Interview: Miyuki Jane Pinckard, Writer of Umizu
Residents of the city-state of Umizu enjoy their fair share of luck, but good fortune comes at a cost: a season of bad luck that arrives with the yearly monsoon.
By Matt Chapman
Miyuki Jane Pinckard studied pre-modern Japanese history at university, which she describes as “a huge period” in that country’s past. That academic background and her personal experiences of Japan helped her create the Umizu gazetteer, which features in the “Beyond the Radiant Citadel” section of Journeys through the Radiant Citadel. Her Japanese-style city-state takes inspiration from Nagasaki, Osaka, and other coastal cities that she’s visited. These cities often focus on fishing or act as large trading centers, with a lot of people passing through their ports.
“I drew on childhood memories of visiting those places for Umizu’s general vibe. What’s it like to live there? What does the air feel like? Because many parts of Japan are very humid,” she explains. “I also looked at a lot of maps to get a sense of how the city would be organized. That included satellite views to understand the topography, but I also went through a lot of tourist photos to get a sense of the mountains and the ocean.”
Umizu’s status as a fishing community also allowed for extra world building opportunities. Echoing modern-day ecological messages, Umizu has signed a treaty with the tritons that limits overfishing.
“I wanted to suggest that there was this—literal—under current of a potential conflict. While this city might seem extremely prosperous on the surface, especially in its lucky period, there are still opportunities for tension between two culturally different groups of people struggling to live side by side. I thought that would be interesting for players to engage with.”
Steam, Perfumes, and Luck
Much of the information that appears in Jane’s Umizu gazetteer takes inspiration from her studies of Pre-modern Japan, although there are a few exceptions. Steam-powered funiculars (cable railways that travel up and down steep slopes), it turns out, were not a possible transport option at that time.
“As far as I know, medieval Japanese people did not use steam, I just thought a bit of steam punk could be fun,” she admits. “But the concept of expressing gender through fragrance came from a time when elites in the capital were obsessed with personal appearance and perfume.
“These wealthy nobles with nothing better to do would hold competitions to see who could make the best perfume. I wondered how this could be folded in more tightly to the fabric of everyday life and to creative expression. What does the perfume say about you? It’s an opportunity for people to express themselves in a way we’re not typically used to.”
But the concept which truly defines Umizu is that the city-state lives through extended periods of good luck and bad luck. Even this idea has its basis in Japanese history, as Jane recalls a time when beliefs in the region were driven by visits to oracles.
“These periods of seasonal fortune and misfortune are mostly my invention, although they’re inspired by the culture. When you read diaries from the Heian and Nara periods of Japan, from the 8th Century through to the 11th Century, there’s an obsession with luck. Depending on the oracles, there’d be lucky days and unlucky days. I wanted to blow that way out of proportion and see what happened,” she says.
“Diarists would write that they wanted to visit a friend, but they couldn’t because the west is an unlucky direction today and that friend lives to the west. In modern times, we might think these people are overly superstitious. But that’s a little dismissive as this was part of how they ordered their lives. It’s similar to the way we’d acknowledge that there’s going to be rain today and put off doing something until the day after.”
The seasonal bouts of good fortune and bad luck also help build a strong sense of community in Umizu. The people pull together despite their conflicts in the bad times, and benefit from a sense of renewed enthusiasm in the good times.
“They especially band together during that season of bad luck, when people need to weather this weird experience. That’s followed by an exuberance during the period of good luck, when people make bold moves and take risks.”