Worldbuilding: Folk of the Boundaries

Some people make a living out of living on the edge. Between the sea and inland; between the estuary and the river; between the desert and the last green grazing land. Living on the edge takes specific skills and attention to detail. But if you have those skills, you can make a living those dwelling well away from the edge can’t. This can make for interesting lives, and even more interesting stories.

One of the most intriguing edges, of course, is the boundary between two or more cultures. This may or may not be two or more countries. Nomads tend to have mobile nations, and ships from anywhere might show up in a seaport that still belongs solidly to one country….


Some places are a bit edgier than others. Especially seaports, or other major trading centers. Trade happens because people want things they don’t have. When that level of “want” gets to Country A eyeing specific things Country B has, people living on the edge between can get a bit… squeezed.

All kinds of things can happen on a boundary. Crime, espionage, cultural adaptation and adoption. Those last are intriguing, because they can go multiple different directions at once. Cultures may blend into each other, as people from both sides work together, gripe together, and maybe marry and raise families. Or there may be staunch little OurTowns, where people are far more fiercely Culture A than anyone “back home” – in part so they’re not suspected of being a spy for Culture B. Or possibly both in different social settings; acting like A when you’re around A-natives, B with B-natives, and some odd mix when safe at home. Assuming home is safe. Floods, droughts, and other natural disasters can be somewhat prepared for, but you can never be quite sure when another human will start wondering, whose side are you really on?

An example I’ve looked at lately is Tsushima Island; usually claimed as part of Japan, but about midway between Kyushu and the Korean peninsula. The island’s mostly mountains without good farmland, making trade critically important. And trade they did, through centuries of wars, pirates, shogunal politics, Ming and Qing upheaval, and invasions from either China or Japan.

Part of how they made it work was forgery.

No, really. For example, after Hideyoshi invaded Korea, things were understandably tense. Everyone wanted trade restarted; silver from Japan, silk from China, and ginseng from Korea being three of the big items. Yet nobody was going to make the diplomatic first move of sending a letter apologizing for the war. Because that would mean losing face.

So Lord Sō Yoshitoshi of Tsushima forged one, from the Tokugawa shogun to the king of Korea.

Aaaand it snowballed from there. Opening letters. Closing letters. Seals. Side notes. Tsushima and Korea’s Japanese interpreters forged them all, going both ways. Nobody officially noticed, trade restarted, Tsushima and Korean traders prospered.

It worked (as it apparently had in the past under the Ashitaga shoguns, huh), but if it’d been made public, all kinds of trouble could have landed on Tsushima’s doorstep. Apparently that did happen at least once in the 1630s, with a Sō lord going on trial and suffering penalties from the Tokugawa. (Though not fatal ones.) But one of the reasons it worked is that forging the shogun’s and Korean king’s own seals and diplomatic messages was such a blatant abuse of What You Don’t Do that most people couldn’t believe someone would actually do it.

Take this into account. People of border areas may be seen as shifty and untrustworthy by more conventional members of their culture. With good reason.

If you have nations in your world, or even city-states, you’re going to have borders and boundaries. Read up on how they work. Truth can be even stranger than fiction!

Note: Some info gleaned from Japanese-Korean Relations during the Tokugawa Period, a paper by Kazui Tashiro.

8 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Folk of the Boundaries

  1. Impedance is the engineering term describing how energy travels, or fails to travel, through a system.

    So if you have a driving force hitting something, how much does it move?
    Or create noise?
    Or heat?
    Does it push and pull or only one?
    Is there resonance?

    Impedance can be influenced by the materials used, or the shape, or the attachment.

    So a soft, squishy gasket will have a different result than bare metal.

    On the other hand, it tends to be rough on the gasket.
    Especially without regular maintenance.

    The interesting part is that you can apply the same equations to things like social systems or economic systems.

    If you get the inputs and outputs figured out, you can come up with some surprising answers.

    “People would never get into a feedback loop… right?”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Problem with applying the equations to human behavior, human behavior can be or is fundamentally distinct from models of physical phenomena.

      Forex, materials often have no memory, and humans almost always do.

      It is one thing if you are only building models for historical explanation, but folks very often take historical models as predictive.

      Anyway, if you are not malicious towards the group you model, it can look valid. But, Goodhart’s law, etc.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. thank you for including the reference, so much of what is included in your posts and stories is really interesting and I appreciate the ability to go poking around for more on my own.

    going along the same vein, do you happen to remember your source for the reference in chapter 5 of Track of The Apocalypse about how forgiveness develops in and affects civilizations?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Elaborating on being considered shifty….. Folks who have to flip between two (or more) standards of behavior are often considered doubtful because they are— the wrong reaction can seriously mess things up, and it scales with how important the situation is, and how different the standards are….

    For a funny one, my uncle was home on leave and everybody was chatting along and fine, then suddenly everything went silent.
    Slowly things picked back up, didn’t happen again, and dinner finished, he went out to have a beer and talk with the men on teh porch.
    His dad put an arm around his shoulder and asked that he please try to avoid asking his mother to “please pass the f’ing potatoes” in the future.

    They’re shifty, because they’re shifting.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s