It’s like Game of Thrones, but with ninjas

An island nation torn apart by warring houses, each vying for control of the throne. House O occupies the capital. An old friend of House O, the lord of House T from the north, turns on O and marches to remove him from the throne. On the cusp of victory, the lord of House T is mysteriously assassinated. Following a succession of betrayals and illnesses, T’s fourth son takes over the house. His poor leadership skills and inability to rally his house leads to its total dissolution, as internal factions split off to support neighboring houses. The House of T, long the ruler of the north and favored lord to win the game of thrones fades into the mists of time.

Map of Japan 1572

1572 Japan: It’s Complicated™

An upstart house with less land and troops than any other takes advantage of the ensuing chaos and dethrones the lord of House O, helped by a traitor among O’s ranks who assassinates him in the middle of a crucial battle. House O, long the ruler of the nation’s capital and everyone’s latest favored lord to win the game of thrones, succumbs to this newcomer and the chaos of war rages on for many more decades.

Nobody could fault you for thinking this sounds like something ripped directly from George R. R. Martin’s beloved series.

Growing up in the United States education system, I never learned much about the history of Japan. Or the rest of Asia, for that matter. As far as we were concerned, Japanese history started on December 7th, 1941 and it didn’t start in Japan, but in Hawaii.

I suppose on the one hand, it makes sense for Americans to study the branch of the tree of civilization that led from Africa to the United States of America, and due in no small part to geography, our branch diverged from the Asian branch pretty early on and never really got entangled again until World War II. At least, according to all of my history studies through 12th grade.

Since marrying into a Japanese family, having five biracial children, and spending significant amounts of time in Japan, I started studying the history of the country as well. What I found was fascinating, and I’m convinced more people would fall in love with it as I have if they only knew.

I have all the kids. All of them.

No really, five children.

An especially exciting part of Japanese history is the Warring States period, which stretched from 1467 until 1603. George R. R. Martin drew inspiration for his epic tale of intrigue, deception, war, and betrayal from real-life history–the War of the Roses that ravaged 15th century England. In fact, his map of Westeros looks quite a bit like Great Britain, complete with several major cities lining up rather well (York : Winterfell :: London : King’s Landing). And Japan’s Warring States period is just as full of twists and turns and stunning betrayals and assassinations as anything Martin could dream up. It’s like Game of Thrones, but with ninjas.

While the warlords (the Oda clan, the Takeda clan, and more) were at the forefront of this period of Japanese history, they relied heavily on their soldiers and networks of spies (read: ninjas!). One particular warlord employed the services of an all-female group of ninjas, who operated a bit differently from their male counterparts but fundamentally produced the same results: stolen plans, poisoned water supplies, and dead warlords. When their lord was mysteriously assassinated, however, the entire gang of female ninjas disappears from the pages of history. Completely. Which, in all honesty, is a very ninja-like thing to do.

When I came across this fascinating line at the end of a paragraph in a much larger book about the Warring States period, my mind went wild with stories of what could have happened. Where did all of these girls go? How did an operation of more than 200 strong vanish into the fog of history so abruptly? We only ever knew the name of the leader of this group of ninjas, one Mochizuki Chiyome, and while she was a famous historical figure she, too, disappeared without a trace when Lord Takeda Shingen succumbed to some mysterious illness and died. How did she disappear? Where did she go? What happened to her?

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Not a historically-accurate female ninja.

And that’s where the idea for SISTERS OF BLOOD AND SHADOW came from. Lots of research went into this one. Lots of writing and rewriting. Lots of careful plotting, and as much attention to the actual events of history as I could maintain while still telling an engaging story.

I’m going to continue doing some fun posts on Japanese history in the coming weeks/months. And maybe someday you’ll have a copy of SISTERS in your hands to add some storytelling meat on the bones of history.

Next time I’ll dive into the history of ninjas, with special focus on the kunoichi (the female ninjas). A lot of what you’ve heard is legend, but some of the reality just may surprise you!

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