Character Interview: Stephanie R. Sorensen’s Toru

(Kelly was written by Kelly Blanchard. Toru was written by Stephanie R. Sorensen.)

Kelly looked up uncertainly, her gloved hands already grasping the sturdy rope ladder dangling down in front of her. From several dozen feet above her, a trio of smiling faces looked down from the gunwales of the great dragon dirigible. The airship floated serenely above them, dark against the bright morning sky. Toru, she supposed, was the quiet looking one on the right. He was gesturing for her to begin the climb. Masuyo shouted down, “It’s not as hard as it looks! I had to do it in kimono!”

She sighed and scrambled up, glad she had heeded their advice to wear practical clothing

At last she reached the top, and a friendly Jiro helped her over the edge

She straightened her outfit, tucking her hair back neatly after her exertions and turned to Toru. He extended his hand for a handshake, and said, “We’ll chat in the Captain’s stateroom. This way, please.” The others bowed and waved to her and returned to their tasks on the ship.

Toru showed her into a small but gleaming room, with tatami mat floor and some cushions by a low table. “May I offer you some tea? Was your ride strenuous—we can provide a simple breakfast. Jiro is proud of his galley and serves great food.”

“We sure appreciate you making the journey all the way up here to the north. We are hunted down in the capital, so the only safe way to meet you is here.” Toru poured tea for her and offered her a small delicate cup of steaming jasmine tea.

Kelly looked around the room, taking in her setting, but then she lowered herself to the floor and smiled at Toru. “Tea would be wonderful, yes. Thank you. So, why are you being hunted in the capital?”

Toru rubbed the back of his neck as he answered. “As a foreigner, you may not know this, but our Shoguns have forbidden the return of anyone who visits foreign lands, on punishment of death. I spent two years in America, and then compounded my crimes by bringing back a lot of foreign technology, and other forbidden items, like a Bible. So I was condemned to death about three months ago. They are supposed to remove my head in about a week, but Lord Abe helped us escape last night. Don’t tell anyone, or he’ll be in a boatload of trouble too. He’s the Shogun’s chief minister.”

“Oh, not to worry. I won’t be speaking with anyone else, so you’re safe.” Kelly gifted him with a warm smile. “Although that policy is very odd. You’d think they would want things brought in from foreign lands, like technology, to help further them along. Has it always been this way?” She furrowed her brows, puzzled, as she tilted her head to a side.

“Thank you for your discretion.” Toru bowed to her, underlining the gravity of the situation, his welcoming smile vanished for the moment. “Well, Lord Abe and many of the other lords of the Council feel the same way, which is probably why I still have my head. They’ve been arguing over the matter for a decade now. The rule of isolation, of “sakoku,” goes back 250 years. The first Tokugawa Shoguns didn’t want Christians or other foreigners interfering in Japanese affairs, so they killed all the Christians and threw all the foreigners out of the country. And decreed that no Japanese should leave and come back. Probably seems pretty strange to you, but it made sense for a long time.”

Kelly considered this and shrugged. “In a way I suppose it could make sense, but only for a period of time. Eventually though things must change.” She looked at Toru. “Are you that change?”

Toru laughed, a short bark. “Why, yes, I suppose I am. My father has long thought-“  He stopped and busied himself with the tea things.

“Has long thought what?” Kelly wanted him to finish.

“Never mind. It’s nothing.”

Kelly looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping. Once she was certain they were completely alone, she fixed her eyes on him. “I don’t believe you. It’s not nothing, and I would like to know what it was.” She was being gentle as she said this. “You may speak your mind here—even if no one else out there knows the truth. I won’t breathe a word of it to anyone. Consider this a unique opportunity for you. I am a stranger, and you will never see me again after today. I would like to hear what you have to say.”

Toru got up and opened the door to their small room, looking up and down outside to see if anyone was there. Satisfied that no one was nearby, he returned to his seat. “You really cannot tell anyone. Jiro suspects, but knows better than to ask. And Masuyo and Lord Aya and Lord Tomatsu–they cannot know. This truly must be between us.” He waited for her to nod approval to his terms.

“Of course. You have my word I will say nothing to anyone.” She nodded.

“Let me tell you about my Grandfather, Shigehide. He was fascinated by the foreigners, always secretly buying foreign books and foreign clocks and small mechanical devices, and drawings of foreign equipment. His lands border on the southwest shores, and so smuggling was a bit easier for him, for his lands are far from the capital and the Shogun’s men.” Toru paused to take a sip of tea. “And my father, too, is fascinated by the foreigners, and has been all my life. But now it is not a hobby–our nation is in real danger. And so—and this is the part you must not tell—I was not shipwrecked at all, but sent by my father to learn about the Americans, their ways, and their technology. I-I want to make him proud. But the challenges are great. And no one can know that I am his son. So…and I don’t want to appear weak before you…but it is very hard sometimes.” Toru straightened as though the fight the weakness in his words.

Kelly sat back as she listened to his words, and she let them all sink in and pondered them. “I don’t think you’re weak—not at all.” When he looked at her, she offered him an encouraging smile. “You’re doing something very dangerous, and few truly understand the risks involved or why. A weak man wouldn’t have returned to Japan but stayed in America because that would have been easier, but you’re here.” She motioned to him standing in front of her. “And that takes great strength, but sometimes it’s tiring being so strong all the time, isn’t it?”

Toru answered briskly, ashamed at the weakness he had exposed. “I’ve been very fortunate in my friends. Lord Aya and Lord Tomatsu are risking their necks along with mine, although they could have just sent me to be executed when Lord Aya found me landing on his shore. And Jiro and Masuyo and Saigo, too. They are in the fight with me, so I must not complain.”

“You’re right.” She nodded. “You have been very fortunate indeed, and it is good to keep that in mind, but it is all right to take a private moment every so often to step back.” But then Kelly decided to shift the topic of the conversation. “So, what was your time like in America?”

Toru visibly relaxed and shot her a big grin. “You are American? Or British? I loved my time in America. First, it is so BIG! Immense, unimaginably big. And the people, they are in such a hurry, all starting businesses or clearing new fields or building huge roads and railroads and canals. So active, so loud. But exciting, and young and promising. It is a far different world than the small village where I grew up!”

Kelly smiled. “Yes, I’m American. I’m glad you liked it. So where did you stay when you were there? Did you have friends there?”

“The people were very kind, always wanting to show me their country. Yes, I would say I had friends there, many. That is why it is so important that we open the country. We can have the Americans as real friends, or as fierce enemies. And having seen their land and their energy and their might, I know which I prefer.”

Kelly nodded. “Honestly, I hope you succeed because…well, the way things play out in my world, I hope that doesn’t happen here.” But she wasn’t going to talk about that. “So what did you do in America? I’m assuming you worked with people who had access to technology.”

“Mostly traveled around. The ship captain who brought me to America had many friends, and he introduced me to them. I stayed with governors and blacksmiths, farmers and newspaper editors. I saw the mountains in the West, the cotton fields in the South, the great cities of the East. I went to factories and schools and churches, and studied every night, trying to learn the English. I hope my accent does not bother you,” he said in perfect English, with a slight Boston accent.

“Oh, your English is wonderful,” Kelly reassured him with a smile but then leaned forward. “So what was life like before you went to America?”

Toru smiled again, relaxing even more. “I grew up in a small fishing village in the west, Iwamatsu. It’s close to…” He thought for a moment and laughed. “It’s not close to anything, and no one ever goes there. But it is a great place to be a boy. My friend Jiro and I got into constant trouble, and all the mothers in the village would scold us, a whole chorus of scolding mothers. But there wasn’t anything really bad we could do, just pranks really. It was a beautiful place, nestled against the mountains, with views of the western sea, and forests and rivers and fields to play in. Sure, everyone was poor, but we all looked after each other.” He sat back, still smiling at some memory.

“What’s your favorite memory of that time?” Kelly smiled, seeing how relaxed he was.

Toru grinned, his face handsome when animated. “I really shouldn’t tell you.” He laughed, barely able to contain himself. “It’s too silly to explain really. Jiro borrowed, well, stole a barrel of old man Tanaka’s sake, freshly made, before it was ready. And we, several of us boys, drank it up, in one night. And we all got terribly sick, and were too weak to crawl home. Old Tanaka found us there, clutching his empty barrel. And made us drink a barrel more. It’s taken me years to be able to bear the smell of sake.” Toru straightened, serious again. “And I have memories of my mother, and the festivals and fishing with my friends. But that one makes me laugh. I just don’t want you to think we are criminals or something.”

Kelly laughed when she heard this. “Taught you a lesson, didn’t it?” She smirked at him, but then she became serious. “And what of your mother? How would you describe her?”

“That it did, for sure.” He smiled again, and then looked down, suddenly somber. “My mother…she was…she is…she’s gone, you know. I couldn’t find her when I returned.” He looked stricken. “She has never told me about her people, her parents, but she is special. She is the only one in my village who knows how to play the koto. And she can prepare dishes, so delicious, that no one has every heard of in our village. She is our healer, now, and knows about herbs. I cannot explain her, but she is like an exotic flower in our muddy little village that as escaped from some other garden. I know every son thinks his mother is special, but mine really was. Is.”

“I’m sorry she was gone when you came back,” Kelly said softly. “What is your favorite memory of her though?”

“I remember a night, a full moon hanging low on the horizon, making a silver path across the calm sea under a still starry sky. We had eaten the evening meal, but she did not light the lantern as usual, but instead sat there with me in the dusk, playing her koto. And then she began to sing, in a foreign language, a sweet haunting song. I am a man and men don’t cry, but if you heard this song, you would weep with longing. She sang it that evening, and I remember wishing the moment would never end. She would not explain it to me, other than to say it was customary for her people to sing this song when the moon was full.”

Kelly smiled. “That is lovely. Treasure that memory—always. Now though, I understand your father is a nobleman. Did she ever talk about him to you? Did you know, growing up, that you were his son?”

Toru stiffened. “We never spoke of him when he was not with us. I don’t know why, come to think of it, but it was always that way. She always knew when he would be coming, and would take a few extra pains with the tidying up and her hair, and perhaps buy a special fish at the market for our dinner. And when he would leave, he always took me with him, and she would have my bag packed and ready for the journey. I knew I was his son, but not his real son, a son of Lady Shimazu. He provided for my mother and me, and he made sure I was educated, to read, to write, do sums, and know our history and geography, and trained in riding and swordsmanship and tactics. But it was hard visiting his great castle, where Lady Shimazu would make sour pickle faces at me as I sat at table with the family, and her servants treated me as lower than a servant. My father never intervened, except to insist that I sit with the family and do my lessons, even if I was being mocked by the servants. It–it was a relief to come back to Iwamatsu each time. My father was a great man, but not a kind man, if you understand what I mean. I knew he cared, for both me and my mother, but the walls and limits were also very clear.”

“And now?” Kelly raised her brows, sitting back to regard Toru. “How have things developed now that you’ve returned?”

“I’ve been back for a year, and he has still not reached out to me directly, although he knows I am back in Japan. Before I left, he swore me to secrecy, saying it would be dangerous for both him and for me if my true birth were known.  He’s right, of course, but that doesn’t make it any easier. He’s done things to show he cares—my horse, my swords, land to support me, his demand that Lord Aya make me a samurai in exchange for his support in our efforts–but could he not send me one message directly and secretly to me?” Toru looked both sad and angry, his young face twisted in an open display of the agony he felt. “Someday, if I live long enough to be a father, I will treat my children differently.”

“When the time is right, I am certain your father will speak directly with you, and hopefully the two of you can form some kind of relationship though I know he will always be looking over his shoulder and worried about appearances. That is unfortunate. However, as you said, at least you know what kind of father you wouldn’t want to be and that you want a strong relationship with your children in the future.” Kelly smiled but then lifted her hand to tap on her chin in thought. “And that brings me to Masuyo. Describe to me the first time you saw her.”

Toru laughed, his face brightening again. “I didn’t see her, for I had a half a dozen men pressing my face to the ground, and she was kneeling behind a half opened door while her father was busy sentencing me to death. I heard her first. Her voice was lovely, low and soft, like a burbling stream, or the sound of a spring wind in the trees. Remember I had just landed a few hours earlier, and had not heard any Japanese for two years, except for the angry voices of the men who had arrested me. She pleaded for me to be allowed to visit my mother before my execution. It is probably due to her that I am still alive.”

“And then what happened? Obviously you were allowed to get up. What was your first thought when you saw her?” Kelly’s eyes sparkled as she leaned forward.

“Oh, I got dragged off and thrown into a stable and tied up before I saw her, actually. I fell asleep, and when I awoke, she was standing there, in the early morning dawn, reading my journal from my time in America. I was lying down, and she looked so tall, taller than many men! And so beautiful, as beautiful as her voice, radiant there in the midst of the straw and animal smells of the stable. At that moment, I didn’t care about anything except looking at her. I was very glad to be home!” Toru smiled, a smile of deep happiness.

Kelly chuckled. “And you love her?” She raised her brows although it was obvious. “Does she know?”

Toru blushed a bright, deep, vivid crimson. “We don’t speak of love. She is a lord’s daughter, I cannot have such thoughts.”

“But that doesn’t mean you don’t think it.” Kelly pointed out. “If you could have your way, if anything were possible, what would the future look like for you?” She tilted her head as she sat back to listen.

His face softened, although it remained a vivid red. “My friend Saigo teases me about marrying her. That I would, were it possible. If she would have me, that is.”

“I’m not just talking about you and her though that is part of it, yes,” Kelly said softly with a smile. “But Japan…what kind of future would you wish for your land? For the family you hope to one day have?”

Toru leaned forward, the red ebbing from his face, as an eager intensity returned to his expression. “For my land? I would have everyone learn to read, as my friend Jiro the blacksmith has, and learn to be teachers and engineers and designers and master all the crafts and skills our land needs to begin to grow and develop again, like the eager Americans. I would have us be a great trading nation, sharing the beautiful creations of our people with all the world. I would change society so that Masayo and all the other women could pursue their dreams too…” He trailed off, imagining all the many facets of his vision for Japan.

“It may yet come to pass,” Kelly encouraged him with a kind smile. “Whatever you do, don’t give up—no matter how frightening or difficult or tiresome it is. Never forget your dream. Never forget that vision, and I hope you the very best.” But then Kelly sighed and rose to her feet. “And unfortunately, my time here has come to an end. Thank you though for chatting with me and answering my questions.” She smiled at him.

Toru stood, opening the door for her. “Jiro and Masayo are at the table in the galley. They’ve prepared a farewell basket of food for your journey. They wished to say goodbye to you as well. Thank you for your time, and for making this journey to meet us. Please be safe on your journey back to America.” He bowed, suddenly a bit formal and distant again, and then escorted her to the prow of the ship where she could see the Japanese countryside below. “Farewell, Kelly!”

“Goodbye, Toru.” Kelly bowed to him as well, look at the land below, but then turned to leave.


Stephanie R. Sorensen’s book, ‘Toru: Wayfarer Returns’ is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble (Nook), Kobo and iBooks. Be sure to check it out!




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