Drunk as a Lord
Ryôtarô Shiba
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Buy *Drunk as a Lord—Samurai Stories* online

Drunk as a Lord—
Samurai Stories

Ryôtarô Shiba [b. Teiichi Fukuda]
transl. Eileen Kato
Kodansha America, Inc.
253 pages
September 2001
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Ryôtarô Shiba was hugely popular in Japan, where he published over 40 books on Japanese history, most in fictionalized form. Born Teiichi Fukuda in Osaka in 1923, he studied Mongolian at Osaka University of Foreign Languages, then worked for a time as a newspaper reporter. He tried his hand at historical novels in the mid-1950s and therein found his true metier. His work is tinctured with insights as tart as his people—many of them lightly disguised historical personages who reshaped, and in some cases misshaped, Japanese history during turbulent times. By the time he passed away in 1996 his lively characterization and scholar’s insistence on accuracy had turned him into a national (and to Curled Up With a Good Book some, a nationalist) icon. The writer Matsumoto Ken'ichi memorialized him this way:

“When the historical novelist Ryôtarô Shiba passed away, the nation lost a great critic of our civilization, someone who both inspired and admonished us. I could not help wondering how we would get on without him—such was the importance of his historical perspective to postwar Japan. The theme that preoccupied him throughout was, ‘Who are the Japanese people?’ As a storyteller, Shiba explored this theme through his portrayals of specific historical figures. In this sense he remained a storyteller even after he had ceased to write novels.”
Until this Kodansha edition, Mr. Shiba went unpublished in English and the European languages. Thanks now to the elegant yet colloquial translation of Eileen Kato, we now have four of his novelettes in a single book.

Drunk as a Lord narrates the writhing last years of the Tokugawa shogunate, a dynasty that had ruled Japan with dwindling effectiveness from the early 17th century. By the mid-1800s Japan was impoverished by economic mismanagement (due in no small part to the absence of a notion that there *is* such a thing as economics) and a centuries-long policy of rejectionary naval-gazing. The drumroll of disintegration was hastened by the arrival of Commodore Perry's “black ships” bearing the message that, after two hundred and fifty years of self-imposed exile, Japan had better “open up” to trade with the West—or else.

Mr. Shiba’s narrative depicts the last convulsions of dynasty amid the overturn of Japan's ruling structure. For fifteen years after Perry, Japan was wracked by marauders, oppression, and rebellion, culminating in civil war. Drunk as a Lord relates the last days of the bakufu (shogunate system of military government) and the way the many players in the drama responded to the pressures they both made and endured. The four stories depict four feudal lords—-in some cases via the foil of their retainers—who adopt very different attitudes about the fact that Japan was being forced to modernize.

The title “Drunk as a Lord” is somewhat misleading because only one of the four novelettes—the first and at 102 pages the longest—actually describes a drunk. However, as a woozie Yamauchi Yodo (b. Toyoshige) is a doozie—a poet-turned-daimyo (domainal lord, equivalent to a medieval fief lord in the West), whose attainments are blemished by his reaching for the saké bottle in response to nearly every event that confronts him. As if the fates gave prowess to those they would ruin, his bite at debate, his decisiveness when those around him dither, and his loyalty to the emperor might have made him a great statesman. But the saké pot won. He died at the age of forty-six of a stroke, the great in him having been made small, and the small in him having been made great.

The second story, "The Fox-Horse," relates the death of a brilliant lord and the effect this has on a younger sibling who yearns to take his place. Alas, his envy is greater than his probity, and in an attempt to showily emulate his elder brother's style, he marches at the head of a great army to Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo today) to push for reform. Lacking his brother's intellect and subtlety, he makes a fool of himself.

"Daté's Black Ship" may well be the most entertaining and edifying tale in the book. A lowly lantern repairman—so lowly he goes only by one name, Kazo—is both slovenly beyond description and a mechanical technician of genius, a sort of Tokugawa übergeek “who could look at a thing once and then improve upon it.” He is given the task of duplicating a ship like one of the “black ships” of Commodore Perry. Neither he nor any of those expecting him to do it have the slightest clue about how one of these ships works—none has even laid eyes on such a vessel. Even so, Kazo is inspired by the sight of a pulley used by fishers as they unload the holds of their vessels, and he does end up building the ship. It is equivalent to you or I producing a working “Star Trek” cruiser with a set of socket wrenches and a bunch of bossy twitterers looking over our shoulders. The technical obstacles he overcomes are not untrivial; but far more illuminating are the social obstacle he overcomes: a ponderously structured, centuries-honed culture which denies the very concept of a low-born doing something significant. The way he succeeds turns this tale of technical invention into a drollery of manners. If you want insights why the gerontocracy of today’s corporate Japan is in such trouble, read this chapter.

"The Ghost of Saga" is a success story of divine madness. An elderly daimyo named Kanso, Lord of Nagasaki, Japan’s only aperture to the world at the time, is prescient enough to see that the Tokugawa shogunate is tottering and will fall. He is so certain that this will bring civil war that he decides the only way to protect his own clan domain is to build a modern naval and armed force equipped with Western-type weapons. He knows that if he is detected, he will be seen as plotting to overthrow the Emperor. That would mean a long stay in a small, dark room from which he would ill-likely emerge upright. Yet he is so single-minded about building his military force that he takes up smuggling arms and for the money to pay for them. Adopting a life of abstemiousness in order to throw his personal income into his military, he secretly stockpiles an astonishing array of weapons. Yet in the end, he has a moment of clarity while admiring the cherry blossoms in Kyoto, and realizes he in fact has no real intention to use these weapons he worked so hard to create. He gives all of them to the imperial army and ends his political life with the poem,

“When blossoms bloom over his head
It is fitting that an aged man
Should blush for shame.”
Relatively straightforward, simple stories these, despite their cornucopia of characters (at times the characters erupting off his pages read like War and Peace on fast-forward). Their simplicity, like a good pen-and-ink painting, hides a long apprenticeship with the red pencil.

Mr. Shiba's view of history is called Shiba-shika. It is a view that people, not ideology, determine the way history works. His stories are historical to the extent that they are based on actual people and events, but fictional in that the personalities he paints and the scenes he portrays are largely imaginary. He writes the feelings or thoughts of historical figures as though it is their own voices funneling through him onto the page. His isn’t historical fiction as much as historical channeling.

He mostly avoids turning prominent figures of his time into dramatis personae. The great and famous are but fringe on the edges of his weft. He focuses on figures socially inferior to the notables of the time, yet who grasp the need for change—and more important, the how of change—that escapes their superiors. Open-mindedness is a natural survival mechanism for those of little power; those in power are unable to imagine anything different from the past.

Mr. Shiba's belief that individual human beings determine history hints at a deep love for people. His world is of heroes and geniuses more than the macros of economics; of supply and use versus tribalistic cultural patterns; of commonweal versus submission to hierarchy. Given the right conditions, anyone with courage, spirit, and pride in self can make history. In his 1961 essay "Watashi no shôsetsu sahô" (How I Write My Novels), he explained his craft this way:

“When I examine a human being, I climb up the stairs, go out on the roof, and peer down on the person from that vantage point. It provides an entirely different scene from that one gets by observing people at eye level.”
For him, the antithesis of their spirit was ideology, which he characterized as "bunk"—or to put it in his own words:
“Under almost all ideologies is a foundation of bunk. To obscure the fact that it is bunk, people construct the system on top of the bunk as elaborate and precise as possible.”

© 2002 by Dana De Zoysa for Curled Up With a Good Book

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