As I am expanding my writing projects, and I am interested in exploring ideas outside of strictly science fiction and fantasy, one “wall” that I have run across is my interest in writing fiction taking place in feudal Japan. So far, I don’t have an interest in many other cultures, and I don’t take the interest lightly. I’m wondering this primarily because I currently have a Japanese ghost story in development. I have already written a series of vignettes about the life of a Japanese woman in the Muromachi period. It’s not my own internal misgivings but I am reflecting on mostly external debates.
I am a lifelong “Japanophile,” or someone who has a love or admiration for Japanese culture. Though I am Caucasian, I grew up eating Japanese food and today cook authentic Japanese recipes, I write haiku, I wear real kimono, I read Japanese history, I watch Japanese TV shows, and I took a year and a half of Japanese in college. I also have recently delved into the world of anime and manga, but it’s only a beginning interest. I have a strong interest in traditional, pre-1860s Japan and especially pre-Tokugawa shogunate that formed in the 1600s.
But, does this give me legitimate grounds for writing fiction based in feudal Japan with Japanese characters? Some would argue that space should be reserved for Japanese writers, or at the very least Asian writers. To some people, I am incapable of truly understanding the Japanese mindset and that a Caucasian writing about the Japanese experience diminishes the voices of Japanese writers. On the other hand, some would argue that fiction needs to broaden its cultural horizons no matter what, so any respectful exploration into other cultures is welcome and helps everyone.
But is there a sense that Japanese culture, with its ubiquitous presence around the world, is treated as on par with American culture? They are able to represent themselves equally on their own terms, so I am able to explore that culture. Would it be different if I wanted to represent a lesser-known culture – maybe the Hmong from southeast Asia, or the Maasai from Kenya – in my fiction? Is there a higher standard?
I am not here to argue for either side and condemn anyone. I am merely stuck in the debate as a well-intentioned writer who wants to craft stories in a culture I love. Interestingly, I know more about Japanese history and culture than I do about all of the European cultures at any point in time combined, so I would be more capable of accurately representing feudal Japanese culture than I would of my own ancestral Italian, English, or German cultures.
On the other hand, manga and anime creators have not shied away from writing stories based either directly on or synthesized from non-Japanese culture and ethnicities and I think this is perfectly fine. I want the best possible story told. Hell, the iconic anime Cowboy Bebop featured Native American culture and, to be honest, it was the emotional highlight of one of the best episodes. I am not Native American but it seemed respectful to me. Fullmetal Alchemist is set in Amestris, a country based on numerous European cultures with distinctly white, Asian, and vaguely Middle-Eastern characters. In my opinion, disrespectful representation of any culture can happen anywhere and that representation should be all held to the same standard.
On the other hand, I don’t subscribe to the idea that there is only one way to represent a culture and I make great allowances for creators to handle the diversity of this planet respectfully but also in a way that the represented people feel both included and sufficiently a part of the global imagination. I would not want to be a part of a group that is seen as unable to join in the fun of fiction. Part of why I am interested in writing about feudal Japan is largely because so much of America’s cultural perspective of Japan is anime and geisha (which are seen as prostitutes who can also sing). I see a deeper, much richer world to dive into and it’s the kind fiction I want to read.
There are also several things to consider in my story: it’s fiction, set in a historical period, so it would not be representing any one particular modern — and thus fundamentally relatable — POV today. I also believe that the structure of storytelling works across cultural boundaries, and anyone from any culture enjoys a good read. It’s also going to be steeped in the enigmatic mythos of Japanese ghost stories — or kaidan — which is a seemingly bottomless pit of variety and characters. That’s appropriate, since ghost folklore has existed in Japan since before the Heian period — or, 800 AD or so. That seemingly monolithic library, however, is impossible to represent 100% accurately, especially in the span of a short story, so it’s a fundamentally limited undertaking. Perceptions of ghosts have changed: would I try to tell it in a contemporary style, or can I embrace kaidan as a whole, cultural shifts and all? I will need to simplify and synthesize, but honestly, there are few differences in the basic tropes in kaidan and western ghost stories.
I feel confident that with conducting research and writing it in the spirit of how they would have been told, while also giving it basic themes that can be found in any culture, I can craft a respectful story that gives the unfamiliar an eye into a lesser-known aspect of a famous culture. Would I be brave enough to publish these stories, however? In a sense I can’t please everyone, but also the public publishing world is both fairly and unfairly ripe with landmines. It’s not an easy decision to make, and I don’t know the best way to approach it, but I am learning and open-minded.
What are your thoughts and experiences with the world of multiculturalism in fiction? Am I completely off-base? Let me know.