My First Novel

I grew up writing and telling stories.

When I was twelve, they were mostly Harry Potter style adventures. Not about wizards, but about average boys with normal fears and abnormal skills who face enemies and dangers best left for Superman to confront.

In my early teens they were mostly poetry. Depressing stuff. It was the late ‘70s. Post Watergate, post Vietnam and pre-Star Wars, in the thick of the Cold War and in the shadow of impending Armageddon. The world was clearly coming to an end.

Then I started writing my first novel, which I began when I was seventeen and finished when I was twenty eight. It was really lousy. But I finished it. It was a draining experience. Needless to say it was never published. I sent it to a distant relative, a busy professional script writer. I expected her only to read it and give me some feedback. Instead she just sent it to a publisher without taking a look at the contents. The publisher she chose was one of Japan’s most influential literary magazines, but also known as one of the most politically conservative. Bad news was that because it was a depressingly dark story with a tragic ending written by someone with a youthful disdain for all things in the establishment, it rubbed some people in a very wrong way. It was the sort of reaction you might expect if a script written for Bill Maher accidently landed on the desk of Bill O’Reilly. I got a hand written letter from the assistant chief editor dripping with rage. At least it touched somebody in a visceral way. The script writer dropped me like rotten meat of a dead rat. Never heard from her since.

The novel, in spite of having multiple flashbacks and too many subplots, took a very simple emotional trajectory. The reader would keep saying “No, don’t do that. No, don’t do that. No, don’t do that” until the story culminated in a complete drop-off-the-cliff disaster and despair. The only thing unpredictable about the ending is that it ends in exactly the disaster it is headed for. (You didn’t see that coming, did you?) When I started the story around 1980, I did not know where the story was headed. By the time the story was finished in 1991, the world was awash with the video camera obsession, and the alternate memory it generated for us. It sounds quaint now in the age of the internet, but video tape was the new, new thing back in the day. Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape came out in 1989. So it was inevitable that a video tape would be the final McGuffin, the key to unlock the mystery of lost memory. It sounded original at the time. The central theme was the consequences of self deception. It even had a teenage gay boy struggling to get out of the closet (in a Japanese novel in 1991!) who eventually commits a fiery suicide when he fails (yeah, it’s a 1990s Japanese novel). Some of the imagery was pretty cool. The suicidal kid sets fire to a shed where he grew rhinoceros beetles and thousands of huge burning beetles fill the night sky shooting green and orange sparks like fireworks. And the scene where the main character has sex with a girl with green lipstick while she plays numerous splatter movies on multiple screens on the wall of the video store and the bloody light from the screens in the darkened room makes her lips shine black as they mingled on the counter in an act which was, typically for teenagers, an act that was more mutual injury than joy. Overall though, it was, to put it charitably, a youthful effort.

After that, I went back to writing light hearted adventures, but never got published. When I first met my wife, I hooked her with the story of a man stranded in modern Egypt, tasked to deliver secret computer disks hidden in oversized shoes while trying to locate his kidnapped girlfriend. When I had children, I would ad lib bedtime stories, some of which I remembered to write down. Then, as my professional life got busier, I stopped writing.

From my late thirties, I started contributing essays and stories in English to my friend’s website. They were well received for a private website in the late ‘90s. Eventually, I got the idea that I might be able to write something in English. I kept dreaming about the idea but never put pen to paper. Meanwhile, I participated in the translation of technical books relating to my work English to Japanese and vice versa. I published some academic papers and contributed some book chapters. I co-authored a couple of non-fiction books relating to my profession.

Now I want to tell stories again. I have mellowed a lot over the years. I doubt I will ever again write the sort of manifesto novel of an angry teen on a self-destructive spiral that got me into trouble the last time. I also have learned, after so many failures, to look at my writing a little more objectively. There once was a time I would have scoffed at the idea of using a formula or plotting out an outline to a pre-specified story structure. I think I have grown out of such arrogance. And now, at 52, I am going back into writing. Love to you all and wish me luck.


Reading in a Second Language

I am a born story teller. I love to tell stories. That alone, sadly, does not make me a publishable writer. Before I write, I must read. Before I read, I must learn to read.

I moved to Scotland when I was eight years old, soon moved to the US, then returned to Japan in 1975. Both the time and place is important. Firstly, Japanese is such a complex language, you normally could not read very much at age 12 at the best of circumstances. If you had spent half of your childhood in another language, you would have trouble reading at all. I could have read English, except the nearest book store that sold paperbacks in English was about three hours away be train. Not easy to go to when you are 12 years old and you normally do not get to have a car in Japan while you are in high school. And they had only one shelf full, some semi-recent best sellers and Penguin classics. So I had the desire to write, but I never really developed a reading experience or even a preference when I should have.

If you think you are in a poor environment for developing yourself as a writer, think again. If you have been speaking the same language all your life and had access to a book store and library in the same language, you are already immeasurably ahead of me.

I am also the oldest son of a doctor from a long line of doctors. In Japan in the ’70s and ’80s, it meant that you had to become a doctor and nothing else. My parents, like all perverted parents, could not even be supportive about making a doctor out of me. They could only nag incessantly about how I would never make a good doctor. Forget about writing. If your parents and teachers are not supportive of your writing, at least they are not demanding that you be something else AND insulting you tirelessly for not living up to their demands.

But having crazy parents is good material for a writer. Being born to an unreasonable environment is good material. Adversity, however trivial, is good material. Any experience that warps your personality is good material. Nothing is bad for writing.

Almost nothing. Not being able to read is bad for a writer. To me, Japanese is as much a second language as is English. I cannot really read in either. If a book fails to hold my interest, I fear that it is my lack of linguistic ability that is making me miss the appeal of the book. If I put down Dickens half way through, or cannot picture the scenes in Conrad or get confused by the rhythms of Nabokov, I blame myself. I am pretty sure it is my fault that the mysterious mists of Kerouak’s atmosphere sporadically disappear like a faint scent in the air and I fail to grasp it again. When I am not touched by writing, I do not know whether it is simply not my taste or that I am not up to the task of understanding it.

I have had pretty much the same experience reading in Japanese.

I am fifty two years old. I should have a stockpile of reading experience behind me. I do not. I have read few volumes and absorbed even less. The more I reflect on it, the more I realize that I cannot read. You might call it reader’s block. There once was a time I believed it was an inevitable symptom of wanting to write. Just like writer’s block. I tried to accept it in the same way body builders accept muscle pain as an inevitable part of their endeavor. If it doesn’t hurt, you are not trying hard enough. That kind of effort may help transport me into the world of the novel, but it will not make me resonate with readers who read for pleasure.

Sometimes I can read. I can feel the loneliness of Kajii Motojiro, and the despair of Dazai Osamu. I could visualize some of the hallucinatory imagery of William Burrows, or taste the irony of Kurt Vonnegut. I marvel at the cleverness of elaborately constructed stories. I am impressed by the clever usage of words. And then I turn back and ask myself, what did I miss?

The best advice I ever got was, if you are bored with a book just put it down. I do not remember when I got that advice or who gave it to me. But I was already an adult when it came home to me. I have no obligation to struggle through a book if it does not hold my interest. But if you have spent a lifetime struggling between two vastly different languages, you come to hold a prejudice that every book you put down is an act of surrender. It is the evidence of your own failure and not the fault of the book, especially if the book is a recognized classic. It even leads you to believe that the books you CAN enjoy are escapist fantasies and a way for you, as a reader, to cop out and dumb yourself down.

When I say that reading is a chore, anyone in his right mind would reply that I should not become a writer. They are right about the conclusion but they are wrong about the reason. I do not lose my qualification as a writer because I do not enjoy reading, I fail to enjoy reading because I read as a writer. Reading has become work, hence writing should not be my work. It is a helical downward Catch-22.

I wish I could read. I wish I could learn to read. So that I can be a writer.

Laugh at Your Own Jokes

Neil Gaiman advises writers “Laugh at your own jokes”. If you understand the gravity of this advice, you have had some experience struggling with writing.

I just got back into writing recently at the age of 52 and was shocked at the abundance of writing tips for novelists on the internet. With the arrival of the (apparent) ease of digital publishing, everybody now seems to be aspiring to be a novelist. (I might write about that in another blog post.) I found Gaiman’s advice among a compilation of writing tips Gotham Writers Workshop.

A typical list of writing tips are sure to include items such as read a lot, write a lot, delete a lot, re-write a lot and trudge on. As obvious as they are, they are essential and profound advice. But “laugh at your own jokes” is, in the same sense, obvious and essential.

If you write, delete and re-write ad nauseum, you lose sight of your humor and start wondering if your jokes are funny. Does the humor add to the story or subtract from it? Is it in the right place? Is it appropriate? Does it offend, confuse or obfuscate more than amuse? Will the reader get it?

You can delete a word and if you think the story was better with it, you can put it back in. But you can never put back in the same joke. If you change your mind about a joke and you decide to delete it, it is not as funny when you put it back in.

That is why you must laugh out loud every time you write a joke, especially when you are putting it back in. Laughing out loud is every bit as essential as reading out loud.

Good advice is hard to get, because good advice is hard to give. “Read a lot” is good advice, but how many of us can come up with a new one to the list that is just as essential? “Don’t use semicolons” do not fit in the same league.

Advice is always limited by the talent or intellect of the person who is giving it. Which brings us to another one of Neil Gaiman’s tips: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

The Amakusa Rebellion 1637

Kenji Sawada as Amakusa Shiro in the 1981 movie Makai Tensho
Kenji Sawada as Amakusa Shiro in the 1981 movie Makai Tensho

Between the years 1639 to 1854, Japan was in what Western historians call “a state of self-imposed isolation”. From the Japanese point of view, it was a period when foreigners were not allowed in the country. Subtle difference.

One of the main reasons Japan closed its doors to foreign countries was the behavior of Christian missionaries. Christianity was one of many imports in the 16th century that took hold quite rapidly. Lord Hosokawa, one of the oldest samurai clans, was so devoted that he made Christianity the official religion of his domain. He even made the cross his military insignia. The conqueror Oda Nobunaga valued the Jesuit priests for their knowledge of the outside world and the unusual items they brought as gifts.

The Christians, however, were quite arrogant. And as trade with Japan became increasingly lucrative, the nature of the missionaries changed. In those days, Catholic missionaries doubled as spies. They collected maps and logistic information around the world. They were also tools of propaganda. While they spread the Gospel, they also busily planted the idea that the God’s Armies were invincible which helped greatly when conquering territories far from home. Finally, they were tools of oppression. Converting to Christianity meant that you were forced to believe that anyone who defied the will of God was damned to hell. And the missionaries always had the final say when it came to what the will of God was. The final line was crossed when it was found that Catholic missionaries were involved in the slave trade, abducting Japanese farmers and selling them off to China.

The Tokugawa Shogunate was anti-Christian from the very beginning. But to be a bit more precise, they were actually anti-Catholic. This stance was influenced largely by William Adams, a.k.a. Miura Anjin, the model for John Blackthorne in James Clavel’s Shogun, who was an Englishman and an Anglican. The shipwrecked Brit served as an adviser to Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was clearly interested in Western matters but seemed to have kept a distance from the missionaries. The intelligent navigator was just the non-clergy Western intellectual that Ieyasu was looking for. Adams, who was wary of the influence of his national rival Spain, reported of the ills of having Catholic missionaries in the domain. Ieyasu, drawing from information supplied to him through other sources, concluded that these reports were accurate. He embarked on a massive anti-Catholicism campaign.

Large Christian clans were forced to convert back to Buddhism. Christian villages were harassed and oppressed. The most troublesome of them was the predominantly Catholic Nagasaki area, which remains the center of Japanese Catholicism to this day. Through an interesting series of intrigues Lord Arima Harunobu, a Christian who ruled the Shimabara area south of modern Nagasaki, was tricked into attacking a Portuguese ship and attempting the assassination of the governor of Nagasaki city. He was lead to believe that these were secret missions entrusted to him. In fact there were no such missions and he was sentenced to ritual suicide for his acts of treason. His son Naozumi was forced to ban Christianity in the domain.

When the ban was found to be ineffectual, Naozumi was replaced by the ruthless Matsukura Shigeharu. He intentionally miscalculated the area of land and taxed the inhabitants double what they should have been paying. Since taxes were paid in rice and produce, the idea was to starve the Christians into having fewer children. Inappropriately high taxes were common in the early Tokugawa period. The shogunate always overestimated the farmland so that the regional lords would not amass too much wealth. But the situation in Shimabara was especially severe. And when the area suffered a serious drought between 1634 and 1637, things finally reached a critical level.

In 1614, a missionary named Mamakos, upon being forced to leave Japan, prophesied that there will one day be a young boy who will lead the masses into rebellion beneath a banner baring the cross. In 1637, rumors were circulated that a 16-year-old boy called Masuda Shiro fit the description left by Mamakos. The Christians, who had become increasingly shrill and apocalyptic in their evangelism, insisted that this was a sign that the Day of Judgement was near. They started re-converting those who converted to Buddhism. In October 23, 1637, two officials were killed by a mob while trying to disperse a Christian gathering. This triggered a rebellion all across southern Shimabara. 100 soldiers left Shimabara castle to suppress the rebellion but turned back when they realized that their forces were woefully outnumbered. They gathered all the soldiers they could find and headed out again, but by this time even that was no longer enough. They turned back to the castle without offering a fight. This only encouraged the rebels and the castle came under siege.

1500 soldiers dispatched from Karatsu castle only helped fan the flames and, defeating the suppressors, the rebels put Tomioka castle under siege as well.

After a string of mishandled battles, the shogunate took huge losses. They finally sent an army of 120,000. They even dispatched the Koga Ninjas to infiltrate the rebel fortress and commit acts of sabotage. (This is one of the few times in history where official written records remain on the use of ninjas in actual battle.) The battle ended in a massacre of all rebels, estimated to be more than 40,000, including women and children. The shogunate lost more than 5,000 soldiers.

The conflict drove the final nail in the coffin for Catholicism in Japan. The official repression of the faith became tighter than ever before. The few remaining faithfuls were forced into hiding, but the religeon proved resilient. They worshiped quietly in fear of death for two centuries until the ban was finally lifted in 1873.

Masuda Shiro, remembered by his acquired name Amakusa Shiro, was the Joan d’ Arc of this conflict. He was rumored to have supernatural powers and most of the successes of the rebels were attributed to him. His head was taken as a trophy by a soldier named Jinnozaemon in the final battle. Ninja story master Yamada Futaro incarnated him as a diabolical Lestat-like character in his novel Makai Tenshou, which was adapted to the silver screen in 1981 and again in 2003.

Writing Exercise 2

Read the following story and tell me what’s wrong with it. (Actually, don’t really bother to read. Just pretend that you did and come back to it for reference. Start reading where it says START READING HERE.)

My first undercover assignment was a miserable failure. It was an assignment I deliberately lobbied for. I think I have a natural talent for lobbying in the bureaucratic environment. Definitely more than for street level investigation. Even though I sought a career in law enforcement because I desperately wanted to be on the action end of the guns-and-handcuffs game, I gave up on that genre of police work after I realized I had no talent for the job I had romanticized all my childhood. Reality hits you quickly when you badly botch an undercover sting.

My alias was Danny Abatangelo. I thought that sounded a lot more gangster-like than Daniel Fairbanks. I was sold as a friend of a friend of Mickey Donati, a real life crook and a second nephew of a notable made man now in protective custody. A few name drops and some recommendations from carefully planted moles and stooges set the stage for my legitimacy. I was cocky. I was upbeat. I was ready to be Steven Seagal. Why not? I had just received my post graduate degree in criminal investigation summa cum laude from one of the most prestigious universities on the East Coast. I was too naïve to realize that was not where the best ground level cops came from. In retrospect, it was something of a miracle that I could peddle myself as a potential undercover agent to the deputy chief of the New York Police Department. I took the advice from the half dozen self-help books I had read which invariably advised me to go straight to the top. So, within a month of being employed, I went over the heads of an entire chain of command, ambushed the deputy chief in the hallway between meetings and talked my foot into the door to the most dangerous segment of the NYPD, namely, undercover organized crime investigation.

The trouble with us overachieving kids from rich neighborhoods is that we are generally incapable of believing that there is something in the world we are unequipped for. We attribute all our successes to our own talent and effort and discount the influence of our privileged environment. But when we do not get what we want, we blame it on foreign influences, usually on the failure of others. We are the last ones to see how incompetent we really are. I was that kid. Maybe I still am. When I was diving head first into the underground world of organized crime I was still religiously convinced of my omnipotence. I knew I could accomplish anything if I tried. That kind of optimism, so useful in school, could get you killed in police work. The six weeks of undercover training seemed largely redundant to me. I felt that there was little I could not have learned from two decades of cable TV. The rest I had already read about in postgraduate school and police academy. I played along. I was a good student those six weeks. A few voices grumbled questioning my suitability for a bare knuckles job, but nobody really called me out for the ticking time bomb I really was.

So with little training and less prudence, I suddenly found myself paraded in front of Ronny Fabbri and Vinny Bandoni in a smoke filled dive only three days into my assignment. I felt proud that I had gotten so deep in such record time. Ronny Fabbri, the centerpiece of our investigation, was the head of a medium sized branch of mob activity. He was only a rung or two below being a made man and had a long list of bad things attributed to him. Vinny Bandoni was his beastly right hand man. He was so big, it was said that he preferred pistols that had no trigger guards because his fat fingers would not fit in them. The two occupied a small round table with a large ashtray full of cigar buts and two darkened amish chairs. Ronny was in the process of lighting another cigar. The room was full of gangsters, some well-known some less so, in loose fitting suits, casual shirts and gold ornaments. Minny Campo, the pale, gaunt and whiskered guy who escorted me, introduced me to the crowd as “the new kid I was talkin’ about”. As he said this the room fell suddenly quiet and attentive. If I had any street smarts that should have tipped me off that something was wrong. In fact something was already very wrong. Soon after I met Minny two days before on my very first day, introduced to him by a secret informant for the NYPD, I casually mentioned that I was to be known as “Danny the Ghost”. I got that idea from a short-lived TV series called The Ghost Squad about a group of undercover agents. I thought all gangsters had nicknames like that. As it happens, only the greatest of the great mobsters, the Titans of the underworld, go by compound nicknames. Tony Spilotro was “Tony the Ant”. Tony Accardo was “Joe Batters Accardo”. Charles Luciano was “Lucky Luciano”. And Al Capone was “Scarface Capone”. You have to be feared by the fearless and respected by the most irreverent before you can dare to have a multi-word nickname. You can have a simple alias like “Joe” or “Nick” that is different from your given name or something descriptive like “Scars”, “Shorty” or “Bear” but not a compound nickname like “Danny the Ghost”. A compound nickname is a title bestowed upon kings. Anyone familiar with the world of crime should have known that. In the day following my first meeting with Minny, the word got around and the gangsters spent a whole evening having a hearty laugh at the story of the arrogant young recruit who did not know any better than to breach such a sacred code. And now, I was the subject of show and tell. I was the new kid Minny Campo was talkin’ about.

Ronny Fabbri leaned back in his chair toying with his unlit cigar and grinned as he took a measure of me.

“So you’re Danny the Ghost” he said after a while. Some fiendish chuckles could be heard from the back of the room.

“Sure. That’s me” I said, putting on my best Dennis Farina impression which is something a twenty four year old guy from the Upper East Side should never try to do in front of real life mobsters.

“What can you do for me Danny the Ghost?” More chuckles.

“Well I usually specialize in theft … break-ins.”

“What else?”

“Mostly anything.”

“Most-ly any-thing” Ronny Fabbri repeated very slowly with a menacing smile. He spread his arms in a wide shrug and turned toward the room full of gangsters behind him. There was more laughter this time.

“Do you know what business I am in?” asked Fabbri.

“Yes.” As green as I was, I could somehow feel the tension building up.

“Then you should know that *mostly* anything ain’t gonna cut it.”

“Look, if you can give me a job I can do it.”

“Like what? Washing windows?” All the gangsters laughed. I felt totally humiliated. I could feel my face burning up.

“I could steal… rob… I can disarm most alarm systems…I can be invisible. You’ll never know I was there”

Ronny Fabbri was grinning wider. The room was laughing at every word I spoke. It was not supposed to be like this. My head was hot. My mind was in a tailspin. I struggled not to lose my Dennis Farina. The more I spoke the more they laughed.

“I could beat someone up. I could effing kill somebody…”

“Effing? Did you just say effing?”

“I mean…”

Ronny Fabbri stood up slowly.

“How are you going to kill somebody? You mean like a contract?” He poked my chest with a finger of the hand that held his cigar.

“Y-yeah” I said tentatively. There was a sudden silence in the room. Everyone stopped laughing. The grin disappeared from Fabbri’s face. Vinny Bandoni was leaning forward in his chair as if he was waiting for a command to pounce on me. Half the room seemed to be waiting for the same thing. Seconds ticked away. My temples pulsed. I imagined Fabbri picking up a golf club and smashing in my skull.

“Okay Danny the Ghost. I want you to go kill William Gorman.”

I could have sworn I heard someone swallow down a gasp. The room was roaring with laughter only seconds ago but now the air was so tense you could hear the silence.

“Who’s that?”

“He’s a lawyer. He’s tall. He’s black. I want him dead. That’s all you need to know.”

While I was groping for something to say, I nearly jumped at the metallic clink of a Zippo lighter. He finally lit his cigar and spoke through the smoke.

“You got twenty four hours. Get it done and I’ll pay you a hundred grand. If he ain’t dead in twenty four hours, I’ll kill you slow and throw you in the same ditch as Gorman. Do you understand?”

Before I could respond he gestured to Minny Campo and said “Get him outa here.” He sat back down on his battered amish chair. When my back turned to him as Minny took my arm, Ronny Fabbri called out “Go effing kill Gorman, Danny the Ghost, or you’re effing dead!” The room was filled with laughter again as Minny closed the door behind us.


Needless to say, this is a first draft. It is actually like a memo. Something to help you remember what you novel idea was later on when you really have the time to write. Any editor, or even any reader could find a hundred things wrong with it. That is why we all need to self-edit. But editing line by line is such a chore. Nobody enjoys slashing and deleting what they have written. So let me propose a new way to self-edit.

Step 1. Pick out one sentence from each paragraph and copy/paste it. Leave the quotations as they are.

My first undercover assignment was a miserable failure.

In retrospect, it was something of a miracle that I could peddle myself as a potential undercover agent to the deputy chief of the New York Police Department.

The trouble with us overachieving kids from rich neighborhoods is that we are generally incapable of believing that there is something in the world we are unequipped for.

And now, I was the subject of show and tell.

Ronny Fabbri leaned back in his chair toying with his unlit cigar and grinned as he took a measure of me.

“So you’re Danny the Ghost”

“Sure. That’s me”

“What can you do for me Danny the Ghost?” 

“Well I usually specialize in theft … break-ins.”

“What else?”

“Mostly anything.”

“Most-ly any-thing” “Do you know what business I am in?” 


“Then you should know that *mostly* anything ain’t gonna cut it.”

“Look, if you can give me a job I can do it.”

“Like what? Washing windows?”

“I could steal… rob… I can disarm most alarm systems…I can be invisible. You’ll never know I was there” “I could beat someone up. I could effing kill somebody…”

“Effing? Did you just say effing?”

“I mean…”

Ronny Fabbri stood up slowly.

“How are you going to kill somebody? You mean like a contract?” 


Vinny Bandoni was leaning forward in his chair as if he was waiting for a command to pounce on me. 

“Okay Danny the Ghost. I want you to go kill William Gorman.”

The room was roaring with laughter only seconds ago but now the air was so tense you could hear the silence.

“Who’s that?”

“He’s a lawyer. He’s tall. He’s black. I want him dead. That’s all you need to know.”

He finally lit his cigar and spoke through the smoke.

“You got twenty four hours. Get it done and I’ll pay you a hundred grand. If he ain’t dead in twenty four hours, I’ll kill you slow and throw you in the same ditch as Gorman. Do you understand? “Get him outa here.”  “Go effing kill Gorman, Danny the Ghost, or you’re effing dead!”

The room was filled with laughter again as Minny closed the door behind us.

Step 2. See if the copy-paste version makes sense as a story. If you can pick out other sentences that make better sense, exchange them.

The original passage was 1432 words. The copy-paste version is only 367 words. It is not better writing, but you can still follow the story pretty well. Which means that about 1065 words were redundant. More strikingly, the first four paragraphs which had 997 words have been reduced to just 74 words and you can still follow the story. 923 words, roughly 92.6% of the words were redundant.

Step 3. Put back in descriptions that you feel are absolutely necessary, but not more than one or two sentences per paragraph.

Step 4. Start doing some conventional editing.

I think this is a much less painful way to deal with your brainchild. Nobody wants to slaughter their own creation. But you cannot hire a professional editor when all you have is a first draft. You have to chop up your creation and improve it. It’s best to do it in the most painless way possible. For that, a fixed regimen like “Extract only one sentence per paragraph” will come in pretty handy.

The Fate of the Sword


A man I know, a reputable lawyer in Japan, was renovating his ancestral home when a samurai sword was discovered in the space above the ceiling. Shortly after WWII, when the Americans occupied Japan, samurai swords were banned and the Americans were wantonly confiscating and destroying them. Many precious heirlooms were hidden in walls and above ceilings to be forgotten. It took years of lobbying to get the Americans to understand that the swords were not just weapons but items of great cultural value and the many of them were irreplaceable. The Americans grudgingly enacted strict licensing laws for people who really wanted to keep their swords. Those laws still remain on the books and over the years they have become even more strict than before.

So, when my friend the lawyer found a sword, carefully parceled in silk cloth and sealed in wax paper, in his old house, he immediately ordered it destroyed. He did not even bother to have it appraised to see what it was worth. He could not afford the repercussions that might ensue if somebody accused him of holding an unlicensed sword. His ancestors, long gone, took great risks to conceal the sword from the American occupation forces. They might have even risked their lives. His had been a wealthy family for generations. Richer, in fact, in the generations past. The sword was probably valuable. It could have been an heirloom that proved his linkage to an ancient nobleman. But he destroyed the sword anyway. The lawyer had seen too much sword trouble with the authorities.

Hundreds of irreplaceable swords are still being destroyed this way each year. The cultural heritage of Japan is being broken and shattered sword by precious sword. And nobody is doing anything about it. This practice needs to stop and soon. Internet auction sites are full of swords cut into legal sizes. Aficionados like to fashion them into pocket knives and fashion accessories. Sometimes the steel is recycled to create carving knives for serious craftsmen. It is a disgrace.

This is the fate facing what used to be called the Soul of the Samurai. They were heart of the Japanese manor for centuries, enshrined on the tokonoma like a crucifix on the alter. They were the spiritual center of homes. And now they are being cut up and cast away like nails pulled from the sole of a shoe all because the Japanese do not have the right to bear arms. What a pitiful, disgusting fate for the Soul of the Samurai.





Kurosawa’s Samurais

Toshiro Mifune was an aerial photographer for the Japanese Imperial Army, where he saw numerous eighteen-year-old conscripts fly off on kamikaze missions, an experience that gave him a lifelong hatred of the war. Later in his career, when he was typecast as an Imperial military officer, he was asked in an interview what he personally thought of the war. Departing from his on-screen persona, but still remaining true to his style, he said curtly “That war was nothing but pointless genocide”.

He was infamous as an insubordinate soldier, talking back to his superiors and exposing their contradictions. That tells you something about Mifune’s balls. Not many people had the guts to talk back to an officer of the Imperial Army during the Second World War. Needless to say, he got (and bravely took) the consequences that inevitably came to him. He also built a substantial name for himself as a photographer in the army. After the war, he applied for a job as an assistant photographer at Toho studios. What happened next is a matter of legend. For one reason or another (there are several theories) he got into the wrong interview. It was an audition to select a new batch of fresh actors for the studio. He was seated in front of a panel of judges and was told to smile, to which he replied “I have nothing to smile about”. The judges were not amused. But the soon-to-be-famous actress Hideko Takamine was electrified. She ran to Akira Kurosawa, who was filming in a nearby soundstage, who came in and saw the same thing the actress saw. The young assistant director made a case for Mifune and the reluctant applicant was hired as an actor.

You cannot separate the careers of Mifune and Kurosawa. Kurosawa made Mifune and Mifune made Kurosawa. When the two had a falling out, it had ill effect on both their careers. Kurosawa became the entry point for almost everyone in the West who is interested in samurai fiction and Japanese history. Yet only eight of the movies they made together are historical period pieces. One, Rashomon, depicts the Heian era, a time before the samurai class even existed. One, Red Beard, is about doctors (though technically they belong to the samurai class). That leaves six, and Mifune plays a samurai, or a sort of samurai, in only five. These five movies, more than any other medium, projected the concept of the samurai to the rest of the world. They were The Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojinbo (1961), and Sanjuro (1962). In all five movies, Mifune plays an unconventional samurai, leaving his co-stars like Takashi Shimura to play the straight, by-the-book type of samurai.

So much has been written about Kurosawa movies, it is pointless to add any more movie criticism. But what these movies said about the samurai shaped the image of the samurai the world over. In The Seven Samurai, the Sengoku era is nearing the end and warriors are unemployed and impoverished. Some have turned to robbing farmer villages and some are hired by farmers to protect them. Each must struggle to maintain their dignity in their circumstances. In Throne of Blood, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the main character, played by Mifune, throws his loyalty to the wind in order to attain his ambition only to see the loyalty of his own men erode in the end. In The Hidden Fortress (aka the inspiration for Star Wars) a noble samurai of a defeated clan must live disguised as a bandit in order to transport the princess and her treasure to safety. In Yojinbo and its sequel Sanjuro, Mifune plays a masterless samurai traveling on foot across Japan. He has no destination. When he comes to a crossroad he tosses a stick in the air to decide which road to take. When he finally finds employment, he abandons it without taking so much as a new set of clothes. In every movie, the samurai were fallible men struggling, and sometimes failing, to live up to their ideal. But the ideal is always there, and very palpable in every movie. So why did the image of Kurosawa’s samurai captivate Western audiences so much? How did his heroes cross the cultural barrier and project an unique identity different from any other?

Let me digress for a moment and give you a description of an American hero.

There’s this guy. World-renowned billionaire. Tech genius. Inventor and entrepreneur. Athletic and talented and handsome with a jaw so chiseled it looks like Zeus came down from Olympus and carved the fucker himself. This guy’s got a small fleet of sports cars, a few yachts, and when he’s not giving millions of dollars to charities, he’s changing out supermodel girlfriends like other people change their socks. This guy’s smile can melt the damn room. His charm is so thick you can swim in it. Half of his friends were TIME’s “Man of the Year.” And the ones who weren’t don’t care because they could buy the magazine if they wanted to. When this guy isn’t jet setting around the world or coming up with the latest technological innovation to save the planet, he spends his time helping the weak and helpless and downtrodden.

This is Mark Manson’s description of Bruce Wayne, aka Batman. And Batman is the imperfect, damaged, dark counter-hero to Superman.

Western heroes are perfect. The Knight in Shining Armor does not have a kink in his chainmail. Prince Charming does not have cavities. The Marlboro man never falls off his horse. Is there someone out there struggling desperately to live up to the ideal of the Marlboro man? If there is, he is an imposter. Perhaps an actor hired to play him. But then again, part of being an American hero is that they don’t give a fuck. They never aspire to be something they are not. They just are.

The samurai are people burdened with impossibly high expectations. And they are educated from birth to trudge on and live up to those expectations even when it literally kills them. This is probably deliberate because if you are the sort of person who will give up battling impossibly tough demands heaped on you by your friends and family, how can you be expected to fight an impossible battle with a deadly enemy?

This part of the samurai code still lives on in Japan. This is why, when after the great earthquake and tsunami of 2011, when whole cities were leveled yet none of the survivors looted or rioted, and people who found cash wash up on the beaches delivered a total of tens of millions of dollars to police stations, people of Japan are still bemoaning that the general morality of the Japanese public is not up to par. And they are serious.

The unspoken code is, it is impossible to be perfect, but you must never forgive yourself for not being perfect. Westerners would call such a futile quest tilting at windmills. The Japanese call it bushido.

Writing Exercise 1

I have not read Fifty Shades of Grey because it has been reported that the lousy prose is contagious. Zoe Williams of the Guardian wrote in her review of E. L. James’ trilogy “Goddammit. I’ve been infected by James’s ominous, staccato delivery. After 1,600 pages of the stuff, you will too. I’m doing it again. I can’t help it.”

Needless to say, James’ books have sold over 100 million copies and has earned the author over 100 million US dollars. It just goes to show that good writing is not necessary for big sales. And it is not just because James’ books are erotica. Stephen King’s books have been trashed by literary critics as predictably as they have climbed the best seller lists. When King won the National Book Foundation award, it should have convinced everyone that his mastery of storytelling and suspense amply made up for his bland prose, but the critic Harold Bloom called it “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life.”

I have no ambition of joining the ranks of Proust, Joyce and Faulkner. If given a choice, I would rather be E. L. James. But I do think it is worthwhile to at least try to write well. Strunk and White (and their adherents) have repeatedly taught us that brevity is a virtue in writing. Meanwhile, Brooks Landon promotes the use of long sentences. I personally believe that one should consciously use both because different combinations of long and short sentences give different impressions.

As an experiment, I wrote this:

He entered the room. She was there. He ducked. She shot. The bullet ricocheted off the wall shredding a shower of debris into the dark hallway, filthy and cold, where he crouched on the floor, fumbling for his gun that was not there, the shoulder holster hanging empty and limp.

Four short sentences followed by a sentence that spans three lines. The sudden change in the length of sentences gives the scene a sense of breathlessness. Since these were the only words I had written, I naturally thought of it as the opening lines to a story. But if a story was opening, there should be at least a little more description. So I wrote this:

He entered the hidden room, returning to confirm his suspicions, not expecting an occupant. The lady was there, standing with her purse gun in her hand, her eyes welling with rage. He ducked out. She shot. The bullet ricocheted off the wall shredding a shower of debris into the dark hallway, filthy and cold, where he crouched on the floor, fumbling for his gun that was not there, the shoulder holster hanging empty and limp.

Consider a book that begins with this second passage rather than the first one. The increased descriptions make it easier to visualize the scene, but the sense of urgency of the first passage is diluted. It seems to start out slow, then pick up pace. The two short sentences sandwiched between longer sentences seem to be the turning point. So I continued:

              “Give it up!” he shouted his face nearly to the floor. “You couldn’t hit an elephant with that snub nose!”

              She shot again. The bullet pierced the door. Splinters flew, some hitting his face, and a cloud of dust erupted from where the bullet landed, close to his leg. Then, silence. His heart pounded. He reached for his ankle holster. His shoulder hurt. It was the wound he got earlier. He had no time to go to the hospital. Somewhere in his mind his rational brain told him that if his adrenaline was high enough he should not feel the pain and could reach for the backup piece if it broke his shoulder in half, which he could not, and he cursed himself, but it did not help him reach his pistol.

This time, it leaves a different impression. The tension is maintained but the structure of alternating long and short sentences produces an illusion of speed. It reminded me of the picture of a snake. A snake has the same number of scales on both left and right sides of its spine. As the snake curves from side to side, scales on the inside of the curve overlap and make the scales look small. The scales on the outside of the curve overlap less and each scale looks large. When an artist paints a picture of a snake, he can make the difference in the size of the scales more pronounced or less pronounced in the snake of the same curvature by distributing the changes differently. When the size difference in the scales of the left and right sides of the snake is large, the snake looks like it is moving. When the scales are all nearly the same size, the snake looks like it is staying still. I thought the same principle might apply to sentences. So, I continued:

“You gonna add another murder to your rap? Give it up, Maud, it’s over!”

              Another shot. He cringed. He could not see where the bullet landed. He could not see her through the crack in the door. He listened for the sound of her movements in the room trying to guess where she was and anticipate the angle of the next bullet to come but the ringing of the gunshot in his ears had become overwhelming and he could hear nothing, or he thought he heard nothing. He could barely touch the butt of his gun with his fingertips. He cursed under his breath. His shoulder ached. He groaned. He gave up. Then he reached for his gun again. He reached harder this time. His fingers were barely far enough to pinch it when a stab of pain in his wounded shoulder struck so powerful it stopped his breath like a baseball bat swung full force to his ribs. Sweat erupted on his face. Cold dampness filled his armpits. He gave up. He stopped reaching. He waited, gasping. There was no sound. He crawled backwards a few feet away from the door, wincing and grunting. Slowly he raised his head, leaning against the wall, sliding his back on the dusty wall until he was upright in a stooping position. Now, he could reach the holster on his right ankle with his uninjured left hand. He drew the gun, a PT-25, and immediately felt more secure. She had already fired three shots from her 2 inch snubby, a light-weight but difficult-to-aim revolver with five chambers that gun shops tended to push on unsuspecting first time gun owners, and she probably kept one chamber empty for safety like so many women with little knowledge of guns, which meant that she had only one round left. He stood up slowly sliding his back on the wall, cracked his ankles partly to check how numb his feet were, they seemed okay, and walked slowly toward the door.

It was breezy writing now, and the last part got lazy. Having lived in Japan most of my life, my experience with guns is limited. An American friend questioned the choice of PT-25 as a backup gun. He suggested a Kimber Solo Carry 9mm. And of course a 2-inch .38 is not an inaccurate gun. But in this case, it is being fired by an inaccurate shooter, so the depiction is not so far off. The problem is that the long sentence that was meant to enhance the sense of speed became a drag when it became explanatory. Maybe I should have put some of the explanation in a thought bubble, like:

“I bet she keeps one chamber empty for safety. That means she has only one bullet left” he thought.

But somehow that does not work. In fact, it seems (at least to me) to reflect his chain of thought less clearly than the original passage. It just needed some emphasis that the thoughts were his. So I added “He realized”:

He realized she had already fired three shots from her 2 inch snubby, a light-weight but difficult-to-aim revolver with five chambers that gun shops tended to push on unsuspecting first time gun owners, and she probably kept one chamber empty for safety like so many women with little knowledge of guns, which meant that she had only one round left.

It fits in well with the fact that he now had the gun in his hand and felt more secure and could think more clearly. Maybe long explanatory sentences are not universally bad. So in the following paragraphs, I ended up incorporating more explanations and trains of thought:

              “It’s okay Maud. Get a good lawyer. Deal your way out. You don’t have to do this”

              He paused at the door wondering if she would shoot again.

              “I’m coming in Maud”

              He slowly went into the room again, gun first, then one eye over the door frame, then his body. The middle aged woman was holding the snub with trembling hands, still wearing the gown she must have been wearing to the cocktail party last night, standing in a room furnished like a swanky office, incongruous to the decrepit building, a most suitable place for a secret money laundering outfit, a serviceable place for a love nest, and the most ill chosen fort for a desperate last ditch stand.  He held his hands up, one hand still holding the small automatic but pointed at the ceiling, approaching the woman slowly and steadily.

              “It’s okay, Maud. It’s going to be alright”

It would be okay. He had it under control. He knew that just a few steps further he could take the gun away from her and all would be over. He smiled at her, spontaneously, almost out of relief. Then suddenly she flipped her gun, pointed it up from under her chin and before he could cry “No!” pulled the trigger making her brain erupt from the top of her head in a shower of blood and gore. She fell to the floor, dead, and that was the way it ended. And the first thought that came to his mind was “I am so fucking fired”.

He was not. He had quit the force almost two years ago. But his shocked mind could not process that at the time and he kept repeating in his mind, “I am so fucking fired. I am so fucking fired” until calm finally set in and he called the precinct. When he realized what he had been repeating to himself, he knew the old captain was right. “You’re not a cop anymore, Fred” he would say. “You told me that about ten times already” he would remind him, to which the wise older man would answer, “That’s ‘cause it ain’t gotten through to your brain yet”. He thought it was a load of crap until this very minute when he, with a dead woman in front of him, in a swanky hidden office room with a large brain stain on the ceiling, caught himself repeating in his mind that he was going to be kicked off the police force. Yes, the captain was right. It had not sunk in to him that he really was not a police officer anymore. Somewhere deep in his bones, he was still a cop until this day. And that realization, combined with the pain in his wounded shoulder and the shock of seeing his suspect blow her brains out almost within his arm’s reach weighed down on him with an unspeakable force. He slumped down on an office chair, dropped his gun and wept. He wept until the police came in. He was not fit to be a cop. He was not fit to be a P.I. After a few run-ins with dangerous criminals when he probed too deep as a private investigator, he was gently told by his former colleague to stick to divorce cases, a rare advice he actually followed, of which this case was one. Tailing what appeared at first to be a philandering husband, digging too deep like he always did, lead him through a chain of events that brought him to this hidden cubbyhole in the inner city, a scene of billions in illegal money transfers, a scene of a money fueled illicit affair, a scene of a murder, a scene of a suicide. And now, it was evident that he could not even handle divorce cases right.

As the crime scene investigators lead him out of the building, in handcuffs like any other suspect, he knew he had to quit. He had to find a new life. He had to start over. And that was how a former staff sergeant of the 101st Airborne, a former homicide detective for the Chicago police department, and a former private investigator, a man too decent, too principled and too inquisitive for all three jobs, became Pastor Fredric Donahue Gallagher.

What began as an experiment in the combined use of long and short sentences turned into a prologue for a mystery novel. I had to think for a while before I came up with the right job for this former cop to move on to. First I thought he might become a cook, but it did not seem right. Then it hit me that a Catholic priest fit perfectly. It is a shame that I know nothing about Catholic priests, or I could have developed this story. I wrote another thousand words or so and realized this was going to become corny at one point or another. In fact, it will become something like the samurai stories written by Westerners, full of factual errors and improbable developments.

While I was writing, I found that I could search the web for such information as the crime rate of various neighborhoods in Chicago and which areas were considered Irish neighborhoods. I could find out what the average income was in a given neighborhood. I could navigate the streets with Google street view. All this should really be a big help in writing a mystery story set in Chicago from the comfort of my desk in rural Japan. But there are lots of mysteries set in Chicago by people a lot more competent than I am. Granted there are numerous best sellers out there written by people who clearly knew nothing about their subject matter, Pastor Gallagher will remain a writing exercise at least for the time being.

The Sakai Incident 1868

When the Americans took Bagdhad in the Second Gulf War, the residents of the city took to looting stores, warehouses and museums in a state of total chaos. In bygone years, such anarchy was enough justification for foreign powers to take over any given city, harbor or even nation on the pretext of restoring law and order. Many cities and ports across Asia were thusly taken and occupied. Some cities in Japan came quite close.

In January 1868, the forces of the last shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunite, Tokugawa Yoshinobu abandoned Osaka as their troops crumbled in the face of the Imperialist Alliance. Police forces disappeared. To restore order and maintain peace, forces of Satsuma were assigned to patrol the city of Osaka, forces of Nagato were assigned to Hyogo (now Kobe) and forces of Tosa were assigned to Sakai.

The city of Sakai is one with a proud history. During the Era of the Warring Lords (Sengoku Era), Sakai was a free city governed by a guild of merchants. The city, unlike most other cities in Japan, was a fortified harbor protected on three sides by moats, the forth side facing the sea. The city eventually fell into the rule of the shogun. Up until the first half of the Tokugawa era, however, it remained one of the most prosperous cities in Japan.

When the troops of Tosa reached the city, the two captains, Sugi and Ikoma, assigned to Sakai dug up seventy three former subjects of the shogun and put them to work in the offices, thus freeing their troops for guarding the streets.

The foreign powers were not unaware of the situation. A total of 16 French, British and American war ships were anchored off Osaka carefully monitoring the situation. The French sent troops to Sakai hoping to find sufficient chaos to justify occupation of the harbor. Unfortunately for them, order had already been restored quite efficiently. But that didn’t stop them from marching into the city.

On February 15th, a small number of French scouts were stopped at Yamato Bridge at the enterance of Sakai. If foreign troops were permitted to travel within the territory, there should have been some communication of this matter from Lord Dateh of Iyo, the Authority of Foreign Affairs. Even if the communication could not be made in time, the troops should be carrying passports issued by relevant authorities. The Tosa soldiers demanded to see the passport through an interpreter. The French didn’t have any and since they were only scouts who faced with a larger force, they were forced to turn back.

Later that same day, twenty boats full of French sailors landed in the harbor. They were at first not particularly unruly. But they intruded upon shrines and temples, went uninvited into private homes, chased and harrassed the women and generally behaved like foreigners usually did. Sakai was not a port open to foreigners and the residents were terriblly frightened. The captains of the Tosa troops tried to talk them into returning to their ships, but there were no interpreters and they ignored their gestures. Then a French sailor took the Tosa regiment banner and ran with it. A chase ensued. The Japanese flag barrer caught up with the Frenchman, hit him hard on the head with a staff and took back the banner. At this, the French troops started shooting at the Japanese. The two captains ordered to fire back. Thirteen Frenchmen died in the skirmish. The French pulled out of Sakai.

On Feburary 18th, the French formally accused Japan of wanton murder of French troops. French consule Leon Roche made the three following demands: 1) An apology from the Lord of Tosa who is to appear personally in front of the French command aboard the French warship Venus 2) the excecution of twenty Japanese soldiers and 3) a reparation of 150 thousand dollars was to be paid by the Lord of Tosa. Faced with the superior military power of the French, the Japanese government caved in to their demands.

Thus with apology made and reparations paid, what needed to be done was to execute the soldiers. When asked which of them fired, twenty nine soldiers answered that they did. They drew straws to decide which ones would be executed. By custom, it was decided to be ritual suicide. These men, being Tosa soldiers, were technically commoners, conscripted to service for the first time in centuries, but since they were to die in samurai fashion, it was arranged that they and their posterity would be elevated to the caste of samurai. The French were soon to face more than they bargained for.

The execution took place on the 23rd. The first man to die sat down at his place and spoke to the French delegation there to witness the execution. “Frenchmen! I do not die for you, but for the Imperial Nation. Behold! The formal death of a true man of Japan!” With this, he stuck his knife into his stomach, his eyes fixed on the Frenchmen, and pulled out his own intestines for them to see. The executioner, who was to chop off the man’s head to give him a quick merciful death, swung down his sword but missed the neck, inflicting only a small wound. The doomed man spoke to the executioner, his eyes still on the Frenchmen “What’s the matter, Mr. Baba. Calm down.” The second swing bit deep into the neck and loudly cracked a vertibre. “I’m not dead yet!” the man screamed, “Cut deeper!” At the third swing the head was finally lopped off. And the next man was called.

One by one, the men came to their deaths. Each time the men glared at the French up to the moment they died. The French consule was soon nervously standing up and sitting down, his honor guards, who were initially standing at attention, were soon whispering to each other. Decipline seem to melt away and all the French soldiers lost their military demeaner and fidgeted unbearablly. When the 12th man was called out, the French consule stood up and left without so much as a bow. The execution was suspended for lack of an official French witness. Unable to find a suitable replacement for the witness, the French pardoned the remaining nine soldiers. The survivors, furious that they missed their opportunity to die heroes and become elevated to samurai, stayed imprisoned for the remainder of their lives waiting for the French to return and resume the execution.

Thus, Japanese sovereignty was preserved in the face of superior military might. The dead soldiers were eventually enshrined in the Yasukuni Shrine.

That is a story that might make a good samurai novel. It was published in Japanese as a short story by Mori Ogai in 1914.

Where are the samurai stories?

It is very difficult to find good, new samurai fiction in the English language, or any Japanese fiction for that matter. If you look for a list of best samurai fiction, or historical novels, on Goodreads, you will find Shogun by James Clavell (published 1975), Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa (1939), Taiko by the same author (1945) and John Allyn’s The 47 Ronin Story (1970). It is not only that Goodreads is heavily weighted towards classics, which it is, but the list also contains the likes of The Ronin’s Mistress by Laura Joh Rowland. I have no idea who reads Laura Joh Rowland, but her fantastical, farfetched, historically inaccurate and linguistically error prone Sano Ichiro series has counted seventeen volumes. There is obviously a shortage of good samurai stories in the English language.

The same actually applies to all Japanese fiction. Goodreads shelf for “Popular Japanese novel books” lists Isuna Hasekura’s Spice and Wolf on the top of the list. Seriously? Spice and Wolf is at best an average YA novel set in an imaginary medieval Europe (which is about as historically accurate as Rowland’s depiction of Edo era Japan) and there is nothing particularly Japanese about the book other than the name of the author.

But don’t take my criticism of published authors seriously. I have never published a novel. I have published articles, book chapters and co-authored books on the things pertaining to my profession, but not fiction. I have been dreaming of becoming a writer since the Nixon administration and I have been writing fiction on and off ever since. I am Japanese and living in Japan. English is my second language. So naturally, I have been writing in Japanese for some time. That is to say that I have been collecting Japanese rejection slips, and I gave up a while ago. But I am now 52 years old and something tells me that I should start writing now or I will never get it done. This time, long story, I want to try my hand at writing in English.

So getting back to the samurai novels, if there was a niche an English-speaking Japanese writer could fill, that would be fiction set in Japan. I could write something set in modern Japan. I have had some interesting experiences. But I believe there is a pre-existing audience for samurai stories.

Samurai stories are very difficult to write in English. You cannot describe the characters like in an Elmore Leonard novel. There was a distinct class system that segregated the farmers from the warriors and priests from the merchants. The closest thing in the English language is the description of the pre-civil rights America. Here is an excerpt from an article I found in Daily Kos about a clueless white woman from South Dakota having a black servant for the first time in pre-civil rights North Carolina. “My mom was constantly wrong-footing herself with Annie, trying to do things like eat lunch with her or help Annie do her work, things Annie understood would be taken the wrong way had they been observed by other whites.” (You can read the rest of the essay here.) You can feel a kind of tension in this sentence. Yes, there was a boundary between different people back then, and there were consequences for transgressions. Now here is a quote from Child of Vengeance by David Kirk (2013). “The house around him is dark and silent. It is big enough for a dozen, but the boy alone lives here. He is the son of samurai, and so he is tended to by the peasants of the village. He wants for nothing – the house is cleaned, the garden pruned and raked, food always within chests and barrels – but he never sees his custodians. They are fearful of him and of this house, and he is cared for as if by phantoms.” Putting aside the fact that that is not how lonely samurai boys lived in the Sengoku era, the description does convey a sort of creepiness. But it does not convey the bite of segregation that the essay about North Carolina does. Class differences in medieval Japan were very harsh. To portray that class tension and still make the characters relatable is exceedingly difficult.

Another vexing problem is the rhythm of the language. Japanese not only has no pronouns, but sometimes subjects and objects can be omitted. That could make the sentences hard to translate, but a skilled Japanese writer can calibrate the vagueness to its best effect. This is demonstrated in the never-ending quest to find the perfect English translation for the first line of Kawabata Yasunari’s Snow Country. Literally translated, it goes “Out of the long tunnel, and there was the snow country”. It was a little less vague in Japanese because tunnels were not widely built in Japan until railroads were introduced. So instantly, you see in your mind’s eye, a steam locomotive, darkened in soot, exiting the tunnel and from the passenger’s perspective, the scenery turns from black to silver white in an instant. The translation by the inimitable Edward G. Seidensticker goes “The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country”. Great translation, but it does not quite deliver the same picture, let alone the chunky, dismembered rhythm of the self-enclosed narrator.

Samurais were not great orators. They saw little virtue in eloquence and had much respect for silent perseverance. They were trained to withhold their emotions and rarely communicated their feelings. (This insularity was carried over to Kawabata’s generation.) In Japanese, the clumsiness of the samurai male in expressing their emotions can be reflected in the choppiness of the prose. In English, it just does not sound the same.

Then there is the vocabulary. A reader does not have to understand every single word in a book. When you read a nautical romance and come to a passage that reads “the hull tumblehomed abaft of the raked mizzen into a graceful transom” you just take in the atmosphere without picking up a maritime dictionary. But how about Japanese vocabulary? Even modern Japanese readers would be puzzled at a phrase like “the unruly mix of sakayaki, houhatsu, bozu and nadetsuke all jostled together in a rush to see the posted pronouncement” without some hint that this was a list of various hairstyles of the vastly different social classes who would normally not come in contact with each other. Could you still take in the atmosphere without really understanding the words? I suppose it depends on the context. Japanese authors like Kyogoku Natsuhiko make use of obscure vocabulary to create atmosphere all the time. I have never read his works in English translation, but I am sure it will create very different atmospherics compared to the original.

These are just a few of the obstacles to writing a decent samurai story in English. And that is on top of the challenges common to writing any novel. I must be stupid for trying this. But every writer has to try something. I will be writing about my struggles with writing in general, and samurai stories in particular, on this blog. I hope I will be able to find interested readers.