A Book Review of “The Last Shogun”

Shiba Ryôtarô, The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Juliet Winters Carpenter, trans. New York, Kodansha International, 1992. ISBN: 1-56836-246-3 (hardcover)

Review by James Au Kin-pong

Most would agree that Meiji restoration in the last 1860s serves as a pivotal moment which paves the way for Japan’s growing success to be a superpower comparable to Western nations including the United States and France. But few visualize clearly how transition of power from Tokugawa shogunate – the feudal military government which has ruled for more than 260 years – to Meiji emperor can be somehow made so smoothly without causing major pandemonium. Dating back to early nineteenth century, Edo bakufu did not only face inner fiscal crisis, but was threatened by the West’s superior military power. Having witnessed how her counterpart China had been beaten by the British armies in Opium War, almost all Japanese were desperate for ways to avoid falling victim to a colony of the West.

It is in this chaotic era where Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837 – 1913), the fifteenth and the last shogun (samurai), was born and raised. Most historians perceive him as a key figure who contributed to Japanese speedy modernization, after his active resignation as shogun to the emperor and stepped down on 9 November, 1867. Yoshinobu’s personality and talents were however re-presented to readers, thanks to the detailed delineation of Shiba Ryôtarô (1923-1996), a celebrated historical novelist, in his work The Last Shogun first published in Japanese in 1967 and later adapted in 1998 into Japanese drama.

Shiba wrote meticulously about Yoshinobu’s upbringing: Born to be the son of Mito Daimyo, he received Confucius education and developed to be a logical and fluent speaker. Since the blood tie between the Mito clan and Tokugawa shogunate was weak compared to other Daimyo, and as Mito scholarship encouraged the principle of Sonno – to revere the emperor –, Yoshinobu had been despised, and suspected to be a traitor, even though he became the adopted son of the Hitotsubashi family, one of the three branches of Tokugawa clan.

Yoshinobu was not ignorant, as Shiba demonstrated, of his treacherous situation. His enriched reading of Chinese historical classics such as Tzu-chih t’ung-chien (“Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government”), Shih-chi (“Historical Records”) and Sun-tzu (“The Art of War”) endowed him with capability to foresee whatever would be awaiting him. With the waning power of shogunate further shaken by few tumults demanding to expel the barbarians, and some sanctioning reforms and opening more ports in the wake of the arrival of American Navy Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853, Yoshinobu had to make a difficult choice. Fully aware the military strength of the West, and knowing that only through unity, but not through civil war could Japan turn to be strong again, he was determined to prevent the war ignited by the alliance of Satsuma and Chōshū from claiming more lives. On 7 November, 1867, Yoshinobu gathered all Bakufu officials in Kyoto, and renounced his power. In the speech, he said, “Ieyasu founded the shogunate in order to [preserve peace and order in the land]. Now, to the same purpose, I renounce power. My purpose is the same as that of our hallowed ancestor” (207). From this, together with his formerly repetitive refusal to be shogun, we can see how Shiba portrayed to us a liberal man who has no attachment to power.

Such a consistent portrayal is further exhibited near the end of the story when the narrator tells us that Yoshinobu thought the emperor and the emperor system should dissolve “when the anarchist leader Kotoku Shusui was arrested with eleven of his followers on suspicion of plotting to assassinate the emperor” (246) in 1910. Viewed in this light, Yoshinobu perhaps is not just a capable man, but also a historical, and philosophical thinker who always possesses deep, comprehensive insight into an invisible future.

Shiba’s The Last Shogun provokes a very intriguing question: Should it be read as a fiction, or as a secondary historical source? Chinese historicists and sinologists acknowledged that Chinese historian Sima Qian (c. 145 or 135 – 86 BC)’s Shiji (“Historical Record”) carries high literary and historical values. Its successors in Japan later roughly referred to Shiji and created Nihon Shiki (“The Chronicles of Japan”), the oldest history book in Japan with a number of myths. In this regard, fiction and “facts” cannot be clearly divided and defined. Even when focusing on western literary discourse, we discover that scholars like Hayden White proposed the idea of “emplotment”– an act of creating a plot in the chronicle –, a means to facilitating the explanation of history, which ultimately implies that narrative is essential for the study of history.

Looking back to Shiba’s work, we can indeed trace a message that Shiba was trying to tell us through his narrative: Located in an age where interaction with the rest of the world is inevitable, one should follow the historical trend and seek changes just as Yoshinobu did, instead of defying it, or the indemnity or the number of death can be unforeseeably high.

[Featured image of Tokugawa Yoshinobu]



Écriture: A Writer-to-be and A Polyglot-to-be

By Ma

There is a Chinese saying that goes: ‘If one speaks without literary talents, he cannot advance far’[1]. To be able to write with grace in a foreign language thus implies that he excels in that language. It is almost certain that spoken discourse and écriture are not mutually inclusive with one other, but both involves rhetoric, the function of which is to persuade – to get the message across, just as Aristotle mentioned[2]. Prior to developing my passion for language learning, I had never thought of the benefits of writing myself. I was totally ignorant about the reason for my slow learning ability, despite much effort I put on its acquisition.

However, something must have gone wrong during my learning process. Instead of spending considerable time on grammar books, I should have written more. Having conversed with few polyglots, I begin to realize that my failure in mastering a new lingua franca is my reluctance to practice writing. I recall, elsewhere I have read Faulkner’s statement which advised us to “Read, read, read. Read everything —trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.” To Faulkner, reading is probably a means to writing, or more exactly, to express his reading experience. But to me as an aficionado of languages, writing is a means to demonstrate what have been learnt. The more one writes in that language, the more he will be proficient in it, because aside from mechanically gobbling up some unfamiliar syntaxes and word order, you experience them yourselves. You know what you do not know through the process of writing. Having gradually been acclimatized to the language environment after persistent writing practices, you can, I think, develop your own creativity in the new writing system.

As to the form/genre of writing, I intend not to go to great details since the definition of genres may differ from various scholars’ perspectives.  I am not going to quote Northrop Frye’s, or any works of formalists, but you can attempt to write diaries as a beginner, stories or even poems when you become more advanced in that language.

  1. A Diary a Day, Your Motivation Will Stay

Diary writing is a nice way for you to put what you have learnt into use. You will unconsciously be able to employ new phrases, words and sentence structures you have remembered. Just as a scientist who does endless experiment to prove his hypothesis, you can see whether you truly master new grammatical items. Do not fear whether you make a mistake or not, for it is inevitable for a language learner to commit errors. Show your work to native speakers only when you are confident enough to do so. From a sensible perspective, if you ask your language partner for support and assistance, most are eager to help you out.

  1. The Pleasure of Writing a Story

We experienced, experience or are experiencing the pleasure of the tales of Grimm, of Anderson, of different myths. In addition to what Hemingway says that you can experience a thing from a story, you can let others experience what you want them to[3]. You grant your characters a life; you instill your thoughts into the narrators; you inspire your readers to think, to learn, and to inspire others. My advice will thus be: write whatever stories that please you to develop your creativity.

  1. Let Your Powerful Emotions Overflow into the Poetic World[4]

It is universally acknowledged that the literary history of poetry is long in both Europe and China. In the case of Europe, Homer’s epics, Shakespeare’s plays, Romantic poetry are deemed to be classics. Likewise, in China, Book of Songs, Tang poetry and Song lyrics sound sweet, and meaningful. Leaving aside the purpose of poetry, we cannot be oblivious to the values of poetry. If you delve into the details of poems, you find a diverse of forms, with rules of meter and rhyme. However, you can liberate yourself from the form and write a free verse if you are advanced enough to master the poetics.

The above three genres are what I have just come up in my mind. In future, I am going to enhance my language skills by writing regularly in these forms. Should you have any brilliant ideas about writing or language learning, do write a comment to us!

[1] Extracted from “Twentieth Year of Duke of Xiang” Commentary of Zuo (左傳). The original Chinese goes “言而無文,行而不遠。”

[2] According to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, rhetoric allows us to develop our own argument, to discover something new, and to convince others into believing what the speaker says, thus is pertinent to logic and politics. For more details, refer to http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Aristot.+Rh.+1.1.1&redirect=true

[3] Original quote: “I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across—not to just depict life—or criticize it—but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it. Things aren’t that way.”

[4] Original quote: “[P]oetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” in William Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads” (1800).

[Featured image: Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog(c. 1818)]

A Poetic Moment


Inspired by La Chanson de Roland

——————————–James Au

O, Roland, pray tell, wherefore dost thou trow

Him with no blood ties, and although behold

What thy fate be like, thou vowest a vow

To Charles the greatness, to fray past and now

For glory in vain, for nameless honour,

Which bear none at length except cinders?

Thy name perchance leaves us a glance at thee

As a hero of nation, and we too read

The epic song that praised an overtone,

Since savage speaks loud; it’s hard to atone

For deaths of rear-guards and other brothers –

Thy Highness cares none, martyrs go nowhere!

If soul of thine still dwells, repent for birth –

A slave of King – and make this doleful dirge!


[First written on 22nd June, 2015 by James; painting: Saint George by Raphael (1483-1520)]

A World of Dystopia

There has been one time I feel I have owned a world, and there many times I see my world crumbled. Time flips to a decrepit age entirely strange to me. Upon a barren land I stand; before my eyes are no longer chrysanthemums, nor cherry blossoms, but tawny grasses all drooping their heads, bearing the burden of countless dilapidated, dusty concrete tiles. I begin to fear. I hope desperately to find a butterfly, or to be one myself, but soon give up after several trials of aimless sprints.

Rains fall. I remember how pleasant it was to saunter along a foreign street under little showers, watching the emotionless faces, some in formal attires, some in flashy makeups, all flocking towards the same station. Seeing such a lively, realistic human episode, I would sneer at the living dead, jaunt at the meaninglessness of their lives, and despised at those who did not savvy what lives had meant to them. I stretch my hands out, trying to hold the raindrops on my palms. At the moment the dew befalls the tips of my fingers, my fleshes are as if scalded by some corrosives, and some indescribable pain pierces into my heart. The grass, the tiles, and everything are melting into course yellow sand of desert. I immediately have my hooded coat on, and scurry for a shelter from the erosive drops.

From my back some miles away I see a stony cave. Without a second thought I make a dash into it. Weird. Why does a cave exist in this world of nothingness? I take off my nylon, blue backpack with a number of tiny holes, and unzip it to look for something useful in this decaying world, and yet I find my bag is empty. You know it is impossible for a bookworm not to take at least one book along with him. Even BOOKS have betrayed me. WORDS and CHARACTERS have betrayed me. What I wrote and read of yore have all been forgotten. An illiterate. A man of helplessness. A vagabond with a wandering soul. I see my passionate, expressive face turns stern and heartless. I have now been warped into a hollow shell – a shell with dark suit, black leather shoes, and black suitcase, crowding into a station called hell.

[Painting source: https://janetthomas.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/joseph-mallord-william-turner-rain-steam-and-speed-the-great-western-railway.jpg%5D

At a Café

Chilly days persisted. The shadows, below the street lights of Shibuya never dwindled in number. Halloween was over, Christmas was over, but before the entrance of a famous department store there the illumination hanged in a couple of trees, glowing with feeble orange. The Canadian and one woman with him entered a café opposite to the building. He ordered mocha as usual, and she requested a cup of hot chocolate. Soon they took off their coats and put them at the back of their chairs, before ensconcing themselves at a table right behind the shop window inside the café.

‘You like hot chocolate?’ the man asked. He took a long sip of his mocha.

‘Yes, I do,’ she answered in short, held on to her porcelain cup handle, and tried her hot drink carefully.

It was then a long pause. They were as though forgetting their vocal cords could function. The man flinched from looking into her. She gazed down at the table.

‘You don’t have to work today?’ he broke the resilient silence.

‘No I don’t. I took one day leave,’ she answered plainly.

‘I…I want to tell you one thing,’ he stammered, and took a gulp of the hot-turned-lukewarm drink.

‘You could just send me a message instead,’ she said with little impatience.

‘I thought it’d be better to talk directly to you. You know I am not well-conversed in Japanese.’

‘Okay, but make it short.’

‘I mean, I am so happy to know you,’ the man said, ‘I enjoyed a lot talking to you that night. I was amused at so many common interests we share.’

‘We shared,’ she corrected him.

Another pause began. If he was to play the scrabble board game, he would probably be a loser. He scratched for words in vain. Everything in his mind had been scooped out. All hieroglyphs, all strokes of Kanji characters, all syllables were frozen in this cold, thick, heavy mist of air.

‘You drank a lot that night,’ he finally opened his mouth again and said, ‘I have never seen a girl who drank that much.’

‘No, I didn’t.’

‘Yes, you did. I didn’t believe you were a first-time drinker.’

‘No, you were the one who drunk.’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Okay. We BOTH drunk then,’ he stressed. The eyes of the girl tried to avert his, and she looked emptily at the coming and going of strangers across Dogenzaka Street. Darkness continued to wave her hands.

‘Your decision?’

‘You know I can’t. I…I can’t make a living by teaching English here forever. My visa will expire in June, and…’


He could not finish his words. Having drunk up the whole cup, he tried hard to say something to cheer her up. He saw a family of three entering the café. They looked like Japanese, but were speaking a language he could not understand. The child, probably a son of the couple, seemed reluctant to let go of his father approaching the counter. Watching them, he forgot what had plagued him so far. This woman sitting opposite to him made a grimace at him. He found her weird, much weirder than the first time he met her.

‘I know the answer now,’ the girl stood up, put her black fur coat on, and stuffed her phone into her Gucci handbag, ‘Sayōnara, and don’t find me anymore.’

He made no response. He saw her strongly pushing against the door, walking afar from him, her silhouette lost in the nameless crowd. His only wish at that time was to take a photo with her.

[Painting source: Tokyo Nights by Sylvia Paul; https://static1.squarespace.com/static/552a0cdee4b026cc27b79f6d/t/56c14fd9d210b8f08fd3591d/1455509485495/?format=1500w%5D

My Days of Korean Learning

Korean never sounds strange to me. Bewitched by K-pop songs, Korean dramas, and variety shows, many of my friends start learning Hangul, in hope that one day she could meet her Oppa, or at least get an autograph from him.

I was still an illiterate in Korean, even though this Korean boom had silently spread its tentacles to people around me. Lowly motivated, I switched to another channel whenever singers, entirely unfamiliar, were chanting some enigmatic spells.

The first time I aspired to learn it as my fourth Asian language was when I heard few years ago somebody’s presentation in an English course about a Korean novel called The Dwarf, where the life of the dwarf was an implication of a more serious social and economic problems brought by Korean modernization in the wake of Second World War. Already an aficionado of Japanese/Chinese arts and culture, I suddenly got some very strong temptation to know the historically complicated, yet inextricable link among these three Asian nations.

And then Chance finally comes in. I was more than happy to know that my university offers one free language course. It was a cold February day in London, and I remembered how the Korean lecturer was braving the freezing cold to trudge towards the windows and to shut them all down, before giving us the handouts.

An ethnic Chinese as I am could be flabbergasted by the apparent homogeneous strokes and circles of the characters, while reading the Korean vowel and consonant tables for the first time. But just as you won’t know English if you don’t memorize how the alphabets are written and read, I had to quickly pick up these foreign alphabets too.

I disremember how I could recognize them all within a couple of hours, though. The only thing I can recall is that I associated one of the Korean consonants “ㅈ”(j) with a Japanese katagana “ス”(su), so that its pronunciation could linger in my mind much longer.

If language learning could be likened to playing computer game, I felt like I hadn’t even started it by simply recognizing the alphabets. I was always in a labyrinth whenever I came across words which encompass vowels like “ㅓ” (eo)and “ㅗ” (o), since the two sound somehow similar.

Vocabularies always invite headache. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the course does not demand us to dictate any words or phrases. I thus did not spend any time remembering any of those. By the end of the course, I became a literate in alphabets, and an illiterate in Korean.

How time flies! I graduated at London and moved to Tokyo for further study. In the meantime I audited in Korean courses, determined to be proficient in the language in the future. Unlike teaching in London, the teacher did not teach me the language in English, but in Japanese. It was predictable, but I still felt strange at first.

Perhaps because of the high compatibility between Japanese and Korean, or perhaps because of the more efforts I have spent over the past few months, I feel I began to recognize more words and sentence structures. Now to me, Korean resembles a distant relative of Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese, and I was surprised when “안경” (an gyeong, meaning glasses) and “眼鏡” (ngaan5 geng3) sound so similar; I generalized a rule myself as to how to distinguish a word with batchim “ㄴ”(n) from the other with “ㅇ” (ng) whenever I think of the pinyin in Mandarin. Examples include “은행”(eun heng, meaning bank) and “銀行”(yin2 hang2); “병원”(byeong ueon, meaning hospital) and “病院” (bing4 yuan3).

Syntactically speaking, the word order of Korean and that of Japanese are almost equivalent with one another too. Anyway, it is better for me to master it, before I grow too old to learn further.

[Photo taken by James on 11th January, 2017]

A Poetic Moment



—————————–James Au

O SNOW, whitely groomed,

Pure as a dove, roves

Around all the doomed

Along lonely coves.


So slowly she strokes

My dull, wooden tomb

Beside a bare oak

And sob never blooms.

[First written on 19th January, 2016 by James]