Category Archives: Read books about Japan

A Fictional Tour of Japan

Nissaka Station (25th) on the Tokaido Road fro...Image via Wikipedia

It is my tendency to romanticize feudal Japan, not to see it as a culture with any kind of perfection, but just a culture which, however foreign to me, embodied a reverence for beauty and fealty, a sort of Arthurian culture with samurai. Feudal life is always harsh. A man holds fealty to his lord and must serve him without question. We are not really built to serve without question. Men often failed. The punishment was often death or ritual suicide. Women were idealized and protected, but also could be victims of ruthless or damaged men. Women also could be just as scheming, apparently, as any modern women. Perhaps it is a guilty pleasure to enjoy these stories because they may not represent any real Japan that ever existed but I think they do give us insight into Japan’s history.

In the face of the recent horrors in Japan I started remembering the stories I have read about the Tokaido Road. The Tokiado Road (“Eastern Sea Road”) connected the Imperial capital Kyoto (where the Emperor lived) with the administrative capital of Edo (Kyoto) (where the Shogun lived) (thank you Wikipedia). I was wondering if Sendai was on the Tokaido Road. It is not, it is quite a bit north of Tokyo which is the nearest of the “Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road”. Look up Hiroshige for sources related to these stations.

I first met the Tokaido Road in 1991 when I read the book called The Tokaido Road by Lucia St. Clair Robsen. It is a book of historical fiction in which the Lady Asano must avenge the death of her father. To do so she must travel the Tokaido Road. Women are not allowed on the Tokaido Road unaccompanied. She disguises herself as a priest. A villainous ronin is tracking her. This story is connected to the legend of the 47 ronin. Ronin are men who are without their samurai for any number of reasons.

Later I read the Otori books, ”a series of historical fantasy novels by Lian Hearn set in a fictional world based on feudal Japan” (again, thank you Wikipedia). Then I enjoyed a series of mysteries set in feudal Japan written by Laura Joh Rowland and featuring detective Sano Ichiro and his wife. Recently I read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, a story of the Dutch East India Company in Dejima, Japan (also fiction). Reading fiction is sometimes a way to get some immersion in a culture while also enjoying a story peopled by interesting characters. I believe you can get a valid view of a culture from a fictional story.

Today the Tokaido Road is the most heavily travelled transportation corridor in Japan connecting greater Tokyo to Nagoya then Osaka via the Kyoto to Osaka route followed by JR Tokaido Main Line and Tokaido Shinkahsen and Tomeit Meishin expressways(also thanks to Wikipedia).
To travel through time in Japan read The Tokaido Road and all the others and go right on through to Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakame, which is described by reviewer Laura Miller in a New York Times review of the book from Feb. 6, 2005 with the accurate phrase “obscure but bewitching.” That will take you right out of feudal Japan and deposit you squarely in Post World War II Japan.

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