Worldbuilding: What Everybody Knows That Isn’t So

Sometimes everyone in a setting “knows” something that turns out to be flat-out wrong. The world is flat, disease is caused only by evil spirits, sacrificing hearts on an obsidian altar keeps the sun in the sky. And sometimes… everyone knows what’s actually true, but upholds a polite fiction in public so no one has to officially notice and do something about it. No one really wants to do all the paperwork to haul in someone going three miles over the speed limit on the highway, and – very often – no one wants to go to war when trade is much more profitable.

In the 1600s, given trade between China, Japan, the Ryukyu Kingdom, and Korea, this led to the invention of an imaginary country, Tokara.

The Tokara Islands actually exist; twelve small islands in a larger archipelago. Only seven are inhabited today. They have a native pony, and, on two islands, a native pit viper. What they don’t have are a lot of people. But… they existed, and were closer to Japan than Okinawa, which made them convenient for a diplomatic sleight of hand.

Long story short, the Ryukyu Kingdom had been a tributary state of the Ming Dynasty up until about 1609, when the Tokugawa Shogunate invaded and took over. The Tokugawa were not a tributary state of the Ming, very pointedly not. Which made things unexpectedly sticky. First, if the Ming had it rubbed in their faces that a tributary kingdom had been attacked, they’d have to do something about it. Ships, cannons, grand sea battles; very, very expensive to both sides. Second, and maybe worse – if the Ryukyus weren’t a Chinese tributary state anymore, the Ming might cut off trade.

Nobody wanted that.

Obviously face-saving deception had to be the order of the day. Officially, the Ming were not to know the Ryukyu Kingdom didn’t belong to them anymore. Officially, there were no Japanese on the islands. Nope, none, not ever. (They were actually supposed to hide on days the Chinese officials showed up – there were manuals written for it and everything.) And if by some accident someone turned up anyway with a Japanese hairstyle, other odd items, or speaking Japanese? Oh, silly us, that’s a traveler from Tokara! You know, that nation right next door that does a lot of trade with the Japanese, much more than we do? But they’re not Japanese, ha ha, of course not, what would Japanese be doing in the Ryukyus?

(Chinese officials in public: Solemn nod, because Of Course Not. No member of that barbarian nation that didn’t pay tribute to the Heavenly Emperor would dare. Of course not.

(Chinese officials back on the boat: Whew, crisis averted, I really don’t want to lose my head by hinting to the court that we lost control of a tributary kingdom… if the courtiers didn’t get me, the merchants would!)

This apparently kept Europeans believing there actually was a Tokara state until at least the mid-1800s.

I have to admit I find this all amusing in part because I am very bad at tuning in to what “everybody knows”. So this just strikes me as the usual social ridiculousness writ very, very large.

But also in part because this gives me a potentially interesting bit for the isekai, when Jason has to explain where he’s from to anyone who doesn’t know the whole story. He’s a historian with a focus on Early Modern Japan. He would know about Tokara.

So if he goes with “I’m from Tokara”, then anyone in trade or court-associated in Japan, China, or Korea can pigeonhole it into, “Oh, that mess No One Wants To Talk About. Got it. Moving on….”

(Info from various web searches and a very neat bit in Sea Rovers, Silver, and Samurai, edited by Tonio Andrade and Xing Hang.)

16 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: What Everybody Knows That Isn’t So

  1. And occasionally, if someone who doesn’t Get Social Things is paying very close attention, they pick up on things not said. Jason taking refuge in audacity is amazing. The moment everyone hears the word Tokara, everyone else is going to drop it like it suddenly turned into a flaming pit viper. The socially adept know Don’t Go There. The not adept just know Tokara means ‘don’t ask.’

    Which is a true thing! I’ve grown up in an area where if someone responds to “what do you do for a living” with “I work for the government “ you stop asking. I didn’t realize that wasn’t a standard thing, you don’t ask for details people don’t volunteer about their jobs, until my sister moved out of state. Suddenly people kept pushing her for more of what she did. And trust me, that particular sister is in the same boat I am in with social clues.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. *Wry G* I knew people who used to work at Electric Boat. No talking, sure, but there was apparently a spectacular incident of one engineer papering his home walls with old blueprints… Certain People were not happy!

      Also, part of the fun (though likely going to take head-banging research sometimes) is that Jason is a historian with a specialty in early modern Japan. Not Korea. And he’s not in Japan.

      He’s going to need a lot of help from other friendly characters to stay in one piece!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Oh, yeah, people who “work on base.” There’s a subtle difference between people who can talk about it, and people who can’t. And it’s always kinda interesting when somebody can… but it’s usually not the people with the most interesting jobs, unless they’d been retired for thirty years.

        OTOH, that one civilian guy who got his escort services paid by cash advances on his government credit card, so his wife would never see it, and always reimbursed the government. Until he got the bright idea to have his escort-girlfriend get hired as a secretary (without any skills or much literacy!) by his best corporate contractor friend guy’s company. Amazing depths of crud just in the public court filing about the investigation. It would be funny if the guy hadn’t eventually killed himself, after not documenting or leaving alone pretty much every foreign national escort he ever met.

        (If he did kill himself. If he wasn’t actually letting foreign intelligence agencies see his stuff, and got killed to prevent him revealing how much he was compromised.)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The problem is that there might be some polite fiction, but other people actually buy into it.

    “Yeah, sure, the Emperor is granted Heavenly Wisdom, perfect in all ways. Except for that part where he told the Agricultural Minster to make farmers resolve the drought using seawater.”

    “Well, I’m off to order the farmers to use seawater!”


    Liked by 2 people

  3. On the one hand, refuge in audacity, great! But that thing about Tokara seems like the kind of thing only a history buff would know about in that kind of detail. So what’s your isekai’d guy’s reason for knowing something on the more obscure end of history? Ok, yes, the people of the day would have at least some idea of what’s going on there, but how would a guy who’s dropped in from another time know about it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thin he’s a history teacher?

      I’d be concerned about the possible attitudes that didn’t make it into the books.

      Something like “Tokara is a haven for smugglers.”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. For a long time in England, the way to recover a piece of land you had rightful title to was to have John Doe sue the person in possession on the grounds you had leased it to him, he had been evicted violently by Richard Roe, and Richard Roe had let the current person in possession take possession.

    That meant because Doe’s fictitious leasehold was personal property, not real property like your title, you could sue in a different court.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I thought of another one. The Air Force plane that crashed right next to the high school. All the old articles about it say that it’s a certain kind of plane, which it wasn’t. And almost every person in town who had any knowledge of aircraft identification KNEW that it wasn’t that kind of plane. (As well as people in that plane’s program, of course.)

    Which was never even hinted at, until at least twenty years later, at which time you started to hear people carefully muse about how the plane must have been an “unusual modification” of the standard kind of plane, because X and Y really didn’t look the same.

    And then it was declassified, and everybody talked freely.

    Similar things with all the spy satellites.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have to admit: I really like the Tokara state.You keep the trade, avoid setting everything on fire and losing men, material and potentially power in a war and have a convenient way of saying “don’t ask”.

    Sounds like a far better solution than a war.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Whenever I hear the phrase ;”Everybody Knows”, I think of the Leonard Cohen song. However I first got familiar with the Concrete Blonde version, used in the film “Pump Up The Volume”. More poignant, I guess.


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