The story takes place just before the Japanese invasion of China to annex Manchuria to Japan. In a small fishing village on Japan's west coast, a family decides to escape the imminent invasion and cruelty of the Japanese army. Only one member of the family decides to remain to look after the properties. Despite the coaxing that his remaining will bring him hardship and even death, the young man stays.
His needs, following the paths of the Buddhist priesthood are very meager and he likens his existence to the way of the birds and wildlife who toil all day so that they might live. He disdains the need for surplus and instead seeks only the food he needs for the day.
Alone, unlike his fellow villagers, he is suddenly confronted with the finding of a recently born child left outside his hovel.
The child, a female, assumes the living style of the poor farmer but wonders about the world outside the village of Niigata.
Lured by the promises of showing her the larger cities, she goes off with ta peddler who in exchange for her upkeep, uses her as a prostitute.
After some years she discovers that life outside of the simple had no values and returns to Niigata.
There were repercussions all over the world following the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash in the United States. Even Japan, at that point in time, a much more a rural country felt the effects. Michio Tadaki was a young man of 17 years when the crash took place.
When he was born, his mother presented him to his father in his swaddling clothes. The father smiled and said the child was a beautiful child and she shall be called Michio. His wife then said, “ she is not a she but a he. I have presented you with a new son.”
“But the child’s features are so delicate and fine and the fingers and hands so small, but we will still call the child Michio which means “Man on a Journey or the Correct Path”. Michio’s mother protested by saying that “his playmates will tease him”. “No,” his father replied, “because the name can be used by both male and females.”
Born in a small village some 25 miles from the city of Niigata on the Western side of Japan and close to the Sea of Japan, the family were fishermen, which with the small plots of land they cultivated for rice, vegetables and fruits were sufficient for their simple way of living. There was always the fragrance of the sea in the air which was filled with sea birds who circled incessantly screaming for and excited by the fishing boats which brought their catches to the beach, where the fishermen cleaned their fish or threw unwanted sea creatures back into the tide. Being a little more delicate in stature than his hardier friends, he was usually set working in the small gardens along with the women; the sea being too rough for him. When they first put him in the boats, he was constantly sick from being wet and so they finally decided he would be more useful growing fruits and vegetables and in warmer weather, gathering seaweed which was a staple in the family diet. He often found himself happily immersed in his work. He worked hard and steadily. Under an extra wide straw hat, he hardly felt the hot, pulsing sun and even felt that the hot rays passed through his body and down into the dark, rich soil. He worked tirelessly and felt that even the tools he used to plow with were extensions of himself. After a while, he discovered that plowing the earth had a rhythm and that if he paid attention to that rhythm, he could continue working without feeling tired. If he worked too fast, he tired quickly; if too slow, the plow and the soil somehow never allowed you to work efficiently. Michio remembered how some years ago, something in him made him stop seeing the world as he was accustomed to seeing it but how it now was a special world in which he was but a part of a whole. He was not sure how or why this change had taken place but it was as though one turned a page of a book and continued on, still related to the previous page but now absorbed in the current page one was reading. He knew that what passed on before had to have happened or he would not be able to comprehend what was happening now. His early life as a boy of 15 left him with many memories. He especially remembered how the tranquility and the quiet life of the small village in Niigata changed almost too swiftly to understand what was going on. People, farmers and fishermen his family knew for years and years always diligent in their work and in harmony with the sea and the land were now starting to assert themselves with a showing of patriotism and nationalism. There was talk about how there were too many people; some 5,000,000 people and how the crash in America necessitated abundant raw materials for Japan to continue manufacturing so that their economy would grow and survive. Japan did not have these raw materials and so its manufacturing suffered. The Japanese flag, rarely displayed except on government buildings was now seen waving from many housetops. He recalled how people shouted and blamed the Chinese for many of the wrongs and evils that seemed to afflict this modern day Japan. The military blamed the politicians for being weak and not giving direction to the people and so there was a fervor in the air; an oncoming change which left him bewildered and frightened. The year was 1928, just prior to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. In 1931, the Japanese invaded Manchuria and called the area, Manchukuo and set up a puppet government that favored Japan. There was a change taking place; one could feel it in the air where the tensions and agitations took precedence in the talk. At supper, his father and grandfather and his uncles murmured in subdued voices that were filled with concern, consternation and fear; how they were agreeing in secret whispers to decisions that would affect the entire family. The men were speaking of the worth of objects, the house, and the farm they worked and tried to calculate how they would try to sell and divide the value of the various objects. Each of the family had brought with it some tools, furniture and personal belongings when they joined the family but now, it was to be sold and divided so that everyone was in agreement with what they received. His mother and his sisters and his aunts continued working but they too were peering back at the men and knew what was being discussed. The major preoccupation was where to go. The men had smelled the fearful winds of a war that was about to explode upon them and they counseled that their best option was to leave Japan and perhaps move to the United States. Many of their relatives had worked in the United States years before when the railroad was being built to span the country from east to west. There were many more Chinese and the Japanese men had listened to how the situation in China was becoming more intolerable and how many of the workers tried to stay on and finish their lives working in the United States and sending salaries to their families back in China for survival.