Sunday, January 03, 2010

Samurai Archives 10th Anniversary Interview

To commemorate the 10 year anniversary of the establishment of the Samurai Archives, we thought it would be a great idea to do an interview with one of its founders, Kitsuno (Christopher West). We then decided that we would conduct the interview, live and in the flesh in Honolulu during the Christmas holiday in Hawaii—in Duke’s Canoe Club, right off the beach in Waikiki to be exact. So, I went to Duke’s on the agreed date and time, and there was no sign of Chris. ‘It figures’, I thought, ‘The guy is never does what he says he’s going to do on time.’ So with nothing better to do, I plopped myself down at the bar with a book and a beer and started killing time. Three bottles of suds later, I felt a tap on my shoulder and I looked up and saw a guy wearing a fedora and a trench coat. Very strange attire for Hawaii, but then again, this is Hawaii and the place attracts some pretty strange people.

The man with the fedora walked up towards me and then spoke. ‘Hey Obenjo, how are you doing?’

I looked up from my book, slightly annoyed and replied, ‘Do I know you? How do you know that I am Obenjo Kusanosuke?’ The man in the fedora rolled his eyes. ‘Oh, the face paint. Yeah, I get it. You figured out who I am because of the face paint and you are probably a fan or an Obenjo hater from the SA forum, right?’

‘No. Umm. It wasn’t the face paint. It is the fact that you are at a bar reading Beasley’s Meiji Restoration. Nobody else but you would bring that massive book to Hawaii for light beach reading. And really, the Bakumatsu is such a bore. Actually anything post 1615 makes me yawn.’

This guy was really starting to annoy me. I hate people who generalize the Bakumatsu period as being boring. ‘Oh, so the book gave me a way. Hehehe. And who exactly are you?’

‘I’m Forest. Forest Seal.’

‘BS. Forest Seal is nothing but an urban legend. A character that Kitsuno invented.’

‘No, I’m really him. I am Forest Seal.’

‘Yeah, and I’m Tokugawa Ieyasu. Nice one. Who are you, really?’

Just then Kitsuno showed up, and exclaimed, ‘By God, Forest, you did come! Man, this is awesome. Hey, nice threads by the way. Aren’t you a little hot?’

‘Not hot at all, Chris. The threads suit me fine as I’m just trying to look the part of my urban legend image. Good to see you, man. You came at the right time, as I was trying to prove to Obenjo here that I am who I am. Look, I’m expecting a phone call and have another appointment. So my time here is limited. Let’s get going on this interview.’

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Let’s move over to that table over there and let me set up my digital recorder. It will be better if we record the interview and I’ll transcribe it later.’ Wow, I thought, the urban legend is true! Forest does exist and this is going to be a great interview as I can now get both founders of the SA to speak on the record. And speaking of the record, here it is.

SA: Chris and Forest, it is a pleasure to be sitting down with you for this interview. Congratulations on the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Samurai Archives.

Christopher West (CW): Thanks, it’s awesome that we are all sitting here in Hawaii for this. Really cool, man.

Forest Seal (FW): Yeah, as Chris said, it’s cool, but time is ticking. So get on with the questions. Enough small talk.

SA: Alright then, let’s dive straight into it. What gave you the notion to go out and create an all-English-language web-based resource for Japanese history?

CW: For me, the idea for the website came from the utter lack of anything on the Internet in regards to Japanese history back in the late 90’s. Outside of Turnbull, back in those days, there really wasn’t anything in the English language published beyond the golden age of the 60’s and 70’s on Japanese military history. As of 1999, I literally owned every academia-published book in English on Japanese history, and having had been back from Japan for a few years was in a somewhat unique position to dig into Japanese sources. With that in mind, the (relative) explosion over the past five to seven years in Japanese history publishing in academia has been quite a shock, actually. When this all started, the internet was still the wild west (more so than today), and with the lack of anything related to Japanese history in English on the net, we actually believed, when we started, that we’d become both an Internet juggernaut, and even gain some notoriety. Essentially we were waiting for the Katy Couric interview that would never come…

FS: I basically approached it out of my own frustration at the lack of information in English on more esoteric matters in samurai history-the smaller figures, the lesser clans, the battles and events you knew had to be happening but weren't even mentioned in English sources. If the names 'Jinbo' or 'Mimura' or what have you happened to pop up, I was just naturally curious who those guys were. On the same token, looking at something like the Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima, I knew there had to be more to modern thinking on this affair beyond the 'heroic' version of the battle copied rote and verse in Western texts. So I always wanted to know more and Chris' suggestion that we do a website coincided with that. It was kind of a motivation to make the effort. Looking back, I am not entirely sure how seriously I took the website as far as actually reaching people was concerned. My hope was that it might be of some interest to the one or two other people I assumed, statistically, had to be out there with the same sort of esoteric curiosities I had.

SA: So did you ever think the SA would still be around after 10 years?

CW: Well, that was the goal, so I figured it probably would be in one form or another. Back when we started we were using free website services, so in theory if we gave up on it, we could have left it up indefinitely on a free server. I’d have to check, but I believe the old redirect I uploaded to the last free server quite a number of years ago is still there. But that aside, I was quite—well, okay, very na├»ve– I just naturally assumed that a Japanese history database would catch on and be HUGE. Keep in mind that when we started, there was NOTHING on the Internet of any validity or use that covered Japanese history and even now, quantity on the net has exploded but quality is still very poor. The plan from the start was to create an ever-expanding database of Japanese history, which in theory could go on for eternity. So based on that, yeah, I figured it would still be around.

FS: I think if the question had come up as a hypothetical back in ‘99 I wouldn't have bet money on it. One can't be entirely sure if they won't be hit by a car or choke on breakfast within the next ten years. A lot has happened in the past decade-marriages, births, divorces, jobs, successes, failures, etc. That the website has lasted this long is pretty remarkable and, again, thanks mostly to Chris.

SA: And how did the idea of a need for a forum come into play?

FS: The forum was always Chris' baby and he can speak to that better than I could. But I would like to say that he was far ahead of me on the curve on that one. Looking at it now I would say that a forum for a site like this is what we in the MMO industry sometimes call 'self-refreshing end content.' A website, even a website that is frequently updated, is ultimately finite. If you read every single word you have then expended the practical value of the site and are left with a concluded experience. The forum allows the website to become in the end what it was intended to be, a beacon for a shared experience in the pursuit of a shared interest. The study of history should have as fluid and as vibrant a discussion as the history itself. I would say that the forum is the heart of the Samurai Archives at this point.

CW: At the time I think I just thought it would be a cool idea. I think my concept was to create a giant online community. I’m not sure if it has worked out the way I imagined it, though. Seems the topic of “Samurai” is a little too esoteric, inaccessible, and horribly plagued by myth, legend, and misinformation – the “typical” demographic of people interested in 16th century Japan (i.e. the samurai) is not the same demographic that is necessarily interested in anything more than the myth and martial arts of the samurai. I think our idea from the start was to create a giant community working together to create a giant Japanese history database, and the forum was supposed to be possibly the starting point for that. But HTML does not lend itself well to constant updates, and so until the SamuraiWiki came along, it was an unbelievable chore to update, which really hindered the page. The SamuraiWiki was sort of the equipment that we needed 10 years ago to really kick what we wanted to do into action.

SA: What was it really like in those early days? Did you have to fight for members? After all, there were other Japanese history forums that had active memberships back then. I remember that even Total War had one in the wake of the release of the PC game, Shogun.

FS: Looking back I'm not entirely sure what we were hoping for or could have hoped for. Chris wanted to do it and I was pretty leery. I'd already seen a few of those forums go down in flames and really wasn't sure I wanted that kind of trouble. And if I had known any better I probably wouldn't have touched it. But luckily youthful stupidity prevailed and I got on board. Of course, that first forum went down pretty much as I had feared: war broke out, much violence ensued, and in the end the ladies-in-waiting were stabbing themselves as the castle fell. But it was a learning experience. It defined pretty much how I approached the forums afterwards, which was basically to let them do their own thing. Of course Chris' active participation allowed me to do that. If I didn't see plumes of smoke on the horizon I was happy. But a lot boils down to luck as far as just happening to have the right people show up. In this the Citadel has been enormously fortunate.

CW: I do remember Forest was pretty much against the idea of the forum, although I think the reasoning was more along the lines of “why bother?” than anything else. I really wanted to build up the “community” aspect of the website, and basically just thought it would be “cool” to have a forum, and so set one up with Delphi Forums, as well as the Yahoo group. I don’t think we ever really actively recruited for the forum, but people did seem to show up and the quality was very high considering the utter lack of available English sources when we started. It wasn’t without its difficulties, and the “Great Heisei Purge” of 2000 or 2001 almost killed the forum, but apparently some peasants took up in the ashes of the castle and we were able to rebuild. Like Forest said, it was a learning experience in more ways than one.

Let’s explore the roots of your interest in Japanese history? What was it that got you hooked?

FS: I don't think there was any one thing but rather just a collection of impressions and curiosities developed as a child that added up as I got older to a general interest. Why Japanese and not Ottoman history or even ancient Greek military history? I really couldn't say.

CW: For me, it was very gradual. I read James Clavell’s Shogun in the summer of 1992 in 5 days, cover to cover. And, as fate would have it, the entire miniseries aired on USA Network literally over the next week. I was absolutely hooked on the myth. At that point, I made the decision that I was going to Japan. Nothing was going to stop me, and somehow, I pulled it off. Living in Japan was my first giant lesson that the myths of the Samurai were very much myths. It really brought reality home to me.

When I was going to school in Japan, my interest in Japanese history still hadn’t really materialized; my focus was basically just the language. Well, that and all of the craziness that is Japan. It was about 1997 when my interest really started to kick in during a history seminar I took in college. I wrote a paper on Oda Nobunaga’s unification of Japan, and started building my library. It was also at this very time that I used the Internet for the first time as a research tool, and found that there was next to nothing there on the samurai.

Go on, please continue.

CW: In high school I knew next to nothing about Japanese history aside from James Clavell’s “Shogun”, samurai, Akira Kurosawa movies, and my involvement in the martial arts – normally a lethal combination. My entire concept of Japanese history was basically that there were honorable samurai, and the country was cut off from the rest of the world, and then Commodore Perry opened the country. Not much more than that. But Japan has changed so much over the past one thousand years that each era would probably hardly be recognizable to the previous or the next. There is a lot there, and that is what got me interested. My guess is that the average Joe who has heard about Japanese history probably has a misconception that is some twisted combination of the Sengoku and Edo period, and that is sort of where I started. I think the first history book I read was “Warrior Rule in Japan”, and my notes from that book would eventually be the foundation of my first few bits of information on the S-A website. That was followed by Sansom’s histories, and then I went on from there. As for the “allure”, it would have to be the epic scope and larger than life personalities that border on the mythic.

SA: While the SA is open to every epoch of Japanese history up through the Meiji period, your personal focus seems to be on the Sengoku period. Do you think this may have prevented a wider development in the publication of articles and posts dedicated to other periods? In other words, do you think that at least in the early stages of the SA’s life that it was perhaps too Sengoku-centric? Are there any other periods of Japanese history in which you have a special interest? Why?

FS: I think we were always aware we were going Sengoku-heavy and knew it wasn't ideal given the supposed scope of the page. But really, when we set out, we had no idea what we were getting into. A thousand years is a lot of ground to cover and honestly, we barely had the time to do what we did. My main focus after a while became the biographical dictionary and this was of course a Sengoku period work. So a lot of Sengoku stuff that ended up on the page spun off from my working on that. I started to address the imbalance at one point but real life matters overtook my attentions and I never really got back to it. I would say, without hesitation, that the articles composed by the friends of the Archives addressing these less-well-covered periods are far superior to anything I could have done. And this is more or less in keeping with my position on the Archives: I really just helped build the castle and hoped for worthies to come and use their expertise for the benefit of others. Happily, this has happened.

CW: I guess at the start that was where my interests lay, and I had a pretty narrow view – Heian seemed too esoteric and Edo too uneventful and boring. My whole concept of the page was that it was a database of information, and that we’d just keep on adding information year after year, and it would eventually balance out. Now, with the SamuraiWiki, there is a better balance I think.
Recently I’ve found that the Bakumatsu period is as interesting and eventful as the Sengoku period, even though it lasted only a fraction as long. During times of civil strife, the best and worst seem to appear out of the masses and make history. This goes for the Sengoku Daimyo, the personalities of the Bakumatsu, as well as the generals of the US Civil War, and makes for interesting history.

SA: Which persona from Japanese history do you find the most interesting and why?

FS: I don't really think I found any particular figure more interesting than any other in the end. The life of Nanbu Nobunao was as interesting to me as that of Takeda Shingen or Minamoto Yoshitsune. Of course the articles and bits dealing with Takeda Shingen on the page are going to be more extensive than that of Nobunao because Shingen loomed pretty large in history and there's a relative wealth of information on him. But I'd find a book on the life of Nobunao as interesting as one on Shingen.

CW: I’ve always found the little known people to be interesting. The random anecdotes that survived about relative nobodies fighting in the daimyo armies always captured my interest. Full biographies of people like Kani Saizo, Kanematsu Masayoshi, and other samurai who lived long lives serving various Daimyo would probably be as interesting, if not more so, than the actual Daimyo they served – unfortunately, that sort of information was lost to time long ago, if it ever existed in the first place. In theory, a Samurai born at the right time and living long enough could find themselves having served all three of the “unifiers” and battling all the way from Okehazama to Sekigahara. Unfortunately, unlike the US Civil War, low level samurai didn’t seem to keep detailed journals, so the best we can do is turn to fiction to imagine what it might have been like for these low level Samurai.

SA: Who are your favorite historians? Who has had the biggest influence on you?

CW: In the realm of Japanese history I’ve always liked Paul Varley - he tended to tackle the areas that had traditionally been ignored – warfare and Muromachi era Japan. I also found Kenneth Alan Grossberg’s “Japan’s Renaissance” fascinating and very readable. Unfortunately, as far as I know, that was his only history book. Sansom, and his “History of Japan” series is also a must-read, and very well written, although probably getting a little dated. In the big picture of “historians”, I’ve always been a fan of narrative histories, and have great respect for Gerald Astor, the father of the genre. Books like A Blood Dimmed Tide were the blueprints from which I think books by Stephen Ambrose and John Keegan, two more favorites of mine, came. They bring history to life with narrative, and the books read like novels and are always interesting. This is the type of thing I’d like to see develop in the area of Japanese history.

At this point, Forest received a call on his cell phone, and then after listening attentively for a minute, his eyes went wide and then narrowed into two reptilian slits. He sighed and then angrily sneered into the phone, ‘It’s a go-ahead. Take ‘em down!’ And with that, he stood up, knocking his chair back, threw down his fedora and removed his trench coat. Chris and I looked at Forest in shock and at the Bronze Age ancient Greek battle armor he was wearing and then looked at each other with our jaws agape. Forest then started sprinting towards the beach and into the water. Just then, an ancient Theban war galley rowed into view, and similarly clad men wearing battle helmets with plumes on them reached over and plucked Forest from the ocean. Once firmly planted on deck, Forest yelled something about being sorry, but he had an appointment and we vaguely heard the words ‘siege’ and ‘Peloponnesia’.
Still slack jawed, Chris and I looked at our beer bottles to see what we were really drinking and then gazed out towards the ocean where the Greek war galley was becoming a smaller dot on the horizon. It was decided that the interview would go on, minus Forest.

SA: That was, ummm…strange…to say the least. Where were we? Oh, yeah. Turnbull. The author Stephen Turnbull is often much maligned in the SA Citadel forums and elsewhere. What do you really feel about his work? Is he doing the community a service with his numerous and frequent publications about samurai?

CW: Not really sure. It feeds the “I’m an honorable modern samurai” crowd probably just as much as it gets people interested who might actually want to get to the real history.

SA: But to clarify, you don’t have a problem per say with “pop” Japanese history, or do you? How would you classify the Samurai Archives?

CW: I have a problem with fake history and bad history for the sole benefit of either one martial art or another or to capitalize on the general lack of knowledge to pander to the “I’m a modern Samurai, and all Samurai were honorable” people.

SA: As an amateur historian, how do you feel about the current state of pre-modern Japanese studies in the world of academia?

CW: Compared to 10 years ago, it seems to be exploding in interesting directions. I’d really love to see high-profile military historians enter the mix though. Rice counting, cultural examinations, and such have their place, but I’d love to see military history. After all, the 16th century was essentially 100 years of warfare, and Japan is like a microcosm – it’s like world war in a bottle – so much happened, and there is so much documentation that has survived. It would be great to see.

What kept you from pursuing a post-graduate PMJS degree?

CW: In my case, time, timing, and money. I.E. “real life”.

SA: You and Forest both share a great passion for Japanese history and genuinely seem interested in trying to impart your knowledge, but what about writing? Have you two ever seriously tried to collaborate on writing a book?

CW: We did, actually, but the scope was so ridiculously huge and real life kept getting in the way anyway, so the end result was the “Sengoku Biographical Dictionary” you see on the website.

SA: If you were to write a book, what would topic or persona would you want to focus on?

CW: I’d prefer to avoid the ones that have been over killed – Nobunaga, Ieyasu, Hideyoshi, etc. And find someone who is lesser known but with sufficient documentation to actually put a book together.

SA: Swinging the focus back onto the Samurai Archives, what has been the most rewarding experience you’ve had over the past ten years with running the site and forum? What’s been your biggest frustration?

CW: It’s been pretty neat seeing it change and evolve over the years. The biggest frustration without a doubt is plagiarism by Wikipedia. Because Wikipedia moderators are so impotent and indecisive, getting plagiarized content removed has been a nightmare of epic proportions. Wikipedia is fine, but I despise with a passion anyone who either plagiarizes, or who is in a position to stop it but doesn’t, and if Wikipedia disappeared forever, I’d be pretty happy.

SA: What have been some of the more memorable threads or discussion groups that you, as Shogun, were particularly happy with because of scholarly content?

CW: The discussion groups. We gotta bring that back.

SA: Is there anything you think the SA can do to keep its more knowledgeable members motivated and active? How can we stop membership attrition?

CW: I think for the most part all we can rely on is self-motivation. Everyone has a life (well, at least I assume so), and there is only so much one can do to garner interest when in the long run, it comes down to personal interest and intrinsic motivation.

SA: Looking at the SA in the near to mid terms, what can members and as well as casual visitors expect to see?

CW: Well, eventually the plan is to create an entire new section of interviews and reviews based on the blog, and we’ll see what else. I try not to set schedules, since I rarely make them.

SA: Well, I think we’ll end it on that note. It’s been a fun but rather strange experience.

CW: Yeah, I’d say so!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent interview. Very interesting to hear a bit more about the history of the site, motivations behind it, etc.

    Congrats to Chris and Forest on the 10th anniversary, for creating something which has taken off and survives still, and to everyone collectively I suppose, on being a part of this, and helping it survive and flourish.