Saturday, October 11, 2008

Questions from the Audience - Anthony J. Bryant

For the follow up to our interview with Tony Bryant, Here are the answers to the questions that have come in from the readers:

Did you have much trouble learning classical Japanese and how did you master it?

AJB: Well, I was taught CJ in a very sink-or-swim methodology. There were five of us in the seminar, and Prof. Jurgis Elisonas had us get a kogo jiten (dictionary of classical Japanese), a copy of McCullough's Bungo Manual, and a copy of the Hôjôki. Then after a brief explanation of the agglutinative structure of Classical Japanese, we started reading and translating Hôjôki, one sentence at a time, parsing it and breaking each word down.

"Yuku kawa no nagare wa taezushite..." Yuku is the 4-dan verb "yuku" in the rentai kei, attached to the noun kawa; "no" is the genetive marker; "nagare" is the noun formed from the ren'yôkei of the shimo-2-dan verb "nagaru"; wa; "taezushite" is the shimo-2-dan verb "tayu" in the mizenkei with the negative "nu" in the renyôkei, added to which is the sa-hen verb "su" in the ren'yôkei with the continuative "tsuru" in the ren'yôkei...

After you do that for a few months, you start to dream that way. I'm a bit rusty now, as I haven't read much old Japanese for a long time. You also eventually learn not to trust what you *think* you know from modern Japanese. The Modern Japanese "ashita," for example, does not mean the same thing as the Classical Japanese "ashita," and something that would be called "omoshiroi" today would have been called something different back then.

In hindsight, I realize that many people teach CJ that way -- and, indeed, many other classical and dead languages. They're taught strictly as things to be READ.

Personally, I disagree with that methodology. I think people should be taught even these dead languages as languages to USE. I don't think you can fully grasp the rules of a language and make it your own unless you can USE it. So I would have had us writing compositions in classical Japanese, as well.

Tony, I'm curious: What areas of Japanese history are most in need of coverage in English? You mentioned some of your own personal projects, but what books would you really like to see written?

AJB: I've been thinking about this. There are so many subjects that are already *slightly* (at least) covered, that it's hard to think of a single area. I would like to see more biographies, and more translations of court diaries and documents. There are whole libraries of collected diaries and letters of important people who lived through important times, and they're inaccessible unless you know Japanese -- and more precisely, kanbun. I don't even know how many of them are available in Japanese in modern translations, but I suspect it's "next to none." They really are the hidden treasures.

How did you become involved with the Japan Society for Arms and Armour Research and Preservation, what activities were you involved in, and what has been most enriching about your experience?

AJB: Since one of my principle interests of all time has been Japanese armour, it seemed a perfectly logical thing to do. I found out where they met, showed up, filled out the form and forked over a couple of 10K yen notes, and I was good to go.

Basically the activities consisted of a monthly meeting that took the form of a presentation or lecture of some sort by one of the members on some topic, and then a "hang around and talk to people" time, and retiring to a coffee shop to talk more armour.

Once a year we'd have a retreat somewhere that usually coincided with the location having a special arms and armour exhibition. There was a big banquet, lots of speeches, and a BIG group photo, and a chance to talk with people in the Society from other chapters all over Japan.

The coolest thing was getting to meet, hang out with, and learn from people who still make armour the OLD way, some of whom were from families who'd been making armour for centuries.

The military history of Europe from the classical age to Waterloo is widely and seriously studied, as well as widely popular, however the impression that one gets of the study of Japanese history by western scholars is that military history is eschewed, or outright disdained. Although Japan's military history didn't have an impact on world affairs until the 19th-20th century, the level of battle strategy and technology (as well as copious surviving letters and documents) of, say 16th century Japan easily matched or rivaled that of Europe. What gives?

AJB: I don't know that it's actually eschewed. Certainly in academic circles there are people like Conlan, Ferris, and Friday doing serious research into the samurai and military history in general.

I think the problem is actually one of perception, and that is, sadly, due to the fanboy phenomenon.

There are no people who wax orgasmic over Napoleon, the 100 Years War, or the Crusades like they do over samurai and ninjas. I doubt very much that people go onto European history fora and ask if "Marshal St. Cyr" was a real person, and to be spoon fed a biography of him. Compare that to those who are caught up in shinsengumi fanboyism.

The uninformed enthusiast is at once our greatest resource and our greatest bane.

Fortunately, not a small number actually do some reading and develop a real interest in the history.

Another problem is the fact that there is not a town in America that doesn't have a karate school or some kind of dojo, and the percentage of good schools versus schools that have bogus histories (if they have any sense of history at all) is not good. There is a big playing up of that whole samurai/bushitto or ninja thing, and that is something hard for people to ignore when they see it.

While there are historical re-enactors who do western things, at least the West has the advantage of being the "us" (remember my earlier point about Asian history being the "other"). While reenactors tend to be viewed as slightly whacky by most people, there isn't that perception that these are the sum-total of western historians.

Ultimately, it's the unfavorable public perception that people interested in samurai are like the fanboys and ninjabees that causes the problem. That's also why I feel so exasperated when I encounter it. I really am caught on the horns of a dilemma between wanting to encourage the interest but at the same time as quickly as possible disabuse people of misconceptions.

What organizational tool or advice could you suggest for a writer who is researching historical fiction?

AJB: None. There is nothing when you're researching like actually doing the bloody reading.

I mean, that's really all there is. Read like a freaking madman, read on everything that touches on the era and location. Read until you know it and life during that period as well as you know your own life. Read *everything* until you know that you're not going to write something impossible.

I've read stories referring to places that didn't exist when the tale was written, technologies that were anachronisms, impossible social relationships, and so on; and I hate them all.

While it's virtually impossible to eliminate every possible mistake, your chances of making them are much higher if you don't really know the material. To an extent, most stories people write can be "fixed" with some judicious edits -- but if there are critical points in the story that are just wrong, the story can't be saved.

You didn't ask *this*, but since you did ask about writing, I'll take the opportunity to make a critical poing.

One horrible error that is easily fixed, but extremely aggravating, is "the exotic word syndrome." You're writing a story about and set in Japan. We get that. But the lingua franca of your book, and your audience, is ENGLISH. If there is an English word, USE IT. The only place you should use words from that language are where there is no direct English equivalent of the word you need. Especially in dialogue.

Think about it: if someone is speaking a sentence in Japanese, they would say the sentence in Japanese. If they're speaking in English, they say it in English. Random exclamations and so on should ONLY be in the "source" language if there is no English equivalent -- and there is no problem translating "naruhodo" to "ah" or "I see" or "gotcha"; likewise, the plethora of uses of "maaa" usually have English equivalents. And in English, we call people "Mr" and not "San."

Consider this. I've seen sentences like this:

"Wakarimashita, Tanaka-san. So he admitted that his own nii-san was the culprit, ne? Maa. I just can't believe it. Well, we can pick him up outside the Shinjuku Eki. Can I finish my bento first? Doumo."

That is just the same text as this (except the name change, as *this* is a Japanese writer trying to make a story sound like an American one):

"I understand, Mister Smith. Soitsu wa jibun no older brother ga hannin da to mitometa, huh? Jeez, shinjirarenai. Metro Station no mae de toraeru. Sono mae, boxed lunch wo tabesasete moraeru ka? Thanks."

Looks stupid, doesn't it?

Don't do that.

You *might* have to keep honorifics for the cultural info they impart, but on the whole, try not to use them.

The thing is, that is an EASY fix. It's all editing, and doesn't actually mess with the story. The counter point is, it's SO annoying that it puts the editor off right from the start, and even if the story is a decent one (and thus easily fixed and publishable), you're not likely to get that second chance because you've already blown the opportunity by cheesing off the editor in making a mistake you should not have made.

As a long time RPG player (the "pen and paper" version, of course Wink ), I had opportunities to master games based on Sengoku, the RPG rulebook you wrote with Mark T. Arsenault. What are your feelings about this book? Was it published the way you intended it to be?

AJB: Pretty much, yes. I'm rather pleased with the way it came out.

Mark and I had talked originally about doing the update of Bushido itself, but apparently those negotiations fell through, and the project languished for a while, until Mark decided to do his OWN game. Then he got back to me, and we went for it.

I, too, came out of the Bushido mold, and started working on Sengoku shortly after I left TSR. While I was at TSR, I tried and tried and tried to talk them in to letting me update "Oriental Adventures." They have since done so, but IMHO it's a horrid monstrosity. (That is, of course, because I'm a purist when it comes to Sino-Japanese history -- I don't like it being "diluted" with other stuff in the CORE rule book, or having all that weird L5R stuff.)

One thing I liked particularly was the "reality scale" in the game, allowing for everything from historical nitty-gritty to total fantasy, depending on how the rules were applied.

I recently found myself involved in co-writing a RPG rulebook about the Nobunaga-Hideyoshi period. The initiator of the project would like to cling to history as much as possible, but would also like to include fantasy parts with kami, buddha, yôkai, magic wielding miko and yamabushi, and so on. My job, for the moment, is to get him to part ways with every weird thing he may have learnt about Japanese civilisation and language through samurai RPG such as Bushido and Legend of the Five Rings. (Of course he also reads a lot of books about Japanese history available in French, but he has hard time loosing his hardboiled bushido player habits.) Do you have one or two pieces of advice you could tell me about writing this kind of historical-yet-a-bit-fantasy RPG rulebook? Or can you tell me which things I'm better off steering clear of?

AJB: Why don't you just give him a copy of Sengoku? That pretty much sounds like what you're describing. It's even the same era. Wink

Seriously, other than delving into specific game mechanics, I'm not sure what advice I could give on this one. There's a part of me that wants to reference "redesigning the wheel" but I don't want to come across as sounding arrogant about Sengoku.

I think the problem I have is that I don't get where it's different, so I don't know how to give you specific advice. If you can get back to me with specifics and more info, perhaps I can help.

Thanks again to Tony for the interview, and stay tuned for more!


  1. Dear Sir Anthony,

    1) Studying history requires us to investigate the past. Like a detective, we start with the easy, known pieces of historical information. We then shuffle other pieces around to see how they may fit together. Once all the pieces fit, we have the full picture. I think, it is really exciting to see the full picture.

    Being a writer, how do you plan or prioritise points which you think are more important than others. Would you consider such work out/plan vital, as to make sure everything you write makes sense not only to you, but to the readers?

    2) History is full of true stories about real people – heroes, good guys, bad guys and ordinary people such as ourselves. When we take a closer look at their successes and failures, we may detect a certain philosophy/pattern. Does reading past historical events have any impact on your real life? What is your philosophy in life? What importance do you consider of being a balanced person? In your journey through life, you may encounter obstacles or some such. What “golden rules” would you like to give/advise which you think will help motivate younger generations?

    3) May I ask some personal questions?
    a) Have you reached the stage that you wish to have an exclusive relationship? I’m very curious as to why you are still single at this age. ^_^
    b) Would you consider appearance more important than personality?
    c) Could you give 3 best female characters from the past history whom you like best, and why?

    It’s indeed a gift, the very sweetest and most precious of gifts to have known you and to have a chance to learn Japanese from you from the two forums I visit regularly. May I take this opportunity to wish you and your family good health, happiness and success on all levels.

    14 Oct 2008

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