Steve Bein on Japanese history and culture

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FictionMuse
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Steve Bein on Japanese history and culture

Postby FictionMuse » Wed May 04, 2016 3:47 am

What was the inspiration for the Fated Blades?

The Fated Blades were born out of a dream, actually. (That’s the worst way to start a book, by the way; far better to start with, say, an outline and some characters.) This dream happened while a typhoon was raking my neighborhood in Nagoya, Japan. We were living in this ramshackle building with corrugated aluminum siding, and I swear, it felt like the walls would peel away at any moment. Maybe it was the way the wind whistled against the building, but I had this dream about a samurai and his katana. The sword whistled as it cut, almost as if it were singing. It was the most haunting sound. When I woke up I couldn’t get the image out of my head.

So I wrote that story thinking it would be about the samurai, but it ended up being about the sword. It has an agenda of its own. I wondered who forged the sword, and what other weapons a swordsmith like that might have forged, and soon enough I had the Fated Blades. One of them drives you to perfect your swordsmanship even if it kills you. Another guarantees victory, but only to those who don’t want to fight. A third is the ultimate defensive weapon but it can’t leave the castle it defends.

But the character on the book covers is a policewoman, not a samurai.

Yes, Mariko swooped in to rescue the whole project. I found I’d written myself into a trap: the story of these blades spanned about seven hundred years of Japanese history. I had samurai stories, a ninja story, a WWII story, but nothing to bind them together. I needed someone who had a vested interest in researching them. My first thought was to introduce a modern-day historian to collect them all, but that wasn’t going to be an exciting book. Then I thought journalist, but still that didn’t excite me. Then came Mariko, a police detective investigating a series of crimes connected to the swords. She was perfectly placed to do everything I needed her to do.

The historian stayed on board, but he became an Obi Wan sort of figure, Mariko’s mentor. She trains to become a swordswoman, and as we find out, all the historical storylines ultimately lead straight to her.


What was involved in the historical research for The Fated Blades series and what did you discover that helped you write the story?

The research is bottomless. You have to be wary of that; it’s always there, always ready to pull you away from the writing if you let it. I’ve taught Japanese history at the collegiate level, so I have a fair amount of this stuff on my shelf, but it can never be enough. Good world-building lies in choosing just the right details, and good historical fiction rests on getting the details exactly right. So maybe you’re writing one night, and everything’s flowing smoothly, and then you realize one of your samurai has to carry a letter. The thing is, they didn’t have pockets back then. You can’t just slap a backpack on his shoulders; samurai didn’t wear those either. So you have to start digging into the material culture, to figure out where a guy in 1588 would carry a little scroll. Then you want to know if the scroll’s in a case or not, and what it might have weighed, and suddenly there you are, sliding down the rabbit hole.


Same questions for Japan style police procedural.

It certainly helps to have lived over there. I specialized in Japanese philosophy in grad school, and lived in Japan for two years while I was translating a book. I don’t know that I could have written these novels without that kind of cultural and intellectual immersion.

Police work in Japan is just weird, at least compared to what we’re used to in the States. In part that’s because big city life in Japan is fundamentally different from anywhere else I’ve ever been. Tokyo is the largest urban area in the world, yet the murder rate is so low that in the US we’d lose it in a rounding error. Gun violence in Japan is, without exaggeration, 1/1000th of what it is in the States. On the other hand, domestic violence is far more prevalent in Japan than it is the US. In fact, they didn’t even have domestic violence laws until 2002.

So if you’re a cop in Tokyo, is your city a safe place to live? Yes, if you’re a man, or if you’re out and about. But if you’re at home and you’re a woman or a child or you’re elderly person, then no, it’s not a safe city at all. It’s almost as if there are two Tokyos—sort of like China Miéville’s The City and the City, except the divisions are sociological, not political. And we haven’t even started talking about yakuza activity.


What about them?

Organized crime is beyond bold in Japan. Gangsters carry business cards. They even have office buildings with the name of their syndicate right on the front door. When police go to raid them, they call first to make an appointment. I swear I’m not making this up. It’s just surreal.

I learned so much about them, and so much of it was so bizarre, that I had to work them into the books. Year of the Demon was born out of that period of research. I just love the yakuzas in there.


Same questions for Japanese culture.

I fell in love with Japan pretty early on. I remember my fourth-grade teacher telling us about futons. I was so fascinated that you could roll up your bed and put it away in the morning. Somehow that seemed like less work to me than having to make your bed every day. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became.

Later I got into martial arts, which got me deeper into Japanese philosophy, and the two of those sent me deeper into the history of the samurai. By the time I got to graduate school I knew I needed to spend time in Japan, and then I got this amazing fellowship that not only funded me for two years but also allowed me to meet the Emperor. There’s a scene in Daughter of the Sword where Mariko sits down to tea with the Emperor and Empress; that actually happened to me. I’ve been in their tearoom. Now that was an unusual day.


How do you blend historical fact, mystical folklore, Japanese culture, magical fantasy, police procedural, archtypical crime syndicate, insane villain, and kickass heroine into one tightly knitted story with inseparable elements?

I think it all starts with an obsession for getting the details right. As soon as I knew Mariko had to be a police officer, I read up on criminality in Japan. That research introduced some really important story elements. I interviewed a lot of cops, and I even had the opportunity to train with some of them. You ask enough of those questions and sooner or later you start writing like a cop. Their vocabulary becomes your vocabulary.

Ditto for the history, the folklore, the culture: you just have to do your homework. But even with that proviso, I don’t think I could have set these books in China or Korea. I’ve been doing my homework on Japan for something like thirty years. I discovered Kurosawa in junior high and I was instantly smitten. He’s the best research aide you could ask for. Anything you want to know about medieval Japan—clothing, architecture, what side of the street they walked on, whatever you want—watch enough of his films and probably you’ll find your answer.


The cover copy says “Detective Sergeant Mariko Oshiro is fighting an uphill battle against sexism and tradition in the narcotics division of the Tokyo police.” How does this sexism and tradition manifest itself?

Police work has been a predominantly male profession for almost its entire history, and that’s still very much the case in Japan. Over there women can be very low on the ladder or very high: they can make the coffee and write parking tickets, or they can be upper level administration and write major policies into being. What they’re generally not allowed to do is what I have Mariko doing: kicking down doors and making arrests.

Most of her commanding officers have no idea what to do with her. The only way for her to get the slightest professional recognition is to outshine everyone else in the unit, but if she does that, everyone else loses face. That’s no way to be a team player. Once she makes sergeant she’s got to command the loyalty of the very men she just outperformed. On top of that, her COs tend to be older, and cops in general tend to be pretty conservative and traditional. For guys like that, an independent woman with ambition isn’t smart and strong, she’s clinically insane.


What does Mariko really want for her life, what gets in the way of her desires, and how does she respond to those obstacles?  What aspects of her life are meeting her expectations?

If she had time, and if she found the right fella, I think Mariko would really like a boyfriend. That, and maybe six consecutive weeks without any injuries that send her to the hospital. But I’m never going to be that nice to her.

Her life’s dream at the beginning of Daughter of the Sword is to join the Narcotics Division of the city’s most elite police unit, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. Her sister is a meth addict, and Mariko has it in her head that she can somehow save people from her sister’s fate. In Year of the Demon she realizes her dream, but then she’s got a whole new set of problems. (As Oscar Wilde said, there are are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.) She discovers the ugly aspects of narco work, and believe me, it can get pretty ugly.

In Daughter her lieutenant is a misogynist slug. In Disciple of the Wind she has to deal with a captain who’s a misogynist in a totally different way. (That’s been a fun aspect of writing the books, actually, inspecting sexism from different angles and finding ways for different characters to express it uniquely.) The first one thinks she’s incapable, the second one wants to put her front and center in the department’s PR campaign. Both of them think femininity has no place in serious police work, and both of them find her abrasive and uppity, but for very different reasons.


How does being a martial arts buff help with the ninja/detective elements of the stories?

It helps a lot, and given who I’m writing about, it especially helps that I’ve taught women’s self-defense courses for a long time. One of the nicest compliments I ever got from a reader came from a woman who was a martial artist herself, and she thanked me for making my women fight like women. She said too many male authors write female characters fight “like men with boobs.”

I thought about what she said, and I figured out she’s right. It’s a really subtle distinction. Mariko’s shorter and lighter than most of the guys she has to take down. She has to fight with that in mind. But then there’s the other piece of it: she has to prove herself not just in a male-dominated profession but also to violent criminals, most of whom are men. These guys don’t look at her as an equal; she has to prove that to them. That influences the way she fights.


Exactly how badass are you on the mat, BTW?

Badder on the street than on the mat. My black belts are in street self-defense oriented arts. Lately I’ve returned to Brazilian jiujitsu, which is gentler on the body and mellower in spirit. I’m kind of glad to have moved beyond eye gouges and knife fighting and all that. And I’m really enjoying being a student again. Teaching has its privileges, but it’s nice to be able to spend the whole night working on my own game.


Philosofiction, is that an actual thing?

Oh, sure. I think fiction is a wonderful vehicle for philosophy. It allows you to create hypothetical situations, which philosophers like to do a lot, but it allows you to treat them as if they’re real, which is something philosophers almost never do. We pose the thought experiment, make our point, and move on. But stories are bigger than thought experiments; you populate them with characters that elicit real sympathy from the reader. If you make the problems real for the characters they become real for the reader, in a way no journal article could ever duplicate.


You write science fiction and fantasy. Are those more philosophical genres?

Absolutely. Philip K. Dick and Rene Descartes are asking the same questions. Plato too. Take a look at the most thought-provoking films of the past ten years. Ex Machina. Inception. District 9. Children of Men. They’re all built on huge questions there about identity, justice, knowledge, all that good stuff. And of course The Matrix is just the Allegory of the Cave plus kung fu and guns.

For that matter, philosophy at its best often wanders into sci-fi and fantasy. The entire abortion debate is shot through with science fictional scenarios from start to finish. Demonic possession features prominently in Decartes’s Meditations. These days there’s this huge body of literature on zombies. George Romero, eat your brains out.


Will the Fated Blades series continue or do you have another project in the works?

My elevator pitch for the new project is “Star Wars meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Many of your readers will know Star Wars originated in The Hidden Fortress, one of Kurosawa’s samurai epics. I’m going back to those roots, then suffusing everything in Daoist mysticism. It’s been tons of fun to build this world and write in it.

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