I know some of you are familiar with the Lord Yamada series, my stories about a minor aristocrat in Heian Japan who makes his living as a “nobleman’s proxy,” basically a private investigator who handles situations, mostly of a paranormal nature, that his social betters either can’t handle or would be too embarrassed to try. (For anyone who isn’t familiar and wants to know what I’m talking about, The Mansion of Bones in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #19 wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It’s online and free). Now then–I’m bringing this up because of a misunderstanding that cropped up at this week’s writer’s group. Someone referred to Yamada as a samurai.
It’s an understandable mistake, and I know that any casual reader who picks up a copy of a Yamada story is going to assume that he is a samurai because that’s their frame of reference. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. I get that, and in general it’s not going to affect their reading of the story. Anyone in ancient Japan who used weapons (and who wasn’t a ninja, which is a whole ‘nother can of worms) is generally referred to in the West as a samurai.
Here’s the thing: The period in which the Goji Yamada stories are set is the Heian period, Japan’s Golden Age, which lasted from about the late 8th century CE until 1185 CE, ending at the battle of Dan-No-Ura, after which came the Kamakura period and the rise of what we know today as the samurai class, and the rule of the country by the Shoguns, essentially military dictators either backed up or opposed by the samurai families depending, it sometimes seemed, on what day of the week it was. The Emperor was still around, because he served essentially as the Chief Priest of the Nation and was the source from which the right to rule was theoretically derived. The Shoguns were technically appointed by the Emperor. In practice, the Emperor had no real power. But the Shoguns never felt secure enough in their positions to lose the stamp of legitimacy provided by the Emperor, so they kept the office and the royal family intact.
All that happened after Goji’s time. In the Heian Period, there were no samurai as such. There were hired soldiers in the employ of the regional governors and daimyos called samaru, meaning, more or less, a servant. It was a general term, and some so-called were actually higher born administrators, but most were little more than armed thugs and their social status was, well, practically non-existent. Yamada is a (minor) aristocrat, which is a small but very important distinction. Yamada isn’t a samurai because there was no such thing, and calling him a samaru would have been a mortal insult.
So why am I telling you all this, when I’ve already admitted that it doesn’t make any difference? Well, not exactly no difference. As I said, a casual reader might never know this, and for them the story would work just fine. But I do want anyone who reads and likes the series enough to follow it to understand the difference. Simply because, by knowing this, they have a greater insight into the society and culture that informs Lord Yamada’s character, and thus their appreciation of the series, in my opinion, is enhanced. As the guy who takes pride in the Yamada series, I think that this is a good thing.