Lesley Downer: The New Japan and the Last Samurai
18 June 2012, London
Lesley Downer’s new novel, Across A Bridge of Dreams, is set immediately after the Meiji Restoration, when well-off Japanese were experimenting with all things western. Rickshaws clattered through the streets, women wore bustles and bonnets and men ate beef, cut off their topknots and wore boots and Inverness capes. But there were many who opposed the radical changes transforming their society. Prime among them was Saigo Takamori with his desire to maintain samurai values and return to the purity of the old ways. Down in the south he prepared to do battle to defend all that the samurai stood for. In a last twist this would involve a clash between the northern and southern clans who had fought to control Japan and would finally give the defeated northerners their chance of revenge.
This lecture will look at the extraordinary changes that occurred during the early years of westernisation. Woodblock prints and old photographs will illustrate Ginza brick town with its new buildings and gas lamps, new modes of transport, new clothes and new foods, all of which were adopted with great enthusiasm. The changes were however limited to those who could afford them and who lived in the major cities, particularly Tokyo. There were many uprisings in the early years. The climax of these was Saigo’s uprising, which forms the background to her novel. In her talk, Lesley Downer will unravel the principles and aims behind Saigo Takamori’s last stand, the train of events that led to his bloody end, and the role that the Aizu samurai played.
Lesley Downer is an internationally best-selling author, translated into 30 languages. Her books include Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World; Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West, the story of the geisha on whom Puccini modeled Madam Butterfly; and two novels, The Last Concubine and The Courtesan and the Samurai. Across A Bridge of Dreams is the Romeo and Juliet story of Taka, the daughter of a great southern general (modeled on Saigo), and Nobu, who hails from the defeated Aizu clan. As part of her research for the novel, she went to every site connected with Saigo, including a visit to Kagoshima where Saigo hailed from and where he made his last stand, and to Aizu Wakamatsu to help form an understanding of the opposing Aizu perspective.
Free – booking recommended