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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lombard

Inspirations - Per My Last Attack On Your Castle

After inexplicably starting off these stories with a samurai tale, The Three Heads, one year later I wanted to go back to the samurai for a second look.

Where The Three Heads is set in the warring states era (about 1467 to 1615), and is loose in terms of authenticity, I wanted to set this new story in the Tokugawa Shogunate (about 1603–1868), and try to get more of the period details right, as I did for my Song Dynasty story Ghost Paper.

I love the brilliance of some of the leaders in the warring states period, with constant chaos producing eccentric and dynamic personalities like Nobunaga and Hideyoshi. The Tokugawa Shogunate is very different, with rigid social organisation, tight controls over foreign contact, and more than 200 years of peace.

So what exactly did the warrior ruling class, the samurai, actually do with themselves in 200 years of peace?

The answer is, not a lot. They were the bureaucrats who ran the country, but overall there was a lot of poverty and soul-searching by samurai who felt useless in time of peace. Samurai were expected to develop and display their military skill, but beyond putting down the occasional rebellion there wasn't a lot for them to do as warriors.

Interestingly, a lot of the things we associate with samurai culture, like elaborate castles, baroque swordsmanship and death-worshipping philosophy, are more products of this peaceful era, and not the freewheeling and pragmatic warring states period.

To get the period right, I had to do an excessive amount of research, and this story is definitely at risk of reading like "this is what I learnt from my book report". Overall I wanted to show the mechanics of the world the samurai live in, with the practice of alternate attendance keeping the samurai poor and under control, and how the merchants held enormous economic power.

To get a feeling for the merchant, I went to the early Tokugawa-era writer Ihara Saikaku, who captured the merchant's eye view of their society. I could have had fun doing a silly tale of samurai bureaucrats, but in effect giving the merchant's perspective lets me do a lot of little vignettes of the humiliating underside of samurai life.

And the central twist of the story is more plausible than you might think, for the British delegation to meet Qianlong did indeed bring a steam engine to China, but were not able to show it to the emperor! The fate of this steam engine in coming to Japan is of course my invention.

As usual, I tried to fit a lot into this story, and as a consequence parts are brisk... But it was fun to return to the samurai, and under rule of threes I am bound one day to return to the topic with a new take.

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