Interview with the Translator: Hills of Silver Ruins, History

Kate: The 12 Kingdoms series, including Hills of Silver Ruins, demonstrates a fascination with history. As good fantasy, Ono's world is true-to-life; the fantastical elements depend on consistent natural laws as do human advances and behaviors. 

I recently read a brief history of Japan for children. If anyone had asked me even three months ago, I would have assumed that Japan as a country stretched back as far as the Ancient Mediterranean Empires. I'm willing to bet that many people, who rely on general knowledge, would make the same assumption.

Is the perception of antiquity because the ancient and modern world are set side by side in Japan? Or is that Japan had those years of isolation; hence, "modern" for Japan is really recent (while for Westerners, "modern" is also kind of historical, starting with the end of Shakespeare's life)?

And do Japanese people share this perception—that Japan is really old—or are they busy exclaiming, "China is soooo much older!" and that accounts for the interest in China?

Eugene: I'd say that Japanese generally think of Japan as an old country that got new really fast. After all, compared to the United States, Japan is ancient. But several other factors play into this. First is that Japan can point to a cohesive polity that reaches further back than most of its European counterparts. As early as the Asuka period (538–710), there was an identifiable government, language, and culture of Japan.

Another key factor is the relationship with China, from which Japan borrowed its culture, orthography, and political organization. From the start, Buddhist institutions grafted themselves onto their Chinese (and Indian) counterparts and so could treat that ancientness as their own. In any case, there is plenty of hard evidence for home-grown ancientness, as the Jomon period dates from 6000–300 BCE.

For example, in the slice-of-life anime movie Laid Back Camp, the girls are restoring a run-down campground near Mt. Fuji when they discover shards of Jomon pottery. The project gets put on hold while archeologists excavate the site. This is considered a seamless part of Japanese history. The same applies to the thousands of "keyhole" burial mounds found across Japan that date to the Kofun period (300–538).

Where archeological evidence is lacking, myth will suffice, so the imperial line officially begins with Emperor Jimmu in 660 BCE, though there is little objective historical evidence for emperors that predate the Asuka period. Before that, we're in King Arthur territory. But like King Arthur, a really good myth almost qualifies as actual history.

Kate: Very interesting! On reflection, I decided that Japan offers a continuity that other places simply don't have. Anglo Saxon culture (500ish CE) became the determining culture of England with the Celts (1000 BCE) being the determining genetics. But in the meantime, there were the Romans and the Danes and the Normans, so that a later generation saw no connection between itself and, say, Stonehenge (there is no cultural or genetic connection) until nineteenth century nationalists began searching for a connection. Likewise, the cave paintings in France are older than just about anything but Werner Herzog's movie emphasizes a human connection rather than a French one.

Is Japan's uniqueness that it offers cultural memory--like the Middle East but without the grudges? 

Eugene: Japan as a coherent polity was in large part a product of the Genpei War (1180–1185) that ended the Heian period and the direct rule of the imperial household and moved the secular government far away from Kyoto to Kamakura. This separation of "church" and state not only preserved the imperial line but also the culture of the Heian period, which later shoguns could build upon to show how sophisticated they were. But for the most part, when it came to overthrowing the previous regime, "it's not personal, it's business." 
The link below is an example of how traditional culture in Japan (in this case, shrine visits and kimono) still permeates modern culture. It'd be sort of as if the majority of the population attended Midnight Mass, whether they were Catholic or not, and turned the experience into adorable pop art. 

No comments: