documentary Novel

Author: Jirō Nitta
Translator: James Westerhoven
U.S. publisher: Stone Bridge Press
ISBN: 9781933330327
Released: September 2007
Original release: 1971

Death March on Mount Hakkōda: A Documentary Novel by Jirō Nitta (the pseudonym of Hiroto Fujiwara) is a semi-fictional account of a disastrous winter military exercise that occurred in the Hakkōda mountain range in Japan in 1902. I first learned about the Hakkōda Mountains Incident while reading Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt’s work Yurei Attack!. I was intrigued and wanted to know more about the tragic event which is what lead me to Death March on Mount Hakkōda. Although dramatized, the book is one of the few extensive resources about the incident that is available in English. In fact, Death March on Mount Hakkōda, written by Nitta in 1971 and adapted into the film Mount Hakkōda in 1977, is one of the major reasons that so many people know about the disaster. Even in Japan, the Hakkōda Mountains Incident had largely been forgotten only a few decades after it happened. Stone Bridge Press first published James Westerhoven’s English translation of Death March on Mount Hakkōda in 1992 and then again in 2007 in a reprint edition.

As war with Russia was looming on the horizon, the Japanese military began to prepare for the conflict. Of particular concern was that an attack might occur in winter. The Russian army was equipped and able to cope with the intense snow and cold while the Japanese had limited experience with winter assaults. In an effort to change this, the 8th Division was given the task of determining the possibility of crossing the Hakkōda mountain range in the middle of a harsh winter, a challenging enough endeavor even in good weather. Two captains, Kanda from the 5th Regiment and Tokushima from the 31st, were charged with planning and developing the exercise for their respective regiments. Scheduled for January 1902, the already difficult crossing coincided with one of the worst winter storms and lowest temperatures to ever be recorded in Japan. The 31st Regiment was largely successful in its attempt. The 5th Regiment, however, was not so lucky—out of the two hundred ten soldiers, only eleven made it out of the mountains alive.

After addressing the basic stages of planning and preparation of both regiments, Nitta turns his attention to the 31st’s attempt at crossing Mount Hakkōda. Tokushima was able to secure complete control over the exercise, developing a longer and more involved trek than that of the 5th’s. Tokushima and his men faced dangerous conditions and deadly fatigue. Even with everything going as well as it could, they had an extremely difficult time. Nitta captures this exceptionally well and realistically. It also drives home how dire the 5th Regiment’s plight was. One mistake after another complicated matters more and more as Captain Kanda was met with repeated interference from his superior officers. Even knowing that the tale of the 5th Regiment ends in tragedy doesn’t detract from the novel’s tension and effectiveness. If anything, it makes it even more nerve-wracking since even the smallest mistake and poor decision is known to play a part in the resulting disaster.

Nitta’s writing style in Death March on Mount Hakkōda is very straightforward, even factual, with very little embellishment. This actually works to his advantage. Based on a true story, Death March on Mount Hakkōda doesn’t need to exaggerate an already disastrous event to make it a compelling story. In addition to the main novel, Nitta also incorporates a small section explaining the real life consequences of the deadly winter exercise. There is also an excellent afterword by the translator which places Nitta and Death March on Mount Hakkōda into historical and literary context, including the known differences between the novel and confirmed history. Although Death March on Mount Hakkōda is based on actual events, it is important to remember that the novel is a a fictionalization and dramatization of the Hakkōda Mountains Incident. It can be easy to forget this fact—Nitta has done his research and how he presents the story is chillingly realistic and believable.