Today I’m delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for Lesley Downer’s The Shogun’s Queen – published on 3 November 2016 by Bantam Press. The Shogun’s Queen is, chronologically, the first novel in The Shogun Quartet, although it the last to be written.
As part of the blog tour, Lesley very kindly offered to write a guest post, and I asked if she’d share a little information about her experiences in Japan, and how this came to be the setting for her novels.
Hello, Jo. First I would like to thank you for inviting me to post on your blog today. I greatly appreciate it.
You asked me to tell you something about my time in Japan, my experiences and why this has become the setting for my novels.
My life has revolved around Japan ever since I first went there thirty years ago. I remember my first sight of Mount Fuji – a perfect symmetrical cone rising out of the plain. Other mountains are obscured by mountain ranges but Fuji stands all alone in the flat plain, ethereal and beautiful with a wisp of cloud crowning the summit. In case you were wondering, it is still live and there’s often a trail of smoke wafting from the crater and it sometimes gives a rumble.
I once took the bus halfway up to where the climb begins, and discovered that it’s a real mountain, freezing cold and covered in rough grey lava, very difficult to walk on. In the climbing season it’s a bit like Piccadilly Circus, with an endless line of people plodding steadily upwards. Most people climb overnight to watch the sunrise from the summit; but I wasn’t properly equipped and had a cup of coffee and came down again.
I lived in Japan for five years and continue to go back and forth, sometimes staying for a year at a time; and even when I’m in London in my mind I’m usually deep in nineteenth century Japan. The Shogun’s Queen is the culmination of my time there, my research and my love for the country and the people.
Over the years I travelled all over the country, learnt the language and steeped myself in the culture and the history. I wrote non-fiction on the country – a travel book, a biography of a dynasty, a book on geisha and a book on the woman who was the model for Madame Butterfly – and three novels and also some cook books and children’s books.
Japan remains itself no matter what. Many people have commented that although it’s very modern and western-looking on the surface, there’s something extremely foreign about it – more so than other countries like India or China. But I’ve found that seeing Japan through the lens of its history makes it look entirely different. When I was researching The Shogun’s Queen I went to places where nothing is left of the past. But knowing the history, the great events that took place, I could imagine myself back to that era.
I also love languages and it made a big difference learning Japanese. The way you speak is the way you think so when you speak Japanese it also transforms the way you feel and the way you are. When I speak Japanese I use Japanese body language – I bow a lot – and say things I probably wouldn’t say in English. I probably behave differently too, more demure and feminine and polite. People say that Japanese smile and nod and say ‘Yes’ all the time and that it’s hard to understand what they really mean. But if you’ve lived in Japan and speak Japanese then it’s easy.
In fact my first experiences of Japan were a sort of ordeal by fire. I’d been posted to Gifu, a city no one had heard of, where so far as I knew no westerners ever went. I was teaching English at a women’s university in the northern suburbs – the backwater of a backwater.
At the job interview at the Japanese Embassy in London, I’d been asked, ‘If you’re offered this job, where would you like to be posted – Tokyo or the countryside?’ At the time I didn’t speak a word of Japanese. I’d said ‘countryside’, imagining green trees, fields, sheep and cows. I didn’t realise that to my Japanese interlocutor the word inaka – ‘countryside’ – actually means the provinces, anywhere that isn’t Tokyo. So I’d ended up there because of a linguistic misunderstanding. It was my first experience of the cultural gap.
I’d travelled a lot and was eager to absorb myself in the culture but living in Gifu was a bit brutal. At first it was horrendously lonely. After three months a colleague asked, ‘Would you like to meet the other foreigners?’ I hadn’t realised there were any. It turned out there were two – a married couple, John from Coulsdon and Sarah from Seattle. They became close friends.
To counter the loneliness I went for walks to the beautiful temple nearby which had a lake with tiny green turtles swimming around in it and a little stall that sold tofu with sweet miso sauce brushed on top, grilled over charcoal. I also taught myself Japanese; as there were only three foreigners there was no call for Japanese teachers. I learnt tea ceremony and flower arranging and read Japanese literature in translation. It’s the most wonderful literature, searing and poignant. I also loved the kabuki and Noh theatres.
I hitchhiked all over the country. One of the things about Japan is that it’s really safe. You can hitchhike everywhere and people are extremely kind and helpful, especially if you’re a lone female. In all my time there I always felt entirely comfortable no matter what time of day or night it was.
At the weekends my colleagues took me to see festivals, sword-making, paper-making, cormorant fishing and other local activities. Then I started to make women friends. We cooked together and went to temples deep in the mountains to dine on temple food, extraordinary delicate dishes. And that was the beginning of my love affair with Japan. They took me on trams that trundled off deep into the countryside to ancient moss-covered temples with stone Buddhas outside and Shinto shrines with vermilion arches in front, often both religions celebrated side by side.
I also went to visit my friend in Kyoto and that was when I first saw geisha. By the time I went to live among them to write a book about them many years later, I knew how to behave myself among Japanese people. I didn’t rush in and bombard them with questions as a brash newcomer might have done. Instead I behaved as if they were deer and I was trying to get them to eat out of my hand.
I was so steeped in Japan, its culture, the romance of its history, its magical poetry and the way it feels to be a woman in Japan that it made perfect sense to start to write fiction set in Japan, to weave stories around its extraordinary past. And so I began The Shogun Quartet, the series of novels of which The Shogun’s Queen is both the first and the last – chronologically the first but the last to be written.
The images above were shared by Lesley and show, respectively:
- Lesley and her mother performing tea ceremony
- Gifu women friends visiting a temple
- Lesley with Meiko, a trainee Geisha
And here are my thoughts on The Shogun’s Queen:
The Shogun’s Queen transports the reader to a period in Japan’s history where everything is set to change as it comes under the scrutiny of various Western nations. Having set up tentative trade agreements with the Dutch, Japan is unprepared for the force that other countries – America, Britain, Russia, to name but a few – will bring to bear upon them in order to get a foot in tightly closed doors that Japan has previously presented to the rest of the world.
Into this political maelstrom comes Atsu – a young woman from a relatively minor household who is, following a series of political manoeuvres, chosen as a bride for the Shogun. Whilst this should be an exciting opportunity – she will be Queen, after all – it also involves a great deal of sacrifice on her part, as she must leave behind her family and everyone that she has ever known. And, once installed at the palace in Edo (as Tokyo was known at the time) she will never be able to leave.
The Shogun’s Queen is a fictionalised account of this defining moment in Japan’s history, and I enjoyed the political manoeuvring that takes place throughout the novel as both sides – those who believe that they should trade with the barbarians, as they were seen at the time, and those who want to ignore them – seek to gain the upper hand. What surprised me was the power and influence that the women held. Whilst this may have been exaggerated for the purposes of the novel, I expect that certain women, those close to the men in power, were able to assert their views and opinions, thus having an impact on the politics of the time, and I found this to be extremely interesting.
The main character throughout the novel is Atsu, who gains many names for the various stages of her life, yet never forgets her upbringing in a minor household far from the opulence that she later comes to know. Throughout the novel, I admired her strength and determination, despite the challenges she faces in the Shogun’s mother and other women at the palace who seek to undermine her. She does dither a bit, flip-flopping between wanting to do her best for her husband versus doing what is best for Japan, although I understand that she is facing a conflict of interests and was therefore trying to decide the best path to take. Overall, however, she is a great character, and one whose situation evokes sympathy at the situation that she has been forced in to.
The Shogun’s Queen is both a love story as well as a tale of political intrigue set at a time of significant change and turmoil, and marks the beginning of The Shogun Quartet, which continues in The Last Concubine, The Courtesan and the Samurai and The Samurai’s Daughter, all of which are available to buy through the usual channels. Beautifully evocative, this is a surprisingly quick read, and I raced through it eager to know the outcome, not only for Atsu, but also for Japan and how they would decide to treat those who’ve landed on their doorstep, demanding to be let in.
The Shogun’s Queen will be published on 3 November. Many thanks to Hannah Bright for the ARC, and to Lesley for taking the time to write about her time in Japan and for providing the above photographs.
Make sure you check out the other stops on the blog tour: