Friday, March 28, 2014

Katsu Kaishu, Navigator Of Chaos: An Interview With Romulus Hillsborough, Author Of “Samurai Revolution”, Pt. 1

Romulus Hillsborough is the author of several popular books dealing with the Bakumatsu/early Meiji period of Japanese history and the personalities that shaped its course. These include Shinsengumi: The Shogun's Last Samurai Corps, Samurai Tales: Courage, Fidelity and Revenge in the Final Years of the Shogun (an expansion of his earlier Samurai Sketches), and the work for which he is perhaps best known, Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai. Just published is Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun's Last Samurai. Samurai Revolution tells the story of the final years of the shogunate in the 1850’s and 60’s to the last rebellion of the former samurai class in 1877. It’s largely told through the life and works of Katsu Kaishu, a vassal of the Tokugawa who was both loved and loathed by the shogunate and its Imperial Loyalist enemies. We found it to be not only an excellent biography of Katsu, but an exceedingly well-done, intricate, and clearly written overview of this vital period of Japanese history. 

Recently the SA talked to Mr. Hillsborough (pictured here with the memorial tablet presented to San Francisco by Osaka in 1960 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Kanrin Maru’s voyage to that city-a voyage captained by Katsu Kaishu) about the book and some of the issues it explores. In the following interview, RH is author Romulus Hillsborough and SA is the Samurai Archives’ Randy Schadel. 

SA: Mr. Hillsborough, congratulations on the publication of Samurai Revolution and thanks for taking the time to discuss the new book with the Samurai Archives. Could you start off by letting our readers know a bit of your backgroundyour career, education, and travels?

RH: First of all, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak to the readers of your excellent forum. As for my background, I grew up in Los Angeles, CA. I have a BA in English and an MA in humanities. My passions are writing and reading (mostly, literature, history and philosophy). My favorite writers over the years have been (in reverse chronological order) Friedrich Nietzsche, Eugene O’Neill, Mark Twain, William Butler Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Shiba Ryotaro, Ernest Hemingway, and J.R.R. Tolkien. I practiced a Japanese martial art in an organization called Shotokan Karate of America (SKA), chief instructor Tsutomu Ohshima, for more than 30 yearsincluding in Los Angeles, Tokyo and San Francisco. Shortly after graduating from college I went to Japan, where I lived for around 16 years, and where I “came of age” as a writer. In the mid-1980’s I worked for popular Japanese magazines while researching and writing my first book, Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai, an historical novel. All of my other books were written after I returned to the United States in the 1990’s. My martial arts practice along with my experience living, studying and working in Japan have greatly influenced my writing. 

SA: Samurai Revolution is quite the ambitious work, weighing in at 600 pages and giving a comprehensive overview of the decline of the Bakufu (the Tokugawa shogunate) and eventual extinction of the samurai class. It spans the gamut from the earliest rumblings of foreign interference in Japanese affairs that pre-dated Perry’s Black Ships to the last throes of the samurai during the Satsuma Rebellion. It does an excellent job of explaining in an understandable and detailed manner the sometimes confusing shifts of allegiance and philosophy undergone by groups as well as individuals. Did you start off with the idea of writing such a comprehensive and detailed work, or did it take on a life of its own during the writing process? 

RH: When I conceived of a book focusing on Katsu Kaishu around the year 2000 (shortly after publishing Samurai Sketches), I intended to write a fictionalized “autobiography.” But after working on it for a while, I abandoned that format for two reasons. One was the dearth of published material about Kaishu in the English language. I thought that there ought to be at least one detailed, historically and culturally accurate non-fiction account of the life and times of such an important and interesting figure published for an international readership. I wanted this book to be the definitive portrait (it is not a biography in the traditional sense) of Katsu Kaishu in English. And I also wanted to make the book more of a comprehensive treatment of the Bakumatsu era than I had originally intended, presenting this history as the human drama that it actually is. To do so I needed to focus on the personalities of its leading players, giving them more attention than I would have in an “autobiography.” These include the last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu and his father Tokugawa Nariaki of Mito; their nemesis Ii Naosuke, the dictatorial regent to the boy shogun Iemochi whose assassination in the spring of 1860 was the beginning of the end of the Tokugawa Bakufu; Yoshida Shoin, Takasugi Shinsaku, and Katsura Kogoro, the three most important figures of Choshu during the Bakumatsu, posthumously succeeded by Ito Shunsuke (later Hirobumi, Meiji Japan’s first prime minister) and Inoue Monta (later Kaoru); Kaishu’s and Shoin’s teacher, Sakuma Shozan, perhaps the most brilliant of all, who even before Perry had advised the Bakufu to develop a modern navy to defend against Western imperialism; Saigo Takamori and Okubo Toshimichi of Satsuma, the leaders of the Satsuma clan and collectively the most powerful driving force behind the revolution; Shimazu Nariakira, the revered daimyo of Satsuma who died in his prime, some believe by poisoning by his own vassals; Sakamoto Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro, the two political outlaws (ronin) from Tosa who managed to unite Satsuma and Choshu in a political-military alliance that would change history and who were assassinated together shortly after Yoshinobu abdicated based on a plan formulated by Ryoma; and others who I will not mention here but who have also been given ample attention in Samurai Revolution

And during the eleven years it took me to complete Samurai Revolution (including two periods totaling about two years when I did not work on it), it did “take on a life of its own”actually it went through several metamorphoses. For example, my original intent was to end the book with the fall of the Bakufu and the peaceful surrender of Edo Castle as negotiated by Kaishu and Saigo. But as I approached the end of the story, I realized I could not simply drop itand let my readers wonder what happens next in this riveting human drama. So I included Book 2 to chronicle the rise of Imperial Japan. The definitive and culminating event during that era (i.e., the first decade of Meiji) is the Satsuma Rebellion; and the driving personality behind it is Saigo, for whom Kaishu had the courage to continue expressing his undying admiration, never once forgetting their friendship even after Saigo had died as an alleged “traitor,” stripped of his Imperial rank, for his supposed leading role in the Rebellion. I also thought that I would need an Epilogue to complete the manuscript, which at around 325,000 words was substantially longer than the edited published version. And so, in its final form, Samurai Revolution is a detailed examination and analysis of the Bakumatsu era through the eyes of Katsu Kaishu, who seemed to me the best spokesman for the era (for reasons I explain below.) Regarding the reason for the epithet “the shogun’s last samurai,” that is explained in the Epilogue. 

SA: Speaking of shifts of allegiance and philosophy, what was the catalyst that caused the Sonno-Joi (Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians) groups to embrace Western learning and technology, dropping Sonno-Joi for Kinno-Tobaku (Imperial Loyalism, Down with the Bakufu)? 

RH: The short answer, I think, is an honest acceptance of reality around the summer of 1863, ten years after Perry first showed up. Until then Sonno-Joi had been embraced with religious zeal. In the summer of 1862, Takasugi Shinsaku, one of the leaders of Sonno-Joi in Choshu, traveled to Shanghai during the Taiping Rebellion. Upon arriving he was struck by the large number of foreign ships, many of them warships, in the harbor. And he was deeply troubled to see Chinese kowtowing to white men and the defilement of a Confucian shrine, which was being used as a British military encampment. He also observed modern weaponry, including breech-loading guns, at foreign merchant houses in the city. All of this convinced him of the futility of trying to take on the likes of Great Britain, France and other Western powers without first developing a modern military. He concluded that there was no room for Joi (“Expel the Barbarians”) in the Sonno (“Revere the Emperor”) equation, if the rebels intended to overthrow the Bakufu and create a modern Japanese state under the Emperor, strong enough to deal with Western imperialism from a position of poweras Takasugi’s martyred teacher, Yoshida Shoin, had espoused. But most Choshu samurai remained fanatically anti-foreignuntil Choshu was humiliated with the bombardment by foreign ships and brief occupation of its territory on the Shimonoseki coast by French troops in the summer of 1863. This, then, was the catalyst which forced them to accept the reality that Joi was impossible. A few days after the French occupation, Takasugi established the Kiheitai, Japan’s first modern militianot to “expel the barbarians” but to overthrow the government (i.e., the Bakufu) which had let them in. 

Meanwhile, Satsuma, the other leader in the Sonno-Joi movement, experienced a rude awakening of its own when it engaged British naval forces in its own front yard on Kagoshima Bay about a month after the bombardment of Shimonoseki. The British had come to Satsuma to demand reparation for the murder of a British subject, Charles Lennox Richardson, by Satsuma men at Namamugi in the previous year (the notorious Namamugi Incident, also known as the Richardson Affair). Satsuma refused and the British attacked. Though Satsuma put up a good fight, its forces were no match for the superior guns and warships of the British, which, in the words of Ernest Satow, who was aboard one of the ships, “dismounted some of their batteries and laid the town to ruins,” before retreating. As a condition for peace, however, Satsuma agreed to pay an indemnity and punish Richardson’s killers, though the second part of its promise was never fulfilled. As I wrote in Samurai Revolution: “But the Satsuma men learned an important lesson from the whole ordeal, realizing once and for all that they were not equipped to expel the foreigners by military force.” Ironically, the Satsuma men embraced the British as allies to help them build up their military in the gathering revolution. 

SA: Most works on the Bakumatsu center around figures of the Loyalist factions, most notably Sakamoto Ryoma and Saigo Takamori. However, Samurai Revolution uses Katsu Rintaro (usually known as Katsu Kaishu in the West), a vassal of the Tokugawa shogun, as its focus. What made Katsu the appropriate vessel to carry such a wide-ranging narrative? 

RH: Beside my own personal interest in Katsu Kaishu (he’s generally known by this name in the Japanese literature as well) both as a personality and an historical figure, and the lack of accurate and detailed information on him in English, he was one of the few men on the Tokugawa side who commanded the respect and goodwill of the Imperial Loyalists. In fact, he was more popular among the enemy side than among people in the Tokugawa camp, where he was widely reviled as a traitor (though he was not a traitor in any sense of the word)and this is an overriding theme in my book, as reflected in my use of the term “outsider” to describe him. (“Outsider” is included in the titles of each of the five Parts comprising the book.) And since he had many friends and allies among the Loyalists, including most notably Ryoma and Saigo but also Katsura Kogoro and others from Choshu, Satsuma, and Tosa, and even Anegakoji Kintomo, one of the two leaders of the Sonno-Joi faction at the Imperial Court until his assassination in 1863, Kaishu was able to see things from both perspectives. So much so that he eventually told his superiors in the Bakufu, “The Bakufu must willingly fall,” which is an astonishing pronouncement from a loyal Tokugawa vassal with the high position of commissioner of warships. And it was precisely his flexibility of mind and his moral and physical courage to admit that the Bakufu’s time had run out that earned him the respect of the other side and the enmity of his own camp. But for all of his honesty and pragmatic realism, he was loyal to the Tokugawa family to the bitter endwhich, I think, was one of the reasons that he embraced men such as Ryoma and Saigo to do the “dirty work” of actually overthrowing the Bakufuwhich as a samurai of the Tokugawa clan he was incapable ofalthough in his later years he did say about the Bakufu: “Eventually I brought it down myself.” 

SA: It’s somewhat ironic that the seeds of the shogunate’s downfall were found in the activities of Mito Han, itself a major Tokugawa branch house. However, despite being a major player in the early stages of the Bakumatsu, they soon were eclipsed by activists from Choshu, Tosa, and Satsuma. What differentiated Mito Han’s brand of Imperial Loyalism from these other han? 

RH: As you mention, Mito was one of the Three Tokugawa Branch Houses (the “go-sanke”), the highest ranking of all the han. And so even the most radical of the Loyalists of Mito never opposed the Tokugawa Bakufu itself. But Mito was the cradle of Imperial Loyalism, which sprang from the Mito school of thought called Mitogakuand the retired daimyo of Mito, Tokugawa Nariaki (Yoshinobu’s father), had coined the term Sonno-Joi. As such, Nariaki, one of the most powerful voices within the Bakufu, was the champion of the early Imperial Loyalism movement. And though Mito would never oppose the Bakufu, it would and certainly did oppose certain elements within the Edo regime that it found reprehensible and anathema to Imperial Loyalism, most notably Ii Naosuke, who was finally assassinated by a band of eighteen ronin, seventeen from Mito and one from Satsumathough it was the Satsuma man who actually killed the regent, cutting off his head. 

Mito Han is very difficult to comprehend, which makes it even more difficult to explain. And since I will include a great deal about Mito Han and Mitogaku in my next book, I will save further commentary about Mito for the future. 

SA: One of Mito’s most notorious acts was the assassination of the shogun’s Tairo (Great Elder of the shogunate), Ii Naosuke. Naosuke was the lighting rod around which anti-foreign sentiment seemed to coagulate, both for opening certain ports to foreign trade and the often heavy handed way he dealt with political opponents. Did Ii ever have a realistic chance of garnering support for the way he handled foreign relations, or was any action he took doomed to fail (either by angering the Western nations or the anti-foreign Joi factions)?  

RH: Kind of “damned if he did and damned if he didn’t,” right? Yes, I would agree with that. In fact, Ii Naosuke was probably no less anti-foreign at heart than his biggest enemies including the most fervent “barbarian haters” of Mito, Satsuma, Choshu, and Tosa. If he had had his way Japan would have probably remained closed. But, like Katsu Kaishu and other progressive thinkers of the time, Ii Naosuke was a realist. I wrote a lengthy chapter about these issues in Samurai Revolution, in which I argue that Naosuke demonstrated political courage in concluding the foreign trade treaties in defiance of popular opinion and even the Imperial Court itself, and that as the most powerful man in Japan, “he faced a dangerous and crucial decision—and in making that decision it appears that he had the welfare of Japan first and foremost in his heart. And in his mind—and indeed the minds of most if not all of the reactionary feudal lords of the Tokugawa camp—the Bakufu was Japan. But unlike many of his fellow antiforeign reactionaries, Naosuke had the sense to realize that if he refused the Americans’ demands for a trade treaty, he faced the very real danger of a devastating war. On the other hand, if he yielded to those demands, he knew that he would have to deal with a country of hotheaded samurai who violently opposed opening the ports to the barbarians, and that those samurai were led by his nemesis, Nariaki.” And so, he decided to conclude the trade treaties as the lesser of two evils, thus saving Japan from foreign subjugation. And for that and his crackdown on his political enemies, he was eventually killed. 

SA: While the men who specialized in spreading violence and murder (from the numerous Loyalist assassins to the Shinsengumi) often become the face of the Bakumatsu in popular culture, many of the intellectual leaders (teachers in particular) had a far greater impact on the course of Japanese history in the 1850’s and 1860’s. Many of the Bakumatsu’s most famous figures (on both sides) received their intellectual training and core values from these teachers. Obviously your central character Katsu Rintaro was one of these teachers, but even the teacher needed to be taught. Could you tell us about a few of the other more notable teachers?  

RH: Katsu Kaishu’s two greatest teachers, I think, were Sakuma Shozan of Matsushiro Han and Yokoi Shonan of Kumamoto Han. Sakuma was also the teacher of Yoshida Shoin and many other notable men. He was a compelling character not only for his foresight and brilliance (his influence on Japan can be seen up to WWII) but for his quirky yet strong personality. He married Katsu Rintaro’s younger sister and it was Sakuma who gave Rintaro the pseudonym “Kaishu,” which Sakuma himself had used. One of his cherished slogans was “control the barbarians through barbarian technology,” as he had advised the Bakufu as early as 1850, three years before Perry showed up. I introduce that slogan here because it sums up Sakuma’s ideas of how to deal with the dangers of Western imperialism. I wrote quite a bit about him in Samurai Revolution, including his significant influence on both of Katsu and Yoshida. 

Yokoi was the chief political advisor to Matsudaira Shungaku, the powerful daimyo of Fukui (a Tokugawa-related house) who served as the Bakufu’s political director. (Shungaku was also a personal friend and political ally of Kaishu’s.) Kaishu described Yokoi as profound; and in his profundity, Kaishu found him “frightening.” “I’ve seen two frightening men in my life,” Kaishu said years later, in the 1890s. One was Yokoi, the other Saigo. “Yokoi didn’t know that much about the West; I taught him a thing or two [on that subject]. But there were often times, when it came to the high tone of his ideas, that I felt I could never reach [his level]. . . . Although Yokoi was not very good at working on his own, if there was anyone around who could implement his ideas, I thought that the two of them [could accomplish great things.]” As it turned out, two of Kaishu’s closest confidants on the anti-Bakufu side, Ryoma and Saigo, did implement Yokoi’s ideas, which of course changed history. 

Sakuma, Yokoi, and Ryoma were assassinated. Saigo too met a violent death in the Satsuma Rebellion. Kaishu himself was nearly assassinated on several occasions. They lived in an exceedingly violent time. 

SA: The shogunate failed badly in two abortive attempts to militarily chastise the rebels in Choshu Han. This not only led to a loss of respect among their allied han and foreign nations, but also much resentment among the various han for the seemingly harsh attitude they were taking towards Choshu (who, after all, were seen by many as just trying to carry out the Emperor’s edict of expelling the foreigners). Was this the turning point of the Bakumatsu? Did Choshu’s military abilities, the Bakufu’s failure, and public opinion serve to isolate the Bakufu from all but their most hardcore allies?  

RH: I don’t think it was a turning point in the revolution, the first of which came several years earlier in 1860 with Ii Naosuke’s assassination. The next turning point I think was the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance, concluded in early 1866. Without the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance, and the help of Sakamoto Ryoma’s company in procuring weapons from foreign traders, Choshu would not have had the means to defeat the Bakufu in the war which broke out in the summer of 1866. So more than describing the war as a turning point, I look at it more as a nail in the coffin of the Bakufu, which was already tottering before the war startedwhich was why Choshu was able to win. But when Yoshinobu became shogun at the end of that year, things started to look better for the Bakufuand had he played his cards a little differently, and been more lucky at the game, he might have been able to revive the teetering regime that he had inherited. Of course, he did notbut I write about those things in detail in Samurai Revolution

SA: While the focus usually falls on Choshu Han as the driving force behind the anti-Bakufu factions, in many ways it seemed that it was Satsuma Han that determined the course of the Bakumatsu. From allies of the shogunate and sworn enemies of Choshu they abruptly allied with Choshuand during the early years of the Meiji Period became enemies of Choshu again. They seemed to be the true wild card of the Bakumatsu, never keeping to a consistent policy but rather adapting to opportunities as they presented themselves. While Sakamoto Ryoma’s part in securing the ‘Satcho’ alliance is well known, why was Satsuma even willing to ally itself with enemies? Did they see parallels between the treatment of Choshu and their own position, and perhaps thought that the increasing influence of Tokugawa Yoshinobu on Bakufu policy (he was not yet shogun) posed a danger to Satsuma?  

RH: There were numerous men and factors who influenced Satsuma’s decision (which was actually Saigo’s and Okubo’s decision) to ally itself with Choshu, including the ideas of their late revered daimyo Shimazu Nariakira, Satsuma’s relationship with the British, the ideas of Katsu Kaishu and Sakamoto Ryoma, and Satsuma’s (i.e., Saigo’s and Okubo’s) flexibility to seize an opportunity when it presented itself. The alliance with Choshu was such an opportunity, and the seeds of the alliance were planted in Saigo’s mind by Kaishu; and they were nurtured by Ryoma. But I feel that this question is far too complicated to do justice to in this forum. Therefore I refer readers to Samurai Revolution, in which I discuss in detail Satsuma’s history and ethos (which resembles the ethos of the ancient Spartans in its stoicism), the origins of the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance, and the roles of those two han, among others, in the overthrow of the Bakufu. But let me share one of my favorite Katsu Kaishu quotes here: “The difference between Choshu and Satsuma is that Choshu men make money to gain political power, whereas Satsuma men gain political power to make money. . . . A Choshu man will carefully write down his last will and testament to avoid being misunderstood after death. . . . But a Satsuma man is very straightforward. When he encounters a situation in which he knows he will die, he won’t utter a word.” Here, Kaishu was referring to the Satsuma ethos. 

SA: Yamauchi Yodo, the retired daimyo of Tosa Han, ruthlessly moved to purge the Loyalist element from his domain. He was well known for being an ardent supporter of the shogunate. Yet it was largely because of him that the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, resigned from the office and returned power to Emperor Meiji. Why did such a loyal shogunate vassal end up working towards its removal from power?  

RH: All I will say here is that Yodo did not work to remove the Bakufu from power. Rather he worked to save the Bakufu and Yoshinobu from destruction by endorsing Sakamoto Ryoma’s plan for the shogun to abdicate peacefully and restore Imperial rule, thereby expecting a place for the former shogun within the new government. The detailed explanation to all of this is in my new book. 

Part 2 of our interview with Mr. Hillsborough will be forthcoming shortly and will touch on such topics as the early years of the Meiji Restoration, the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, the advantages of writing about places an author has explored in person, assassination conspiracy theories, and even a bit of speculative history. For now, you can order “Samurai Revolution” on the SA’s Amazon store HERE or directly from Tuttle Publishing’s website HERE . Visit Romulus Hillsborough’s “Samurai Revolution” website for more about the book along with interesting essays and news items (such as documents recently discovered in Kochi sealed with Sakamoto Ryoma’s blood).

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Tale Of Badgers And Tigers: Lian Hearn’s “The Storyteller And His Three Daughters”

Akabane Sei has problems. He’s a rakugo storyteller, specializing in comic stories designed to send his audience home laughing and feeling good. But things are not easy for a rakugoka in Meiji Japan. Audiences are dwindling as new forms of entertainment become popular. There’s even increased competition in the person of Jack Green-an Englishman who has enchanted crowds with his exotic tales of the West, such as “sailors in search of a golden sheepskin and women whose faces turned men to stone”. Complicating things further are Sei’s troubles with his wife Tae and three daughters. Shigure, an aspiring novelist, has left her husband and returned to Sei’s house. Teru has also returned home, driven from her husband not by another woman, but another man. And oldest daughter Yuri, while still remaining with her husband Kat’chan, has to come to terms with his enchantment with Christianity. Worse, Sei has lost his muse and has a bad case of ‘storyteller’s block’. He needs new material but can’t seem to think of a single thing. What could help bring him out of his midlife crisis? When Sei is approached by the Black Ocean, a secret society devoted to upholding the ‘traditions of the past’, it seems that this might be the key to his professional resurrection. But after being ‘encouraged’ to write a story dealing with Korea that will reinforce the imperialist goals of the Black Ocean, he instead falls afoul of the group after penning “The History of a Nose”. Based on an obscure account written by a 16th century monk, it has the opposite effect and could have a disastrous effect on Sei’s career-not to mention his very life.

Sei is the title character of bestselling author Lian Hearn’s new book, “The Storyteller and His Three Daughters”. Hearn, best known for her “Tales of the Otori” series, has recently turned to tales set in the real-life Japan of the 19th century. “The Storyteller” blends a simple story of family with a look at the early stages of colonialism in the Japanese government. Hearn uses her fictional family along with characters such as Jack Green and Sei’s other acquaintances to explore Japan’s transformation from the days of the Tokugawa Shogunate to a modern, industrialized nation-and its increasingly warlike stance. 

The main storyline revolves around the shadow group Black Ocean (an actual historical organization) as it attempts to coerce Sei to produce propaganda that will support their agenda of invading Korea. One of its leaders, former samurai Yamagishi Takayuki, attempts to coerce Sei to write stories that depict Korea in a negative light in order to sway public opinion towards an invasion. Sei, deep in debt, at first reluctantly feels obliged to comply when Takayuki settles his debts. But a chance encounter in a bookstore with the memoirs of a monk, Keinen, gives Sei pause to reconsider. Keinen historically accompanied Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea in the 1590’s and bore witness to any number of horrors. He likened the slaughter in Korea to the Buddhist Realm of Beasts, and recorded his observations of the atrocities. The spirit of Keinen seems to haunt Sei, tormenting him with visions of carnage and mutilation. The day of the O-bon festival (the festival where the Japanese honor the spirits of the dead) sees Keinen at his most powerful, seemingly calling down the wrath of heaven upon the land and punctuating his abuse of Sei with an earthquake. Is the spirit of Keinen real, or is he just a manifestation of Sei’s conscience? It’s never made clear, but the manuscript mysteriously disappears after Sei decides to reconsider. Instead of an anti-Korean tale, he performs ‘The History of a Nose’, a reference to the thousands of noses cut from slaughtered Koreans during Hideyoshi’s invasion. Rather than a comedic tale written to depict Korea in a negative light, it instead dwells on the horrors of war as related by one of the noses in Kyoto’s Mimizuka (the misnamed ‘ear mound’, which actually contains the noses collected by the samurai invaders during the Korean invasion of the 1590’s). Sei’s story chills his audience and infuriates the Black Ocean. Their influence sees him banned from rakugo and his life is now at risk. Can a man armed only with words prevail against a group more than willing to assassinate its enemies? If this was one of Sei’s stories, he might see his role as the badger against Takayuki’s tiger. And after several more twists, the badger sets out to confront the tiger in its lair. 

The adventures of Sei’s daughters bring other cultural issues of the day into the storyline. Shigure doesn’t care about a woman’s traditional role and only wants to pursue her career as a novelist. Teru, who takes up Western style knitting as a moneymaking venture, only wants to please her husband but is at a loss as to how. Yuri’s stable relationship is threatened by her husband’s religious awakening. The elimination of the ban on Christianity, the birth of the women’s rights movement in Japan, the colonization of the northern island of Ezo/Hokkaido, and sexual roles in the changing times (if indeed it changed at all) are all examined in the story on a personal level where the effects of national issues on an individual can be seen. In an amusing scene, there’s even what could be called an example of early cosplay at work! Other characters serve the same function, such as Okuda Satoshi. A scholar of all things France, he runs into trouble with the government for his anti-warfare stance as part of the People’s Rights movement and is imprisoned. There’s also a stunningly handsome Korean stagehand, Kyu, that becomes an integral part of the Black Ocean’s schemes and who may become the focus of anti-Korean sentiment. 

The English storyteller Jack Green serves as the symbolic embodiment of the Western invasion of Japanese culture-and also how the Japanese were able to absorb it into that culture while maintaining much of the old ways. He also provides a character that Western audiences can use as their entry into Sei’s world. Jack becomes an important character in Sei’s life, far and beyond his effect on Sei’s professional career. A man who initially aroused only jealousy and anger in Sei becomes an important ally, and perhaps a friend. 

From this tapestry of events, Sei draws the inspiration for the work he is to become most famous for-“The Silk Kimono”. In the world of “The Storyteller”, life doesn’t simply imitate art, it becomes art. 

Hearn uses an interesting writing technique that she learned from researching early Meiji period novels. Many of these novels would present conversations between characters in a format similar to a stage play (or a modern-day film script). Her protagonist Sei uses this method to record his personal conversations. It’s an interesting departure from the traditional Western novel, giving it a ‘period feel’ that adds to the reader’s immersion into the culture of the times. In this way it’s much like Royall Tyler’s recent translation of the “Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike)” where he renders the text much as it would have been narrated by a biwa hoshi (blind lute priests that performed the Heike for audiences). In “The Storyteller”, it also has the effect of drawing the reader into the story. Readers become silent participants in his conversations, giving them a sense of immediacy and realism. 

In our opinion, Hearn writes the best researched, most accurate Japanese historical fiction to be had. Her previous book, “Blossoms and Shadows”, is the last word in historical fiction dealing with Japan (and one of its characters-medical student Itasaki Michi-is a major character in “The Storyteller”). It was a masterpiece of blending fiction and fact. The level of research and her ability to weave it into the threads of her storyline was unsurpassed, and she’s brought the same approach to “The Storyteller”. However, “The Storyteller” is a far more accessible tale, not requiring the level of Japanese historical knowledge from the reader that “Blossoms” at times did. Here the history tends to confine itself to cultural details and the day to day life of the characters rather than the major events of the day, blending in unobtrusively with the story but infusing it with a sense of authenticity. She also works in several classical rakugo tales as well as some of her own. It also alludes to the assassination of the Korean Empress Myeongseon in 1895 and an obscure but delightful theory that the Meiji Emperor was not the son of Emperor Komei but a substitute. But Hearn gives it a light touch, never allowing the historical connections to draw attention from the story. 

While historical accuracy can greatly enhance any work of fiction, the real test is whether it provides an engaging tale with characters the reader can become invested in. And here “The Storyteller” excels. Sei is a character that the reader can easily identify with. He has the same sort of financial, professional, and family problems that we experience 130 years later. He’s hardly the perfect hero, lying, running up debts, ignoring his wife, and in general acting a lot like a real human being. But underlying it all is his deep sense of sincerity and real affection for his loved ones. Sei even marches into the den of the tiger, risking his life to come to the aid of a helpless friend. When all is said and done, Sei does not sell out his art and integrity, and helps his family see their various crises through-albeit at times with some very non-traditional solutions! It’s a lovely story where you can feel the conflicts, the worries, and the joy of a cast of diverse and well thought-out characters. 

An interesting non-fiction companion piece to read in conjunction with “The Storyteller” is Ian McArthur’s new book “Henry Black: On Stage in Meiji Japan”. Black was Hearn’s inspiration for the Jack Green character in “The Storyteller”, and both Hearn and McArthur discovered Black while reading an article on him in Monumenta Nipponica (they’ve also appeared together to co-promote their books). Black was an Australian national who lived in Japan from the time he was three in 1861. Unlike many Westerners in the Meiji period who had little interest in learning Japanese culture, Black embraced it, eventually becoming the first foreign-born Kabuki actor and rakugoka. He specialized in telling Western tales adapted for his Japanese audience. Black was fluent in spoken Japanese, married a Japanese woman and eventually became a Japanese citizen. He lived a fascinating, sometimes tragic life. McArthur’s book will not only enhance your enjoyment of “The Storyteller” but provide a great read on its own. 

“The Storyteller and His Three Daughters” manages to combine a story of intrigue and national issues with a simple tale of a family’s love and the bonds between them. It provides a microcosm of how Japan dealt with the rapidly changing times of the Meiji period. There aren’t any ninja, huge pitched battles, or scenes of mass conflict-just the simple moral dilemma of the badger facing the jaws of the tiger. When Sei ends his story with the traditional rakugo ending of “And now I leave you in the capable hands of the next story”, one only wants to hear that next story. We hope that Lian Hearn will oblige.

“The Storyteller and His Three Daughters” is available for Kindle through Amazon HERE, or get a copy of the Australian print version HERE. You can download an excerpt HERE

The Kindle format has several advantages over a print version, the most important of which is that it can be updated with new content. In this case, Hearn has expanded the historical notes and added contemporary photographs and artwork. The Kindle version also has a new and more interesting cover. One of the nice things is that you don’t actually need a Kindle to read the story-there are free Kindle Reader apps for PC, Mac, Android, and IPhone/IPad so virtually any electronic device with access to the net can be used.