Sunday 15 December 2002


Looking for something light to read while I recovered from my cold, I remembered something Robert Birnbaum had said in his second conversation with Allan Furst:

Martin Cruz Smith’s latest book, December 6, is set in pre-WWII Japan and it was the first book by a current practitioner that reminded me of you. I think people use the word ‘atmospheric’ to describe you. Smith seemed to get the pre-war Japanese culture right as well as placing the reader in an authentic, palpable Tokyo.

So yesterday afternoon I bought the Cruz Smith book—in the British edition available in Australia it’s called Tokyo Station—and took it home to read in bed.

December 6 opens with five boys playing a game based on one of the best-loved stories in Japanese history, The Loyal 47 Ronin. Halfway through the second paragraph, I already regretted buying the book:

The story was tragic, true, profoundly satisfying. Lord Asano had been taunted by the unscrupulous Lord Kira into drawing a sword in the shogun’s presence, an act punishable by death. He was beheaded, his estate confiscated, and his retainers dispersed as ronin, wandering samurai with neither home nor allegiance…

Well, actually, no.

Lord Asano assaults Lord Kira in Mizoguchi's The Loyal 47 Ronin
Lord Asano assaults Lord Kira in Mizoguchi’s The Loyal 47 Ronin

Lord Asano attacks Lord Kira in an open corridor in the shogun’s palace, but the shogun is nowhere near. The seriousness of the offence lay not only in the fact that the assault took place in the palace but also that it occurred on the day of an important ceremony. Nor was Lord Asano “beheaded” for this breach of etiquette—in the sense that we in the West understand the term—since it is unthinkable that such a punishment would be imposed on someone of Asano’s rank. Rather Lord Asano was sentenced to commit seppuku (harakiri), ritual suicide, one of the five grades of punishment for wrongdoers among the samurai class. The Kodansha Illustrated Encyclopedia of Japan explains:

All aspects of the seppuku ritual were prescribed with precision: apparel, site, time, witnesses, inspector, and assistant. When the site had been readied and the witnesses, guards, and inspectors assembled, the doomed man would open his kimono, stretch out his right hand to grasp his knife, and cut into his abdomen from left to right. Often this wound was neither deep nor intended to bring on death. He would then make a prearranged signal to his kaishakunin (assistant), whereupon the kaishakunin’s sword slashed down, severing his head.

Nor does Cruz Smith “get the pre-war Japanese culture right as well as placing the reader in an authentic, palpable Tokyo.” He makes a reasonable stab at it, but the novel is populated with stock characters and the descriptions of places and customs never feel authentic. I couldn’t help but think that Alan Furst’s novels about Europe just before and during World War II are infinitely better researched and written. But perhaps it’s because I know so little about Furst’s milieu that I find his books authentic.

I was, however, engaged by one of Cruz Smith’s descriptive passages, about a fire in a tailor shop in Asakusa—ironically the epicenter of the first American firebombing raid on Tokyo in March 1945:

The house was old, built of wood frame with a bamboo front, the typical tinderbox Japanese lived in. The fire was already in full throat, an oven roar accompanied by exploding glass and the excited whoosh of paper screens. The crowd inched close, in awe of how a hovel’s straw, books, bedding, needles and thread could transcend themselves into such a beautiful tower of flame, the sort of fireworks that spread, rose and blossomed a second time into a glowing maelstrom. The way Eskimos had words for different kinds of snow, the Japanese had words for fire: deliberate, accidental, initial flame, approaching blaze, invading, spreading, overwhelming fire. Harry found himself next to the tailor, who was explaining through his tears and with many apologies how the girl had left her homework on a space heater. The paper had caught fire and fallen and lit a mat, then a screen and scraps of rayon that lit as fast as candlewicks. Sufu was worse. It was a new wartime material, ersatz cloth made of wood fibers, basically cellulose that disintegrated after three or four washings but burned like hell. One minute, the tailor said, one minute the family was out of the room, and then it was too late. Harry saw the wife and children, everyone painted orange and black in the fire’s glow. Two Red Cross workers bore off the grandmother on a litter. Air-raid drills were all the fashion. Well, this was more like the real thing.

It’s said that Eskimos have words for different kinds of snow, or different words for white. I have no idea whether this is true or not. [Burningbird sent me a link to this essay by Stephen J. Derose, which argues that they do not.]

The Chinese (Japanese) character for fireBut I was taken by the assertion that the Japanese have a multiplicity of words for fire, so I checked my dictionaries. Sure enough, there were a hundred or more. (The Chinese character for fire is pronounced ka, hi, ho, bi or bo, depending on the context.) Some fire-related words:

kachū in the fire
hisaki direction in which the flames are spreading
hosaki flame tips
kataku house on fire
kasai conflagration
kaji mimai sympathy visit after a fire
kajidoro thief at a fire
kajiba scene of a fire
hiyo(ke) protection against fire
hibashira pillar of flames
hidaruma mass of flames
hiashi spreading of a fire
hiusturi catching fire
kasei force of the flames
kaen fire and smoke
kanan’yoke charm against fire
shōka, boya small fire
yamakaji forest fire
tenka fire caused by lightning
inkasei flammability
shikka accidental fire
tsukebi arson
bōka yosui water for putting out fires
kinka, chikabi a fire in one’s neighborhood
jika a fire starting in one’s own home
haikakyō fire worship
kaika fire of mysterious origin
to(bi)hi flying sparks, leaping flames
kyūka a sudden fire; a nearby fire
rekka raging fire
funakaji fire aboard a ship
mora(i)bi catch fire (from a neighboring burning building)
gyoka, isa(ri)bi fire for luring fish at night
ruika a spreading fire

It’s hardly surprising that there are so many Japanese words for fire. In Tokyo alone, two single conflagrations have each taken the lives of around 100,000 people: the Meireki Fire in March 1657 and the American raid nearly three hundred years later.

Meireki Fire in Tokyo (March 1657)
Woodblock print of the Meireki Fire

So I haven’t given up on December 6. With a little luck Cruz Smith may still have one or two sparks awaiting me.

Permalink | Technorati


Have you seen Robert Brady's Notes from Pure Land Mountain? (He's an American who lives in the Japanese countryside.) He's describing the reenactment of the 47 ronin story which has been happening there this weekend.

Posted by Anita Rowland on 16 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Anita, thanks for the link. It's a lovely blog -- and what a coincidence that I should mention the 47 ronin story on the weekend it's being reenacted.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 16 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour