Shinju

Suggested by Brad Nelson • When beautiful, wealthy Yukiko and low-born artist Noriyoshi are found drowned together in a shinju, or ritual double suicide, everyone believes the culprit was forbidden love. Everyone but newly appointed yoriki Sano Ichiro.
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12 Responses to Shinju

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m 14% into this and it’s still going rather well so I’m going to put it on the Bookshelf so we can discuss it, especially because Mr. Kung has expressed an interest in reading it.

    This author certainly has some familiarity with Japanese culture. There’s a stifling formality about it, but it least is a way to maintain order, even if “saving face” seems to be one of the primary driving forces. In our culture where we insult openly and often, this is a strange land indeed in 1689 Japan.

    The current Shogun or Emperor (and I’m not sure at all which he is or what the difference is) has brought an extended and rare period of peace to the land, although it comes at a price. The author describes the city that our principal character resides in. The nobles still have a lot of power, but in many cases their holdings were transferred from ancestral lands to somewhere else. Other methods were used to try to disperse and diminish their power. They had to spend part of the year in the capital and part of the year on their estates. And when they where in one place their families had to stay behind as hostages.

    Taxes and other means were used so that there was less chance that the nobles could easily mount an uprising. Ichiro, the main character, has been appointed as a [i]yoriki[/i] or police commander in the district of Edo — which, I guess, is Tokyo as it was apparently called under the Tokugawa shogunate. He was given the post as a family favor. The other [i]yorikis[/i] are all positions that are inherited, so Sano Ichiro is an outsider. And the Japanese are apparently very good at giving subtle back-handed insults. Ichiro has do endure them regularly.

    The samurai themselves are at the moment mostly out of work (in terms of military service) and thus are going soft and out of practice. Many, because of their education, are filling civil service roles. However the main murder story itself goes, you are getting immersed in Japanese culture of the late 17th century at the very least which is half the work of historical fiction.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The emperor was more of a religious leader, and had no effective power. The shogun actually ran things. Even after the Meiji Restoration, which removed the shogunate, the emperor’s nominal power was limited — but he did at least make the key political appointments.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    The current Shogun or Emperor (and I’m not sure at all which he is or what the difference is)

    A somewhat simplified explanation of the difference would be that a Shogun is a type of military leader at the apex of power in Japan. As I recall, the first Shoguns arose around 1100AD in the Kamakura bakufu (military government). They arose as a result of the continuous fighting which took place in Japan between the various aristocratic families.

    From latest this time forward, Emperors where merely figureheads and did not run the government. The first family of Shoguns came from the Minimoto/Minamoto? family. In 1669, the Shogun would be from the Tokugawa family; probably the grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu the man who was able to stop the continual wars which plagued Japan and concentrate power in himself around 1600. He was the Shogun who had Richard Chamberlain as an advisor.

    The Tokugawa clan was so successful at maintaining the peace that some samurai eventually left the class to go into trade. This is how Mitsui was started.

    The Shogunate was finally overthrown in the late 1800’s and the Emperor was used by less powerful samurai (mainly from around Kyushu and Western Japan) as a symbol to unite Japan and begin the period in which Japan went from a feudal state to a world power. State Shinto was a result and that helped lead to WWII.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m 44% into Shinju. The writing is thoughtful and descriptive. You are immersed in late 17th century Japanese culture. Police commander Ichiro continues his independent investigation of a double-suicide which he thinks is murder. He is doing so against the wishes of his boss and the high-status family of the dead girl involved.

    I’ll give you some details of the story just so you can see whether this one is for you but I’ll try not to give away any major points, although at this point, the murders remain a complete mystery. And given that there are at least 15 books in this series and that Ichiro is the peg that is sticking up that must be pounded down, I wouldn’t be surprised if he dies before this first novel is over and a wider conspiracy is taken up in subsequent novels. He is pushing hard against the boundaries and it seems only a matter of time until he is swatted.

    As it is, Ichiro has ruffled the feathers of his boss and the girl’s powerful father who has threatened to kill Ichiro if he continues to meddle. But it’s become fairly clear to Ichiro that that young man in the supposed double suicide (who he has discovered was a blackmailer) was blackmailing someone in the girl’s family. Details are sketchy and connections tenuous.

    Ichiro has an ally inside the dead girl’s household (her sister). He had received a bit of information from her upon his official (and sanctioned) visit to the dead girl’s parents before his clandestine interview with the girl (who had pulled him aside on his way out) was interrupted. The girl has since been shifted out of the city to some kind of nunnery about 35 stations (as measured in the story) from Tokyo. Normally it is near impossible to get high-born family out of the city because they are basically there as hostages. But palms have obviously been greased. Ichiro suspects there could be quite powerful connections to this whole affair.

    The plot moves on and shows no signs of merely going circular (repeating over and over again the same basic shtick). Ichiro heads (north?) toward the nunnery housing the talkative sister under the guise of visiting a shrine to make offerings for his father’s health. He suspects he’s being followed and, given that his boss easily relented to his 5-day hiatus with the stipulation that Ichiro take his clumsy secretary, he suspects his boss knows that his real task is to try to get another interview with the sister. He suspects his secretary has been forced upon him as condition of his leave in order to act as a spy.

    And that’s where I have left it. The story is full of appropriate historical detail woven into the plot mostly seamlessly. It’s interesting to learn the various provisions the reigning Shogun has made to make it difficult for anyone to mount a rebellion. The only wheeled carts allowed on the roads, for example, are government ones. This is in order to prevent the moving of guns and other equipment by third parties.

    To go from Tokyo to his destination, Ichiro and his secretary (both on horse because Ichiro is a samurai…all others of lower station must walk) must go through various toll booths where government officials check to see if everyone’s traveling papers are in order. An old lady ahead of them is being given a particularly long interview and is holding up the line. Ichiro explains to his underling yute that officials are very careful that the various Lords do not try to smuggle their women out of Tokyo (Edo) where their hostage status is meant to keep the Shogun’s underlings loyal to him on their far-flung estates.

    It’s interesting how prostitution seems to be a central aspect of society, or at least of this book. Prostitutes are forbidden in the little village near a toll booth that Ichiro has decided to spend the night at. But they operate under the guise of “hostesses.” Seemingly the samurai are some of their biggest customers.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m now 60% into Shinju. It’s still a good read but it has two minor flaws:

    1) The motivation for Sano Ichiro defying authority and putting his family name at risk (not to mention his own life) seems thin. I don’t know if this is the pitfall of a woman writer trying to do male characters, for it is often said in the reverse that men can’t possibly do female characters. This guy is a samurai, a hired gun, if you will. He’s used to doing what he’s told, as well as being very conscious of not doing anything dishonorable in the eyes of authority, his position, and tradition. If the motivation was that he was bored to death as a civilian and wanted some action (peace now ruled the land), that would be good. If a brother had once been murdered by a bad cop, that would be motivation for Ichiro to strike out on his own as a cop, to heck with convention, and stick up for the oppressed. But we get none of that. The author tries to paint him as a man driven by a high sense of justice, but that seems painted-on.

    2) Much like in the Blake & Avery novels where Avery is at times made stupid in order to advance the plot, so too does Rowland make Ichiro selectively stupid. He’s staying the night at a roadside inn. He knows he’s being followed by someone who means him ill. The cabin he’s staying in has but a flimsy wooden latch on the door and he knows it. Does he barricade the door in any way before going to sleep? No.

    And not every central character has to be particular noble or heroic. Ichiro certainly has gumption, although it seems superficially added on. And I don’t know what the end result of the plot will be. He could be uncovering something of enormous consequence. But as it is, his defying of authority has left a body count behind him. His meddling has made things worse even while he supposedly remains motivated by a sense of justice, even more so because of the body count he is very much responsible for now. There’s just a bit of a bit of tone deafness by the author as to fleshing out Ichiro’s character. He’s outwardly heroic in action but inwardly seems barren of the character and motivation to do so. We just have to take it for granted that he’s turned into Charles Bronson defying all odds and all authority while he’s driven to right a great wrong. But we just never see this burning fire in him. He’s mostly rather bland.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I finished Shinju last night. I can recommend this book both in terms of the story and in terms of the education you get via a historical novel.

    That said, the main character, Sano Ichiro, seems a little ill-defined. His motivations for his pursuits seem a little thin. And I think it’s entirely unintentional by the author, but Ichiro turns into a bit of a Japanese Inspector Clouseau. He causes all kinds of mayhem for others as he investigates but personally remains more or less untouched. And there is certainly a bit of making him stupid in order to advance the plot.

    There are a couple of well-defined characters in this. One is the Lady Nei (I forget the exact spelling) who is scary in the power she wields in her family. And there’s a good scene where you get into the mind of a high class prostitute, Wisteria. But, unfortunately, her interesting character is abandoned as a more Clouseauian pursuit of the bad guys erupts in what had, more early on, been more of a character study of Japan in the late 18th century, as well as some of the people in those surroundings.

    But these are relative quibbles for a book that is heads-and-tails above the vast amount of mediocrity out there. However, I will be honest and say that, although there are at least 15 books in this series, I’m left with no desire to follow this main character who obviously lives on as the central figure in the next novel. He’s not a dislikable character by any means. But the author tries very hard to paint him as the small and honorable man in search of the truth in a society which honors obedience more than anything. The characterization just doesn’t seem to stick. There is something about the way this character is written (or not written) that isn’t particularly realistic. He seems more a device to drive the plot than a real (if fictional) person.

    I found it difficult to articulate my reservations about the main character. I found a description by a reviewer at Amazon that I think makes a lot of sense:

    I purchased this from a used book store, and though I found it compelling reading enough to finish one lazy Sunday, I have to say that the author has a real problem with imposing Western ethics and thinking on his Japanese characters. She imbues her likable main character with “a burning desire for truth” that somehow compels him to abandon EVERYTHING that she herself tells us, as historical reality and my familiarity with Japan and its history tells me, that he as a member of the samurai class would care most about: reputation, obligation, honor. He has the character embrace a Western idealization of “truth above all else” which is basically what all bad historical movies do: they do wonderful dressing of the sets and characters into period costumes and backgrounds, and then have them mouth 20th century notions. In Sanu’s case, he has this burning compulsion to tell the truth … in a society that will have taught him from his earliest days that it was not as important, maybe even non-existent (as many scholars have pointed out, Japan’s culture never embraced the concept of moral absolutes that so fascinates Western ethics, the idea that something could be right or wrong for every person in every place and every time, so why would Sano have such a love for a concept that should be totally alien to him? It’s never explained.

    This particular reviewer recommends the trilogy, “Jade Palace Vendetta.” Has anyone here read any of those books?

    • Timothy Lane says:

      This is indeed a frequent problem in historical novels, giving characters modern viewpoints. The further you go, in either distance or time, the less likely that is to be reasonable. E.g., you can find 1860s Americans with reasonably modern racial attitudes (though they would be rare), but not 1600s Japanese.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        This certainly is a recurring problem in movies. It’s amazing how accurate (at least to my eyes) they can make the sets and costumes. But there is this inability or unwillingness to try to portray the characters in and of the time they belong to.

        In the case of Sano Ichiro, I could have bought his sudden thirst for truth-for-truth’s-sake had there been a little believable motivation. But there just isn’t any. The Shogun didn’t kill his father. His family was not disgraced by the machinations of some other clan. I could certainly understand a sudden need to assert himself — if only out of boredom — because, as one Amazon reviewer wrote, he’s “…trained as a samurai in an era when the samurai’s main function–warfare–has been controlled and suppressed.” I would believe it if his own daughter had been involved in a double-suicide and he thus had a burning desire to uncover the details of the current one he was investigating.

        Oh, well. Writing a good historical novel is tougher than it looks. And this is the first book in the series so it all might get better in this regard.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I believe I have, more than once, mentioned in these pages that a major lesson I learned while living in Asia is:

      The truth is dangerous.

      Thus it is something that is not carelessly bandied about. One must be judicious with its use.

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