Shiba Ryōtarō: The Literary Legacy of a Giant of Historical FictionBooks History
A Monument in Books
The Shiba Ryōtarō Memorial Museum lies nestled among a cluster of trees in a residential neighborhood a leisurely, 10-minute stroll from Yaenosato Station on the Kintetsu Nara Line. The facility in Higashiōsaka includes the former residence of the popular author and a museum building designed by acclaimed architect Andō Tadao. If he were alive, Shiba (1923–96) would be 100 this year. I recently visited the museum to learn more about his life and legacy.
A commemorative catalog on display contains a passage by the museum’s director, Uemura Yōkō, introducing the facility. “The museum sits among camphor, Japanese chinquapins, and flowering plants like dayflowers and rape blossom, recreating the feel of a Japanese mixed forest that Shiba Ryōtarō so enjoyed,” writes Uemura. “Designed by Andō Tadao, the museum building’s long, gently curving glass exterior and rows of bookshelves create an ideal space to contemplate the author and his works.”
Just beyond the main gate of the museum stands Shiba’s former residence. A path passes by the writer’s study, which faces a small garden and is bathed in sunlight. The room, where Shiba did his writing, is visible through the broad windows, enabling visitors to see his desk and his personal effects, including a favorite fountain pen and magnifying glass he made use of.
Beyond Shiba’s residence at the far end of the wooded grounds stands the curved museum building. The three-level, glass-walled structure boasts a vaulted ceiling and an imposing bookcase stretching along one wall. Towering 11 meters in height, the shelf contains some 20,000 volumes—with the remainder of Shiba’s personal library, an astounding 60,000 books, stored in his old home.
A Writer with Broad Appeal
The Shiba Ryōtarō Memorial Museum has drawn upward of 26,000 visitors annually since it opened in 2001. Numbers dropped significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Uemura says that foot traffic has returned to about 80% of what it was before the health crisis struck. He notes that visitors from overseas make up a significant portion of ticket sales. “At first, most were drawn by Andō Tadao’s design,” he explains. “But with translations of Shiba’s works being published in North America, Europe, China, Taiwan, and South Korea, we’ve seen more foreign fans of his writing.”
The museum is holding a special exhibition through mid-February 2024 in its basement gallery to mark the 100th anniversary of Shiba’s birth. This event traces the writer’s path from soldier to journalist to author. As a part of celebrations, Uemura held an enlightening talk on the writer’s career.
From War to the World of Journalism
Shiba was studying Mongolian at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies (now the School of Foreign Studies, Osaka University) when in 1943 he was drafted as part of the Japanese government’s expanding wartime mobilization. He served in a tank division in Manchuria for a time, reaching the rank of second lieutenant, before being transferred to Tochigi Prefecture in 1945 ahead of the expected Allied invasion of the Japanese mainland, remaining there until the end of the war. After leaving the army, he joined the Kyoto office of the Sankei Shimbun and headed the press club for journalists covering religious affairs, which at the time was housed within the Jōdo Shinshū temple complex Honganji.
Uemura points to Shiba’s military service as what motivated him to become a journalist. “He wanted to know what had led Japan down such a foolish path as war,” he says. His reporting on religion also stirred him to investigate the role Buddhism and other faiths had in shaping Japanese history. However, Uemura notes another central theme among Shiba’s broad musings: “As a writer, he was deeply interested in getting at the heart of Japan as a nation and the Japanese people.”
Describing his early career, Uemura says that Shiba was in his mid-twenties when he joined the Sankei. He evidently decided to spend 10 years as a reporter, getting a grasp on the ways of the world, before writing his first novel. As a journalist, he contributed to the religious periodical Buddhist Magazine, since renamed Daijō, published by Nishi Honganji Temple, penning short stories under his birth name, Fukuda Teiichi. “In these early works,” Uemura declares, “you can sense Shiba’s distinct style taking form.”
A Commitment to Writing
Shiba was still publishing under his given name when he released his first book, the 1955 Meigen zuihitsu: Sararīman (Notable Sayings and Essays on Salarymen), an exploration of life as a Japanese company employee. He followed this the next year with the novel Perusha no genjutsushi (The Persian Magician), his first work under his now famous pen name. The story gained him broad recognition when in won an award from the well-known literary magazine Kōdan Kurabu, published by Kōdansha.
Uemura, then an elementary school student, says he vividly recalls this period. “Shiba would often visit my parents’ home,” he recounts. “One day, he said that he was going to draw a picture for me. We had some nice paper, so I gave it to him along with some pastel sticks.” Shiba drew an abstract night scene of a single tree on a hill bathed in moonlight. “My mother had it framed and kept in a drawer, but I would sneak a peek at it from time to time.”
After Shiba died, Uemura dug the picture out of storage and was surprised to find a message written by the author on the back. “It read, ‘I drew a solitary tree standing in the darkness before the dawn. May it serve as a sign to be ready for life’s challenges that lay ahead.’ It was dated November 14, 1955,” Uemura recalls. “This was around the time Shiba was writing The Persian Magician. It shows he was in the process of coming to terms with his decision to become a writer, and to me it represents a turning point in his life.” The picture is included in the museum’s commemorative exhibition.
Another memorable event revolves around Shiba’s selection of his pen name. The writer took Shiba in honor of the Chinese Han dynasty historian Sima Qian, using the Japanese reading of the characters for Sima (司馬), and the kanji 遼, pronounced ryō or haruka and meaning “distant,” in deference to the famed scholar. “He came to the house and was musing over whether to use the single-character Haruka for his given name or the lengthier Ryōtarō [遼太郎],” says Uemura. “My mother said that Ryōtarō sounded more natural.” Uemura admits that Shiba was likely already thinking in that direction but allows that his mother might have had a hand in tipping the scale. “It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
Giving History a Voice
Uemura points to Kindai Setsuwa, a self-published magazine known as a dōjinshi, as a key part of the foundation for Shiba’s career as a writer. Shiba started the publication in 1957 with fellow writer Terauchi Daikichi. “They set out to create a truly unique dōjinshi,” Uemura says. “There were no content meetings or criticism of other writers. The focus was purely on the thrill of storytelling.”
In 1958, Shiba’s first full-length novel Fukurō no shiro (Owls’ Castle) was serialized in the Kyoto Buddhist newspaper Chūgai Nippō. The work was published in book form in 1960 and won the Naoki Prize the same year. Terauchi and other contributors to Kindai Setsuwa like Kuroiwa Jūgo, Nagai Michiko, Itō Keiichi, and Kurumizawa Kōshi would also go on to win prestigious literary awards.
The year after receiving the Naoki Prize, Shiba left the Sankei to start his career as a writer. He was prolific in his output, publishing the multivolume Ryōma ga yuku (trans. by Paul McCarthy and Juliet Winters Carpenter as Ryōma!), about the nineteenth-century historical figure Sakamoto Ryōma, in serialized form in 1962–66 and concurrently producing the 1964 Moeyo ken (Burn, O Sword), a dramatized take on the events at the end of the Tokugawa shogunate. These works solidified his reputation for historical fiction and would be followed by the enormous Saka no ue no kumo (trans. by Juliet Winters Carpenter and Paul McCarthy as Clouds Above the Hill), which was serialized in the Sankei in 1968–72.
Shiba was in his late forties by this time, and had refined his approach to the genre of historical fiction. “Shiba relished contemplating history from his own perspective,” Uemura says. Rather than ponder on recent figures, whose legacies had yet to be decided, though, he liked to chew over characters from a century or more earlier. “He said that he enjoyed imagining the thoughts and feelings of a person when considering the events of their life.”
Shiba was discerning in his ruminations, though. “He was drawn to figures living through tumultuous times,” notes Uemura, naming subjects like Sakamoto Ryōma, Hijikata Toshizō, and Kawai Tsuginosuke. “He would carefully consider the individual and the surrounding events, taking a bird’s-eye view of his subject and using historical documents to shape his characters. It was almost as if he was able to commune with famous figures from the past.”
Generations of Fans
Uemura says Shiba saw historic novels as a younger person’s pursuit, even going so far as to declare that writers in their sixties no longer possess the energy required to meticulously research their subjects, with a resultant fall in the quality of their works. Heeding his own words, Shiba later in his career switched his focus to essays on Japanese culture and travel history.
Despite the writer’s concerns about energy, though, it is the vigor of Shiba’s storytelling that draws readers into his novels. Serving as the museum’s director for two decades, Uemura has talked to a diversity of fans and notes a common thread. “People return to Shiba’s works over and over,” he says. “It’s not unusual for a person to say that rereading a work at different points in their life, they pick up on things they had previously missed. Others have said they sought comfort in Shiba’s works during times of strife in their lives.” Frequently, there are multiple generations of fans in the same household.
In 2022, the museum polled some 1,600 people about their favorite novel by Shiba. Uemura says that the vast majority gave detailed reasons for their choices, illustrating the passion of fans. Leading the list was Clouds Above the Hill, followed by Ryōma! and Burn, O Sword. “My hope is that Shiba will continue to be read for years to come,” Uemura says.
A tranquil atmosphere permeates the museum, offering the perfect environment in which to look over the works contained on the sprawling bookshelf and quietly contemplate Shiba’s lasting literary and cultural legacy.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo. Shiba Ryōtarō speaks to the press in Tokyo upon being honored as a Person of Cultural Merit, October 25, 1991. © Jiji.)