Book review: 『無人島に生きる十六人』 by Kunihiko Sugawa


Title: 『無人島に生きる十六人』(むじんとうに いきる じゅうろく にん)
Author: Kunihiko Sugawa (須川邦彦) (1880-1949)
Published by 新潮文庫
258 pages

This book was published in 1948. The back cover says that this is the true story (実話) of captain Kurakichi Nakagawa and his 15 men who survived on a deserted island of the Pearl and Hermes Atoll after the grounding of their ship in 1899.

The author, Kunihiko Sugawa, says that he heard the story from Captain Nakagawa himself, in 1903. At the time, Sugawa was an apprentice at 東京高等商売学校 and Nakagawa was his instructor. Sugawa repetedly asked Nakagawa to tell him the story of the deserted island, which he eventually did.

This novel has entered public domain, so you can read it for free on Aozora.


I really cannot say that I enjoyed reading 『無人島に生きる十六人』. I am sure that it is a good book, but it just was not for me. There are mainly two things that annoyed me and prevented me from enjoying the story.

First of all, I cannot believe that this story really happened as it is told. If it weren’t for the 実話 on the back cover, I would have thought that this is a work of pure fiction and certainly enjoyed it more.

When you open the book, you first read a preface written by Kurakichi Nakagawa himself, thanking Sugawa for writing this book. Again, without the 実話 on the back cover, I would have said that this preface looked like a literary trick used by authors to give the impression that the fiction they wrote really happened (this preface does not appear in the Aozora version).

The story begins with the author, Sugawa, using the first-person to explain in which circumstances he met Nakagawa and asked to hear about his story. Then the point of view changes, and the first-person is now used by Nakagawa himself to tell his story:


At the end, we switch back to Sugawa’s perspective:


This obviously looks like a literary trick, the author saying that he heard the story directly from someone involved in it, and it is of course impossible for someone to tell such a long story in one go as is suggested here.

I was disappointed because I thought that I would read a true story, thinking this book might be non fiction. Of course, it is possible that this work of fiction might be inspired by real facts. I made some research to see if there really was a ship called Ryusui maru (龍睡丸) which grounded in Pearl and Hermes Atoll in 1899. I was not convinced by the results. It seems difficult to find information concerning the events that is not related to the book.

This annoyed me a lot, because I would be fine with reading a work of pure fiction, or an account of real events, but it is annoying to not know where we stand. My involvement and the way I read a book will be different if I know that it happened to real persons.

Secondly, I found that the book was very dry. There are a lot of descriptions and explanations of survival measures. I think that this might precisely be why many readers enjoy the book (it is exciting in a way to see how the men organise their life on the island), but to me it was a little overwhelming, especially in Japanese!

What put me off is not as much the large amount of descriptions as the almost complete disappearance of the characters. They have no personality, no emotions, nothing that characterises them. There are almost no dialogues. They hardly differ from one another. There are almost no passages that made me feel interested in the characters, we never get to know them. This made me lose all interest in the novel.

In the end, the characters are just indistinct Japanese sailors who do their job, show heroism, never flinch and work hard even though they are ill, hungry and thirsty. Not a single time is someone being shown as weak or failing. There is even this notion of living a pleasant and joyful life of the deserted island that is really not credible.

I still finished it, and I do think that it is a good novel, but it was clearly not for me. I was interested in the moral and psychological aspect of surviving on a deserted island (a character centered story), but this book focuses on the technical aspect of survival (organisation, constructions, installations…). If you like survival fiction book, it is definitely a title to keep in mind given that it is out of copyright and freely accessible online!

Reading challenge update:

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