How to Address a Samurai (Without Him Cutting You in Half) – Revisited

After finishing the first draft of a time-travel story I’ll be submitting to Dreamspinner early next week (after another draft or two — it seems one of my friends found my time-travel quantum mumbo-jumbo to be “all screwed up”), I’ve dusted off my tragic samurai love story from last winter and begun working on it again.

I thought I’d sorted out how I wanted the characters to behave, within their social ranks, but apparently not.  Looking at it with fresh eyes, I found numerous contraditions sprinkled throughout the story.  I also discovered that the characters were behaving rather like wooden fence posts in kimono.  There was so much formality in the character interractions, there wasn’t much room left for emotion or character development.

Fortunately, all was not lost.  The story is still good; the setting is still fascinating (to me); and the characters are interesting, if I can just get them to loosen up a bit.  One of the biggest problems was the Japanese words I’d sprinkled a bit too liberally throughout the text, especially hai (“yes”) and iie (“no”).  My decision to use these words had resulted in a very irritating rhythm in places, where they were simply repeated too often.  In English, a reader might not notice anything odd in the following passage:

     “You didn’t attempt to copy the artwork?” Senpachi asked.  The birds and flowers were conspicuously absent.
      Shinosuke flushed red again — something Senpachi was beginning to find endearing — and bowed lower.  “No, sensei,” he said, “I’m sorry.  I…they were beyond my ability with the brush.”
      “No matter.  Are you claiming to have memorized the poems, as well?”
      “Yes, lord!”
      “Well, let’s hear them, then.”

But when the Japanese for “yes” and “no” is substituted, it becomes a bit irritating:

     “You didn’t attempt to copy the artwork?” Senpachi asked.  The birds and flowers were conspicuously absent.
      Shinosuke flushed red again — something Senpachi was beginning to find endearing — and bowed lower. “Iie, sensei,” he said, “I’m sorry.  I…they were beyond my ability with the brush.”
      “No matter.  Are you claiming to have memorized the poems, as well?”
      “Hai, lord!”
      “Well, let’s hear them, then.”

Multiply this throughout the manuscript and it becomes damned irritating.   A simple word like “yes” shouldn’t draw so much attention to itself.  So I was faced with two choices:  1) Change all instances of hai and iie to “yes” and “no”, or 2) Leave them alone, but reduce their number.  For now, I’ve chosen the latter course.  For the most part, “yes” and “no” are seldom necessary.  Generally, they are implied by the context.  So the current draft of that passage now reads:

     “You didn’t attempt to copy the artwork?” Senpachi asked.  The birds and flowers were conspicuously absent.
      Shinosuke flushed red again — something Senpachi was beginning to find endearing — and bowed lower. “Sumimasen,” he said, “I…they were beyond my ability with the brush.”
      “No matter.  Are you claiming to have memorized the poems, as well?”
      “Hai, sensei!”
      “Well, let’s hear them, then.”

One might argue that replacing a small Japanese word like iie with sumimasen is cheating.  But since sumimasen means “I’m sorry,” it allows me to tighten the passage up a bit more, at the same time that I’m breaking up the haiiie rhythm.

There was also a lot of confusion in those early drafts about when to use first names and when to use last names.  So I’ve come up with the following rules that I’m trying to apply consistently throughout the text:

  • Shinosuke, the “boy” (he’s eighteen), is always “Shinosuke” to everybody, because of his youth.
  • Akanashi Senpachi, the samurai he falls in love with, is “Akanashi” (his family name) to everyone but himself.  This includes his friend, Toriyama, since men use each other’s family names when talking to each other, even if they are friends.  He’s also “Akanashi” in the prose, when the story is told from Shinosuke’s point of view.  About halfway through the story, however, he becomes “Senpachi” to Shinosuke in dialog and in the prose when the story is told from Shinosuke’s point of view, because lovers can use first names.  When the story is told from Senpachi’s point of view, he is always “Senpachi” in the prose.
  • Senpachi’s friend, Toriyama Kurobachi, is always “Toriyama“.
  • Servants are referred to by their first names, such as “Kaeda.”
  • The prefixes san (Mr. or Mrs.) and sama (“lord” or simply an acknowledgement of higher rank) are not used in the prose.  (My God, did that end up being cumbersome!)  In dialog, the two samurai (Senpachi and Toriyama) are referred to with the honorific sama by everybody, except each other.  When referring to one another, in the presence of others, they use -san; when alone, Senpachi calls his friend “Toriyama” and Toriyama calls him “Akanashi,” since they are close friends.
  • When the two samurai are addressed by something other than their names, they are called either sensei or samurai-sama.

Believe it or not, this is actually far less complicated than what I’d worked out earlier and it’s allowed me to go back and remove a number of confusing references.  There are still a lot of fuzzy points (Would the samurai refer to Shinosuke’s mother by her first name, because she’s a lowly seamstress, or as Daizaki-san, in honor of her late husband, who was a friend of theirs?), but already I can feel the prose perking up a bit.

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1 Comment

Filed under Japanese, Romance, Writing

One response to “How to Address a Samurai (Without Him Cutting You in Half) – Revisited

  1. Tollie Ollie

    Like Samurai? Then check this website out http://ninjaitems.com/

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