Yasuhiro Tomioka was a baby-boomer, born in 1949. Like many of his generation he was a student activist in college, but upon graduation he went to work for a major heavy industry manufacturer with a hand in defense contracts, and became a typical corporate warrior in Japan’s postwar economic boom. After a full career of over three decades, he retired on the verge of 60 and more or less singlehandedly cared for his aging father until his death.
When northeastern Japan is hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, Yasuhiro spends four months in the disaster zone as a volunteer, and that summer he decides to go on a pilgrimage to the 88 temples in Shikoku associated with the Buddhist monk Kūkai (774–835). The journey, typically taking six to eight weeks, is one that countless others have made over the centuries as an exercise in piety. It is near the end of the year before his body—dead by drowning—is recovered. Though the circumstances remain uncertain, the speculation is that he threw himself overboard from the ferry on his way back to Tokyo. He was 62. With two grown daughters and three grandchildren, a home, corporate pension, and ample other assets to live on, and numerous interests to pursue in his newly won free time, Yasuhiro himself had remarked that his retirement was blessed beyond his due. So why had he killed himself? Was it really a suicide? The story is told from two different perspectives—that of the retired Yasuhiro during his final years, and that of his younger daughter Midori, as she retraces her father’s footsteps on a pilgrimage of her own.
Although Yasuhiro had successfully climbed the corporate ladder, the final rung—his dream of becoming a director—was yanked from under him by a merger, and he was farmed out to a subsidiary instead. One of the few accents of color in his otherwise drab and unexceptional life was a woman named Hiroko, a girl from his class in college. Having grown up in an affluent home as the daughter of a diplomat, she was sexually liberated and a feminist. They had first met as participants in the student movement and became lovers. But feeling too much of a status gap in their social backgrounds, Yasuhiro ultimately decided to marry a clerical worker from his company, and they had had two daughters. Throughout his marriage, however, he continued to conduct an on-again, off-again affair with the never-married Hiroko.
When the earthquake takes place, they have been out of touch for quite some time, and it is because he hears Hiroko has been living in Sendai that he goes to the disaster zone. He finds the first floor of her building on the coast decimated by the tsunami. But according to a woman at Hiroko’s workplace, she did not die in the tsunami, but rather from what appeared to be an acute heart attack while taking a meal alone the day before. Despondent over how Hiroko had died and still numb from the sight of the many victims’ bodies he encountered in the disaster area, Yasuhiro is unable to find comfort in religion even on his pilgrimage, and decides to shed his pilgrim’s garb and continue the journey without it. Throughout his travels he reflects on his past. He had traded the ideals of his youth and the woman he loved for a life dedicated to serving social norms—while also continuing his relationship with Hiroko as a way of validating himself. But what exactly had he gained by accommodating himself to “the ways of world”? He desperately searches for an answer.
Whether Yasuhiro’s death was a suicide or accident is never clearly stated. But the reader cannot help but be moved by the regrets of a man who lived a conventional life, never questioning the virtue of hard work and ambition, or the subservience of women—even to the point of smugness—and yet found that life somehow did not deliver as he would have willed it.