Imagining Edo Period intrigue from the U.S.

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

At the climax of “Shinju”(1994), Laura Joh Rowland’s first mystery novel, gallant yoriki (police sergeant) Sano Ichiro rescues the shogun from an assassination plot and earns himself a big promotion. It’s a pyrrhic victory leading to what Sano immediately realizes will be a thankless position that risks not only death, but disgrace.

“And what is this prize position that I’ve achieved,” he mutters, “except a chance for more of the same?”

And more of the same is exactly what Rowland has delivered consistently for the past 20 years. In 17 hardcover appearances in a chronology extending from 1689 to 1704, her steadfast Edo Period investigator, his wife Reiko and his loyal retainers have emerged intact from high-level conspiracies and intrigues — the most recent being “The Shogun’s Daughter.”

That formula has largely followed the pattern established in “Shinju.” Time and again, Sano is invariably ordered, on ridiculously short deadlines, to solve excruciatingly complicated crimes, usually murders. The suspects are too numerous to count, witnesses and informers can’t be trusted, and Sano’s efforts are undermined at almost every turn by powerful arch-antagonist Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, the shogun’s brilliant but duplicitous chief advisor and homosexual lover. Yanagisawa will be satisfied with nothing less than Sano’s humiliation and execution.

But how did a nice Chinese-Korean-American girl from Michigan, living in New Orleans, wind up spinning murder mysteries set in feudal Japan?

“I was looking for a territory that hadn’t been used by lots of other authors,” Rowland tells The Japan Times in a recent interview. “When I started writing, there weren’t many historical mysteries. Also, I didn’t want to write the forensic science stuff that contemporary police fiction requires — it was too much like the lab work I did at my day job in the aerospace industry.”

“My second book contract was a sign that my writing career had legs,” Rowland continues. “After that, I quit my day job. I had limited contact with readers (at book signings, conferences and festivals) until Facebook came along. Before then, the only real evidence that I had a readership was my sales figures and my subsequent book contracts.”

Rowland’s says her interest in Japan was originally kindled by old samurai films that may have inspired the character of Sano Ichiro.

“He certainly has some of the qualities of the men in (the 1954 Kurosawa film) ‘Seven Samurai’ — courage, intelligence, and a sense of humor,” she replies. “But he’s himself.”

When asked whether Rowland relates, perhaps on a subliminal level, to the dramatis personae in her books. Her answer was surprising.

“They’re all me,” she confessed. “Sano, his wife Reiko, even Yanagisawa. Each has aspects of my personality. When I write them, I feel as if I’m putting on different faces, voices, and body language, like an actor in my own one-person show.”

While loath to describe herself as much of a traveler, Rowland did visit Japan — once.

“I thought Japan was beautiful and inspiring, but the modern stuff was overwhelming for a person who was used to old-world New Orleans. Sometimes I had to look hard to find vestiges of the Edo Period.”

With total U.S. book sales of around of 880,000 copies over the past two decades, as well as foreign language editions (“My books are popular in Bulgaria, for some reason”), it seems a bit unfair that Rowland has yet to be accorded a Japanese-language Wikipedia entry.

“I’ve never been interviewed by a Japanese reporter for a Japan-based publication,” she explains. “The Japanese have not shown interest in my series. After my publisher’s agent shopped my first novel to Japanese publishers, I heard that they said they don’t like books about Japan written by Americans because we make too many mistakes. That’s probably true.”

Still, Rowland’s saga does not lack for research. She wisely chose to set it during the reign of Tsunayoshi (1646-1709), the fifth Tokugawa shogun and surely one of the most eccentric rulers in Japan’s history. And Tsunayoshi’s fictional portrayal as a dithering buffoon — dim-witted, superstitious, indecisive and easily manipulated — is not as far-fetched as her novels might seem. Remembered for his exceptionally solicitous treatment of Edo’s stray mutts, Tsunayoshi’s repeated blunders in his choice of a successor — featured in several of Rowland’s books — are a matter of historical record.

Following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans in August 2005, Rowland eventually relocated to New York City. Her uprooting was traumatic, but also provided inspiration for subsequent novels.

“I definitely miss New Orleans, my friends there, and the lifestyle,” she admits. “Since Hurricane Katrina, I can’t seem to get away from natural disasters — Superstorm Sandy (in October 2012) caused big trouble here in New York. As for my work, I’ve written about the Great (Meireki) Fire of 1657 (which destroyed 60 to 70 percent of Edo), and I’ve put Sano and company through the Great Earthquake of 1703. My own experiences found their way into those scenes.”

“I wish I were one of those authors who can shut out the world and concentrate on writing, but I’m not,” reflects Rowland, who describes her typical work day as a “series of interruptions.” “Phone calls, emails, other projects, crises. New York City supplies a lot of distractions. The books somehow get written anyway.”

Looking down the road, does Rowland foresee a happy ending for her dauntless lawman? Will Sano and his sworn nemesis Yanagisawa some day soak in an onsen (hot spring), sip sake and reminisce over the good old days they spent trying to destroy one another?

“Happy ending for Sano, yes,” she promises. “Kissing and making up with Yanagisawa, no. Too much bad blood there. Readers often ask when Sano is finally going to do Yanagisawa in. I don’t want to disappoint them, or myself, or Sano.”