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Sunday, Nov. 17, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

NO NINJA, NO GEISHA

But no shortage of shocks and intrigue


Author Peter Tasker talks to Mark Schreiber about his latest novel, "Dragon Dance," a thriller set against the backdrop of U.S.-East Asian relations in 2006.

I was surprised to see that you shifted from mystery stories to international intrigue. Is there any particular reason for the change?

Well, the idea comes first, then the genre follows. I was thinking about the Japan-China-U.S. nexus, which is going to be so important over the coming 20 years. Most people who follow these things are just extrapolating the past, but it should be fertile ground for shocks and intrigue. Then I was thinking about nationalism -- is Japan going to turn to the right, now that the economy is no longer a source of pride? Then you have the possibility of a U.S.-Japan rupture -- how could it happen, who would benefit, who could make it happen? Somebody had to write this story, so I reckoned it'd better be me.

Did you find writing "Dragon Dance" more difficult than the earlier novels? If so, why?

Yes, it was. One problem was that as I was writing it, things kept happening in the real world that echoed the plot. First (Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi became wildly popular and sponsored a CD of Elvis songs, then Fusako Shigenobu, the leader of the Japanese Red Army, was arrested in Osaka. And then there was 9/11, which was close to one of the episodes in the story. Actually I thought about cutting that section on grounds of taste, but in the end I decided to keep it. The bigger challenge was with the genre and tone. It's an international thriller, but I wanted to bring in some elements of satire, manga-like exaggeration, and so forth. Also the lead character is a woman, which is a new challenge -- more difficult to write than a Japanese man, for example.

In terms of communicating with readers who are not familiar with this part of the world, what do you think are some of the most daunting pitfalls of setting novels in Japan and/or Asia?

The biggest problem is appealing simultaneously to people who know the culture well and those who don't. What's a cliche to someone who has been in Japan for a long time may be an interesting insight to the general reader. Then there's the temptation to exoticize, which has to be resisted. If you don't have credible characters with comprehensible motivation, you're going nowhere. I particularly dislike that 1970s ninja-in-the-Ginza stuff that made Japan look like it's on a different planet, full of samurai with supernatural powers and nymphomaniac geisha and the like. The place is fascinating enough taken straight.

Aside from the similarities between your Australian media baron and Rupert Murdoch, there was something vaguely familiar with certain characters in the story. Were any of them based loosely on actual people?

As it happens my wife is a journalist, though she doesn't have the karate skills of the main character, thankfully. None of the characters is based on a single person, though sometimes I bring together traits from different people. For the middle-aged rocker, I was thinking of 1980s stars like (Eikichi) Yazawa and (Tsuyoshi) Nagabuchi, somebody who could be a Japanese Springsteen. For the songs, I pastiched well-known Western pop and protest songs since actual Japanese pop lyrics are rather fuzzy and abstract.

Why did you choose a foreign female journalist as your book's protagonist?

Until now I've had Japanese lead characters, but this story needed a strong foreign character to highlight the main themes. At the political level there's nationalism and cultural chauvinism, a country defining itself by its separateness from the rest of the world. But on the personal level there's cultural fusion -- via boy-meets-girl, which is the strongest binding force that exists anywhere. I made the woman an archetypal foreigner, someone who has really nowhere in the world to call home. The downside and upside of globalization -- that theme is buzzing away in the background, not too obtrusively, I hope. It's supposed to be entertainment, not an Op-Ed.

Ultimately, is "Dragon Dance" a story about Japan's decline, China's emergence as a force to be reckoned with in East Asia, all of the above, or something else entirely?

That's the premise. Using the near future setting gives me some license to shock and exaggerate. After the Asian crisis the geopolitical map has changed, with Japan in paralysis and China growing by leaps and bounds. Historically these transitions are rarely managed smoothly.

I especially liked the part where you had a policewoman take a risk to assist a foreign reporter obtain information. Are you yourself aware of situations where a Japanese official went out of his or her way to provide a foreigner with this kind of inside information?

It happens, to my knowledge. I think some officials feel easier dealing with an outsider without a particular ax to grind. And these days almost every organization has a whistle-blower, someone who is rightfully distressed by the standard modus operandi and resolves to do something about it.

Do you enjoy reading fiction set in Asia? What are some of your personal favorites?

I can't think of any novels, but I enjoyed the movie "Jubaku" and there's a great manga series called "Sanctuary," which was very far-sighted about Japanese politics. In terms of genre fiction that does justice to a foreign culture, Michael Dibdin's "Aurelio Zen" series is top-class. I'm no expert on Italy, but his take on the culture and people is absolutely convincing. You can almost smell the pasta.



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