Japan Before “Shogun”

I. J. Parker author photoRel­e­vant His­tory wel­comes his­tor­i­cal mys­tery nov­el­ist I. J. Parker, who has fol­lowed the exploits of her eleventh-century Japan­ese detec­tive, Aki­tada, in short story and novel since 1996. Her story “Akitada’s First Case” won the Shamus award in 2000. Her nov­els have been trans­lated into sev­eral lan­guages. In addi­tion to the Aki­tada mys­ter­ies and sto­ries, she has writ­ten three nov­els set dur­ing the Heike Wars at the end of the twelfth cen­tury, and one about eighteenth-century Ger­many. For more infor­ma­tion, visit her web site.

Note: the Aki­tada novel Death on an Autumn River will be free in Ama­zon Kin­dle for­mat 23–26 November.


Japanese womanI first dis­cov­ered Asian his­tory, and more pre­cisely that of Japan, through its lit­er­a­ture, espe­cially the great novel Genji, writ­ten by a court lady in the first decade of the eleventh cen­tury and thus the first novel in the world. This book aston­ished me by its sophis­ti­ca­tion, its under­stand­ing of the psy­chol­ogy of men and women, its emo­tional and poetic response to nature, and its prob­ing of the human condition.

Not long after explor­ing Japan­ese lit­er­a­ture of this period, I became inter­ested in writ­ing mys­ter­ies and decided to write about early Japan. I was con­vinced that oth­ers would also come to love this strange, won­der­ful, and exotic cul­ture and dis­cover another world while spell­bound by a mys­tery plot.

Let me cau­tion you. Eleventh-century Japan is not the time of shoguns and samu­rai. Life was far more deco­rous then—at least on the sur­face. The coun­try was still ruled by an emperor and a com­plex cen­tral gov­ern­ment. Influ­enced by Tang China, Japan’s cul­ture had reached its height of ele­gance and artis­tic achieve­ment by the eleventh cen­tury. The arts flour­ished, and both men and women of the upper classes played musi­cal instru­ments, painted, read and wrote poetry and prose in both Japan­ese and Chi­nese. They had uni­ver­si­ties, ele­gant palaces, huge tem­ple com­plexes, exquis­ite gar­dens and parks, and whole cities neatly laid out by the ancient rules of feng shui. The upper classes dressed in silks and bro­cades, enjoyed games like backgam­mon, chess, and go, and engaged in sports like foot­ball, wrestling, archery, fish­ing, and hunting.

But this advanced and lux­u­ri­ous cul­ture was con­trolled by a large, rigid bureau­cracy and sup­ported by the labors of peas­ants, fish­er­men, arti­sans, and mer­chants. Many of the com­mon peo­ple were very poor and lived in densely-packed, rat-infested neigh­bor­hoods. Some resorted to crime in city streets and on the high­ways. And in dis­tant provinces, war­lords were busily build­ing their armies. Unlike the Chi­nese, who took swift and bru­tal action against trai­tors and crim­i­nals, Japan’s sys­tem of law and order for­bade the tak­ing of life, and con­se­quently crim­i­nals flour­ished because they could not be effec­tively restrained. Except for rare spe­cial cases, exile with hard labor or impris­on­ment were the only avail­able pun­ish­ments, and these were fre­quently nul­li­fied by sweep­ing impe­r­ial pardons.

Japanese manAgainst this back­ground, I con­ceived of men like Aki­tada, a civil ser­vant rep­re­sent­ing the law, a man of honor and duty. Such men would have had their hands full, espe­cially when crimes were com­mit­ted by the priv­i­leged who could count on sup­port from pow­er­ful men in the gov­ern­ment. In such cases, con­sid­er­able per­sonal dan­ger would be involved, as Aki­tada dis­cov­ers in Rashomon Gate and in the short story “Akitada’s First Case.”

Aki­tada is a mem­ber of the upper classes, but his fam­ily has fallen on hard times. Because he excelled at his law stud­ies at the uni­ver­sity, he was given a lowly posi­tion in the Min­istry of Jus­tice where his inter­est in “low crime” keeps him in con­stant hot water and gets him var­i­ous puni­tive assign­ments to unpleas­ant places. How­ever, this means that he makes inter­est­ing friends (like Tora, Genba, and Hit­o­maro) among the less priv­i­leged but more col­or­ful mem­bers of his soci­ety. We learn from his­tory that human beings don’t change much over the cen­turies or geo­graphic dis­tances. Basic human traits are con­stant, and know­ing this allows us to under­stand the past by iden­ti­fy­ing with its people.

Japanese building and snowAki­tada has taken me on many excit­ing adven­tures. We have explored Bud­dhist monas­ter­ies, vis­ited the impe­r­ial palace and its sur­round­ings, trav­eled to a penal colony, delved into a gold mine, and attacked a warlord’s fortress. We have been to broth­els and bath­houses, shopped at mar­kets, viewed aris­to­cratic gar­dens, and roamed among pro­fes­sors and stu­dents at the uni­ver­sity. The peo­ple Aki­tada intro­duces me to are princes and pau­pers, offi­cials and out­laws, monks and cour­te­sans. We have vis­ited eleventh-century enter­tain­ers and sword smiths, wrestlers and mar­tial arts prac­ti­tion­ers together.

You may won­der how true to actual fact all these details are. I enjoy research, and have been work­ing on this period for thirty years now. I know the schol­arly and pri­mary mate­ri­als and do addi­tional research for each new novel or story. But I write fic­tion, not his­tory, and some­times facts have to be bent to the story. I try to do as lit­tle of this as pos­si­ble and add a his­tor­i­cal note at the end of each novel to explain the back­ground and any lib­er­ties I may have taken. For exam­ple, schol­ars don’t know for cer­tain how long the famous Rashomon gate stood at the south­ern entrance to Kyoto, but the gate has enor­mous sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance for early Japan­ese cul­ture and is famil­iar to many west­ern read­ers from the Japan­ese film by the same name. I used the gate for its his­tor­i­cal con­no­ta­tions but explained the prob­lems of dat­ing in the end note.

In the process of our imag­i­nary trav­els, I have become very fond of my pro­tag­o­nist. Aki­tada is by no means a per­fect man. He is shy, intro­verted, stub­born, rash, and judg­men­tal. He makes mis­takes and suf­fers the pangs of con­science for them. But he does not rest until the wrong has been righted, even if it means risk­ing his career, his life, or the lives of loved ones. In spite of all his flaws, he is ulti­mately a man of great courage and intel­li­gence, though he is com­pletely unaware of this. The women in his life love him and he loves them back, but he is an awk­ward and unin­ten­tion­ally insen­si­tive part­ner. Aki­tada is a man of early eleventh-century Japan, but he is always human, I hope, and human nature does not change much over the centuries.

I look for­ward to future adven­tures and to watch­ing him change from the naiveté of the very young man in The Dragon Scroll to a wiser, sad­der, and per­haps more trou­bled mid­dle age. The eleventh novel in the series, Death of a Doll Maker, was released this past sum­mer, and there are many oth­ers wait­ing, I hope.


Rashomon Gate book cover imageA big thanks to I. J. Parker. She’ll give away one copy of an Aki­tada book to some­one who con­tributes a com­ment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the win­ner from among those who com­ment by Tues­day at 6 p.m. ET. Then the win­ner may select either Rashomon Gate in hard­cover or The Hell Screen in trade paper­back Deliv­ery is avail­able within the U.S. only.


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Japan Before “Shogun” — 29 Comments

  1. Your books sound fas­ci­nat­ing. Shogun was too bru­tal and some­times even Laura Rowland’s books push the bound­aries for me. I’d love to read about a more tem­per­ate Japan.

    Thanks for post­ing about a dif­fer­ent pic­ture of Japan.

      • Aki­tada is a very good guy. I’ve become fond of him over the years and plan to keep him for a while. Mind you, he has some flaws, but he tries very hard to do the right thing.
        Some of my read­ers also become fond of my char­ac­ters and are often upset when some­one dies. I can’t help it. Life is tough in eleventh cen­tury Japan, and I like to keep things as real as possible.

    • Oh, thank you. There is some vio­lence in my nov­els because there are mur­ders, but they are rather few instances and always nec­es­sary to the plot. I stay away from some of the more shock­ing and graphic subjects.

  2. Your books sound fas­ci­nat­ing. I’d love to read some of them. And I’m sure my wife, Pam, would love to as well. She reads hun­dreds of books each year and has eclec­tic tastes. She’s also a his­tory graduate.

    I have just one ques­tion: Do you speak/read Japanese?


    • Thanks for stop­ping by, James. Good ques­tion. I’d also like to know whether I. J. Parker has lived in Japan. Aki­tada reads as authen­tic to me.

      • It’s all research for the eleventh cen­tury. There is noth­ing left of that world. Even the tem­ples have been recon­structed. The Japan­ese have an admirable devo­tion to their archi­tec­ture in that sense.
        Unfor­tu­nately, this doesn’t extend to every­thing, and so the land no longer resem­bles what it must have been like then.
        I have shied away from vis­it­ing the super­high­ways and con­crete jun­gles that have replaced Heian Japan.

        • the land no longer resem­bles what it must have been like then

          I run into this all the time with my series set dur­ing the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. It’s not just that forests have been replaced by shop­ping malls, and cart tracks have been replaced by inter­state high­ways. Tech­nol­ogy allows us now to com­pletely alter the land. For exam­ple, a big fresh­wa­ter fish­ing spot in South Car­olina, Lake Mar­ion, used to be a swamp dur­ing the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. Sev­eral mil­i­tary lead­ers were buried there.

    • Thanks, J.J. and hello to your wife also.
      To answer your ques­tion, I’ve taken some classes in Japan­ese, but gave up the strug­gle when it became appar­ent that they would not pre­pare me to read the old texts. I now work from trans­la­tions, of which there are a remark­able num­ber both by British and Amer­i­can scholars.

  3. I think good his­tor­i­cal fic­tion is a great entry point to times and cul­tures we may not be acquainted with. I’ve read fic­tion set in con­tem­po­rary Japan and set dur­ing the Shogu­nate, but never in the pre-Shogun era. These books sound really interesting!

    • Wel­come, Ash­ley. I’m grate­ful for his­tor­i­cal fic­tion as good as I. J. Parker’s Aki­tada series. As you’ve pointed out, the good stuff gets read­ers inter­ested, some­times enough to do read more on their own about the period and cul­ture. Good­ness knows how we all need to learn more about history.

    • Thank you, Ash­leigh. If you like mys­ter­ies or crime nov­els that are a lit­tle out of the ordi­nary, I think you’ll like the Aki­tada series.

  4. This def­i­nitely sounds like a series for those of us jaded by com­mon­place set­tings and sit­u­a­tions. Inter­est­ing to note there was no death penalty in this period in Japan.

    • Well, the most seri­ous crimes and polit­i­cal crimes like trea­son were pun­ished by exile to dan­ger­ous and unpleas­ant parts of the coun­try. Death often ensued because of the liv­ing con­di­tions. Aki­tada, my fic­tional pro­tag­o­nist, is descended from Sug­awara Michizane who died in exile in Kyushu because he was a threat to the Fuji­wara con­trol of the emperor. And Aki­tada him­self poses as a con­vict in ISLAND OF EXILES to solve a murder.

    • Nice to see you again, John. 11th-c Japan’s pol­icy on the death penalty inter­ests me, too, espe­cially since “Shogun” (17th cen­tury?) shows a num­ber of executions.

  5. I am an addicted researcher. I spent months trans­form­ing a short story to a novella tak­ing place in 650AD only to have the pub­lisher pass. But I enjoyed the expe­ri­ence! I want to ask if the strength of your main char­ac­ter is related to his reli­gion, and do his for­mer ties with the upper class com­pro­mise his spir­i­tual core? I am look­ing for­ward to this series. Inter­est­ing inter­view, Suzanne.

    • Hi, Suzanne. Aki­tada is not reli­gious. He dis­likes Bud­dhism (as it existed in his day) and is not always a devout fol­lower of Shinto. I’ve made him a man of rea­son, assum­ing that even in the eleventh cen­tury there must have been such men. Thus he is fre­quently at odds with the major­ity of his soci­ety. He acts from core beliefs that are based on human­is­tic and Con­fu­cian ideals.

      I wish you good luck with you project. Don’t give up hope. Pub­lish­ers buy for profit and big sales. Not all peri­ods or ter­ri­to­ries sell well to read­ers. That’s actu­ally how I have lost 3 publishers.

  6. Great inter­view with a great, great writer. I’ve devoured all the Aki­tada books and also the “Hol­low Reed” books. I’ve even given copies away, which is my ulti­mate com­pli­ment to a writer — I like her work enough to share it with my friends. If you haven’t read her, GET THAT FREEBIE and pre­tend I gave it to you.

    • Oh, Tim! How very nice to find you here! And you are too kind. Thank you. Such praise from one of our most suc­cess­ful mys­tery writ­ers means the world. And if there is any­one here who hasn’t read Tim Hallinan’s books, you must do so instantly. They are absolutely won­der­ful. My favorites: the Poke Raf­ferty series set in Bangkok. You’ll love them.
      Geez, I’m still speech­less.
      Tim is also the edi­tor of SHAKEN, a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries pub­lished for the earth­quake relief in Japan. He’s a very good guy!!!