About the Author
Takashi Matsuoka was born in Japan and raised in the United States. He lives in Honolulu, where he was employed at a Zen Buddhist temple before becoming a full-time writer. Cloud of Sparrows is his first novel.
Reading Group Guide
Transporting us to a world of samurai and geishas, ninjas and Zen masters, Cloud of Sparrows
is a mesmerizing saga of nineteenth-century Japan. Published to worldwide acclaim, Takashi Matsuoka’s debut unites a fascinating cast of characters, including the prophetic Lord Genji; his infamous lover, Heiko; and American missionary Emily Gibson. When foreign ships threaten to destroy the Shogun’s homestead near Edo Bay, Genji’s closest circle must flee to the spectacular Cloud of Sparrows Castle, a journey bristling with danger and spies. Making their way through the snow-covered landscape, the anxious band of swordsmen and spiritualists must face Genji’s most controversial prophecy. Cloud of Sparrows
evokes powerful scenes of wonder and sorrow, secrecy and revelation, vengeance and love. The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Takashi Matsuoka’s Cloud of Sparrows
. We hope they will enrich your experience of this captivating novel.
CLOUD OF SPARROWS
An Epic Novel of Japan
1. The novel opens with Heiko’s point of view. In what way do her artful seduction rituals set the tone for Cloud of Sparrows?
2. Cultural definitions of beauty initially cause Genji to have disparaging thoughts about Emily, though in America she was considered to be dangerously attractive. Discuss the significance and symbolism of the primary characters’ outward appearance.
3. Jimbo embodies both East and West perhaps more than any other character in the novel. Does his former life—an identity he risks everything to escape—mirror his role in Japan at all?
4. Hierarchies of power drive much of the plot, especially between shogun and lord, man and woman, abbot and monk. What does it take to acquire power in the novel’s society?
5. In terms of philosophy as well as practice, what spiritual distinctions become evident among Genji’s followers and the missionaries?
6. While Genji and those loyal to him focus on his predictions for the future, Emily and the other Americans are troubled by brutal memories of the past. In what way does their time together enable both groups to resolve these haunting images?
7. Shigeru, Genji’s uncle, adds an element of deadly disorder to a way of life that otherwise seems precisely organized. Why is this significant in terms of Genji’s genealogy? What is represented by Shigeru’s vision of swarming metal dragonflies?
8. Mary Anne and Heiko work in essentially the same profession. Do they follow the same protocol? What brings them to such vastly different fates?
9. In your opinion, who are the novel’s true heroes and heroines? What is the motivation for its villains?
10. Discuss the differences between Genji and the other powerful men who have dominated Emily’s life.
11. The title of the book reminds us of the reverence for delicate beauty that exists alongside raw violence in Genji’s world. Do you believe that western society holds a similar respect for nature’s intricacies?
12. Cloud of Sparrows provides an armchair travel experience along with insight into an important chapter in history. What did you discover about the landscape, political past, and nineteenth-century culture of Japan?
13. What kinds of lives might Emily and Genji have lived had they been raised in each other’s cultures?
14. On page 504, Sohaku tells Jimbo, “It is my karma that requires combat.” What does he mean? How might he assess the karma of the other characters?
15. Compare Japan’s current global role to that of the mid-1800s. What aspects of Japanese and American culture have merged? What caused these assimilations?
16. Does the ending suggest that Emily accomplished the mission that originally drew her to The Star of Bethlehem? What is the effect of the closing lines on page 560, comprising both a benediction and an admonition?