Please welcome Susan Spann, author of the Hiro Hattori novels.
Priests, Pastries, and Portugal in Japan
In the mid-1500s, the British had not established a presence in Japan, but the Portuguese had already begun to influence Japanese culture—and history—in several significant ways. And when I set out to write a mystery series set in 16th century Japan, the Portuguese had an influence on me (and the series) too.
I wanted to create a ninja detective, a trained assassin who used his knowledge of killing to investigate corpses rather than creating them. Real ninjas (also known as shinobi in Japanese) were at their height in the 16th century, a fact that also allowed me to share my lifelong love of Japan with mystery readers. Better still, I wanted to make him a fictitious cousin of Hattori Hanzō, one of Japan’s most famous ninja commanders … and Hiro Hattori was born.
That said, I also realized I needed more than just a ninja—I needed a reason for him to start solving crimes, as well as a way to introduce unfamiliar elements of Japanese culture without explaining too much or too directly. Fortunately, every Holmes needs a Watson, which let me give my detective a Portuguese sidekick—Father Mateo Avila de Santos—to act as a cultural filter and a foil.
The original Portuguese delegation arrived in Japan (unintentionally, via shipwreck) in 1543. Shortly thereafter, more Portuguese traders arrived, but the initial shipwrecked sailors introduced an item that had a significant and lasting impact on Japan: the arquebus. At the time, the weapon was also known as a tanegashima, after the island where the Portuguese sailors ran aground.
Although the Japanese were familiar with black powder (gunpowder) and Chinese firearms before the 16th century, guns didn’t have much of an influence until after the Portuguese arrived. The daimyō (feudal lord) of Tanegashima island, a samurai named Tanegashima Tokitaka, realized the power of the arquebus immediately. He bought a pair from the shipwrecked Portuguese traders and hired a smith to reproduce them. By 1555, the Japanese had manufactured more than 300,000 firearms, and although samurai noblemen still fought primarily with swords, and archers remained faster and more accurate than gun-toting marksmen, the firearm’s influence on Japanese warfare grew steadily throughout the following centuries.
The Portuguese influence on Japan wasn’t limited to weaponry; Jesuit leader Francis Xavier arrived in 1549, and other Jesuits followed soon thereafter. Although they came as missionaries, Jesuits frequently adopted Japanese customs, living and working mostly among the samurai elite. I chose a priest for my ninja’s “Watson” because I wanted a pair of characters with radically different experiences and beliefs. To my surprise, Father Mateo refused to remain a secondary character. From the very first novel Claws of the Cat, he proved himself a partner to Hiro—if a culturally-disadvantaged one.
The characters’ relationship has developed more with each new book, and although the series can be read in any order, or as standalone stories, readers will notice Hiro and Father Mateo’s friendship growing with each new novel. The newest installment, Betrayal at Iga, takes them to Hiro’s childhood home in Iga, where an ambassador’s murder brings the ninja clans to the brink of war, and only the combined crime-solving abilities of Hiro and Father Mateo can find the answer in time to save the Iga ryu.
Portugal’s influence on Japan began continues to this day. Fortunately, firearms are no longer prevalent (they’re banned in much of Japan), but the Japanese love of bread—also introduced by the Portuguese in 1543—has grown and blossomed, resulting in a plethora of mouth-watering variations, from savory ham and cheese buns to bean-filled an-pan, cream-filled cakes, and every possible permutation of bread and chocolate—and that is a welcome influence indeed.
Susan Spann has a degree in Asian studies and a lifelong passion for Japanese history, language, and culture. Her first Hiro Hattori / Shinobi Mystery, Claws of the Cat, was a Library Journal mystery of the month and a Silver Falchion finalist for Best First Novel. She lives outside Sacramento, California with her husband, son, two cats, and an opinionated cockatiel. When not writing or traveling in Japan, she practices law, with a focus on publishing and business contracts. Her fifth Hiro Hattori novel, BETRAYAL AT IGA, is available now at IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever books are sold.