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Like a lot of people, I suspect, I was intrigued and surprised when this year's James Tiptree Jr Award was shared between Cloud and Ashes by Greer Gilman (who I once had dinner with in Boston, though she will have forgotten) and this manga by Fumi Yoshinaga. I was sufficiently intrigued at any rate to put it on my Christmas list, and my kind sister got it for me (and in time to avoid the last few days' delivery problems).

It is an alternate history, set in a world where a gender-sensitive plague killed most of Japan's menfolk in the mid-17th century; the story itself is set a couple of generations later, in the early 18th century, in an era when men are prized as potential breeding stock but excluded from the levers of formal power. The first three of four issues collected here follow the story of Mizuno Yunoshin, a poor but good-looking boy who joins the Ōoku, essentially the harem of the shōgun, at a time of political change. (The fourth issue has the new shōgun looking into the archives and presumably setting up a framing narrative for historical flashbacks the next volume.)

It's a fascinating construction. This is a path that a couple of other writershave previously trodden, most notably John Wyndham in his story "Consider Her Ways" (where all men, rather than most, have become extinct). Apart from the information that men now become commodities to be traded on the marriage market, and that the plague has not affected other countries, most of this first volume simply looks at the inversion of gender relationships as applied to the shōgun's ōoku in our world. There's an extraordinary moment when the shōgun speaks to a visiting Dutch delegation from behind a curtain, so that they will not realise that she is a woman; and she then commands a historical exploration of why patriarchal nomenclature continues to be used. Indeed, although Mizuno Yonushin is the ostensible viewpoint figure of the first three issues, I found the new shōgun, Yoshitsune, much the most interesting character.

Anyway, I shall try and get hold of the remaining volumes - I see that the next three are available in English translation. Good for the Tiptree Award, for calling attention to fascinating works like this one.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 27th, 2010 03:51 pm (UTC)
And how does Japan defend itself without half its population? Is this covered in the manga?
Dec. 27th, 2010 04:04 pm (UTC)
I suppose the flip answer to your question is, "the same way as any other country with half Japan's population". In Fumigashi's story (so far at least) women take on traditional male roles, including the military (though many of the surviving men are also warriors).

But I do wonder if defence in the way you put the question was really an issue for the secluded Japan of the mid-eighteenth century? Was Japan actually under external military threat before 1808? I don't know the answers myself.

It's also possible, I suppose, that in Fumigashi's world, Japan's geographical neighbours have also had their men die off, so everyone is in the same boat. The only foreigners we see are the Dutch. (Though I infer so far that the problem is one largely restricted to Fumigashi's Japan.)
Dec. 27th, 2010 05:45 pm (UTC)
I guess it depends on how fast the Japanese males die off - if fast the Dutch at Dejima will be both worried by the disappearance of the Japanese guarding the bridge to Nagasaki, and would in time (I think) start pushing for a more 'deeper' trade relationship. That would have a knock-on effect with the other trading companies in the area.

A slow die off, and by slow I mean at least a few years so that the Dutch aren't tipped off by either the smell of rotting corpses or mass funeral pyres could be do-able. Guards could then be replaced either by some surviving males, or by female impersonators.

However, there was also trade with China, Korea and the Ryūkyū Kingdom - so I guess it would be unlikely that all three of them would not notice the changes. They, and the Dutch would also definitely notice the impact on trade. At the very least piracy and raiding would occur.

If the plague is racial in it's make-up, as suggested by the plague not affecting other countries, then the Ainu of Hokkaido, and those still possessing significant Ainu genes might be a significant problem for the Japanese.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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