by Lillian Csernica on July 28, 2013
This is the setting for my current novel Sword Master, Flower Maiden. My fictional setting, Yama-Shinden, means “mountain village.” Satsuma is the domain on Kyushu where Yama-Shinden is located. (In the Japan of today Satsuma is in the Kagoshima Prefecture.)
“Satsuma was one of the main provinces that rose in opposition to the Tokugawa Shogunate in the mid 19th century. Because of this, the oligarchy that came into power after the “Meiji Restoration” of 1868 had a strong representation from the Satsuma province, with leaders such as Ōkubo Toshimichi and Saigō Takamori taking up key government positions.”
(Note: “The Last Samurai” starring Tom Cruise drew heavily on the life of Saigo Takamori.)
I chose Satsuma as the setting for my novel on the recommendation of my writing teacher who speaks Japanese and has spent considerable time in the Tokushima Prefecture. We agreed that Kyoto, my original choice, put the story too close to the Shogun’s main seat of power in Edo, today’s Tokyo. The presence of the Oniwabanshu, the Shogun’s guards/spies/secret police, would be much more likely. That meant a much higher risk of my heroine Yuriko being discovered, captured, and executed, along with my hero Tendo-san and anyone else who had helped them. Shifting the whole story a thousand miles south to Satsuma took care of that problem. I’m sure the Shogun still had informants down in Satsuma and Choshu, especially since they were two of the clans who were the loudest in support of the restoration of the Emperor. Still, even with the convenience of the Tokaido Road, it would have taken weeks if not months for a messenger to travel from Satsuma all the way to Edo.
The Shimazu family controlled Satsuma province for roughly four centuries prior to the beginning of the Edo period. Despite being chastised by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in his 1587 Kyūshū Campaign, and forced back to Satsuma, they remained one of the most powerful clans in the archipelago. During the decisive battle of Sekigahara in 1600, the Shimazu fought on the losing side. Satsuma was one of the most powerful feudal domains in Tokugawa Japan. It was controlled throughout the Edo period by the tozama daimyō of the Shimazu clan.
In 1609, the Shimazu requested permission from the shogunate to invade the Ryūkyū Kingdom which lay to its south. After a brief invasion which met little resistance, Satsuma seized a number of the Ryukyu Islands, annexing them to the han, and claimed the Ryūkyū Kingdom as a vassal state. For the remainder of the Edo period, Satsuma exacted tribute from Ryukyu, influenced their politics, and dominated their trading policies. As strict maritime prohibitions were imposed upon much of Japan beginning in the 1630s, Satsuma’s ability to enjoy a trade in Chinese goods, and information, via Ryukyu, provided it a distinct and important, if not entirely unique, role in the overall economy and politics of the Tokugawa state. The degree of economic benefits enjoyed by Satsuma, and the degree of their oppression of Ryukyu, are subjects debated by scholars, but the political prestige and influence gained through this relationship is not questioned. The Shimazu continually made efforts to emphasize their unique position as the only feudal domain to claim an entire foreign kingdom as its vassal, and engineered repeated increases to their own official Court rank, in the name of maintaining their power and prestige in the eyes of Ryukyu.”
This is really important to my plot because once Yuriko escapes Nakazawa, the corrupt samurai, she has to get to a place where the Japanese are accustomed to dealing with foreigners. That makes it much more probable that she’ll find a diplomat who speaks Japanese and English, someone who can help her tell the British officials that she was born in England, traveled to Japan, and then her father abandoned her to Nakazawa. This is Yuriko’s plan as the story opens. Then she meets Tendo-san….
Kagoshima Prefecture today