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Mystery in Ancient Japan (Part 1 of 2) March 26, 2007

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.

(First of two parts.)

There is something about Japan that manages to inspire the imagination of readers and writers alike. Where fiction is concerned, tales set in the land of the rising sun work best as elaborate stories that explore and demistify the country’s enchanting culture or as thrillers involving sword-wielding samurai. Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha perhaps exemplifies novels of the former variety while Shogun, by the late James Clavell, arguably stands head and shoulders above those of the latter sort.

Although volumes have been written using the country as their backdrop, mystery is the one genre that people least associate with Japan. It is not difficult to conceive of period pieces set in Japan, nor tales of science fiction, horror and even romance. The whodunit, however, is a different matter altogether.

Fortunately, two highly regarded and capable authors have seen fit to leave their mark in this literary niche. Both have taken the trappings of the usual mystery novel and applied them to a Japan of bygone eras. In so doing, readers are introduced to detectives of an altogether different variety, cast from a mold clad in kimonos and topknots instead of the iconic bowler hats, spyglasses or monocles. Although much has been made of the fact that the two offer characters and stories that are but mirror images of one another, beyond the immediate similarities lie nuances that will appeal to readers of decidedly different persuasions.

First there is Laura Joh Rowland, whose debut novel Shinju was the beginning of a series featuring a new kind of hero-cum-detective in Sano Ichiro. When readers are first introduced to Ichiro, the ronin is beginning his career in Edo’s police force when he is made to investigate a purported ritual double-suicide (shinju) between a lowly artisan and a woman of privilege. Ever inquisitive and observant, he suspects that not all is as it seems and a murder is being covered up. Consequently, his pursuit of justice pits him against a corrupt bureaucracy and Tokugawa-era Japan’s rigid class structure, which casts his future career into doubt. He perseveres, however; and owing to a service rendered to the Shogun ends up promoted to sosokan-sama — the Shogun’s Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations and People.

The immediate appeal of the Sano Ichiro series lies in the fact that Japanese culture is front and center in the different crimes that inform each mystery. For instance, in Shinju it is the ritual double-suicide that spurs events into motion, whereas in the immediate sequel, Bundori, assassinations by beheading and the subsequent use of the victim’s heads as war trophies are the crux of the matter. Obviously these are more extreme examples, but even in the finer details Rowland evinces an understanding of the subject she is writing about, and thus Tokugawa Japan and the period’s underlying bushido culture spring to life before readers’ eyes.

There are two problems inherent to Rowland’s style that blemish its overall novelty, though. One, Rowland has a tendency to “over-sell” Ichiro’s finer qualities. Akin to the manner Tom Clancy would build up Jack Ryan as protagonist par excellence, Rowland does the same for Sano Ichiro almost to the point of absurdity. Ichiro is repeatedly depicted as more of an academician than a bureaucrat or keeper of the peace, and much of each novel involves his inner struggle between living up to his ideals on the one hand and honoring obligations borne of familial ties, political association and social mores on the other. Admittedly, this adds an additional layer of complexity to the storyline; however it is implemented quite poorly on the whole. Thankfully, there is a marked improvement in the use of this device between the first and second novels in the series (and one would presume in the remaining installments as well).

The second problem is an even greater matter of taste than the first: Rowland tends to pepper her stories with sexual scenes that are not just explicit but largely unnecessary. Certainly this is not as graphic as some other reading material out there, and should come as no surprise to those familiar with Japanese culture of the late 1600’s. Yet it is doubtful whether such contribute anything to the story that could not have been added in a much more subtle manner. Whether these detract from the enjoyment to be had from Rowland’s work as a whole is something for individual readers to decide.

(To be concluded.)



1. Sidney Raphael - March 26, 2007

A few years ago there was a regular tv series (in Japanese as I recall) about a Japanese detective set several centuries ago. The series was aired on the Fujisankei Network, which at the time was a free channel on New York cable tv. Darn, I can’t recall the detective’s name (a serious senior moment, sad to say).

The series established two things in my mind (I am an American living with a Japanese):

1. The Japanese had regular police forces in big cities many centuries before Europe. The first European police force, as far as I know, was in London, and was founded by Robert Peel — thus the name ‘Bobbies’ in England, and the name ‘Peelers’ in Ireland. By the time Peel came around, Japan was way ahead in this department.

2. There is a Japanese literature base (probably going back several centuries, but I’m not sure of this) of detective stories. A literate Japanese person can probably fill you in on the details.

Good luck with your blog!


2. Sidney Raphael - March 26, 2007

The detective in the tv series was named Heiji. He had a long family name, which might come back to me in a while……I think it ended in ‘gatori’

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