Mac on Tokyo: Jamie Ryder

Jamie Ryder is the author of Japanese Fighting Heroes: Warriors, Samurai and Ronins. Amidst Shogun fever, Mac chatted to Jamie about what it took to produce this innovative tome.

Maction Planet: What initially drew you to Japanese culture, and how has it influenced the creation of your book, “Japanese Fighting Heroes”?

Jamie Ryder: My initial interest in Japan goes back to the ‘90s and early 2000s when I was growing up in what I’d like to consider a golden age of cartoons and animation. You had Cartoon Network, Fox Kids and Nickelodeon all experimenting with shows that I actually think of as being more suitable for teenagers than young children. Shows like Courage The Cowardly Dog, Invader Zim etc.

And one of those kinds of shows that gripped me was Dragon Ball Z and the mature themes that were shown. I realised that was manga and anime and it sent me down the rabbit hole of learning more about Japanese culture and history.

Fast forward to 2018 and I wanted to start some kind of Japan-inspired project and that became Yamato Magazine. The publication celebrates Japanese culture worldwide and raises awareness of its different aspects in the UK. 

Through writing content, I was inspired to learn more about Japanese drinks like sake and shochu and eventually took the plunge to formally study it. (I have a couple of sake qualifications under my belt with the Sake Sommelier Association and International kiki-sakeshi.)

Through Yamato Magazine, my publisher Pen & Sword Books reached out to me in 2023 to see if I’d be interested in writing a book about Japan. This was good timing as I’d had an idea for a book for a while and here was the opportunity to have it backed by a publisher.

MP: What kind of research was involved in the development of your book, and how did you ensure the authenticity of cultural and historical elements present in the work?

JR: For writing the book, I consulted a lot of different sources, which included TV shows, academic books, essays, historical fiction and folklore. Each medium provided a different window into Japanese culture and also tied into my approach for a book that combines fiction and fact.

On one hand, there’s the subjective, romantic view of Japan, celebrated through figures like the samurai and geisha. A romance that first attracted me and that I wanted to capture faithfully. On the other hand, there’s the objective view of a country where stories were made up to create the romance.

I think part of respecting a culture is to see both sides. It’s okay to embrace the romance, while not shying away from the hard facts that were presented in my research, such as the bushido samurai myth being created in the Edo period and into the Meiji period. 

The term bushido is most well-known in the West from a book written by Nitobe Inazo. He was a Christian who wanted to reconcile his religious ethics within Japanese society and so made a connection between samurai extolling Christian virtues with a Japanese flavour.

Now, that’s only one part of a very complex cultural myth. But revealing that kind of research provides people with context so they can make their own informed decisions.

MP: Your book touches on the concept of ‘heroes’ within a Japanese context. How do you think the cultural understanding of heroism in Japan differs from Western perceptions, and how is this reflected in the book?

JR: That’s a great question and something I thought about in the early process of the book. I wanted to depict the characteristics that define a cultural hero and then see how they apply to Japanese culture.

So, when researching the figures that are in the book, I came across several common markers. The characteristics of Japanese folk heroes include having a sense of duty towards a clan or group, wanting to further the renown of their family, are physically or mentally strong and having an element of the bushido code. That came out in writing about people like Date Masamune and Miyamoto Musashi.

There are exceptions because I didn’t want to just look at traditional traits that Japanese culture values. Going against traditional values is its own kind of heroism, such as with the stories of the feminist Hiratsuka Raicho and father of Japanese whisky Masataka Taketsuru.

In terms of how I think the Western perspective on heroism differs, I feel there are lots of similarities. Every culture venerates figures who in some way stand for a cause that’s bigger than themselves or live by admirable qualities. 

MP: Is there a particular persona in “Japanese Fighting Heroes” with whom you identify most closely?

JR: Two characters I identified with when writing about them were the last ukiyo-e master Yoshitoshi and the father of Japanese short stories, Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Both were masters of their crafts but faced mental health difficulties throughout their lives.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Both their stories hit close to home in the sense of doing creative work to express feelings and striking a balance between everything else going on in life. I think there’s a tendency sometimes for creatives to become so fixated on their work that they harm themselves by sacrificing other things. Paradoxically, creative pursuits like art and writing can be good and bad for mental health.

I also resonate with Yoshitoshi and Akutagawa as men who experienced depression and anxiety, but weren’t able to get the help they needed. Writing about their stories was a way to bring more awareness to male mental health in Japan and in all walks of life. That it’s okay to admit when you’re struggling and no one is ever alone. 

Yoshitoshi

MP: Works like manga, anime, and tokusatsu (live-action films or shows with special effects) are rich in ‘fighting heroes.’ Who have these been influenced by the historical figures you discuss in your book?

JR: I’d say these types of shows have been influenced largely by folklore and samurai myths. You have the Studio Ghibli films that are modern extensions of Japanese folklore. You have classic films like Seven Samurai and high-quality modern production animes like Blue Eye Samurai. 

It’s the romance of wanting to capture epic battles and duels. Telling stories of universal ideals like honour, courage and growing as people because we’re hardwired to buy into those stories. 

Chapters and sections of Japanese Fighting Heroes are written as fiction to celebrate that romantic tradition. There are samurai clashes, duels and fables that (hopefully) come to life on the page.

One example of this that was fun to write was the chapter about the kunoichi Mochizuki Chiyome. There isn’t much historical fact out there about her and it’s speculated as to whether she existed at all.

But with that speculation comes the opportunity to fill in blanks. So, her chapter opens with a short story about what she could have been like within the context of her time. 

MP: What do you hope readers will take away from “Japanese Fighting Heroes”? Are there certain feelings or conversations you wish to evoke through your book?

JR: What I’d like readers to take away first is an appreciation for different cultures and how stories shape those cultures. You don’t have to know anything about Japan or have travelled there to find something that resonates with you about the characters in the book. There’s a lot of commentary on practical Japanese mental health and philosophical techniques that readers may find helpful.

I’d also like readers to see that history can be instructive on how to apply modern life lessons. The characters are anything but perfect. They mess up, they struggle, they get knocked down. But they strive to keep going and it’s real.

MP: Could you describe a typical day in your writing process for this book? Do you have any particular rituals or habits that help you tap into the flow required to bring this dynamic world to life?

JR: There was no specific ritual that helped me with writing the book but some habits certainly helped. When starting a new chapter, I’d make a point to read only material associated with the specific figure, as that helped me get into their headspace and lives.

Getting away from the computer and taking plenty of breaks was needed. I found sometimes that it was useful to apply some Japanese mental health techniques that have helped throughout my life.

I remember doing a lot of forest bathing, i.e. wandering through green spaces to let my mind wander and ideas come at their own time. I also practised zuihitsu, literally following my brush in a free-flowing writing style and not worrying about where it would take me. 

Another concept that helped was the idea of kika sai, coming home to myself and shifting my focus to other thoughts. 

MP: Jamie, we really appreciate you joining us for this edition of “Mac on Tokyo”. Any plans for future books?

JR: Yes! I’ve finished a follow-up to Japanese Fighting Heroes called Norse Fighting Heroes which follows the lives of some of the most (in)famous Vikings in history. I’m currently writing a book about some of my favourite philosophers and what we can learn from them in personal and business life. 

Japanese Fighting Heroes is out in the UK, US and Japan now on Amazon. Buy it here. 

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