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.