Modern Japan in Anglophone Historical Fiction

ASPAC 2013
Jonathan Dresner
Pittsburg State University

“But writers of fiction do not stumble onto locales or times: they choose them and they use them to serve their narrative and aesthetic ends.” — Jonathan Dresner

“…flaws typical of the genre: a carefully set but very selective milieu; characters cobbled together from cultural and psychosocial fragments; wildly unlikely encounters and inappropriate behavior. … I don’t ever use historical fiction in my teaching, and I rarely read it (especially in my own field!).” — Jonathan Dresner

Roughly Chronologically:

  • Gai-jin (James Clavell, 1993): 1862-1863
  • The Apprentice (Lewis Libby, 1996): 1903
  • The Teahouse Fire (Ellis Avery, 2006): Bakumatsu and Meiji.
  • Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden, 1997): subject born in 1920, lived until after WWII.

Claims of Authenticity

GAI-JIN meaning foreigner, is set in Japan, in 1862.

It is not history, but fiction. Many of the happenings did occur according to historians and to books of history which, of themselves, do not necessarily always relate what truly happened. Nor is it about any real person who lived or is supposed to have lived, nor about any real company. Kings and queens and emperors are correctly named, as are a few generals and other exalted persons. Apart form these I have played with history — the where and how and who and why and when of it — to suit my own reality and, perhaps, to tell the real history of what came to pass.” — frontpiece

Author’s Note:

Memoirs of a Geisha is a novel and the character of Sayuri and her story are my own inventions. The historical facts of a geisha’s day-to-day life in the 1930s and 1940s, however, are based on extensive research. I am indebted to one individual above all others. Mineko Iwasaki, one of Gion Kobu’s top geisha during the 1960s and 1970s, opened her Kyoto home to me during May 1992, and corrected my misconceptions about the life of a geisha — even though everyone I knew who had lived in Kyoto, or who lived there still, told me never to expect such candor. While brushing up on my Japanese on the airplane, I worried that Mineko, whom I had not yet met, might talk with me for an hour about the weather and call it an interview. Instead she took me on an insider’s tour of Gion, and together with their husband, Jin, and her sisters Yaetchiyo and the late Kuniko, patiently answered my questions. Her easy familiarity with matters concerning the daily lives of geisha — their routines, their toilette, their living arrangements, their finances — helped me build the foundation on which to spin a work of my own imagination. Its flaws are of course my own. I remain deeply grateful to Mineko for her assistance.” (500)

“Teruko Craig was kind enough to spend hours talking with me about her life as a schoolgirl in Kyoto during the war. I am grateful also to Liza Dalby, the only American woman ever to become a geisha, and to her excellent book, Geisha, an anthropological study of geisha culture, which also recounts her experiences in the Pontocho district; she generously lent me a number of useful Japanese and English books from her personal collection.” (501)

Other sources named by Golden include: Reiko Nagura, multilingual friend. Kiharu Nakamura, geisha. Robert Singer, Japanese art expert. Bowen Dees, on Occupation experience. Allan Palmer, tea ceremony and Japanese superstition. John Rosenfield, Japanese Art Historian at Harvard.

“A little learning is a dangerous thing”
— Alexander Pope

Strong common elements

  • “Well, Mr. Gray. You’re definitely a writer.” (Monster In A Box)
  • Historical change
  • Historical causality?
  • Addressed to non-expert audiences
  • Foreign culture or modernization as intrusion ; Japanese culture as timeless
  • Religion and spirituality handled very, very poorly
  • Linguistic literalism
  • pan-Asian/Orientalist tropes

Old engineering proverb:

You can have it right.
You can have it cheap.
You can have it fast.
Pick two.

Dresner’s corollary of Japanese historical fiction:

You can have culture.
You can have characters.
You can have historical setting.
Pick one. Two, if you’re lucky.

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