Sophians Talk about Japan and the World

Lessons Learned as a Historical Novelist

Reiko Morota

An Original Take on a Classic Tale

Reiko Morota Writer

This September NHK will start screening a six-month historical drama series based on my novel Yonju-hachinin-me no chushin (The forty-eighth retainer). While it deals with Chushingura, the well-known Japanese story of forty-seven ronin on a mission to avenge their master, this drama offers a completely new angle on the tale that I think young women will particularly enjoy.

The first inklings of my novel date back to a request from a newspaper publisher to write a serialized story based on the Chushingura tale. At the time I declined the request, because I thought the theme had been exhausted in previous works, and I had already written a short story on it myself. However, the request did prompt me to re-read stories based on Chushingura, and then I came across a work called Ore no ashioto (The sound of my footsteps) by Shotaro Ikenami. The character of Oishi Kuranosuke, the leader of the Forty-seven Ronin, was portrayed with Ikenami's trademark originality; for example, in the middle of the crucial raid, Oishi calls to mind an image of his naked wife. This originality sparked the idea that maybe there was still a story based on Chushingura that only I could write. I was also spurred on by discovering drawings of Edo-era samurai residences in the Ako domain, where the story unfolds. I eventually decided to take on the challenge, and that was the genesis of my Chushingura story that has a young woman as its protagonist and doesn't even depict the attack scene that is usually central to the tale.

Looking back at my own novels, I see that they don't contain significant original perspectives, but perhaps they do offer many subjective views of characters and history through women's eyes, and considers for example how one might feel as the wife or the mother of a samurai warrior. To give a specific instance, in portraying Kicho, the wife of Oda Nobunaga, as my main character, I wanted to write about her thoughts and feelings on being made to marry the kind of terrorist who ends a siege by burning to death tens of thousands of people, including women and children. As you may guess, I am no fan of Oda! [Laughs].

Of course there are almost no records relating to women in ancient times, and even where women are known to have played active roles, we generally don't even know their real names. However, since period novels don't set out to accurately portray historical facts, I think that fiction can shed new light on various eras by adopting the perspectives of different narrators such as women and children.

Having said all that, when I was at university, I never dreamed that I would become a writer, let alone a historical novelist.

It All Started with Shakespeare

Reiko Morota Writer

I grew up in a time when everyone admired the European and American lifestyles and cultures shown in TV shows and movies. Driven by dreams of becoming a stylish career woman who spoke fluent English, it was only natural that I should decide to enter the Department of English Studies in the Faculty of Foreign Studies at Sophia University.

I came up from Shizuoka and looked around several universities in Tokyo, but at a time when most places were still in a commotion from the lingering effects of the radical student movement, Sophia dazzled me with its classy, international feel. Even now, when every university declares itself to be "global," it's great that Sophia still maintains a slightly special, sophisticated image.

Once I started university, I recall being allowed to flexibly and freely study a wide range of things I was interested in. I even took a film production class offered by the Department of Journalism and got behind the camera to shoot a story in the style of a TV drama.

To be honest, though, I wasn't a serious student, and sometimes I cut classes with Yukinojo Mori, who later became a songwriter, to go boating on the Imperial Palace moat [laughs].

What I really got into at University was the Shakespeare study group. It was led by Professor Tetsuo Anzai, the Shakespeare expert who also directed the "En" drama group. Coincidentally, he was also in charge of my class.

We performed lots of Shakespeare plays on campus, including Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. It was tough learning long, complex Shakespearian lines in English, but we did vocal exercises on the embankment and were rigorously drilled for the stage. There is no doubt that by actually playing these parts ourselves, we gained a deeper understanding of the works and their cultural background.

If you think about it, Shakespeare's plays are period dramas from England, so perhaps my experiences back then connect to what I do now.

However, the fact was that I struggled to write my graduation thesis, which was barely 100 pages long, and I had virtually no knowledge of Japanese history. It would not be until much later that I would be prompted to start writing historical novels.

History Repeats: In Time and Space

Reiko Morota Writer

In my mid-thirties, the foreign cosmetics company I was working for made me redundant without blinking an eye. I had contacts from working in the public relations department, and some people I knew in TV suggested that if I was at a loose end I should try my hand at novelizing TV dramas. Before I knew it I had immersed myself in the work, and that was when I first realized that I seemed to like writing. I was over 40 when I started writing original novels.

I chose the historical genre because, rather than exploring familiar contemporary issues, I preferred to create a tale within a given framework, in the way that Shakespeare did. Lack of historical knowledge wasn't a critical problem because when it came to my job, I naturally made up for it by frantically researching anything I needed.

I write novels set in all kinds of periods, but it surprises me that, despite being far removed from the present day in terms of years, the Heian period (794-1185) is very similar to modern times. Since aristocratic societies are a mature kind of society, corruption was rife as people sought advancement. There were even officials like tax inspectors who oversaw the taking of bribes, and the idle sons of rich families with too much time on their hands fell into delinquency.

On the other hand, all kinds of people, including the destitute, were going around outside the walls of the nobles' mansions. Sometimes when I am travelling in Arab or Asian countries I come across towns that strike me as being just like Heian-era Kyoto. They say that history repeats itself, and I think that this is true in both temporal and spatial terms. Perhaps writing historical novels has taught me to look at history in this way.

Whereas I used to be attracted to Europe and America, now I love Japan and the Japanese. It's hard to sum up in a single phrase, but we have passed down some crucial attitudes over the course of our long history, such as a spirit of feeling dishonor or disgrace and people's sense of pride in themselves, and I became aware of how we must continue to pass on these values. Yet when I look around at Japan now, I am a little concerned about whether we can do that.

Globalization is of course important, but it's also a reason to reflect on our own culture. I especially hope that those who come after me at Sophia, and who will lead globalization, will do this. Not that I'm telling them to read historical novels [laughs].

Reiko Morota Writer
Reiko Morota

Reiko Morota graduated from the Faculty of Foreign Studies (Department of English Studies) in 1976. She was born in 1954 in Shizuoka. After working in the Japanese affiliate of a multinational company, she began translating and writing. Since beginning her writing career novelizing scripts by screenwriters including Kuniko Mukoda, Sugako Hashida, and Yoji Yamada, she has mainly written historical novels. Her first novel, Genwaku (Dazzled), was published by Line Books in 1996. Sono Ichinichi (That day), published by Kodansha in 2003, won the 24th Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for New Writers. Kanpu ni arazu (Not a wicked woman), published by Nikkei Shimbunsha in 2007, won the 26th Nitta Jiro Literary Award. Yonju-hachinin-me no chushin (The forty-eighth retainer), published by Mainichi Shimbunsha in 2012, won the inaugural Historical Novel Grand Prix. She has written many newspaper serials and other stories set in the Heian era, the Warring States period, the Edo era, the final days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the Showa era. Her latest work, published by Shinchosha, is Kazekiki gusa bohyo (The windswept grass grave marker).

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