Dr Stephen Turnbull

School of Theology and Religious Studies

Summary: Stephen talks about his aim to publish 100 books and explains where his interest in Japanese culture and religion stemed from!

You're a leading expert on Japanese culture and religion - how did that come about?
It started when I was a little boy making model soldiers and I was fascinated by the Samurai warriors. Later on I took up judo when I was at university and decided to research who the Samurai were and what they did. When I began my studies, interest was unheard of in those days, particularly it being relatively soon after the Second World War, and I more or less had the field to myself. I remember asking to see a library book about Japan, and the last borrower had been nearly 40 years ago!

The first time I went to Japan it was 1970 and took me three days to get there and another three to get back, going across Russia in short hops. I was there for six weeks and came back home with all this fascinating information, almost as if I'd been to the moon! I've been going back ever since and now visit once a year usually for a research project.

What have you done with all the knowledge about Japan that you've amassed?
I teach a module called Samurai and the Sacred which is always very popular - this year I have 99 students. I've also written lots of articles and over 70 books - mostly popular books, rather than academic texts - and have advised film-makers such as the BBC and the Discovery Channel. Although my main specialism is Japanese religion, I've also studied Chinese and Korean history and military history in general.

Last year you were in Hollywood - very glamorous! - what were you doing there?
I've was asked to be historical adviser on a new film that's being made starring Keanu Reeves. The producers wanted it to be as historically and culturally accurate as possible, so they consulted me - which was incredibly exciting!

The film is called The 47 Ronin and is based on a legendary event in Japanese history which involves a siege of a castle, mass suicide and ghosts! The 47 Ronin - or leaderless samurai - took revenge and killed a court official who was responsible for the death of their master. For this crime they were all sentenced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). The story has become an important part of Japanese folklore and culture. Just a few years after the 1703 event, plays about it were being performed and the legend has now been the subject of more than 90 films. It's incredibly popular and crops up in all kinds of ways; the best thing I've seen was a towel with the 47 Ronin depicted in the guise of Hello Kitty!

How was your visit to Tinseltown?
I was very impressed with the professionalism of the people working on the film. I met set designers, stunt coordinators and scriptwriters, and even got to meet Keanu Reeves. He was a very nice, intelligent man who seemed fully involved with the process. He asked me questions about the legend and summed it up by saying: "So, basically, these guys became great heroes in Japan because they kicked ass" - which is more or less true. He was also kind enough to sign my DVD box set of The Matrix!

So, what can we expect from the film?
It's due for release in autumn 2012 and I honestly haven't got the faintest idea what will be on screen. I did have some input into the script but it seems the script-writer is the least important person in the whole process and things get re-written, re-written again and then re-written a bit more! I do know that the director, Carl Rinsch, has got an excellent visual sense and I think the film will look amazing. They're also bringing in some fantastic creatures into the story - computer generated - which are based on beasts in Japanese religion and mythology, so that will make a really exciting evening's entertainment.

I'm very proud to be part of the project - I really think it will make the Japanese film industry intensely jealous and furious because they didn't think of it first!

What's your most frequently asked question?
Why are you interested in Japanese culture?

Is there a Samurai skill or character trait that you'd like to have?
No, not really. I've been fascinated by them for 45 years, it's almost my life's work, but I don't really find much to admire about them.

Who would you take with you on a delicate diplomatic mission?
I can think of several people, but they're the kind of people who would rather stay out of the limelight so I won't name them. Many people who work in those situations prefer to put themselves into the background, which I think is as it should be.

What about the future - have you got a major ambition?
I've published 69 books and they've been translated into many languages including German, Dutch, Japanese, Korean and Chinese. At the moment I've got several other writing projects on the go, so my aim is to publish 100 books!