Writing Fiction in English as a Second Language: Code Words.

Japanese people in general are utterly incompetent English speakers. Those who can pull off a reasonable imitation of fluent English are considered exceptions. Quirky street signs and product labels written in a strange version of what appears to be English are everywhere in Japan. This strange language is often referred to as “Japanglish” or “Engrish”.

One famous example is the cartoon mascot for a line of environment-friendly home electronics. The electronics maker chose a woodpecker for the mascot. They could have called the cartoon character Woody, but “Woody the Woodpecker” was already taken, so the called it “Pecker the Woodpecker”. It did not take them very long to retract the whole thing.

There was also a chain of steak houses called “Loins”. Loins, I’m sure, referred to the choice slab of meat (top sirloin, bottom sirloin, tenderloin, and short loin), but the founders of the chain did not realize that the word also had a different meaning. After spending millions of dollars (hundreds of millions of yen, actually) promoting the brand, they abruptly decided to change the name of their restaurant chain.

The cherry blossom is Japan’s unofficial national flower next to the chrysanthemum. You might say that the chrysanthemum represents the non-martial component of the Imperial dynasty, while the cherry blossom represents the samurai spirit. The flower, which blossoms for a few days then sheds away in a blizzard of petals, has been likened to the glorious death of a soldier in battle. The masculine image is probably the reason behind why one of the first Japanese automobiles to be exported to the United States was named the Nissan Cherry. They nixed that name too.

Since these “Japanglish/Engrish” problems are so common, a Japanese writer is highly sensitive about such unintended connotations sneaking into his prose. And if you ask someone like me to critique a piece of writing, these are the mistakes I would be focusing on. Some people latch on to the misuse of commas, semi-colons, prepositions, or pronouns. You cannot expect me, a Japanese writer, not to obsess over the unintended meanings of words.

That is why I somewhat over-reacted when I found the phrase “Thatcheresque woman”. A woman who resembles Margaret Thatcher could be a whole spectrum of things, from a strong-willed leader to an entrenched ideologue. Depending on their political orientation, some people are die-hard fans of Thatcher and some people think she was a witch. You may intend the phrase “Thatcheresque woman” to mean one thing, but the reader may take away something quite different.

Another one is “like the Louvre”. The Louvre is a vast and diverse place. You can see Charlemagne’s crown, Hammurabi’s pillar, the bust of Benjamin Franklin, Egyptian sarcophagi, architecture by I. M. Pei, lots of French couples kissing, and hordes of Asian and Middle-Eastern tourists. And also some paintings. What part of the Louvre are you trying to project in your imagery? If you are going to use the Louvre as an anchor word in your story, you better think it through.

The most heinous of these offences are the code words: A “Gucci-clad” drug dealer, a stock broker “sheathed in Armani”, an artist “lounging on a Wegner chair”, a hipster with purple hair, or a spooky old man living in a “Jacobethan manor house”.

To be fair, I am guilty of the same offences. I write telegraphic descriptions like “over dressed drug dealers in dark suits and vivid ties” while being well aware that the only reason the reader can visualize this is because there are lots of over dressed drug dealers in dark suits and vivid ties depicted in movies and television. It’s like describing a spy in a trench coat, sunglasses and a fedora. You can see it so clearly it is almost a caricature in itself, but only because we have all seen the same visual entertainment. If someone unfamiliar with the visuals ever read this writing, they will never know what it is all about. And if people for whom these words carry different connotations read them, it could easily project a warped image in the same vein as Nissan Cherry.

If you want to write stories in the English language, you have to immerse yourself in the English speaking culture so that you will know that a name like “Nissan Cherry” will sound corny to Western ears. But you also have to take a step back and realize that using a “Jacobethan manor house” as substitute for “cue Bela Lugosi music” is simply bad writing. Just as most people outside of the Japanese culture sphere do not associate “cherry” with masculinity, a lot of people do not associate classic English architecture with vampires. (Besides, “Jacobethan” – originally a fusion of “Jacobean” and “Elizabethan” architectural styles popular in 19th century England – is lately an American euphemism for “MacMansion”.)

In this era of truncated writing, when we are expected to cut to the chase without foreplay, to ditch the expositions and get to the action, it is difficult not to rely on prefabricated imagery. The best we can do is to be conscious that we are using them. And when we use them, we have to be careful what imagery we are employing. But since one man’s cherry is another man’s cherry, it’s better to do away with cherries as much as possible.

(Read also “Writing Fiction in English as a Second Language“)


Building a Writer’s Mind

There was a story on the internet about a man who tried to replicate Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s diet and workout routine for a month. It was not an easy task because it involved consuming over five thousand calories in high protein foods divided over seven meals per day and pumping an ungodly amount of iron to consume and utilize those calories. Even Johnson was initially skeptical of this effort when he learned of it over Twitter, responding with smug remarks, but conceded that he was impressed with the fellow in the end, partly because the man had realistic expectations. He started out weighing 207 lb and finished at 208 lb a month later, not looking significantly different after spending $1300 on the food alone. He did say that he felt healthier after his 30-day challenge, but he stressed that you cannot build a body like an action star in a month.

In spite of all the high flying promises of ad campaigns for machines and diet drinks that will give you a Cinderella-like transformation in 30 days or less, most of us know deep down that those promises are bogus. The only way you can lose 60 pounds within two weeks is by amputating your legs. Then again, the world is never short of suckers. There will always be people who buy into the story that those before-and-after photos were not reversed, Photoshopped, or spanned a longer time than advertised.

Building and maintaining a writer’s mind is similar to building a body. You cannot build it over night and it takes constant work to maintain. It is a lot less obvious because you cannot see it, but the principle is the same: You need to nourish your mind with a large and steady diet of healthy books and you need constant workout on your brain. Writing is not like riding a bicycle. It is not the sort of thing you learn once and never forget. It only looks that way because successful writers never stop training themselves.

A lot of people have fantasies about becoming a published author, including myself. But the longer I work at it, the more I realize how inadequate my daily training routine really is. Some people just seem to type out a story in a week, send it off to a publisher, and laugh all the way to the bank. But then again, some people can dead lift five hundred pounds. It doesn’t take very long to lift five hundred pounds. You just grab the bar and push it over your head. The whole process takes only a few seconds. But to build a body that can do it takes a lot longer than that. It takes years of very hard training.

Writing a full length novel is like lifting five hundred pounds. It looks impressive in and of itself, but the real work is in building the ability to pull it off. If Anthony Burgess wrote an immortal masterpiece like A Clockwork Orange in three weeks, it was only because he had already finished a rigorous preparation period. Putting the story on paper was just the lifting of the weight. Just that alone was not easy or effortless, but it was made possible by the training that preceded it.

If you are the sort of person who believes that writing fiction is a get-rich-quick scheme, I have bad news for you: It isn’t. Some people attribute E. L. James’ success with Fifty Shades of Grey to the author’s many connections in the media world. I don’t buy it. Other people have had better connections but their books did not sell 300 million copies. A more likely explanation is that she is fluent in a new language, specifically the language of texting, which may be divorced from conventional grammar but approximates what people are already accustomed to reading on their phones. A computer analysis of Fifty Shades also revealed that, although the book tends to deviate from conventional narrative structure, it follows the same emotional fluctuations as other best selling novels. All of this suggests that the book was neither a fluke or a success constructed from personal connections. The author had carefully prepared to write exactly the book that she did.

The writer’s mind is constantly melding and fusing words, story lines, scenes, and metaphors. A writer does not just read a book, but beach combs through it for small treasures. A writer is constantly on the lookout for new pigments that can help paint pictures with words. A writer is always thinking about writing. There are no real vacations for writers, just as there are no real vacations for the body builder. If you stop, you fall behind.

There really is no such thing as an over night success in fiction writing. It only looks that way because, unlike the bulging muscles you can plainly see on Dwayne Johnson, the muscles that writers train to build are invisible. But the muscles are there. They are hard to gain and easy to lose. And any sucker lead into believing that they can write a competent novel without going through the rigorous training process is as comical as the mug who buys into the con that he can lose his lard and put on impressive abs and pecs within thirty days.

Fiction Writing Rules

Here are some of the most often suggested “rules” for writing fiction. Some people say that it would be better to call them “guidelines”. Others say that the whole concept is hogwash and that there are no rules for writing fiction. Some say that they are not rules for writers but serve as guidelines for editors and publishers to reject or accept manuscripts. It goes without saying that this is an incomplete list.

  1. Show, don’t tell.
  2. Omit needless words.
  3. Do not break the conventions of your story world.
  4. Use proper grammar.
  5. Maintain continuity.
  6. Write what you know.
  7. Avoid passive voice.
  8. Avoid adverbs.
  9. Avoid decorative prose.
  10. Avoid exclamation marks.
  11. Avoid long expositions.
  12. Avoid prologues.
  13. Avoid cliché.
  14. The MC must be relatable.
  15. The villain must also have a human side.
  16. The hero must have vulnerabilities.
  17. Open with attention grabbing action.
  18. Don’t give away the ending.
  19. Follow story structure.
  20. Leave out the parts no one reads.
  21. Maintain POV. No “head hopping” in a single scene.
  22. Every scene must advance the plot or reveal character.
  23. The main character must have clear motivations and goals.
  24. There must be a consequence if the MC fails in his/her quest.
  25. Every scene must have a clear and obvious conflict.
  26. Every scene must end in the resolution of said conflict.
  27. There must be a setback before the climax.
  28. All dialogue must serve the plot.
  29. There must be a time limit (eg: before midnight) or an event deadline (eg: before the war starts) for your MC to attain the quest.
  30. Every story beat must be connected (or be connectable) to the next beat with either “but” or “therefore” (not “and then”).

This list has been collected from a diverse collection of books and articles. These are just compilations of other writer’s experiences. Some are useful, others are less so. Many of these are complicated and need lengthy explanations to be fully understood. Some have whole books written about them. But generally speaking these are the things that inexperienced writers do wrong and wonder why they are not getting published. You do have to break the rules when you see fit to do so, but you should never break them by accident. Apply these rules with caution and reject them with care.

Japanese History in a Nutshell

If you must grasp Japanese history in a nutshell, it is useful to envision five hills lined up in a row; five bell curves, if you will.

The first is the period spanning “Kamiyo” to the end of the Heian Period (around 1192). “Kamiyo” means “age of the gods” and is largely a period known through oral legends. Jinmu Tenno, the great-great-great-grandson of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, started from a place called Nakatsu Kuni (literally Middle Earth) and conquered eastward until he united all of known Japan of the time. This supposedly happened in 7th century B.C. He became the first emperor of Japan. Although some records of early Japan can be found in Chinese documents, written history did not begin in Japan until the 7th century A.D. Japan began to “modernize” and build a more structured form of government, based on the bureaucratic system in China, in the late 6th century. The architect of the reform, Prince Shotoku admonished his subjects to preserve “wa” (peace) at all costs, which pretty much suggests that Japanese rulers up to this point were a rather violent bunch. They tried to build a capitol city, in Nara, Fujiwara, and finally Kyoto (794 A.D.). The emperor gradually lost power and his regents ruled the government. The imperial aristocrats took the “wa” business seriously. Killing was deemed a vile and low class vocation. The “kebiishi”, armed law enforcers who patrolled Kyoto, were not even given official ranks in government and called “office-less mandarin”.  As a branch of government, they did not officially exist. The aristocrats dealt with all matters related to violence at arm’s length, which gave rise to a new social class who specialized in the killing business; the samurai.

There are tons of medieval literature dealing with this period. The Tale of Genji, often said to be the world’s oldest novel, is set in the pre-samurai Heian era, and deals mostly with the amorous ways of the aristocracy. Modern fiction involving the first bell curve deal with the decadent decline of the era, such as Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Toyoda’s Portrait of Hell (both of which are based on short stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke).

The second bell curve began as the first bell curve waned. In 1185, after much romanticized drama and glorified bloodshed, Minamoto Yoritomo, the heir of the Minamoto clan, became the shogun, a position appointed by the emperor. He built his office in Kamakura, 30km south west of modern Yokohama, which became the Kamakura shogunate. The shogun’s office was placed far from Kyoto to avoid imperial influence and the shogunate soon started behaving like the de facto ruling body of Japan. Almost immediately, the shogun became a figurehead and power was held by his regents, the Hojo clan. The imperial aristocracy maintained their influence by marrying their daughters to powerful samurai, thereby reinforcing the legitimacy of the shogun. Eventually, the shogun and his close associates became cultured and foppish. They would read poetry and appreciate incense burning. In the late 13th century, Kublai Klan would make two attempts to invade Japan. The invasions are successfully repelled, but the expenditures sapped at the shogunate’s strength and eventually, this bell curve also waned.

The drama surrounding the rise of Minamoto Yoritomo, and the consequent fall of his rival Taira Kiyomori, is the regular staple and the fundamental template of samurai literature. The decline of this period did not become a source of popular fiction until modern times.

Between 1333 and 1336, as the shogunate fell apart, Emperor Godaigo saw an opportunity to revive the imperial throne and bring power back to the emperor. But times had changed and the old ways of the aristocracy had not. His ambition was met with failure, a schism formed in the imperial throne, the emperor once again became a figurehead, and a new shogun, Ashikaga Takauji, started a new shogunate in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. This was the beginning of the third bell curve, the Muromachi shogunate. Since this shogunate began with the suppression of clans allied with Emperor Godaigo, and supporting an alternate imperial throne, it had more power over the emperor than the previous shogunate. But eventually, as the schism was annulled and the throne united, and aristocrats sought influence through intermarriage with the shogun and his regents, the shogunate once again became cultured and foppish. The 8th shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa was so engaged in the arts, he is credited for creating the Japanese culture that we know today; one of subdued and austere aesthetics. However, he was a total disaster as a politician. He let his wife, Hino Tomiko, get involved with government and fight with his regents over power. The confusion eventually lead to Onin Wars (1467) which snowballed into the Sengoku Period, the Period of the Warring Lords. Japan became a free for all and any one of the regional war lords could gain supremacy over others. Most notably, Hideyoshi who started his life as a peasant farmer boy went on to rule Japan. This mouse-eats-cat situation continued as the bell curve of the Muromachi shogunate waned.

Out of the multitudes of war lords vying for power, Oda Nobunaga eventually became the de facto ruler of Japan. Ashikaga Yoshiaki, the last shogun of the Muromachi era, sent letters to various samurai clans “ordering” them to attack Nobunaga. The war lords complied only as long as it was convenient for them. They saw the edicts as justifications to ally and overthrow Nobunaga. But as Nobunaga destroyed his enemies one by one, the shogun’s edicts became increasingly irrelevant. By the time an official letter arrived from the emperor discharging Yoshiaki from office (1573), the shogun was as powerless as the emperor himself. After the death of Nobunaga (1582), power would shift to Hashiba Hideyoshi (later Toyotomi Hideyoshi), then finally to Tokugawa Ieyasu who established the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (now Tokyo). This era, between the final waning of the Muromachi shogunate and the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate, by coincidence overlaps with the life of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). This is the era most often depicted in samurai fiction, including James Clavell’s  Shogun and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress.

The Tokugawa shogunate was established in 1603, but Hideyoshi’s clan would not perish until 1615. This is the beginning of the forth bell curve, the Edo era. The shogun appointed “metsuke” (inspectors) to maintain law and order among commoners and low level samurais, and “oometsuke” (grand inspectors) to suppress rogue action by the regional lords. The first grand inspector was the celebrated ninja Yagyu Munefuyu, brother of the legendary Yagyu Jubei. But as prolonged peace extended over centuries, the grand inspectors stopped sending assassins to keep the lords in line, but switched to subtly changing seating arrangements at official functions to punish the lords for various transgressions. By the time Western gunships arrived in Edo harbor, the shogunate was ill equipped to fend off foreign invasions. But regional lords, particularly the ones whose position in government was low due to fighting on the wrong side against the Tokugawas in the early days, were quietly modernizing their forces. As the Tokugawa shogunate waned, the regional lords would form the backbone of the new Imperial Japanese government.

The prolonged peace of the Edo period resulted in the prosperity of the masses, and for the first time, widespread literacy among the commoners. Wood block printing not only produced beautiful art for mass consumption, but numerous popular books. Kabuki plays, joruri puppet theater, and many forms of stylized story telling, such as kodan and rakugo became popular. Many of these works dealt with the lives of commoners. Others dealt with historical stories.

The end game of the last shogunate, called bakumatsu, is another era often depicted in samurai fiction. The movie Last Samurai with Tom Cruise comes to mind.

Thus comes the fifth bell curve. In 1866, the shogun officially gave power back to the emperor. But of course the emperor did not have the means to govern. Even though the shogun was overthrown by an alliance of regional lords, bureaucrats of the shogunate were needed to run the country. This class of shogunate aristocracy had intermarried with the imperial aristocracy over the centuries and had more affinity with the imperial society than the regional lords who put the emperor in power (albeit as a figurehead). The two kinds of samurais would struggle for power while Japan went through rapid modernization, repelled Western colonizers, and started colonizing its Asian neighbors. The problem really surfaced when the military, mostly controlled by regional clans and low level samurai, and the foreign ministry, controlled by imperial aristocracy, could not agree on foreign policy, especially what kind of wars to wage. Japan delved into militarism while the key players wrestled over the steering wheel. The emperor was a figurehead. Tojo became a figurehead. Many layers below them became figureheads of various interests. The mighty Japanese empire went into a tailspin that culminated in the dropping of two atomic bombs.

One of the things General Douglas MacArthur did after the war was to ban the possession of samurai swords permanently. Numerous priceless swords were destroyed. It took a lot of petitioning to get the Americans to understand that some of these swords were irreplaceable art pieces. Japanese citizens would eventually own swords again but the samurai class would never be the same. Land owning gentry had their lands confiscated and an entire social class was systematically destroyed. That was the end of the fifth bell curve.

People speak of “The Last Samurai” as if there was only one. But the age of the samurai ended three times: Once at the end of the Sengoku era, once at the end of the Edo era, and once at the end of WWII. Meanwhile, the Onin Wars is said to be the end of the imperial aristocratic lifestyle. But the strange rivalry between the aristocracy and the samurai continue in different forms. You might say that a sixth bell curve came after WWII when a new democratic Japan rose to the position of an economic giant. But that does not fit with the picture of previous five bell curves of Japanese power. Postwar Japan seems like a new entity. A place where no samurai would ever live.

NaNoWriMo Helper

Here are some of the NaNoWriMo helpers I posted for last year’s NaNoWriMo contestants.

Last Minute Pantser Cheat Sheet.

Tricks to Overcome Stuckness Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Getting Stuck At Arguments.

Writing Good Dialogue (1), (2), (3), (4).

Rules for the Second Draft (1), (2), (3).

Editing Tips (1), (2).

Of course every piece of advice is just that, advice. In the end you have to make your own call. I hope these tips will help. Good luck to everyone.

The War and Peace of Japan

I found that even some of the relatively knowledgeable foreigner friends did not know a basic fact of Japanese history that all Japanese take for common knowledge: The Emperor was never samurai.

The word “samurai” derives from the word “to serve”. The emperor is nobody’s servant. So it is quite obvious from the linguistics of it. It is also important historically.

Written history in Japan began in the year 720 when the emperor ordered the publication of “Nihon Shoki” the official government record of events. A little before that in the year 712, the government ordered the creation of “Kojiki“, or “Record of Old Things”, which was the transcription of oral history that had been passed down through the generations by story tellers. “Kojiki” recounts the story of how Emperor Tennmu, one of the sons of the Sun Goddess, landed in Nakatsu Kuni (believed to be in Kyushu. I was in a town called Nakatsu while I wrote this) and embarked on an eastward conquest that expanded his territory to include the area that is now known as Kansai. But all of this happened before written history. There are no records of the emperor actually leading troops into battle after written history has started.

By the late 9th century, the emperor was already a figurehead. Actual rule was performed by aristocrats who served as “sesshou“, proxies, if the emperor was young or was a woman and as “kanpaku“, advisors, if the emperor was a grown man. By the 10th century, the Fujiwara clan had attained a monopoly on the “sesshou” and “kanpaku” positions. This was sometimes realized by marrying the daughter of the Fujiwara clan into the imperial household. The heir to the throne would then be the grandson of the Fujiwara patriarch, who would then be in a position to advise the young emperor on matters of state. The “kanpaku” was the de facto emperor for several centuries. A retired emperor was called “joukou“, which was initially a ceremonial position but eventually became an advisory position more powerful than the puppet emperor. The influence of the “joukou” increased in the late 11th century. To counter the combined weight of the emperor and the “joukou“, a retired “kanpaku” came to be called “taikou” which became another powerful advisory position. From the 9th to most of the 12th century, politics was carried out largely through court diplomacy, detached from the nitty gritty of the battle field. These court aristocrats were called “kugeh” and lived in a lofty world of poetry and incense, away from the reality of the common people around them.

The filthy business of violence was relegated to the lower orders. The “kebiishi“, which policed the streets of Kyoto, were considered a supplementary position not counted as one of the imperial bureaucracy. That was all right as long as the nation was peaceful. But as the faction ridden government became ineffectual, and as new methods of steel production made steel instruments cheaper and more available, a new warring underclass was born and took matters into their own hands. Initially, they were called “yebisu” (barbarians) or “tsuwamono” (strong men) and they were despised by the aristocracy. But they would eventually become known as the “samurai”.

The samurai class eventually consolidated into two main factions, the Taira clan (which fought under a plain red banner) and the Minamoto clan (who held a plain white banner). The rivalry is said to be the origin of kouhaku (紅白), the contest of red-team and white-team seen in so many competitions. Their conflict culminated in the Genpei War. After much bloodshed, Minamoto Yoritomo became the first warrior to unite the nation under his banner. The imperial government finally woke up to the reality and offered Yoritomo the position of “shogun”, the generalismo of all imperial soldiers. Thus was born the first shogunate which lasted from 1192 to 1333 (Kamakura period). It was now the shogunate that held the real power. The imperial government continued to exist, but its actual influence waned.

No sooner was the shogunate born than the shogun became figurehead. Hojo Tokimasa became “shikken”, regent to the shogun, and the Hojo clan held that position until the shogunate fell apart. More damaging was that the “kugeh” embarked on a power sharing scheme by marrying their daughters into the shogun’s and the regent’s bloodlines. Adopting the esoteric customs of the aristocracy, the highest samurai leaders forgot their warrior roots and became very much like the poetry writing, incense burning, culturally sophisticated kugeh. Eventually, the rule became ineffectual again and after the invasion of Khublai Khan’s Mongolian forces (1274) burdened the shogunate with massive military expenditures, the shogunate went downhill.

A group of revivalists lead by Emperor Godaigo fought and distroyed the first shogunate, hoping to bring back the rule of the emperor again. A group of warriors lead by Ashikaga Takauji sided with the emperor. But once the shogunate was defeated, the “kugeh” treated the warriors with such disdain that Takauji broke ranks with the emperor and formed his own government. Another puppet emperor was put on the throne and Japan experienced a schism of two emperors between 1333 and 1392. The new puppet emperor appointed Takauji shogun and the second shogunate was born (Muromachi period).

Once peace was attained, the “kugeh”, once again, married their daughters into the shogunate. The third shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu actually doubled as the “kanpaku”, the emperor’s advisor. Soon the shogun became figurehead again. His power was eaten away by the regional lords that surrounded him. The 8th shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa was more interested in art and gardening and his wife took over politics. He was the Nero who fiddled as Kyoto burned. He was not particularly a tyrant, just detached from the real world in a wimpy aristocratic way.

It was during his reign that Japan entered “Sengoku Jidai” or “The Era of the Warring Lords” (1467 to 1568). This is the era in which many Kurosawa films (“Kagemusha” “Ran” “The Hidden Fortress” “Throne of Blood”) and some samurai video games (“Onimusha”) are set. For a century, Japan was in a state of perpetual war. The Muromachi shogunate, powerless and ornamental, persisted until 1573. Meanwhile, in this era when real power counted, the power of the the “kugeh” who depended on peacetime court diplomacy, was diminished to nil.

Still, when Oda Nobunaga emerged as the primary power in the nation, he made offerings to the gentrified shogun in order to legitimize his conquests of what resistance remained. Nobunaga allied with the shogun, who sought to use Nobunaga to bring him back to power. If Nobunaga played along, his lineage might have ruled Japan as the new regent clan with the shogun as figurehead. Nobunaga, a visionary with grand designs, was not satisfied with such antiquated status quo and eventually collided with the shogun, who used his authority to unite all of Nobunaga’s enemies against him. A coordinated effort to surround and defeat Nobunaga failed twice. Evidence suggests that after he triumphed over the shogun, Nobunaga had plans to usurp the Emperor as well (hence the video game Nobunaga’s Ambition). His over sized ambition may have contributed to his assassination.

After Nobunaga’s death, however, Hashiba Hideyoshi took over. He showed no interest in becoming regent or shogun, but he did not try to overthrow the emperor either. Instead, he became kanpaku, chief adviser to the  Emperor. As such, he enlisted the aristocracy to legitimize his authority. With the nation nearly united, the emperor and his minions once again entered the spotlight. Hideyoshi’s clan, however, eventually lost power after his death.

In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu was appointed shogun and opened the third and last shogunate (Edo period). His government started out as a military dictatorship, but soon fell into to the trap of gentrification again. By the latter half of the period, high ranking bureaucrats were embarrassed to admit that they were doing such barbarous things as kendo practice. In a diary of a bureaucrat of the time, there is a part where he recounts how his superior told him to say that his bruise was a result of a bad fall. By the end, the officers of the shogunate were court aristocrats with ornamental swords.

Still, there were plenty of tough guys around. The “barbarians” and “rougue men” far from the center of power maintained their martial ways. They trained their children in the ways of the warrior in hopes that someday they would be called to duty and their skills as swordsmen would be useful. They waited more than ten generations, preserving their skills throughout, before an anti-Tokugawa alliance rose up in the wake of Commodore Perry’s forced opening of the country and restored the emperor to power for the third time.

In 1889, the Japanese Imperial Constitution was established, firmly putting the emperor in the role of the constitutional monarch.

What I wanted to say was that Japanese history was a process of repeated gentrification and (…er…what’s the opposite?) relapse into military rule. Or maybe you could call it repeated erection of strong military governments that relapsed into gentrified aristocratic rule. The socially “lower” samurai were constantly trying to legitimize their bloodline once they came to power. That is why they kept inter-breeding with the kugeh. Due to a mix of religion and tradition, the kugeh refused to have anything to do with the lowly business of killing. That does not mean that they never assassinated their own. They just never lead armies. (The life of the kugeh in the 11th century, before the ascent of the samurai, is described in the book “The Tale of Genji” and other works of literature.) Since the aristocracy never held military power, their power increased in times of peace, while when the nation was at war their power decreased. This is in stark contrast to the more martial aristocracy of Europe.

Because there were two ruling classes, the kugeh and the samurai, one which benefited from peace and the other which ascended in times of war, Japan swung like a pendulum between ascetic culture and martial culture. If you look at the time table, you can see that Japan alternated between 150-200 years of continuous peace and 80-100 years of perpetual war. You can argue that Japan was in its last age of war in the century between Commodore Perry (1853) and the San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951). That was after 200 years of absolute peace under Tokugawa rule which followed 100 years of Sengoku period, which followed a relatively brief period of peace under the Muromachi rule for 130 years, which followed a relatively short period of war (about 60 years) between the Mongolian invasion (1274) and the founding of the new shogunate (1336), and so on. War and peace, war and peace.

At this pace Japan will reach its next military era in about 130 years. Until then, politics will become increasingly muddled and the bureaucracy (by some estimates about 98% kugeh) will continue to rule Japan.

Evil Book Marketing Methods

  1. Commit Murder.
    There are some very bad ways to sell a book. Committing murder is one of them. I strain to find a good example of pure fiction written by a murderer whose sales benefited from the notoriety, but almost all confessions by deranged criminals seem to contain an element of fiction. So if you have no other option, killing people is one way to sell your books.
  2. Commit Other Crimes.
    David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam, wrote an autobiography detailing his serial killing spree and it did not sit well with a lot of people. In the 1980’s following the best selling success of of his book, several US states enacted “Son of Sam laws” which authorized the state to seize all loyalties from book profits based on criminal activity. But a few years later, Sydney Biddle Barrows, aka The Mayflower Madam, who was caught running a high-class call-girl operation for the rich and famous, published the story of her life as a high-society madam. Her lawyer argued that the Son of Sam law did not apply to her book because her crimes did not physically harm anybody. Although some people did not agree on how much harm prostitution actually delivers, the judge ruled in her favor and she kept her money. Her story was even made into a TV movie starring Candice Bergen.
  3. Write in Prison.
    Of course books like Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau, Letters from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr, and Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela were written in jail. Where else would they be? But most of us are not even aware that Don Quixote, Travels of Marco Polo, and The Short Stories of O. Henry were written in prisons. I do not know what kind of writing environment they have in prisons, but a good number of high quality books have come out of them.
    But a best selling book from a prison is usually associated with violent crime. My favorite is In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbot. Abbot first entered reform school at 16, and then was in and out of various prisons, mostly in, for all of his adult life, largely for the violent crimes he committed on other inmates after he was incarcerated. He started corresponding with Norman Mailer who recognized his literary talent and campaigned  for his parole. He was a darling of the Manhattan literary scene for a brief time until he killed a man in a compulsive manslaughter and went on the lam. In spite of support from Jerzy Kosinsky and Susan Sarandon, he was sent back to prison where he eventually committed suicide. (This belongs in a long line of ill-fated people and lost causes endorsed with good intentions by Susan Sarandon. Getting her endorsement is evidently bad for your survival.)
    But he is far from the worst case of celebrity endorsed parolees.  Jack Unterweger, aka the Vienna Strangler, was an Austrian serial killer whose modus operandi involved strangling women with their own brassieres after sexually assaulting them. He published short stories, poems, plays, and an autobiography from prison which caught the attention of the literary scene, and luminaries like Elfriede Jelinek and Günter Grass campaigned for his release. Unterwerger’s books were taught in schools and broadcast on radio, he was released and worked as a journalist and hosted his own TV program, but he immediately started killing more women. He even travelled to Los Angeles for a ride-along with the LA police. Three women were killed by his modus operandi during his stay. He eventually committed suicide in prison, but due to the timing of his death, he is technically still innocent, which is a cost effective way to avoid a guilty verdict and a very convoluted way to promote your books.
  4. Get Killed.
    Wikipedia actually has an entry for a list of murdered writers. Being murdered can not only promote your book, it can immortalize it. But there is one exception. Joy Adamson, author of Born Free, wrote about a lioness which she raised in captivity and grew attached to but had to release into the wild. Her friendship with the lion is depicted beautifully and her love of African nature is clearly genuine. Her book was adapted into a movie and inspired a television series. That is why when it was reported that she died due to an attack by a lion, along with much I-told-you-so derision, she was hailed by some people as a martyr for wildlife conservation. It was something of a letdown when it was later found that she was actually murdered by a mere human being. The trick seems to be to get killed by the right killer.
  5. Get Your Book Banned.
    The list of books banned by government authorities run the alphabetical gamut from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Zhuan Falun. There is actually such a thing called Banned Books Week, which means that if your book is banned by just one obscure and insignificant Bible Belt education board, it will ensure that your book will get attention. It should go without saying that not all banned books are worthy of the animosity they inspire. What is the point in banning The Fault in Our Stars from middle school libraries when the PG-13 movie version is available on Netflix? Lady Chatterley’s Lover this is not.
    However, if you can manage to get your book banned by the proper authorities, you will be in good company.
  6. Get Marked for Death.
    The fatwa on Salmon Rushdie for publishing Satanic Verses succeeded in sending the writer into hiding, but spectacularly backfired in terms of suppressing the book. Even though the book was banned from sales in several countries, what otherwise would have remained a favorite of cafe intellectuals and salon book clubs turned into an international best seller.
    But getting yourself marked for death is a surprisingly inefficient marketing strategy. Censors threaten writers for a reason: It works. When somebody threatens to bomb bookstores unless an unknown writer’s work is taken off the shelves, most bookstores just quietly comply.
    Besides, it is so easy to get your life threatened that one more threatened writer is hardly ever noticed. A female writer in India was threatened with rape, acid attacks, attack on her child, and physical violence for writing about eating beef.
    In some parts of the world, writers getting death threats for writing the wrong thing is so common, traffic jams and rains storms get bigger news coverage. And thanks to the internet, you do not even have to travel to such places to get some angry radical to target you.
    Quick, name a targeted writer who is not Salmon Rushdie. I bet you can’t.
  7. Attack the Critic.
    Writing guru James Scott Bell says that one of 7 things that will doom your novel is to “keep a chip on your shoulder”, that is to say, to narcissisticly  believe yourself to be so good that anyone who rejects your work is an idiot and deserve to be treated as such. Some people have insulted esteemed editors by name as revenge for rejected manuscripts and the word got around to other editors, ruining their prospects. Turning against an editor or a critic is almost always bad for a writer’s career. This is not to say that there have never been some bitter and colorful feuds between writers and their critics. In fact, if you can get in a very interesting feud with a really famous person, it might be the best press you will ever get.
    There is a caveat though. Your work needs to be actually good, and your enemy should not be an 18-year-old amateur reviewer, and you definitely should not bludgeon her with wine a bottle. Although that action did gain the book some undeserved press, and may even have helped a little with the sales, an embarrassing book only becomes a bigger laughing stock when more people reads it.

The bottom line? I do not know. Does controversy really sell books? A book that offends or disagrees with some people might cause a commotion that gains attention, but it may also turn off readers. There is a reason blockbuster movies today sometimes bend over backwards trying to be politically correct. Salmon Rushdie’s book survived because it was a masterpiece worth saving. Norman Mailer could get away with physically attacking Gore Vidal because they actually had writings to feud about. Nobody ever says that the feud between Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev was a publicity stunt.

They say that it’s not what they say about you, but that they talk about you. The skeptic in me calls bullshit. The criticisms I read about Hemingway did not deter me from reading his books, reviews of Stephenie Meyer’s books did. If Meyer had a public feud with E. L. James, it may have made an interesting tabloid article, but I doubt it would have inspired me to read these authors.

(I had to add these last paragraphs because some people seemed to be thinking I was actually proposing murder as a marketing tactic. First of April, idiots. But then again, this is more tongue in cheek than an outright April fool’s joke.)

April, 1, 2016.



In the Interrogation Room

Cop: Let’s make one thing clear. We’re pros. If you lie to us, we’ll know. If you tell us the truth, we’ll know. It’s that simple.
Suspect: Okay, let me make one thing clear. This is a lopsided conversation. Because I know one thing for sure that you can never know for sure.
Cop: What’s that?
Suspect: I didn’t do it.
Cop: We’ll see about that.
Suspect: No you won’t. You literally will never know for sure because it is your job to suspect. You are not here to protect my rights. You are not even here to find the real killer. You are here to get rid of a problem. A problem that very well may have flown the coop by now. But you have to catch someone, so you caught me. And only I know for sure that you are barking up the wrong tree.
Cop: Where were you at the night of the murder?
Suspect: Like I said. At home, alone, reading a book.
Cop: So you have no alibi.
Suspect: No.
Cop: You have a motive.
Suspect: I don’t think so.
Cop: He was sleeping with your wife.
Suspect: Ex-wife. She was sleeping with a lot of people. Only one of them ended up dead.
Cop: Maybe you were out to kill your ex and missed. Shot him instead.
Suspect: So she was with him at the time?
Cop: That’s not for you to know.
Suspect: Well, you don’t believe I went to kill my ex.
Cop: Why not?
Suspect: I just won the divorce case. I proved she was sleeping around. She gets nothing.
Cop: Nothing?
Suspect: She keeps her handbags.
Cop: You got a better deal than most.
Suspect: No reason to shoot her now.
Cop: If not her, you still had a motive to shoot her lover.
Suspect: I barely knew the guy. He was just one of many people screwing my ex.
Cop: Nobody else has a motive.
Suspect: It could have been a random burglary gone wrong.
Cop: It was a safe neighborhood, with no recent burglaries.
Suspect: Not any more.
 Cop: I can get more aggressive with you. You know that.
Suspect: I can lawyer up and stop talking.
Cop: Tell us what you really know.
Suspect: All I know is that some rich guy that I barely ever met died in his home in Orange County and, from what you say, it sounds like my ex was there with him when it happened.
Cop: Is that how it sounds?
Suspect: It sounds like that to me.
Cop: Then how come you haven’t asked whether she was alright?
Suspect: What?

Cop: I never told you the specifics of the murder scene. How do you know no one else was shot?
Suspect: I didn’t know…
Cop: She was your wife.
Suspect: Yes, but…
Cop: You believed she was at the scene of a murder and you didn’t ask if she was hurt.
Suspect: Oh… I see. She wasn’t there, was she?
Cop: That’s not the point.
Suspect: You planted that idea in my head to see how I would respond. To see if I worried about my wife.
Cop: Oh, now it’s your wife, is it? I thought she was your ex.
Suspect: I think I’ll call my lawyer now.
Cop: You’ve already told us enough.
Suspect: You had your mind made up from the beginning. You weren’t investigating. You were just accusing.
Cop: We’ll see about that.
Suspect: There’s nothing to see.

The Muse

She was looking over the railing at the park down below where old ladies with tiny dogs and parents with small children on a leash ambled around the fountain and the lone hot dog vender, when the man poked his head into her view from her side.
Her first thought was that he must be a pervert. He certainly had the look. A middle aged man with a creased face and longish disheveled hair generously mixed with grey over Asian black, dressed in an outdated tweed jacket and ancient scarf, with an overall air of a washed-up music conductor.
“Excuse me, miss,” he said. “I believe you are a writer.”
“What? Yes. Why? Who are you?”
“I am your muse.”
“I am your muse. I am here to solve your writer’s block. You haven’t written a word all week. Your eyes were sore from staring at the screen. You came out here in hopes that some fresh air will give you inspiration.”
“How do you…?”
“Writing is like riding a bicycle, don’t you think? We scoot along in a balance between motion and inertia. The wheels roll and the frame remains erect. When the wheels lose motion, the frame topples. When writing, your vision is the motion, while the words are the inertia. The balance of the two keeps you going. Do you follow?”
“Don’t focus on what word to write next. Feel your story with your senses. What do you see in the scene? What do you hear? Not just the characters talking but the distant sounds, like children playing on the grass, or the leaves rustling in the breeze. What do you smell?” He sniffed the cuffs of his sleeve. “Envision what you taste.” He stuck out his tongue and touched it with a grubby finger. “And touch. Focus on the senses, not the words.”
“You’re gross.”
“That’s an emotion. Very good. An emotional reaction. Much better than a cerebral understanding. Plot your emotions on a graph. It sometimes helps. One axle scaling from satisfaction to frustration, the other axle between eagerness and apathy.” He drew a cross in the air with his finger. “Are you hungry?”
“No. I’m fine.”
“Then your hunger is up here, near satisfaction. But you may not have been very eager for food in the first place, so it would be about here, closer to apathy than eagerness.” He plotted in the air with his finger. “You have satisfaction of a weak desire.”
“How is that going to help my writing?”
“Plot the emotions of each of your characters in each scene. How do they change? Do they have a trajectory? What direction are they going? And what is the next natural step?”
“Why are you doing this?”
The man heaved a heavy sigh.
“Because when you reach a point when aged Scotch is younger than your children, when movies stars whose names you remember are senior citizens, when the technical innovations that guided your writing career has run out of spare parts, a writer must walk outside and bark at the moon in hopes that something will come out of it.”
“That is why you are my muse.”
“That is why I am your muse.”
“You chose to become a magical creature out of apathy and frustration?”
“Nothing so magical about it, is there?”
“No. It’s kind of sad.”
“Well, I suppose that is why my magic failed to work.”
Two little children were fighting over a toy. After a brief tug of war, one took the toy and run off, the other fell backwards on her bottom and began to cry. A young woman, perhaps a babysitter or a nanny, somehow she did not seem like a mother, rushed to the child and picked her up.
“But what if you did?” she said.
“Pardon me?”
“What if you escaped out of your body and became a magical creature? An invisible ghost who haunts writers?”
“And whispers into their ears hints on how to write?”
“Yes. Wouldn’t that be an awesome story?”
“But what would happen next?”
“Well, one day he meets a writer who would not listen to him. So he decides to go back into his body to regain physical form and talk to her in the flesh.”
“Does it work?”
“No, it creeps her out. He knows all about her because he has been haunting her for weeks and it comes out kind of creepy. And he hasn’t walked in his body for a while, so he behaves kind of odd.”
“Then what happens?”
“She pushes him away. He gets frustrated. He bursts into tantrums like those kids fighting over a toy.”
“I see.”
“Excuse me. I have to get home and write this story.”
“Good. You do that. And don’t forget to buy coffee on your way home. You haven’t had caffeine all day.”
“Thanks. And thanks for the tip.”

The Other Murakami

I just suffered through a bitter, vitriolic essay titled 80 BOOKS NO WOMAN SHOULD READ by Rebecca Solnit, a feminist writer. My head still hurts from the purposeful ignorance of this entrenched ideologue. She is objecting against, of all things, a reading list put together by Esquire, a men’s magazine. She inserts a curt sentence “Of course, ‘women’s magazines’ like Cosmopolitan have provided decades of equally troubling instructions on how to be a woman”, apparently to cover the bases, then goes on a full blown tirade against manly books, but the whole thing reads like an excuse to serve up some poison on men rather than a critique of a book list.

Half way through the third paragraph, her anger is already so palpable, you can hear her voice screeching through your head. Clearly she has no intention of convincing people who disagree with her. She just wants like-minded ideologues to nod in agreement. This essay is a virtual book burning fest. Non-believers are not invited.

I would like to add one more author to her lengthy list of writers to hate. Ryu Murakami. When I first heard that Haruki Murakami was being nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, I thought the reporter had made a mistake. I thought it had to be Ryu Murakami, who writes gritty stories about war, injustice, bigotry and its origins. His books are harder to translate into English and thus he is less known in the English speaking world.

Ryu Murakami pointed out in his best selling series of essays (back in the 1980s), that all men are expendable. Men fought wars while women stayed at home for millennia because wombs are precious, and it takes only one pair of healthy testicles to service a large number of wombs. Thus, in a biological sense, men are expendable while women are not. Male lives don’t matter. Murakami argues that the subconscious understanding of this biological standing is the bases of how wars, politics, religion, social class, and gender inequality are structured. Boys must become “The Man” or remain nobody at all.

Solnit writes (on Hemingway) “Manly sentimental is the worst kind of sentimental, because it’s deluded about itself”. I respectfully disagree. Hemingway’s stories are about manly death, in Murakami’s words, death of an expendable man. If there is any delusion here, it is the hopeful delusion that maybe this individual expendable man might matter in the world. About the one-night-stand described in On The Road by Jack Kerouac, Solnit notes “It assumes that you do not identify with the woman herself, who is not on the road and not treated very much like anything other than a discardable depository”. But that is exactly how men are treated in the world and have been for thousands of years. Murakami pointed out decades ago that that is the very essence of male literature.

Solnit admits, in a smart-alecky sort of way, “Scanning the list … I was reminded that though it’s hard to be a woman it’s harder in many ways to be a man, that gender that’s supposed to be incessantly defended and demonstrated through acts of manliness.”  Yes, it is exactly that. The male existence is a constant struggle not to be expendable. Yet she continues: “I looked at that list and all unbidden the thought arose, no wonder there are so many mass murders. Which are the extreme expression of being a man when the job is framed this way”. No, it is the other way around. Men think and behave this way because we are expendable. 99% of the males could be wiped out and the species can continue. “Kill the men and take the women” had been the rule of war for almost all of human history. This mass murder is the underlying foundation of all gender based attitudes. Men’s attitudes are not the cause, but the result of mass murders.

In the 21st century, we live in a world where women are no longer breeding machines and men are no longer expendable sperm providers. Women accept combat missions in the military, and men can become stay-at-home dads. Yet society is still riddled with remnants of the expendable man paradigm. Eurocentric feminists of the Solnit school willfully ignore the biological expendability of the male gender and its effects on society, and chastise men for their lack of “empathy”. They reject the notion that the gender that needs to be incessantly defended and demonstrated through acts of manliness is itself in need of empathy. They are stuck in the pre-Murakami era; i.e. the seventies.

Some men are still raised in a culture that evolved from a world based on biological reality. Most corporations, bureaucracies, political bodies, and religious organizations still base their structures on this biological reality. Women who don pant suits and walk into occupations previously reserved for men chafe at the sexism every day and still refuse to see it. They are willfully ignorant that the societies that are so unwelcoming for women are structured that way because men are expendable. Feminists complain that men are egoistic, violent, selfish, obsessed with winning, strength and size, but refuse to see how society prizes those qualities. Nice guys still finish last.

Of course we want a kinder, gentler world. We are not cave men anymore. We should be able to create a society that is divorced from the biology that our current flaws are based on. But sometimes, men are forced to be realists in a mean world that is designed to treat them as pawns unless they stand out. The so-called male literature is designed to teach us to navigate through such a world. They are in that sense “instructions” on how to be men. Burning these books, however figuratively, is not an “empathetic” response to the biological plight of men. And it is not going to change the society that fostered the books. You are quite blindly killing the messenger.

The comments from the readers tend to support her and praise her sense of humor. Frankly, I don’t see what’s funny about it. Maybe it is because I am Japanese that I don’t see the charm of this Eurocentric trope. Women are under-represented in literature because you only read in English. In medieval Japan, male writers used feminine pseudonyms to disguise the fact they were men. Modern Japanese writers are overwhelmingly female. But for the likes of Solnit, non-English literature don’t count.

Solnit concludes her reverse-misogynistic essay by saying that she favors books that are “instructions in extending our identities out into the world, human and nonhuman, in imagination as a great act of empathy that lifts you out of yourself, not locks you down into your gender”. If such instructions exist, she is painfully in need of them herself. Maybe she should read Ryu Murakami, just a suggestion.