Review: The Sea and Poison by Shūsaku Endō

The Sea and Poison [1958/92] – ★★★★

The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything” (Albert Einstein).

Go where the pain is” (Anne Rice).

Japan, the last months of the World War II. The city of Fukuoka, nestling in the Hakata Bay, has been experiencing air raids for quite some time, and its hospital finds itself stretched to the limits as its never-ending line of mostly dying patients is always at the door, riddled with many diseases, worsened by hunger and despair. But one day is no ordinary day for this hospital. Unbeknown to many, the Second Surgery is preparing for a secret vivisection operation on American soldiers taken prisoners by the Japanese, and the goal is to test the limits of air and saline that can be injected into humans before they die. Those who are involved in the operation are not some evil monsters or serial killers on the loose, though. They are some of the most respected people in the institution, as well as their dedicated supporting medical personnel. Through the perspectives of two interns – sensitive Suguro and cynical Toda, as well as haunted-by-traumatic-past Nurse Ueda, Endō shows us how easily the unimaginable can unfold when conditions are led by war-time nihilism and actions are prompted by apathy, despair, helplessness and self-interest. Based on a true story (see this article), Shūsaku Endō’s book is as intense as it is disturbing, but at its core is still a touching message to always preserve the spirit of humanity and compassion even in the most highly-pressured and hopeless environments.

The Sea and Poison draws the reader into the narrative effortlessly by establishing what I may call “the atmosphere of psychological claustrophobia or unease”, prevalent in other Japanese literature I read (see Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes and Ōoka’s Fires on the Plain). The prologue introduces us to a couple who moves to a rundown area of west Matsubara, an hour ride from Tokyo, and search for a doctor for the husband’s lung condition. Their only choice ends up to be Dr Suguro, an expert medic, but also a very reclusive and strange man, displaying disturbing tendencies. Our protagonist’s dislike of, and suspicions regarding Dr Suguro, exacerbated by the unbearable discomfort of his new place of residence, “trap” him into searching for answers to his new doctor’s strange behaviour.

When Dr Suguro was a young intern working in the Fukuoka hospital at the end of the World War II, he was working in a kind of medical environment where expediency and “unfair” resource allocation were prioritised, and where doctors’ Hippocratic Oath was far from their minds, with their professional ethics routinely compromised. As Suguro sees through his care of a hopeless old woman dying or the hospital admittance of a beautiful and well-to-do wife of a naval officer for a “routine” operation, patients are pawns in intricate hospital politics, and the growing indifference towards patients’ fates on the part of doctors soon means there is no limit to actions they were prepared to do because of sheer apathy, mindless obedience and deflation of spirit. Dr Suguro’s hospital’s oppressive environment is laid bare in the book: “No matter how many died, there was such an overflow of patients that as soon as a bed became empty, it would be filled again”; “No doubt it was a time when everybody was on the way out. If a man didn’t breathe his last in the hospital, he might well die that night in an air raid”; [Suguro] had the feeling he was a cog on one of the gear wheels turning here, whose movements he had no way of understanding”[Shūsaku Endō/Michael Gallagher, New Directions, 1958/92: 51, 52, 104].

The Sea and Poison was made into a 1986 film by Japanese director Kei Kumai

Thus, Endō starts exploring historical, social and emotive backgrounds of the people involved in the evil deed of performing live vivisections on unsuspecting American soldiers. He is interested in these people’s psychology and now they managed to arrive at that point in their life where they agreed to the unthinkable proposition of being part of the cruel experiment. Internally desperate and haunted by traumatic past, lonely Nurse Ueda is only too willing to be part of any experiment to keep her place at work and “to get even” with the German wife of Dr Hashimoto, who is performing the experiment (just so to know something that his wife does not), and intern Toda, who looks back on his own past, where he committed many immoral actions, is only shocked at his own complete indifference about the forthcoming operation. He even lectures Suguro on how doctors should behave: “sweetness and sentimentality are forbidden luxuries for a doctor…doctors aren’t saints. They want to be successful. They want to become full professors. And when they want to try out new techniques, they don’t limit their experiments to monkeys and dogs. Suguro, this is the world, and you ought to take a closer look at it” [Endō/Gallagher, New Directions, 1958/92: 50]. Then, it is only intern Suguro who feels most uncomfortable about the procedure of cutting and murdering American prisoners. However, ultimately, peer pressure, his cowardice and internal numbness prevent him from voicing real concerns. Suguro only wanted in life what was the most ordinary, but an ordinary life is the height of luxury in time of want, war and death.

As Endō’s acclaimed book Silence [1966], The Sea and Poison demonstrates that evil is not what it may seem, and as perfection is not an act, but a habit (Aristotle), so evil and inhumanity are not just spur-of-the-moment acts, but states that can grow insidiously and quietly in a person or group until they finally show themselves through one horrifying act. Thus, it is important to cultivate everywhere the conditions and states of kindness, empathy and understanding.

The Sea and Poison is a disquieting story that builds in intensity, but it is also an enlightening and courageous book in many ways, not least because it shed light on one important topic many Japanese must have been very uncomfortable reading so soon after the end of the World War II.

14 thoughts on “Review: The Sea and Poison by Shūsaku Endō

  1. I’m with Liz above in that I’d be chary of any emotional upset, but I can imagine that this is an important piece of writing at any time and that there may come a moment when it’s important I face this. It seems to cover similar ethical issues as those in the famous Milgram experiment which my partner, a psychologist, first drew to my attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Evil as a habit… I think there is a Captain Picard quote about that as well.
    A thoughtful and thought-provoking review! I read this book several years ago and it impacted me deeply. I will be re-posting my thoughts as a YouTube video soon. I am glad to see more people are finding out about this and reading it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I would be interested to read this book, having lived in Japan (early 2000’s), to be told ‘don’t talk about the war’. I fortunately came to know a friend well, older than me, who shed light on the reality of the lived experience. Hard to believe that some Japanese were unaware of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for some time, because there was no radio available in many far-flung communities.

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    1. That is very interesting. I also read in great book Hiroshima Nagasaki by Paul Ham that brainwashing and misleading information on the war were very common-place. I guess even if some people felt distrustful and suspicious, there was this feeling of inability to change anything on an individual or even collective level and I thought Endō captured that state of apathy well in his book.


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