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In her short story, “Yoneko’s Earthquake,” Hisaye Yamamoto depicts a few years from the life of a Japanese immigrant girl, Yoneko Hosoume. This story comprises many hidden details which one may identify while delving into family conflicts and hints of secret romantic relationships as seen through the eyes of the ten-year-old girl. However, one of the main problems depicted in the short fiction is human spirituality and religiousness. Readers can trace Yoneko’s journey from her first attempts to explore Christianity and God towards the moment she became a “free-thinker” (Yamamoto 46). Based on this, in the present essay, I would like to investigate how a person’s spiritual quest can be affected by external circumstances and provide my perspective on how both religiousness and “free-thinking” can change one’s ability to cope with uncontrollable and adverse events in life.
Yoneko became really interested in religion for the first time with the help of Marpo, who assisted the girl’s parents in the fields, planting and harvesting crops. Along with an inherent interest she had in learning about Christianity and God, this young man’s personality, which seemed to fascinate Yoneko, could be one of the important factors that contributed to her enthusiasm in becoming a believer. It is clear that the girl and her little brother, Seigo, liked to spend time with Marpo as he was a man of multiple hidden talents: “she and Seigo visited with Marpo at least once a day and both of them regularly came away amazed with their findings” (Yamamoto 46). Yoneko trusted Marpo and thus had tremendous faith in everything he taught her about Christianity.
Nevertheless, the earthquake that took place on March 10, 1993, substantially changed the girl’s view of God and a playful attitude towards religious inquiries. The event was shocking for Yoneko, and she was “in constant terror during this experience” (Yamamoto 51). As almost any religious person would do, she addressed God asking for help, and begged him to end the earthquake. However, since her requests and prays were not responded in a way she wanted, Yoneko became suspicious and, within the course of a few days, she became very critical about God, deciding that he was either “powerless, callous, downright cruel, or nonexistent” (Yamamoto 51).
Considering that Yoneko was an innocent and immature girl, her way of thinking and reaction is easy to understand. As a child, I also had a very naive attitude to God and liked to make deals with the Universe. Of course, compared to Yoneko’s case, there were no such big and terrifying events in my life as natural disasters, which I could use to test my faith. Instead, I did it on random, small occasions and received some controversial and inconclusive results. For instance, once in elementary school, I prayed every day during a week to receive an A at an upcoming exam and supported each of my prays with a nice drawing dedicated to God. Afterward, my faith was strengthened rather unexpectedly when it turned out that I was the only person in class who received an excellent mark. I was convinced that not only did God exist but also he was fond of fine arts.
As I grew older, it became apparent that things are in fact more complicated and it is impossible always to get everything you want that easily. I have learned that life can be unfair and difficult to comprehend at times, yet there is always room for wonder and mystery. Nevertheless, I still remember how good and satisfying it may feel to receive a “response” to the requests you address to the Universe or God, no matter how reasonable or unreasonable they may be. Thus, I can imagine that not getting a positive response in such an emotionally disturbing situation through which Yoneko had to undergo could have a very strong effect on the girl. She probably felt hopeless and even deceived. After being “an ideal apostle, adoring Jesus, desiring Heaven and fearing Hell,” all this faith could turn bitter because Yoneko could not explain why terrifying, dangerous, and inherently violent things might occur (Yamamoto 49). I can say with certainty that if I had to experience an adverse event of the same intensity and scope and with a mindset as the one Yoneko had during the earthquake, I would react similarly. Moreover, it could strongly affect my worldview and values, consequently leading to big changes in my personality and overall attitude to life.
It is hard to say if Yoneko changed a lot after this or not, yet it is possible to say that she might become a little bit more detached from things, which require spiritual understanding and insight. Seigo’s death is one of them. She did not think about her little brother after he died and did not miss him at all: “whenever the thought of Seigo crossed her mind, she instantly began composing a new song, and this worked very well” (Yamamoto 56). Did the experience of the earthquake and the following rejection of religion make her accept the fact that it is impossible to prevent bad things from happening? Did it help her reconcile with this reality? In my opinion, it probably did not. It seems that composing a new song whenever a memory of Seigo was evoked was not just her way of coping with sorrow but a way of suppressing it.
The girl’s approach was however drastically different from her mother’s. After Seigo’s death, she started to visit church often, and moreover, it motivated her to accept Christ. It is interesting that an adverse event in Mrs. Hosoume’s case made her more religious: she “did not seem interested in discussing anything but God and Seigo” (Yamamoto 56). Religion became the major source of consolation for the woman as she probably imagined that her five-year-old son was somewhere in a better place. Moreover, Mrs. Hosoume blamed herself for her son’s death and thought that the abortion she made not a long time before was the reason why God took away Seigo, whom she loved dearly. It seems the fact that those two events followed each other served as sufficient proof of God’s existence for Mrs. Hosoume. It was her way of explaining life and her way of coping with grief.
The spiritual quests of Yoneko and her mother can be regarded as the complete opposites of each other. While the encounter with an adverse and shocking event discouraged the girl from seeking the religious knowledge further, the tragedy of even greater intensity stimulated Mrs. Hosoume to seek God. Personally, I prefer to stay in the middle between the two extremes. Although I respect one’s choice to become a member of a particular religious community and actively practice a certain faith, in my opinion, it is not necessarily at all to be a Christian, a Muslim, or a Hindu in order to be spiritual. Spirituality rather means to have a view of something greater than you and your life. In this context, no matter how big the troubles and sorrows are, they start to diminish over a short time, to obtain meaning, and then lead to something new. Overall, as many people probably think, I consider that spirituality plays an essential role in every person’s life and serves as a major source of support especially during hard times, and mainly because it gives hope. Moreover, it seems that without even a tiny bit of openness to bigger, incomprehensible things, it is easy to lose any meaning in life.
It is impossible to ignore the role Marpo played in the conversion of both Yoneko and her mother to Christianity as they both seemed to be fascinated by him although the main plot merely hinted at it. The strength of their faith could also symbolize the intensity of their feelings for the young man. Nevertheless, when focusing on the interpretation of the main plot provided in this essay, “Yoneko’s Earthquake” shows that different people may have distinct motivations and reasons to believe in God. Some of them simply start to believe “rumors,” while others develop faith in order to deal with distress and grief and to find the strength to live further after turmoil. Yamamoto’s work also demonstrates that religiousness can be challenged by circumstances and sometimes, on the contrary, supported by them. In this way, the spiritual experiences underwent by the characters in the story can make readers think about the role of God and belief in their own lives.
Yamamoto, Hisaye. Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories. Rutgers University Press, 2009