An Island, a Weapon, and a Plot Point Walk Into a Novel …

Tanegashima is the second largest island in Japan’s Ōsumi Island chain, located off the southern coast of Kyushu (the southernmost of the four major islands which make up the country of Japan).

During the medieval period, Tanegashima was considered part of Ōsumi province and ruled by the daimyo in control of that territory.

In 1543 a Portuguese trade ship heading for China found itself blown off course and landed at Tanegashima. The accident introduced the Portuguese to Japan (and vice versa) and within a few years the Portuguese had established a trading relationship with Japan.

Among the most popular Portuguese goods was the matchlock-style arquebus, which many Japanese referred to as tanegashima, after the island where the weapon first came ashore.

13H Portuguese in Japan

While formulating my Shinobi Mystery series, I wanted an interesting foil for Hiro who lacked the warmth and friendship my shinobi detective would share with Father Mateo. Since Father Mateo worked at a distance from the Jesuit mission, it would also help to give the Jesuit a separate form of financial support. The church would help him, of course, but I wanted Father Mateo to have a level of independence that required another member to their household.

Enter Luis Alvares, a Portuguese merchant and weapons-dealer. Luis provides a foil not only to Hiro’s character but to Father Mateo’s also. Unlike the Jesuit, who loves the people and indigenous culture of Japan, Luis considers the Japanese people a bunch of “murderous savages” and the culture barbaric at best. He is the character in the novels most readers seem to “love to hate” or “hate that they love” (depending upon which email I’m reading at the moment), and yet, he also has a surprising number of fans.

Luis exists as a foil, but also to introduce another truth of 16th century Japan – the existence of outsiders, with foreign values and foreign weapons, whose influence shaped the manner in which the Japanese went to war. In 1565, that influence remained relatively small, but it was spreading and picking up speed. The use of a weapons-merchant allowed me to bring the arquebus “front and center,” challenging Japanese tradition and Father Mateo’s normally pacifist stance.

It also allowed me to share the history of firearms in Japan – a subject I personally find fascinating. And any time you can hit a writing hat trick … in this case, historical fact, a change in warfare, and an intriguing plot point … all in one, you’d better not let that trade ship sail without you.

*Image of Portuguese traders in Japan from the U.S. Library of Congress, image in the public domain due to age.

2 thoughts on “An Island, a Weapon, and a Plot Point Walk Into a Novel …

  • August 20, 2013 at 8:02 pm

    Ah! I just ran across a reference to tanegashima (the firearm) last night and wasn’t familiar with the term. And now I know!

    • August 20, 2013 at 8:42 pm

      Glad I could be of aid! It’s a rare use, since you’ll only see it used commonly for about a 100 year period in Japan.

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