Tag Archive: Japan

Lian Hearn author of The Tales of Otori published another thrilling fantasy series that mixes fantasy with the samurai years of Japan. The Tale of Shikanoko includes four books.


The Tale of Shikanoko by Lian Hearn

I have been drawn to so many of Lian Hearn’s characters. Just when I thought I had met all of them in Book 2 of The Tale of Shikanoko, she kept inserting new characters that pull at my heart. Such favorites are Hina (Yayoi), Shikanoko, the Autumn Princess, Yoshimori, Gen, Mu, Kinpoge, and Tadashi.

Instead of revealing the plot to readers, I will introduce courageous Hina. She was full of grief for the death of her father, Lord Kiyomori, but she had a gift of discernment so she knew what to do to escape her father’s enemies and save baby Yoshimori, who was meant to be Emperor. When her family’s enemies came closer, she tried to jump in a boat with the baby in one arm and a magical book in the other. Her heroics remind Japanese history buffs of an amazing story in the medieval classic, Tales of The Heike, which has a chapter on how an eight-year-old emperor drowned with his grandmother Tokiko as she held on to him with one hand and the other the sacred imperial jewel. Were Hina and Yoshimori saved? And what will happen to the very individualist underdog Shikanoko, who has lost his strength and hope?

Carmen Sterba



(photo from http://www.famousauthors.org)

Kobo Abe’s novels as well as Franz Kafka’s novels come to mind when I think of the universality and genius of Murakami. The majority of Haruki Murakami’s novels are stripped of familiar culture and sensibilities of the Japanese, but Norwegian Wood (1987) and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage (2014) are full of associations with modern Japanese.

Murakami’s newest novel impacted me more than all his other novels, except Norwegian Wood. I felt such a familiarity and nostalgia of Japanese sensibilities within the pages he wrote. Norwegian Wood was inspired by Murakami’s life as a student at Waseda University. I read it remembering my experience as an international student at Waseda at the same time Murakami was there. His new book is populated by a younger generation in Nagoya, but the sensitivity of the characters are true to my experience, also.

Tsukuru Tazaki’s four best friends inexplicably broke with him at the end of their college years. After falling into a depression, a woman and a younger man gave him some clues to what he needs to do. Nudged by the woman, he sets out to meet his four old friends, and finds it was an excruciating secret and an abominable lie that caused Tsukuru to be shut out of their lives. His ‘pilgrimage’ is to find some sense out of what happened, and ends with him visiting three of his old friends, and traveling to Sweden

In Nagoya, Ao (Blue) confessed to Tsukuru, “You know, in a sense we were a perfect combination, the five of us. Like five fingers,” he added. “The five of us all naturally made up for what was lacking in the others, and totally shared our better qualities. I doubt that sort of thing will ever happen again in our lives.” Ao concluded by saying that he does not have the same spontaneous, pure feeling for his family.

After meeting Aka (Red) and Ao (Blue) in Nagoya, and then traveling to Sweden to see Kuro (Black), Tsukuru was able to find understanding: “One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds.”


Latest Asian Literature Articles by Carmen Sterba

The Calligrapher's Daughter

Book Review: “The Calligrapher’s Daughter” by Eugenia Kim

Click below Book Review below:



Bryr Mawr College Grad Tsuda Umeko

“Bi-Cultural Educator Tsuda Umeko and Her Vision” and

“Wakamatsu Shizuko: From Samurai Orphan to Modern Meiji Woman”

Click on these two articles below:




While still living in Kamakura, a friend told me about a Buddhist temple that had sheltered Japanese Christians about 400 years ago, so we immediately walked to Koshoji. The friendly priest offered to show us the cross that was attached beneath the thatched roof of the temple gate. Then, he shared an elaborate European candlestick in the shape of a cross. As we heard the story of the Hidden Christians (Kakure Kirishitan) who had been sheltered there during the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), we made comparisons with stories of Christians who hid Jewish people in their homes during the Nazi occupation of Europe. This meeting was a real moment of east/west unity for the three of us.

The Arrival of Spanish and Portuguese Missionaries on Japanese Shores

Beginning with Francis Xavier’s arrival in 1549 on Japanese shores, Portuguese and Spanish missionaries began to teach and evangelize to the extent that these years are often referred to as “The Christian Century”. According to scholar Michael Cooper, “It has to be borne in mind that if Europe was interested in Japan, so Japan was also interested in Europe.” Many of the missionaries like the Portuguese Fr. Luis Frois became fluent in the Japanese language and customs; thus, they were invited to speak with the military rulers of the land, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi HIdeyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu or Hidetada.

Two of the Most Famous Japanese Christians

The priests established seminaries and also taught Western “theater, singing, music and painting.” In 1582, four young Japanese converts traveled with Jesuits on a ship to Lisbon and Rome. As the years went by, there were up to 100,000 or more Japanese who were baptized, including samurai and townspeople. Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi were fairly tolerant of the foreign priests in the beginning.

Takayama Ukon was one of the most outstanding Catholic converts (Kirishitan). Hideyoshi often partook of the tea ceremony with Ukon and foreign priests. One day, Ukon heard from some priests about a very cultured woman who had visited their church to ask to be baptized. She quoted from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. Intrigued, they sent someone to follow her home and found out she was Hosokawa Tadaoki’s wife. She had formerly lived in exile after her father, Akechi Mitsuhide, assassinated Nobunaga. During that time, she had become inspired by her Christian maid, Maria. Once she moved back with her husband, he would not let her leave the house because of her beauty; thus, Ukon advised Tamako to be baptized at home with Maria as a proxy. Afterwards, she was known by the Christian name of Gracia (Garasha). Though Tadaoki had an interest in Christianity, he was livid about his wife’s baptism.

The Beginning of Martyrdom

Ukon had been tested by Hideyoshi to give up his faith and to stop his evangelizing. When he refused, Hideyoshi took away his lands and position, so for a while, Ukon went into exile until he was in favor again. In 1597, Hideyoshi ordered the death by crucifixion of 26 priests and converts in Nagasaki. Ukon had been on the list, but had been crossed out.

In 1600, When Tadaoki was away, Hosokawa Gracia and other samurai wives were taken hostages in a ploy for power. Gracia refused to give in and was probably killed by the hand of one of the Hosokawa retainers to preserve her honor by order of her husband. There are conflicting reports about whether she was killed or committed suicide; however, the priests believed it was the former, not the latter.

Christianity was Banned in Japan for Over Two-hundred Years

After Tokugawa Ieyasu became Shogun, Ukon was expelled from Japan, sent to the Philippines, and died in 1615. The same year, Ieyasu conquered Osaka Castle where Toyotomi Hideyori’s support included Christian warriors and Western priests. In the following years, the third shogun, Iemitsu banned Christianity. By 1643, Westerners were expelled and trade with Europe was halted (but trade with the Dutch was allowed on one island). All Japanese Christians were told to recant their belief or be tortured to death. Christianity was outlawed for over 250 years, yet there were those who went underground, the Hidden Christians.

The First Protestant Missionaries and the Return of the Catholic Fathers

After American Commodore Matthew Perry landed in 1853 on his black ship, various treaties for trade and allowing foreigners to live in port cities were made with the Japanese government (bakufu). Soon afterwards, Protestant and Catholic missionaries arrived. In 1865, a church was built in Nagasaki at the location of a church in “The Christian Century.” A few Japanese approached the French priest, Fr. Petijean. They asked about Jesus and Mother Mary. These were descendants of the Hidden Christians who had passed on their tradition from generation to generation.

The Meiji Restoration in 1868 ended feudalism and the 250 years of the Tokugawa military government. Three years later, the Meiji government planned the Iwakura Embassy as a fact-finding mission to the USA and 17 countries of Europe. A plea to revoke the edits against Christianity, was one of the results of Japanese leaders meeting with heads of state across the world. Soon after the Iwakura Embassy returned to Japan, the 250 years of prohibition ended.

Kunitake, Kume. Japan Rising: The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 2009.
Kuno, Akiko. Kirsten McIvor trans. Unexpected Destinations: The Poignant Story of Japan’s First Vassar Graduate. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1993.
Miura, Ayako. Lady Gracia: A Samurai Wife’s Love, Strife and Faith. Tokyo: IBC Publishing, 2004.

Church Statue of Hosokawa Gracia

The beloved devotion in Japan to both medieval noblewoman Hosokawa Tama Gracia and 20th century novelist Miura Ayako intersected with Miura’s choice to write a historical novel on Gracia, which was published in Japanese as Hosokawa Garasha Fujin in 1975. The English version is Lady Gracia: A Samurai Wife’s Love, Strife and Faith translated by Susan Tsumura in 2004. Unfortunately, neither Hosokawa nor Miura are well known outside of Japan.

There are similarities in the lives of these two highly respected women even though they lived 400 years a part. Both of their lives were shaped by the devastation of war, yet their suffering led to a spiritual awakening, which came about when they dedicated their lives to Christ and became part of a dedicated Christian minority in their own culture.

Hosokawa Tama lived through crisis after crisis. As the daughter of Daimyo Akechi Mitsuhide and the wife of Daimyo Hosokawa Tadaoki, she had to be trained how to bear the life of a samurai woman and know that her life was constantly in danger. Oda Nobunaga, her husband’s Lord, was a conniving and cruel leader. He had set up a shrine for his underlings to worship him. He detested the militant Buddhist priests, though he welcomed the Catholic priests who had come from Portugal and Spain in the 1500s. Nobunaga played everyone and was not to be trusted. However, it was unimaginable that Mitsuhide would assassinate Nobunaga. After the assassination, Toyotomi Hideyoshi had Mitsuhide killed and immediately took over leadership. Usually, the family of the assassin would all be killed, but Tadaoki and his father, Fujitaka, wanted to save Tama’s life by sending her into exile instead.

Another crisis was when Tama made the decision to dedicate her life to Christ through baptism and took the Christian name, Gracia (Garasha). Tadaoki was so angry that he blamed and battered her Christian maids. The next crisis in their lives was when she was taken hostage. Beforehand, Tadaoki and Gracia had discussed what to do if this happened:

“You mean that you are prepared to die?”

“Yes, my lord. Do you remember what I said to you once? You wanted me to give up my belief in Deusu [God]. I answered that I would not obey you in that even if you killed me, but I would obey you in anything else.” (pg. 419)

At the end of WWII, Miura Ayako was devastated by the war and was faced with thoughts of despair and suicide. While in a hospital, she was encouraged by a Christian friend to find hope in Christ, and her life was turned around. Though she had one health crisis after another in the years ahead, her faith never faltered. In spite of all, she became a fine writer. Lady Gracia was Miura’s first historical novel. Though Gracia was Catholic and Miura was Protestant, she must have felt that Gracia was her “sister in faith” and the person she wanted to write about most of all.

It took many years for Lady Gracia to be translated in English. Miura died in 1999. Tsumura’s husband made the suggestion that Susan translate Hosokawa Garasha Fujin. Recently, I was able to arrange an interview with Susan Tsumura:

Susan Tsumura: He suggested Lady Gracia as the one most likely to appeal to Western readers, and since I had read it (long before) and knew the period, I decided on it. I met Mr. Miura fairly early on in the process and gave him a letter about my aims. He said something like, “The important thing is for the readers to understand, isn’t it?” After the publication I greeted him briefly after a talk he gave in Tokyo.

Carmen Sterba: What parts of the historical novel were the most difficult to translate into English (beyond what you noted in your preface)?

ST: Some were straight translation problems–I am not used to describing complicated actions, so I had to work on those. At least there were no battle or fight scenes. Also, I had to work hard on interpreting the non-modern Japanese material. There were lots of poems to both understand and translate, I am sure you can tell I am no poet! I put an emphasis on clarity rather than nuances.

CS: In addition to your sources, did you also rely on your own discernment and instinct?

ST: I relied on sources and my own judgment. One of the most useful books for me was Michael Cooper’s They Came to Japan, which I assume you know. It has translations of some of the material Miura used and lots of information on contemporary customs, as the reason Tadaoki did not fan himself when talking to Hideyoshi (LG p.315) and that when Hideyoshi put the [fish] on the missionaries’ plates (p. 375), it was an honor. Also, when Miura was clearly following a source I tried to find the original. The major ones were Frois’s History of Japan and the Jesuit Reports (for references see the Samurai Archives wiki site) though Miura could not have used those directly since they were not published yet) and Takayanagi’s biography of Mitsuhide . . .

ST: Perhaps the biggest change I made, though it involved only two sentences, was this: Miura assumed that the reader knows Mitsuhide would kill Nobunaga, and states so clearly twice. I could not assume it, and I made the references vague, so it would be as much of a shock to the reader as it was to the characters, though when looking back there were pointers. I think the story works beautifully that way since Miura really develops it. However, at the beginning of the last chapter I left in Miura’s statement that Gracia would die, since I wanted the reader to concentrate on what was happening rather than wasting emotion wondering if she would live or not.

I would recommend this book for all Japanese History buffs. Though I was not able to find it for sale on Amazon.com in North America or Europe, it can be found on the Japanese Amazon.co.jp in English or Japanese.