The Sea and Poison – My First Readalong

The Sea and Poison (海と毒薬 – Umi to Dokuyaku) is a novel treating an actual incident so horrific that it seared itself indelibly into Endo’s conscience – the slow and methodical wartime vivisection, with absolutely no anesthesia or other amelioration, of an American captive by a team of Japanese doctors. This powerful novel describes the disintegration of a Japanese doctor who is obliged to participate in the vivisection of prisoner of war. Haunted by his wartime memory and shame of collusion, he searches desperately for relief from his overwhelming guilt and for meaning in continuing existence.

I have to admit that the only reason for reading this book was Caroline’s readalong event. I like Endo’s Deep River but after failed to finish Stained Glass Elegies, I sort of avoiding his other works. When Caroline started a Literature and War Readalong event, I wanted to participate as I have never joined such event. The only book she had on the list that I can find is The Sea and Poison by Shusaku Endo…at that time, I thought it was a good start to put my trust on Endo once more.

The story started with a man talking about a doctor whom he thought a bit unusual. His name was Jiro Suguro. Suguro-sensei was great in performing pneumothrax treatment on him but the doctor has a very cold touch that often made him shivered. He became more and more curious about the doctor. When he visited Fukuoka, he finally found out about the doctor’s dark past.

Suguro-sensei was involved in performing vivisection of American prisoners. I have to google up to find the meaning of vivisection (Vivisection: the act or practice of performing experiments on living animals, involving cutting into or dissecting the body).

The story changed from the present day (which was told by the man above) to the past when Suguro-sensei was still working in the hospital as an intern, somewhere during WWII. Suguro-sensei was one of few doctors that really concerned about his patients, especially on an old lady whom had become his first patient. He wanted to do everything he could possibly do to prolong her life even though he was fully aware that her case was hopeless. The old lady was planned to undergo an experimental surgery. He was totally against it but couldn’t do anything about it.

Fortunately…or should we say unfortunately for the other patient…before her surgery took place, the head of The First Surgery (the section of the hospital where Suguro was working), Hashimoto-sensei failed to perform a simple surgery on a woman who happened to be relative of a very important man. This incident made them put hold of the old lady’s surgery. The old lady died during air raid without even had a chance to have the surgery.

The unfortunate incident had forced Hashimoto-sensei to accept an offering given by the military. He had to conduct vivisection on 2 war prisoners, one is to see how much part of lung can be taken out till the patient die and how much intravenous liquid can be inserted into the patient till he died. He had all the doctors in First Surgery to help him. One of the doctors, Asai-sensei asked the two interns in the hospital, Toda and Suguro, to come help them. Both agreed. 2 nurses were also asked to help them.

The story shifted to the conscience of Nurse Ueda and Toda. Nurse Ueda had such difficult time that made her so ignorant toward the world. Toda had been a child with less conscience and guilt in his heart. The only one who seemed to have problems with vivisection was Suguro, his guilt turned him into a cold doctor toward his patient.

This book was really interesting. The way Endo shifted the story felt natural. I always have a certain dislike toward books that write different characters as the first person, but I can forgive this book as it served important role in the whole story. We can see reasons why some people seemed to have no reluctance at all in conducting such cruel act toward another human being. However, Endo left the most heartless people out of reasons of the past…I don’t know why he did that.

Although the blurb emphasized so much on the vivisection but the vivisection itself only took several pages. It talked more about human heart. Suguro was a nice man but he was a coward, he couldn’t say what he wanted to say and that fact brought him to a situation that he regretted his whole life. Toda was cold from inside since he could remember, he thought by helping that vivisection he could finally allow his heart to have a feeling of guilt. Asai-sensei was a man who knew how to put a smile on his face even on the cruelest situation. There was something I desired to know about the chief nurse and her unemotional face. Somehow, I can’t tolerate Nurse Ueda for being who she was. Her situation was something that can easily be avoided, my feeling toward Nurse Ueda is probably because I am not the kind of person who would let someone made me feel so useless….the way Nurse Ueda felt about things and people around her.

Overall, it’s a  book for me. I guess it is better to read Endo’s full novel rather than his collection of short stories.


  1. Thanks for joining, Novroz. I can’t read your review in depth yet, I only just started the book and will post on it on Friday and then will of course link to your review. Many people told me they are afraid of reading the book because of the vivisection but judging from what you wrote it’s only a small part.
    I read the prologue and a few pages and it seems very well written.
    Anyone reading this, the book has only 160 pages you can still join and partcipate in the discussion on May 27.

    1. thank you for hosting it Caroline. It gives back my trust toward Endo’s work.

      wow, a lot of people are scared with the vivisection? it was nothing to be scared of, maybe it is because I have read too many SK’s books, the vivisection looks like child play 😉

      looking forward to your review and discussion

  2. Oooo, I think this one would be to much for me 😮 But I’m glad you braved it because there seems to be so much more to it than I would have thought. Thank you 😀

    1. I didn’t find the book as something emotionally attached. It was really in a sense of learning human behaviour in certain condition. I know I won’t be like any of those characters even if I was put in such condition, but observing their respons were really interesting.

  3. I think your review captures more details than mine. I must admit I found it extremely depressing, it did upset me a lot. It’s a pessimistic world view. I wasn’t aware that Hashimoto accepted performing the vivisection because the other patient died.
    It does give an extremely negative picture of doctors in general.
    I think there is not one likable character in this novel.

    1. It’s indeed a pessimistic way to view the world but it’s not depressing…well, not for me at least. As I said to Book Around The Corner, I like observing the characters (just like in Deep River, Endo really has a way in delivering his characters) …but just like you, none of the character is likeable. All of them are interesting to observe but not to like.

      1. It did depress me for a specific reason. Something very bad happend in the town where I live. There was an old children’s hospital and they will tear it down but all the things, the operating tables and everything, machines was in very good condition and nicely wrapped. Switzerland you know, very high standards. The hospital was closed since three months. Now, last week, 1000 people broke into that hospital and smashed everything, absolutely everything. What they didn’t know was that all the beds and tables and everything were wrapped to be shipped to Africa to the hospitals for the poorest of the poor. They need it badly and now they will not get it because some spoilt idiots didn’t know how to spend their time. One of them fell of the roof and broke his back, which is sad as well. I couldn’t help thinking of it… It may seem weird but reading about a hospital while this happened was too much…

        1. ow my God…that was so sad. I hate hearing such news, why can’t people respect things that aren’t theirs, especially when those things are going to be used for something good. It’s sad thinkin about those people in Africa.

          I can understand why you find it hard to like the book…the event and the book are related in several ways. I’d probably feel the same if I know such terrible thing happened near me.

  4. Endo’s brilliant at writing about moral and ethical dilemmas, isn’t he? I’ve only read 2 of his novels, The Samurai and Volcano, which mainly deal with religion but I’m a huge fan of his work. Novels about Japan’s wartime past isn’t so common (especially those dealing with torture and vivisection), so I’m definitely interested in reading this book.

    1. Yes he is. This is my second novel too, the first was Deep River. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get into his short story, I still haven’t finished his short story collection which I started reading last year.

      I should warn you that the book is a bit depressing for some people.

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