My journey through the world of writing and everything that lies in between…

Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

Heavy Heart

My heart is breaking for Japan this morning. They were hit with a massive 8.9 magnitude quake off the coast of Sendai (northern Japan). It’s the biggest in the 140 years they’ve been keeping records. Much of the damage was caused by the 23-foot monster tsunami that hit the coast near Sendai.

From what I’ve read, trains, flights and most public transportation has been stopped–something that almost never happens in country dependent upon it. Millions of people are without power and thousands more have lost their homes along the coast. Unfortunately the death toll will be rising over the next few days and weeks 😦

Here’s a site I found that gives the truly heart stopping truth with pictures of the devastation. I’ve been crying on and off all morning…Japan is a nation that’s had my heart for awhile (if you haven’t noticed…). Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers.

Tsukiji: The Former Foreign District

My book really has one main setting, which is in the small town of Kakunodate in Northern Japan.  Most of it takes place here, where Naomi learns her Japanese heritage. However, it starts off in Tsukiji, which was the foreigners district in Tokyo prior to 1899.

Foreign settlements were established specifically for the Westerners and were in cities like Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe. Tsukiji was on the outskirts of the city, build on reclaimed land with canals and bridges. It was built here because it safely removed from the center of the city in the event any anti-foreign violence erupted.  Here in Tsukiji, many Western ways of life spread into the city and throughout the country, from fashion, to new forms of education and medicine, to the Western style hotels, like the Seiyoken. A few schools and hospitals were started here that continue today: St. Paul’s (or Rikkyo) University, the American School in Japan and St. Luke’s Hospital.

After 1899, foreigners were no longer confined to living in Tsukiji. The district was nearly completely destroyed by the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and after it, government officials decided that relocating the city’s fishmongers to the former foreign district was a better idea. It’s now the internationally known Tsukiji Fish Market.

Tsukiji is the area where my MC Naomi grew up. Though she’s only there for the first chapter and a half of my novel, it still remains an important part of my character’s background.

For more information and some nifty old photographs of Tokyo’s foreign district as well as the famous hotel Seiyoken, head on over to the Old Tokyo page here and here.

The Dark Ocean Society

The leader of the Genyosha, Mitsuru Toyama, at age 25 (circa 1880). By this time, he was already exerting quite a bit of influence and planting the seeds of his ultranationalist group.

Ah, the Dark Ocean Society…one of the main groups that was integral in developing Japan’s national conscious prevalent during WWII. What does this have to do with my book though?

Well, in my story, I’ve developed a fictional similar “society” and of course they’re looking for my MC because she’s the daughter of a very influential businessman in Japan (again, fictional :)) These secret societies–of which the Genyosha helped spawn many–would use underhanded means to coerce people into supporting their cause, which was generally a more nationalistic, “anti-foreign”, expansionist agenda. According to David Kaplan, in his book Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld, the Dark Ocean Society or the Genyosha, almost single-handedly formed a “new patriotic social order” and “through a campaign of terror, blackmail and assasination, [their] work would prove highly effective , exerting particular influence over members of the officer corps and the government bureaucracy.”

A little scary huh? Well, their leader, Mitsuru Toyama, made sure all of his “agents” were placed in all aspects of society–from simple plumbers, carpenters and other tradesmen, to body guards surrounding important political officials as well as “strong-armed persuaders” (i.e. “thugs”) to local businessmen. Many of the agents were trained in martial arts, foreign language and spying techniques so that they could infiltrate whatever level of society they needed.

The Genyosha members were also responsible for maiming foreign minister Okuma Shigenobu in 1889 by throwing a bomb into his carriage; this happens the year before my novel takes place. Over the years they also stabbed and murdered a few other important statesmen. They also had a rather extensive network of brothels set up in China to gather information from its wealthy patrons.

In the 1890s, when my novel takes place, they were really beginning to gain quite a bit of influence and national attention, even though they were technically “secret.” I’m still trying to decide if I’m going to use the actual group in my book or a fictional one based off them (thinking the fictional one may be a bit easier, not sure though). Anyway, they’re quite interesting to learn about and I only just touched on some of it. A great deal more info can be found in Kaplan’s book as well as various places online.

The Meiji Era: The Perfect Setting

Samurai of the Satsuma clan, during the Boshin...

Image via Wikipedia

The Meiji Era lasted from 1868 to 1912. Until the arrival of Perry’s “Black Ships” in 1853, the country had been isolated from the world for 200 years. Once the country’s borders were forcibly opened, the country began to change rapidly.

The old feudal system was demolished by 1868, with supreme rule transferring over from the last Tokugawa shogun to Emperor Meiji.  Of course, there was some resentment from the samurai class, whose power was taken away during this time. The well-known movie, The Last Samurai (which is completely inaccurate with Tom Cruise’s character by the way) is set during this time and the last rebellion by the samurai in 1877.

It was a time of drastic change–in military, education and the general way of life. Some embraced the change, quickly adapting to the new Western clothing and ways, while many others still preferred the old way of life. By the 1890s,  a more conservative and ultra-national train of thought began to be adopted by many, with the rise of dozens of small ultra-nationalist (and often terrorist) groups. The main one, called the Dark Ocean Society, or the Genyosha, wished to expand Japan’s growing military power across the Asian continent. The roots of Japan’s ideology during World War II  can be traced back to this time.

With all of this upheaval in society, what better time to choose for a novel, right? Especially one where the MC is part of both cultures. I did this purposefully, to try to examine on a small scale the whole East meets West conflict. And of course, once I did more research and discovered that the late 1880s/early 1890s was a time when terrorist groups really began to take hold of the country, I found my antagonist (well, one of them anyway.)

Later this week, I’ll examine the Dark Ocean Society in more detail whom I base my fictional terrorist group off of.

This is why I love writing historical fiction; there’s so many interesting tidbits that you find when researching. Of course, it can be challenging, but it’s always exciting when you find something that can really work into the plot of your book. 🙂

Background for The Scarlet Daughter

I’m sure some of you wonder why I chose to write and set The Scarlet Daughter  in 1890s Japan (the Meiji era in Japanese history). Why choose a time and place that’s fairly obscure to most of Western culture?

Well there are many reasons, so many that I’ll do a little “mini-series” on my blog about it. I’m sure it won’t be very interesting to many–especially if you aren’t a huge history fan–but I thought it might be something of interest to a few 🙂  The Meiji era is such an interesting time, when Japan truly transformed. And it’s a time when the country had to adjust to many new and very foreign ideas, something that didn’t always settle well with many who were used to the old ways. This is just a sampling of some of the conflicts that I try to examine in The Scarlet Daughter through Naomi’s character.

Of course, there’s much more–so much that I’m still researching and learning about it (just discovered another new tidbit today that may change Ryuji’s backstory slightly). Anyway, I’ll post more details about it come next week, in case you’re interested. If not, well that’s your loss 😛

Arranged Marriage

So…I’m trying to decide if I should add this new “twist” to my Scarlet Daughter  or not. The twist? An arranged marriage. Well, sort of.

First, a bit of background.

Arranged marriage was pretty much the way you got married in Japan. It was a family affair. You see, Japan was built on the concept of ie or the household. Your family generally consisted of three generations (grandparents, children, grandchildren) and the family head (the grandfather or father) would often be the one who decided who you’d marry. There were go-betweens too, sort of like matchmakers in the Chinese society, although I’ve yet to find out how big of a role they played and how similar it was (if at all) to the Chinese. Anyway, the concept of a love match was an individual affair–not community based–and was about as foreign to them as the idea of a community based society is to us. Marriage was for the benefit of the family and love came, if you were lucky, after time.

Now in Japan, pre-1898 (before the Meiji Civil Code) marriages were not really “legalized” meaning there wasn’t really a huge ceremony, court records, etc. There may have been a small private affair between families but that was it. At least from the research I’ve been able to find.

The divorce rate in Japan pre 1898 was also very high, the highest in the world at that time. This was because unions were essentially done on a “trial marriage” basis and since there was really no legal tie-ups and whatnot, divorces were as simple as the husband issuing a mikudarihan or “three-and-a-half lines” dissolving the union. Of course, it was only the husband who could issue it (although in some cases, the woman’s natal family would coerce him into making one) and it generally happened within two years. Mainly it was because the couple simply were incompatible with one another, although there were also instances where the husband simply grew tired of his wife, or she wasn’t producing an heir, etc.

A divorce at that time also didn’t carry with it a social stigma for the woman. One third of women remarried within less than a year of their divorce, showing that it wasn’t really as scandalous as it would’ve been in Western society.

Now, where am I going with all of this?

I was trying to decide if maybe I should put Naomi in one of these “trial marriages.” Of course, it would initially start out as a guise to hide her, although as the book progresses it may become more evident that it was her father’s plan from the beginning (although hidden from her and even her guardian, Ryuji, who would obviously be the arranged husband). Of course there would be the whole eventual falling in love between them, etc. but I’m unsure if I should do this simply because I’m afraid it could be a bit cliche. I guess I could try it…although I’m fairly certain it’s going to throw my crit group for a loop 😛

Anyway, do you think it’s something I should try? Perhaps I should resort to flipping a coin…


I’m in one of those dreamer-type moods. Maybe it’s because it’s past midnight. Anyway…

Someday…someday I’d like to travel here.

Kakunodate, Akita, Tohoku region

This is the small village that my MC Naomi is taken to in The Scarlet Daughter. I’m not sure if the river was lined with the cherry trees back in 1890, but it definitely had the cherry blossom line streets like this picture below shows:

Cherry blossoms in the former samurai district

The trees are a few hundred years old and the streets are set up in the former samurai quarter as they would’ve been when Naomi arrived. Of course it probably wasn’t paved and there probably weren’t as many people as this was a remote village, but it would’ve looked very similar.

And the houses of course, which would be similar to the one she was brought to:

Since I can’t make it there any time soon, I’ll have to console myself with pictures online. Ah, the wonders of the internet!

Of course I can’t forget the village I’ve used as inspiration for Miyuki’s home in Lady of the Snow.

The villages of Shirakawa-go in Gifu prefecture are still very remote today. Back in the 18th century, in the winter, they would’ve been cut off from the world until spring.

Seeing this picture below, it’s no wonder:

It’s pretty easy to picture her living in a village like this, with the steep roofs that are said to resemble praying hands. The roof style is unique to the area because of the amount of snow; villagers quickly learned the necessity of making a house like that.

Even in the springtime the character of the old village isn’t lost:

Someday…someday I’ll visit both these places. The inspiration for my book’s settings.

Now I’ll just have to dream about being there 🙂

This is why I could never come up with a fantasy world–there are too many places in the real world that are more beautiful than I could imagine.

Another Side of My Geekishness

So, being a bit on the geeky side, I have a weakness for anime. The good kind 🙂 Or, what I think is good anyway.

I’m a huge fan of anything made by Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki. Spirited Away is my absolute favorite film of theirs, but Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and Whisper of the Heart come really close.  Of course I like all the others too, like Nausicaa, Castle in the Sky, Ponyo and many more.

But I’m also a fan of all sorts of anime series. Much of my obsession with it comes from my husband, who hooked me on anime in college.

Anyway, here’s my new favorite series, called Mushi-Shi. It’s focuses on the supernatural and the unexplained, in the form of little creatures called Mushi and Ginko, the “mushi master” (hence the title of the series).

This series is unique in that it’s non-linear–you can come in on episode 12 and not be lost. Each episode is a story in itself and Ginko (the mushi master) is the only character present in every episode.

The next series I haven’t finished yet–I’ve still got more than half the first season and the entire second season to watch. It’s called Saiunkoku Monogatari (The Tale of Saiunkoku) and it’s about the fictional land of Saiunkoku–which is very loosely based on Tang dynasty China (outfits and possibly the way the government is set up). I like it so far. Here’s the intro:

And finally, the one that I’ve watched like four times over and am now watching the English dub on YouTube: Ouran High School Host Club.

This one, I’ll admit, is very…odd, and at first I didn’t want to watch it. I won’t say much about it, only that it’s surprisingly good and very, very girly at parts. If ever I became fan-girlish, this show definitely did it. Sad but true.

I believe most of the episodes are in English on YouTube, courtesy of Funimation. I’m still partial to the original subbed Japanese, but I have to watch it now in English just to say I did. :PI can’t embed the video here since it won’t let me, but if anything watch the intro. It’ll show you the silliness.

There’s lots of other great series out there, like Rurouni Kenshin, Fruits Basket and the darker but addictive Death Note.  And of course there’s some utter garbage too, but that’s like any sort of media.

Well there you have it. You got to see another side of my geekishness.

Hags and Beauties: Hari-onago/Hari-onna

Today’s lovely woman of mythology is the Hari-onago/Hari-onna. The hooked hair woman.

Hari-onago is an extremely beautiful and enchanting woman–except for the fact the ends of her hair are razor sharp hooks.

Legends say she comes from Ehime prefecture. Unlike the others this week, she’s more of a local legend rather than a national one.  However, her notoriety has spread throughout the country and she’s even made appearances in the famous anime anime InuYasha as well as making an appearance in a video game. 

What exactly does she use her massively long and dangerous hair for? To trap men, of course. She preys upon them, much like a vampire. It’s said she will smile and laugh at whatever boy catches her fancy, and if he laughs back, she extends her hair and captures him with her hooks and mutilates him in the process.

One has to wonder why she goes around laughing at her prey and daring them to laugh back. I suppose that’s her way of capturing them.

Not many stories exist of one escaping–she has the uncanny ability to make her victims laugh. However there is one instance where a young man somehow escaped being ensnared in her hooked hair by shutting her out of his house. The hooks left deep gashes in the door, but the young man escaped harm.

At least it wasn’t a paper door, like many of the doors in Japan, or the story would’ve ended differently.

Hags & Beauties: Yama-uba

Ah, the Yama-uba. Literally, it means “mountain crone”–and that’s exactly what she is.

yamauba1She’s not a very pleasant looking woman is she? She’s the prototypical “old hag”, who lives far off in the deep forests or high mountains of Japan. She’s normally fairly hideous in appearance with messy long hair, tattered clothes and a large mouth. However, it’s been said that she can alter her appearance in order to capture her victims.

Her prey is the poor lost traveler in the woods (much like that of Yuki-onna). She will sometimes transform into a beautiful woman in order to capture their attention. Other times she maintains her old crone appearance and beg said victim for help. She gains their trust and when they least expect it, she kills them and feeds on their flesh (gotta love canibalism…)

If the traveler is in need of help himself, she will offer her hut for safety. Still in other cases she will lure the victim to his death by having him fall off the side of a mountain, where she can feed on his corpse. Some legends say she can animate her hair, much like that of the Futakuchi-onna; others say her hair turns into snakes. Her diet isn’t limited to lost traveling adults; it’s also said she will prey on children as well.

Yama-uba isn’t invincible though, like the Yuki-onna. Various legends say she’s only nocturnal and she’s frozen in the sunlight. Other legends say her soul is captured in a flower, and if the flower is destroyed so is she. She’s also said to be quite gullible so that her victims will often trick her to find escape. Like any good mountain hag legend, it’s known that she’s quite skilled in sorcery and potions, and sometimes she will barter this information to someone in exchange for a much steeper price.

However, Yama-uba is known to have a benevolent side. A very popular legend centers around the folk hero and superhuman warrior Sakata Kintoki, or otherwise known as Kintaro. Yama-uba took in the orphan Kintaro and raised him as her son. Their relationship is depicted as quite loving; she the doting mother and him the dutiful son.Utamaro2 The legend helped influence more modern tales that show her more as a matronly figure rather than the horrible cannibalistic hag.

Other legends simply say she’s a woman of nature, and she represents humanity’s harmony with natural surroundings. So, she can be a multitude of different beings.

Origins of the story are thought to have their roots in a time when famine made it to where villagers had to abandon their elderly in the woods because of lack of food. Stories with the Yama-uba have existed for a thousand years or more, many of them tracing back to the Heian period (794-1185 A.D.).

She’s a quite popular subject still in Japan, ranging from Noh plays that have her as the main player, to books, and even an odd fashion trend that started back in the ’90s  called “Yamanba.”

Apparently, the mountain crone still lives on. 🙂

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