Constructing Medieval Japan for a Novel

NAMAHAGE—Fire Rash Peeling
The demons knock at your door.

Constructing a compelling world with consistent rules is one of the challenges (and fun) of writing my Pillow Book of a Samurai series—Japan in 1175 C.E.

People in Medieval times did not regard themselves as Medieval. They were as modern as it got–even if it was the year 1200.

The challenge for the author who is recreating a world in an historic time period is that the author knows too much—about 840 years too much, in my case, and some of the stuff that happened 700 years ago, though it may seem old to those of our period, would not have existed 800 years ago.

To be sure, things did not progress explosively as they have in the last several hundred years—especially since the Industrial Revolution. Yet, certain things only developed in certain ages.

Introducing the reader to an unfamiliar constructed world takes patience, care, and research.

  • Patience in the sense of revealing it a little at a time—not as exposition, drowning with a fire hose of setup.
  • Care in how the information is revealed—revealing it from the characters’ point of view, avoiding a break in the narration in the sense of a voice-over.
  • Research in going through historic record as well as delving into history and anthropology books to get a sense of how things worked—to unlearn the prejudices we have accumulated over time—in my case, the sometimes vivid images of Japan in an age of warriors.

An immediate difference in Medieval Japan is the calendar. Our modern Western concepts of months and weeks goes right out the window. Medieval Japan ran on a Lunar Calendar with some years have 12 months, and others having 13 months, where the extra (intercalary) month falls, but not always at position 13.

Hence Yoriko, one of my characters, has a baby during a year with 13 months, so if we calculate with simple arithmetic, it would seem she has a baby in 8 months. Knowing there’s an extra month slotted in during October, it works out to the usual 9 months.

Because the Lunar Month is more of less 28 days, it does break into seven day segments, but the concept of “the week after next” would not be typical.

At the same time, the author owes it to the reader to not make this all too mysterious. Exotic perhaps, but not to the point that the reader gets lost.

Distances and length measurements were also a challenge. Though the concept of measured length was not unfamiliar to the Medieval person, most likely people of this era would be thinking in terms of time. “It will take me until the sun is directly overhead to reach the village over the hill.” Not, “that’s about a six mile walk.”

“That thing over there weighs a ton,” in Medieval times would likely be “that thing is as heavy as an ox” (or two or three).

Then there’s the temptation of taking cool stuff from a later time in history and moving it into the earlier period.

In both “Ô-Bon, Festival of the Dead,” and in “Haru, Spring,” part of both novels involve so-called “comfort girls,” and while it is historically inaccurate to call geisha prostitutes, it is also inaccurate to refer to geisha at all in 1200 Japan. Tempting as it is to overlay the exotic geisha into the story, they were not a fixture of this period.

I must admit, I did stretch and use the word “samurai,” which strictly speaking is a word applied to a later era. Samurai means “servant,” with the implication of “retainer.” From my research, in this era the term “warrior,” was in vogue, which would be the word “buke.” However, since the word “samurai” has made its way into the English language, I use it interchangeably with “warrior,” and “buke.”

As involved as this has been, it has been enjoyable, and it helps me, as a writer, to put myself (if only imperfectly) into the head-space of someone who is thinking in concepts of  1180 C. E.

I am learning every day.

5 thoughts on “Constructing Medieval Japan for a Novel

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  3. This post came up on Google while I was browsing.

    I apologize to comment on a post this old, but the line about “geisha” not existing in the 1200s bothered me.

    If you mean the glamorous tayuu and oiran of the Yoshiwara district, of course that sort of thing does not exist.

    If you are saying that prostitutes do not exist in the 1200s, then you are wrong. They are called “ukareme” in the ancient text of Manyoushuu, as well as a variety of other names.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Ren,

      Thank you for your comment. When I first started studying the Heian Era I expected Geisha existed, but according Ivan Morris in his book on the era titled, “The World of the Shining Prince, Court Life in Ancient Japan,” in Chapter 6, “The Good people and Their Lives,” geisha did not exist.

      Geisha means “talented person” as in a performer. A dancer. Geisha are not prostitutes, although like most all human beings they have love and feelings. Geisha are entertainers.

      This is not to say Japan was filled with monogamous Puritans in ancient days. For this we turn to another text by Janet R. Goodwin, “Selling Songs and Smiles, The Sex Trade in Heian and Kamakura Japan.” The trade was indeed brisk and many a shaman “dancer” would get money for her holy order by being with a patron.

      For the purpose of my Yamabuki series, the word “yahochi” is used–“a woman of rendezvous,” In fact in the second book, “Cold Rain,” Yamabuki is irritated to no end when she, a noblewoman/samurai is called a “yahochi” and she uses her scabbard on the offenders to register her displeasure with the insult.

      In the West, Geisha has come to mean a woman who sleeps with a client for money, but not in Japan. In the Tokagawa days a slang for prostitute was “teppo,” which means “rifle,” but not in the Heian era where firearms were unknown.

      I strive to be historically accurate and using Japanese slang at a time when over in the British Isles they were speaking Beowulf English, is a challenge. “Even the Tale of Genji” needs some “translation,” I suppose a rough analogy would be Chaucer.

      I attach the paragraph from Morris as it is not easily found on the internet:

      If the informed Westerner was asked to enumerate the outstanding features of traditional Japan, his list might well consist of the following: in culture No and Kabuki drama, Haiku poems, Ukiyoe colour prints, samisen music, and various activities like the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and the preparation of miniature landscapes that are related to Zen influence; in society the two-sworded samurai and the geisha; in ideas the Zen approach to human experience with its stress on an intuitive understanding of the truth and sudden enlightenment, the samurai ethic sometimes known as Bushido, a great concern with the conflicting demands of duty and human affection, and an extremely permissive attitude to suicide, especially love suicides; in domestic architecture fitted straw matting (tatami), large communal baths…; in food raw fish and soy sauce… The list would of course be entirely correct. Yet not a single one of these items existed in Murasaki s [i. e., the Heian] world, and many of them would have seemed as alien to her as they do to the modern Westerner.

      Like

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