Monday, July 5, 2010

Why Go to Tokyo? – Part I

After making my third trip to Japan in January of 2007 people started asking me why I was so interested in going to Tokyo and visiting Japan. Learning the language had a lot to do with it. If I was investing so many hours to learn the words and sentence structure of this complicated language then the only way to see how well I was doing was to go to Japan and see if I could actually use the language.

This was an easy answer that people could understand and accept but, there is a lot more to it than a test of language. When I think back to the first curiosity I had regarding Japan it would have to be sumo.

At age 13, two of my buddies (one was 14 and the other 15) and I went to see the James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. The movie was rated, Restricted Adult, which at that time meant you had to be 16 to get in. The girl at the ticket counter looked at us for a second then asked our ages, looking at me first. I was bigger than my two friends and answered that I was 16. Then my friends seemingly lost their minds. The 14 year old, who was also bigger that the other guy, said he was 15 ( he didn’t lie enough) and the 15 year old, the smallest of the three of us, said he was 14. He was the closest to the age required to see the movie yet because he was the smallest, he lied himself a year younger.

The ticket girl looked back at me, raised her eyebrows and let us in anyway. For those of you who don’t remember, You Only Live Twice, is the James Bond movie in which Bond becomes Japanese. Shortly after Bond gets to Japan he goes to the sumo matches to meet a contact or get a message. He gets to his seat and the movie shows some sumo activities, including the preliminaries to a match and the match itself, after which Bond receives his message.

I was floored by the brief sumo action. The first time you see two giants, barely clothed in a stiff looking loin wrapper, throwing salt and calmly staring each other down in the raised clay ring you have to be curious.

Bond finds himself in the wrestler’s locker room where he asks questions to find his contact and the wrestler who answers him is, Jesse. Jesse Kuhaulau is an American sumo wrestler who became a fan favorite in Japan under his wrestling name, Takamiyama. He was the first foreign born wrestler to become the head of a sumo stable and in 2009 turned 65 and had to retire from his position in the Sumo Association. There were many retrospectives of Jesse’s sumo life shown in Japan.

The next time I saw sumo was on, ABC’s Wide World of Sports and again I was put into a trance by the procedures leading up to the match. So much time spent getting ready and the match is over in seconds. I didn’t know how that could be interesting, yet it was and today for me, even more so.

I saw a few sumo documentaries over the next few decades and each one provided more information regarding Japanese culture, therefore, my interest expanded. If you visit my publisher’s website,, my author page provides some links to two sumo oriented websites.

The next big event that caused a peak in my interest for Japan was James Clavell’s novel, Shogun. I mentioned it in a previous blog entry related to learning the Japanese language but Clavell’s novel did more than introduce some Japanese words, Shogun, immersed it’s readers into the Japanese samurai culture of 1600. It was a book I hoped wouldn’t end. You got involved with the characters lives and after the last page you dreaded that they would be with you no longer. It was sad. Luckily Clavell wrote another book that takes place in Japan, Gaijin. It takes place in 1862 when Japanese society was on the verge of a major change, the Meiji Restoration.

Only one other set of characters surpassed those from, Shogun, as being missed after completing the story and those were the characters of the, Three Musketeers novels. There were five novels and finding all five volumes wasn’t easy back before the internet made its place in the history of information. They are each about 600 pages and my set was printed in such small type that I may not be able to read them now.

Just like I injected a lot of the Japanese phrases from, Shogun, into my every day speech after reading the novel, I talked in the polite manner of the Musketeers while I read the books and for a long time after.

After, Shogun, I went on a search for other samurai related novels but didn’t find anything that compared. I then tried novels written by Japanese authors and at that time I couldn’t get into them so I went a long time without reading samurai themed stories.

A few years after reading, Shogun, it was made into a mini series starring, Richard Chamberlain (whom those of you who are film and TV buffs will remember played Aramis in the 70’s version of, The Three Musketeers). After, Shogun, aired it seemed everyone was interested in Japan, eating sushi, and speaking a few words of Japanese. A twenty-fifth anniversary DVD set came out in 2005 and it has a lot of interesting special features related to the making of the series.

Years later I saw a book in the book store that had a picture of a crazy looking samurai on the front and I picked it up to look at it. I was on some other jog of reading at the time and didn’t buy it for a few months but when I did, that was it. Here was the samurai story that I had been looking for after, Shogun. A giant book that was referred to as the, Gone With the Wind, of Japan. In the historical preface they state that it takes off in the time period shortly after, Shogun, ends. Wow, I was beside myself with glee and hadn’t read a page.

I was a little nervous to get started. It promised to be exactly what I had wanted so long ago and it was so big. The preface also indicated that it was the novelization of the life of a real swordsman who lived in Japan during the period referred to as, The Period of Warring States.

It introduced me to the historical characters who had shaped Japan. It mentioned places and castles and battles and foods and art and people and events that are readily available today in Japan. I visited the resting place of the man whom the main character of the novel, Shogun, was based (played by Mifune Toshiro). Tokugawa Ieyasu became the first Shogun and for over 250 years his heirs ruled Japan.

On my last trip I visited the castle in Kumamoto where the Satsuma Rebellion took place. The Satsuma Rebellion was lead by, Saigo Takamori, who was the character that the Tom Cruse movie, The Last Samurai, was based on.

So, this one book fulfilled a desire, a quest and an unknown hunger that had been started years earlier by, Shogun. It created my current quest which was rekindled back in 2003 and shows no sign of dying out. The book is titles, Musashi, and was written by Yoshikawa Eiji and published by Kodansha International.

Musashi Miyamoto is the most famous swordsman from Japan’s past. He was a writer and an artist. His history has been made into movies and television shows and there are a number of electronic action games based on his exploits. The novel does not have an abundance of action; it is far from a swash-buckling adventure story. The 1950s movie starring Mifune Toshiro won the Academy Award for best picture in a foreign language. It was a trilogy of movies that stay pretty true to the novel.

I’ve found other non-fiction books about Musashi and I’ve read, The Book of Five Rings, which he wrote in the last years of his life. The book was about his fighting style and philosophy and during the 80s and 90s was very widely read by corporate managers in the United States as they tried to get a glimpse inside the Japanese management style. I found it interesting but the link to corporate management seemed a bit weak to me.

I’ll write more about how this novel spring boarded me into the world of Japan. This period of samurai history seemed to be all I needed to satisfy my craving for things Japanese but it turns out to be just a trickle that has lead me to the point of wanting to live in Japan.

He’s a small teaser though. As mentioned, Musashi was an artist. I read of a museum in Tokyo that had some of Musashi’s art on display so I arranged with my friend in Japan to make a trip to the museum. He suggested that we also go to lunch afterward. The museum, The Eisei Bunko Museum, was actually located in the house that is owned by the Hosogawa family. The Hosogawa clan ruled their fife in central Kyushu from the castle in Kumamoto mentioned above. The Hosogawa were also the benefactor of Musashi Miyamoto and he gave the Hosogawa daimyo (leader) gifts of his art as tokens of his appreciation. These works are now in the house in Tokyo but were not on display the day we went.

Another point of note is that the character, Mariko, in Shogun, is based on the real person, Hosogawa Gracia. Gracia’s life does not parallel Mariko’s in every detail however. But this links my two strongest Japanese influences together. The character in, Shogun, is from the family that was a benefactor to the main character in, Musashi.

And one more point, Hosogawa Morihiro was Prime Minister of Japan for a short time in 1993 and 1994. He lived in the house that is now the museum.

It is a difficult museum to find and my Japanese friend even took us to the wrong place at first. I have a picture of him standing in front of the wrong mansion. We were all so proud of the fact that we had found it but my friend reread the sign and we were off on the hunt again.

After the museum, which was still very interesting, we went to a hotel for lunch. The hotel surrounded a huge Japanese Garden which we toured after we ate. As a result of reading the Musashi novel, and wanting to see the art works the man actually touched I visited a Japanese Garden for the first time and have developed an interest in them which I try to imbibe every time I go to Japan.

For me every interest I take in things Japanese, snowballs into another interest that I must follow up.

I will describe the snowball in future entries.

A quick update, the apartment I had lined up isn’t available for August but the apartment manager has a smaller one, 170 SF, he’ll let me have for the same price. I’ll take it for a month and see if I can stand the small space.

For links to more information and a list of other samurai related novels and books please visit my author page at

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