Literature / Sano Ichiro
When investigation meets feudal Japanese politics.
Sano Ichirō is a series of mystery novels by Laura Joh Rowland set in 17th century Japan. Sano Ichirō is a dedicated and honorable Samurai from humble origins who has risen to become the Shogun's Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People. As he works his way through these mysteries, he must also navigate the tricky intricacies of the shogun's court, an issue compounded by the weak-willed Shogun Tokugawa and his manipulative Chamberlain, Yanagisawa, who sees Sano as a threat to his own considerable power. Because of his status, each of the mysteries in the books link to some type of court intrigue, usually high-ranking members or relatives of the shogun, and often Sano finds his reputation, if not his life, on the line if he fails in solving them.

Sano has allies of his own, however. Most notable are his wife Reiko, a keen Amateur Sleuth and martial artist who uses her high status to find clues within the social circles of women and other places Sano cannot go without attracting notice, Hirata, Sano's loyal retainer who has developed special martial arts techniques to help him in his work, and Dr. Ito, a doctor "exiled" to Edo Jail with an interest in forbidden western medicine.

While Sano and his family and friends are fictional, many of the characters in the book, particularly the shogun and members of his court, are based on real people, though Rowland does deviate from historical fact later in the series in the interest of plot. Some of the cases deal with supernatural or legendary elements as well, including ghosts and mystical powers. Court debauchery abounds as well, with courtesans and fetishes playing a large role in many mysteries.

Eighteen books were released in the series total. The series officially concluded after twenty years in 2014, putting it firmly in Long Runner status.

  1. Shinjū (1994)
  2. Bundori (1996)
  3. The Way of the Traitor (1997)
  4. The Concubine's Tattoo (1998)
  5. The Samurai's Wife (2000)
  6. Black Lotus (2001)
  7. The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria (2002)
  8. The Dragon King's Palace (2003)
  9. The Perfumed Sleeve (2004)
  10. The Assassin's Touch (2005)
  11. Red Chrysanthemum (2006)
  12. The Snow Empress (2007)
  13. The Fire Kimono (2008)
  14. The Cloud Pavilion (2009)
  15. The Rōnin's Mistress (2011)
  16. The Incense Game (2012)
  17. The Shogun's Daughter (2013)
  18. The Iris Fan (2014)

As it is a mystery series, solutions to the mysteries themselves will be hidden, but as much of the plot revolves around the politics of the court itself, those points will not. So, fair warning, major spoilers below.

Sano Ichirō provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Yanagisawa's parents in particular, but many parents in the series are terrible parents.
  • Acid Pool: Hoshina, in Red Chrysanthemum tries to murder Sano in a pool of lye. Sano manages to take him out instead.
  • Action Girl: Reiko, who was allowed to train in martial arts by her father and often finds herself in a situation where she must fight her way out.
  • Anyone Can Die: With this many swords and murders going around, it should be no surprise a few regular characters have met their end.
    • The Perfumed Sleeve: Senior council member Makino, who is the victim of the crime.
    • Red Chrysanthemum: Hoshina, decapitated by Sano after trying to murder him.
    • The Fire Kimono: Lord Matsudaira, who commits seppuku after being tricked by Yanagisawa.
    • The Ronin's Mistress: Yoritomo, trying to rescue the shogun from being held hostage.
    • The Iris Fan, as the last book, has quite a few.
      • The shogun himself is the victim of an attack that brings Sano back to court; he eventually succumbs to his injuries, though the official cause of his death is measles.
      • Hirata fights against the spirit of General Otani, literally tearing his body to pieces in the process and keeps him from killing Sano.
      • Yanisagawa and Sano finally have it out in a full on battle to the death Sano stabs Yanigasawa and is rid of is rival once and for all.
      • After hearing of his death, Lady Yanagisawa slits both her and her daughter Kikuko's throats.
  • Arranged Marriage:
    • Sano and Reiko, as is typical of the time period. Theirs luckily turns into Happily Married.
    • Arranged marriages on the whole are standard, particularly nobility. Miai, or a meeting to arrange a marriage, also serves as a plot point in several books such as The Way of the Traitor and The Cloud Pavilion.
    • Averted by Midori and Hirata, who actually fell in love with each other before they were married.
    • Also averted in The Iris Fan by Sano's son Masahiro and Hirata's daughter Taeko, who only have each other due to essentially being exiles from the rest of society and desperately want to marry. Then played straight when due to circumstances, Masahiro is forced into a marriage with Yanagisawa's daughter, Kikuko.
  • Artistic License History: From time to time, but most prominently in the final book, The Iris Fan:
    • There is no evidence that Tokugawa Tsunayoshi was ever attacked, and he most likely died from smallpox.
    • Tokogawa Ienobu was not rendered a simpleton by a mystic attack; he was a very intelligent man and a Confucian scholar. Also, rather than be threatened and hated by the shogun's wife, she actually endorsed him to become the next shogun when his eligibility came into question.
    • Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu died in 1714 of unknown causes, and not in 1709 from being stabbed by a court rival. Also, he and his family were never exiled as they were in The Perfumed Sleeve.
  • Ascended Extra: Midori first appeared as a thirteen-year-old girl who just happened to be the little sister of the murder victim in Shinjū. Later became a regular character as she became romantically involved with Hirata and became Reiko's friend.
  • Authority in Name Only: At the end of the series, Ienobu, after suffering severe brain damage due to Hirata's mental attack. He can only answer Sano's commands.
  • Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: Many of the Edo city police, especially after Hoshina is put in charge. Sano cleans things up some, but most of the truly honest investigators remain only in his inner circle.
  • Bastard Boyfriend: Yanagisawa, displayed most strongly in Bundori and The Concubine's Tattoo. He often re-enacts the humiliation he experienced while he slept his way to the top. The trait is lessened greatly after his love affair with Hoshina collapses, when he realizes others are using his affection to gain power in a similar fashion.
  • Batman Gambit: Yanagisawa often plans these, so even if Sano finds the truth it sets him back or causes him even more trouble. Thanks to Sano's persistence for justice, he almost always manages to subvert them, or at least make them to his advantage as well.
  • Beta Couple: Hirata and Midori; their marriage becomes rocky after Hirata dedicates himself to his mystical martial arts training. It provides a contrast to Sano and Reiko's more stable one.
  • Bi the Way: Keisho-in likes to help herself to her son's concubines from time to time.
  • Body Snatcher: General Otani eventually takes over Hirata's body with help from the others in the mystical fellowship.
  • Borrowed Catchphrase: Of a sort, as seen at the end of The Shogun's Daughter. Sano always reminds his son Masahiro of honor and duty at home. He realizes how well his words and lessons have been taken to heart when the Shogun himself recites them back at Sano... words the shogun learned when Masahiro was his assistant in the palace.
  • Bus Crash: Lady Keisho-in dies in the five year gap in-between The Shogun's Daughter and The Iris Fan.note 
  • By-the-Book Cop —> Cowboy Cop: Sano, starts out by following the rules of Bushido strictly and always honoring the shogun's wishes. He starts moving into Cowboy Cop when he befriends Dr. Ito and uses his forbidden Western knowledge to find clues. As the series goes on and those behind the shogun start making things more difficult for Sano to investigate directly, he has to flout his orders to find the truth, usually finding a loophole or way to sneak around and remain in his master's good graces while he carefully stirs up trouble to find answers.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Akiko being good with dogs both saves her mother's life and helps the two of them find a clue in The Iris Fan.
  • Christmas Cake:
    • Lady Yanagisawa before her marriage. Unfortunately for her, it wasn't out of love but because she was a Tokugawa cousin.
    • In The Concubine's Tattoo, this will be the fate of the concubine Ichiteru after she turns 30; she will be sent away from court unless she can become the mother of the shogun's heir.
  • Clueless Deputy: Hirata starts out this way, but gets much better as the series goes on until his investigative skills rival Sano's.
  • Combat Hand Fan: The weapon used to attack the shogun in, naturally, The Iris Fan.
  • The Coroner: Dr. Ito, who helps Sano by secretly performing illegal autopsies on the victims. He often has the help of his Silent Partner, the eta Mura.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The most severe form of execution available to the Shogun, in which the guilty party is buried in the ground up to his neck and has his head sawed off.
  • Cult: Black Lotus, investigated in the book of the same name.
  • Dead Guy on Display: The fate of many of the criminals Sano catches after they are executed. Also used against anyone who tries to go against the shogun or his followers.
  • Death by Woman Scorned: In Red Chrysanthemum, Lady Mori, revenging her son against his stepfather for raping him as a child.
  • Decadent Court:
    • The Shogun's court in Edo is a dangerous place for those who aren't politically savvy, and even for those who are half the time.
    • The Emperor's court in Kyoto, as demonstrated in The Samurai's Wife is about as bad with its internal struggles. The only difference is they wield almost no power over the country.
  • Decapitation Presentation: The practice of bundori, done in the book of the same name; a head is cleaned, made up, and mounted on a spike for display as a war trophy.
  • Delivery Guy: Subverted in more than one way by the normally flighty Keisho-in, who in a rare turn of events is the only one who is collected and confident when Midori goes into labor, coaching the younger woman through the birth of her first child.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: In The Iris Fan, Hirata lives long enough for his family to be at his side as he slips away. After she forgives him for leaving them, he dies in Midori's arms, remembering the love he always had for her.
  • Dirty Cop: Hoshina, especially after he becomes the lover of Yanagisawa, and then turns on him to cause Yanagisawa's exile.
  • Dirty Old Man: There's at least one in every book. The Shogun is the most prominent example of the reoccurring characters if you're an adolescent boy.
  • Disguised in Drag: The first time we ever see the Shogun in the series, he's dressed as a woman.
  • Due to the Dead:
    • Most of the murder victims; justified as the Shinto religion treats death very seriously and the proper rites must be observed.
    • Notable as a plot point in The Fire Kimono. The unknown victim was buried in an unmarked grave by one of the local priests out of kindness. That priest is later found as an old man and identifies the murderers.
    • Ironically, the shogun gets no such due; his body is hastily burned. It is done to prevent the measles he had before his death from spreading; his body is treated no differently than others of those who died of the disease.
  • Evil Chancellor:
    • Chamberlain Yanagisawa, who manipulates the Shogun like a puppet and constantly tries to undermine Sano and other officials to maintain his power. He also has plans to control the next shogun in place.
    • After the events of The Perfumed Sleeve, Lord Matsudaira gets a turn.
    • And in The Incense Game, the shogun's nephew (and potential heir) Tokugawa Ienobu fights for this role.
  • The Exile:
    • Often threatened as a punishment for high ranking officials who fail in their duties to the shogun, and carried out in a few cases, most notably to Yanagisawa and his family in The Perfumed Sleeve.
    • Played with by Dr. Ito, who was supposed to be exiled for his use of forbidden western medical techniques; the shogun "lessened" his sentence to working in the morgue at Edo Jail. He might as well be an exile. The new shogun renounces his exile at the end of the series.
  • Extreme Doormat: The Shogun. When he actually tries to take things into his own hands on a couple of occasions, he makes things worse. He subverts this temporarily in The Fire Kimono when he gets fed up with Lord Matsudaira's jealous and condescending attitude. And it's permanent after he realizes how cowardly and ineffectual he is at the end of The Shogun's Daughter.
  • The Exotic Detective: Sano Ichirō, who bears the equally exotic title of the Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People.
  • Eyepatch of Power: In The Black Lotus, Anraku lost an eye sometime before his rise to power. He claims that the blind eye gives him divine premonitions.
  • Eye Scream: The first victim in The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria is killed by a hairpin through the eye.
  • Fake Kill Scare: During Yanagisawa and Sano's raid of Edo castle, Marume is severely injured, but remains behind to hold off their enemies long enough for Sano to make his way to the palace. Marume goes down in the wave of fighters and disappears; Sano is upset at losing such a loyal man, but forces himself to continue on as the fate of Japan is at stake. After the climax, it is revealed that Marume was knocked unconscious in the fight, was found by Reiko, and sent to Lord Mori's estate to be tended to.
  • Faking the Dead: In The Shogun's Daughter, Yoshisato dies in a fire. In the next book, he reveals he is alive: Ienobu had him kidnapped, a body planted, and the house burned so he could keep Yoshisato as a hostage against his father, Yanagisawa. He escapes and eventually contacts Sano.
  • Finally Found the Body:
    • The victim of The Fire Kimono, courtesy of a wind storm toppling a tree.
    • The victims in The Incense Game turn up after a month, due to the earthquake burying them in the remains of a house.
  • George Jetson Job Security: This trope defines Sano's life working for the shogun; he is constantly being threatened with demotion, exile, or death if he doesn't produce results.
  • Girl in the Tower: Reiko, Midori, Keisho-in, and Lady Yanagisawa when they are imprisoned in The Dragon King's Palace.
  • Good Parents: Sano and Reiko, who are concerned about raising their children with morality and honor, rather than to be used as pawns in power games. Hirata and Midori have a similar attitude.
  • Happily Married:
    • Sano and Reiko have love and mutual respect for each other, although their Arranged Marriage didn't start off well. In The Iris Fan their marriage is sorely tested following Sano's demotion and insistence on bringing Ienobu to justice.
    • Hirata and Midori, until Hirata constantly disappears for martial arts training. For a while, Midori wants nothing to do with him.
  • Heir Club for Men: The shogun has no heir. His concubines don't conceive (of course he's much more into boys anyway), his wife is too old, and his daughter is afraid of pregnancy and in an unhappy marriage. It actually becomes a big issue in the later books as the Shogun grows older and others scheme to get him to declare their favorite the next in line.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.:
    • Sano has a minor meltdown in The Pillow Book Of Lady Wisteria after one too many death threat in reward for loyalty and competence.
    • And he has one big time in The Shogun's Daughter after finding the evidence of a crime, being falsely accused of committing said crime, and then being beaten to a pulp by the shogun with the evidence in front of a full court and unable to lift a hand to defend himself for fear of reprisal. When Hirata encounters him recovering from his injuries, Sano's aura is almost entirely black from his hatred directed at the shogun.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • Hirata in The Perfumed Sleeve, where he is permanently lamed protecting Sano from a deathblow.
    • In The Iris Fan, he does it again. Hirata's spirit fights against General Otani's ghost to keep the general from using his body to kill Sano. He literally shatters his body in the process.
  • Hidden Backup Prince: After Yoritomo's death, Yanagisawa presents his son Yoshisato to the shogun, claiming he is actually a secret son of the shogun that was raised by the chancellor to keep the Tokugawa line safe from its enemies. Sano, among many others, don't buy it for a second.
  • High-Class Call Girl: Lady Wisteria is a famous first-class courtesan.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, Chamberlain Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, and Keisho-in, mother of the Shogun, and, in later volumes, Tokugawa Ienobu. Others pop in occasionally.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Yanagisawa. Fact indicates the real one was not quite as scheming or nasty as the one in the books, and he was likely little more than a yes man to Tokugawa.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Okaru of The Rōnin's Mistress, who honestly falls for the drunken rōnin who comes to live with her.
  • Honor Before Reason:
    • Sano's saving grace on many occasions; his willingness to do what is right usually gives him an advantage when things look bad. Sometimes too close for comfort, though.
    • Frequently averted or subverted by others, though. Suspects and witnesses are often uncooperative with investigations as they are more concerned for their own, or their lord's, honor than they are for actually catching a murderer. Sano knows this, and it causes him endless grief.
  • I Was Quite The Looker: Keisho-in likes to remind people of this whenever they'll listen.
  • Interdisciplinary Sleuth: Sano and most of his circle of investigators are also Samurai.
  • Ironic Echo:
    • During the meeting in the aftermath of the shogun's death, there is concern that Sano is the only one who can control the words and actions of the new shogun, Ienobu. One of the senior elders protests that they can't have a shogun that can't think for himself; there is then a guilty silence as everyone remembers how much of an Extreme Doormat the old shogun was.
    • Perhaps the biggest one, after all the struggles Sano had just staying in court, keeping his reputation intact and his family alive, and in spite of genuinely having no interest in ruling over Japan, he ends up with sole and absolute control over the new shogun, allowing him to basically rule Japan.
  • Jidai Geki: The time period the novels are set in, specifically the Edo period during the reign of Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.
  • Kicked Upstairs: Sano gets his first and biggest promotion after being made Chamberlain following Yanagisawa's exile. Then back downstairs after Yanagisawa arranges for the shogun's wife to be raped and Sano fails to save her. Then back up again after Yanagisawa refuses to leave his home in grief after the death of Yomitoro. Then waaay down after he refuses to give up investigating Ienobu for causing the death of the shogun's daughter. Then up yet again when the shogun reinstates Sano to find out who attacked him. And, at the end of the series, Sano is the only voice the new shogun will obey, meaning he is shogun-by-proxy. By the end of the series, Sano's role in the court has yo yo-ed all over the place.
  • Kid Samurai/Kid Detective: Sano's son, Masahiro, starts becoming one the former as of The Snow Empress and the latter as of The Cloud Pavilion. He is pretty much full on both by The Incense Game.
  • Killed Offscreen: Detective Fukida is killed by the massive earthquake that happens at the beginning of The Incense Game. Even though the earthquake is shown in the book, Fukida's death is not; Sano reveals it a month later when he has a memory of Marume pulling his partner's body from the ruins of Sano's estate as Sano and and a solemn Marume head off to a post-disaster investigation.
  • Kissing Cousins: Lord and Lady Miyagi are cousins in a marriage of convenience because no one would marry into the family.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Sano, as the series progresses. While he always knew life at court was dangerous, years of the shogun failing to show any appreciation whatsoever for Sano's loyalty gradually wears away at Sano's idealism.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: The shogun is desperate for a son. Naturally, his wife never conceives and his concubines don't seem to do much better.
  • Like Father, Like Son:
    • Sano and Masahiro are very similar in attitude, Masahiro taking his father's attitude towards honor quite seriously. He eventually becomes the shogun's investigator.
    • Likewise, Reiko and Akiko are both strong-willed, willing to push the boundaries of what women aren't allowed to do, and enjoy solving a mystery themselves.
    • Yanagisawa and Yoshisato are both clever, handsome, and crave power, and even have similar postures and expressions. There is one key difference, though: Yoshisato desires the power because he sees he can do good with it, unlike his father who simply wants to control everything and crush those who get in his way.
  • Like Is, Like, a Comma: A variant. The shogun uses "ahh" in this way in almost every bit of his dialogue. No other character has a similar speech pattern. It's actually a way of showing his speech faltering as he can't make a decision, and he drops it after The Shogun's Daughter when he becomes more sure of himself.
  • Locked Away in a Monastery: In The Iris Fan, the fate of Lady Nobuko, the shogun's wife, for causing the shogun's death.
  • Loophole Abuse: In The Cloud Pavilion, the shogun's dog keeper hides behind his attack dogs when Sano goes to investigate him; Sano cannot kill the canines or else he will violate the shogun's law on harming dogs. He comes back later with dogs of his own and sets them loose to fight the keeper's animals. After all, the law says nothing about dogs attacking other dogs.
  • Make Me Wanna Shout: The kiai, or "Death Cry", is used as the murder method in The Samurai's Wife.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident:
    • The victim in The Fire Kimono, whose death was originally blamed on the Great Long-Sleeves Kimono Fire that killed thousands.
    • Tsumihime, the shogun's daughter, dies of smallpox. Ienobu arranged for a maid in the house who had survived the disease to expose Tsumihime to it, killing her and preventing the possibility of her bearing a son and putting another heir before him in the Tokugawa line of succession.
  • Mama Bear/Papa Wolf: Do not mess with Reiko and Sano's kids. They will travel for months just to rescue their son, as they did in The Snow Empress, and will even threaten the shogun's own second-in-command, as Reiko did in The Ronin's Mistress.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe:
    • In The Concubine's Tattoo, one of the shogun's concubine's manages to conceive. It's actually an eta's son.
    • In The Shogun's Daughter, Tsumehime dies from smallpox; afterward, it is revealed she was possibly pregnant with a potential Tokugawa heir. Tsumehime's husband hated her, and she was having an affair with another samurai.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Chamberlain Yanagisawa, who is not only the Shogun's lover, but knows exactly how to phrase things to his lord to make himself look good and his competitors look bad. It gets more and more impressive as the books go on... just when it seems Yanagisawa can't go any farther with stretching the truth, he somehow does. It culminates when he manages to pass off his own son as the shogun's long lost son... and future Tokugawa heir.
  • Marital Rape License: In The Black Lotus, Haru was married off to a much older man and was forcibly raped by him.
  • Mauve Shirt: Detectives Marume and Fukida, who accompany Sano and his family in several novels. Fukida dies in the 1703 earthquake in The Incense Game.
  • Missing Mom: Reiko was raised solely by her father and has no memory of her mother.
  • My Secret Pregnancy:
    • Midori doesn't reveal her pregnancy to anyone other than Hirata until after they are married.
    • And even though she has a maid following her around to keep it from happening the same thing happens to her daughter, Taeko, after she becomes Sano's son's lover.
  • Nature Hero: Hirata becomes one in The Snow Empress, able to sense the natural aura of things around him.
  • Ninja: Aoi in Bundori, serving as a spy for Yanagisawa.
  • Noble Fugitive:
    • Yanagisawa pretends to be a monk after escaping from exile and planning his return.
    • Yoshisato, after being kidnapped by Ienobu's men, escapes and pretends to be a gangster, eventually becoming leader of the gang.
  • Non-Promotion: Happened for a long time before Yanagisawa's exile, as the shogun gave Sano more to do and relied on him more in governing Japan, but neither promoted him nor gave him much credit for his work.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity:
    • The shogun isn't entirely as stupid as he seems. He's just so afraid of seeming weak that he ignores goings-on around him because the disrespect he senses from everyone is so crushing. He changes this big time after Sano's outburst in The Shogun's Daughter.
    • In The Samurai's Wife, The emperor's cousin Momozono isn't anywhere near as stupid as his disabilities make him sound. He is genuinely disabled, though.
    • In The Black Lotus, Haru makes several failed attempts to play dumb after becoming an arson suspect.
  • Out with a Bang: In The Perfumed Sleeve, Makino had a heart attack while participating in a threesome.
  • Parental Incest: The lover the Dragon King is pining for? It's his mother.
  • Parental Neglect: Yanagisawa ignores all of his children except for Yoritomo and Yoshisato. This includes his only legitimate offspring, Kikuko, in part because she is a girl and in part because she is mentally challenged.
  • Photo Op with the Dog: The Shogun, who bars anyone from harming a dog because he was born in the Year of the Dog. He is disturbingly quick, however, to order Off with His Head! to any person he even remotely suspects of being his enemy.
  • Pregnant Badass: Reiko's pregnancies don't slow her down as far as helping in investigations. This comes back to bite her when she miscarries her third child.
  • Public Execution: Constantly, and often unfairly given. One of these also plays host to a major scene at the end of The Fire Kimono.
  • Puppy Love: Taeko has a huge crush on Masahiro. He doesn't seem to reciprocate, but they are playmates. This changed at the end of The Shogun's Daughter after Taeko saves Masahiro's life. At the end of the series, in spite hits their relationship takes in The Iris Fan, they are still in love and engaged to be married.
  • Rags to Royalty: Keisho-in, mother of the shogun, started life as the daughter of a humble grocer. By being the concubine lucky enough to give birth to the previous shogun's heir, she managed to rise above her commoner status. Those who encounter her often note her manners indicate her lack of noble upbringing.
  • Rape as Backstory: Oddly, there are more male characters who have suffered through this, as "manly love" among samurai was a common practice in this period in Japan, and masters taking advantage of their students was sadly not uncommon.
    • Yanagisawa is the most prominent example; the humiliation he went through spurs on his desire to dominate others.
    • The Black Lotus: Junketsu-in was repeatedly raped by her father, who compensated by spoiling her, which taught her that she could use sex to get what she wanted. In the same book, a flashback reveals that Haru was raped by her husband.
    • Red Chrysanthemum: Lord Mori marries Lady Mori purely so he can take advantage of her young son.
    • The Ronin's Mistress: Kira was murdered for pimping out the son of his retainer; the boy commits suicide, spurring the greiving retainer to revenge.
    • After The Cloud Pavilion, the shogun's wife, Lady Noboku, is never the same after her kidnapping and rape, swearing revenge against Yanagisawa for arranging it as a way to get at Sano.
  • Rashomon Plot: Done deliberately in Red Chrysanthemum.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Any time Sano notices a particularly lovely woman, he will note her pale skin and dark hair, as he did when he first saw his wife Reiko. This is the standard of beauty in the series, and one that women will go to desperate lengths to achieve and maintain. Older women, most notably the shogun's mother Keisho-in, apply layer after layer of white makeup to their faces and/or dye their hair black to try to maintain a youthful look.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Extremely rare; corruption is rampant in both the Shogun's court and Edo as a whole, as Sano frequently finds out. Reiko's father Magistrate Ueda is one of Edo's few honest and powerful men outside the main protagonists.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Finally, finally, after seventeen books of abuse, tiptoeing, and misunderstandings, Sano not only calls the shogun by name, he bawls him out for his childishness, irresponsible ways, and passive-aggressive manner, then outright calls him a coward unworthy of bearing the Tokugawa name. Much to his and everyone else's absolute shock, the shogun agrees with him.
  • Reassignment Backfire: Sano's trip to Nagasaki in The Way of the Traitor, which is supposed to get him out of Yanagisawa's way and destroy his miai. Instead, he comes back after forcing back some powerful enemies and improves his standing in the Shogun's eyes.
  • Red Light District: Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, which can be summed up as "prostitutes, courtesans, and more prostitutes."
  • Ronin:
    • Sano started out as one before solving his first case in Shinjū.
    • The Rōnin's Mistress deals with the tale of The 47 Ronin.
  • Sadistic Choice: Poor, poor Lady Nobuko. Two men are vying for control of Japan after her husband's death; one had her kidnapped and raped to discredit his rival, the other was behind the plot that caused the death of her only child. After the shogun dies, she's confronted with a chance to inflict revenge on either Yanagisawa or Ienobu. She snaps, unable to kill one lest the other one rise to power.
  • Screaming Birth: Midori's delivery of her first child in The Dragon King's Palace.
  • Seppuku:
    • Some samurai are given this option instead of Off with His Head! if found guilty of the crime.
    • Lord Matsudaira takes this way out after realizing he and Sano have been tricked by Yanagisawa.
    • One of Sano's allies, after being stripped of his titles by Yoshisato in The Shogun's Daughter, commits seppuku as soon as he exits the palace. Sano is forced to help him finish the ritual to alleviate his suffering.
    • In The Iris Fan, Lady Yanisagawa performs the female version, jigai, after her husband dies out of fear she and her daughter Kikuko will be punished for his treachery. Before killing herself, she slits Kikuko's throat as well.
  • Sex Equals Love: Lady Yanagisawa desperately holds to this belief when her husband beds her as a reward in The Perfumed Sleeve.
  • Sidekick Graduations Stick: Hirata started out as Sano's sidekick. After he was severely injured protecting Sano and started special martial arts training to compensate for his injuries, he now acts independently from Sano as needed. He also assumes Sano's position as the shogun's chief investigator.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Reiko, who uses her courtly status to find information for her husband's investigations. And if she runs into trouble, she always has a knife up the sleeve of her kimono, and she knows how to use it.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Yanagisawa loathes his former concubine Someko, but that doesn't stop him from having passionate sex with her when their fights come to climax.
  • Sleeping Their Way To The Top: Yanagisawa got the job as Chamberlain by becoming the Shogun's lover. He encourages his son Yoritomo to employ the same method in an attempt to have Yoritomo declared next-in-line as shogun. His other son, Yoshisato, outright tells his father he will not sink to such depths.
  • Someone Has to Die: In The Concubine's Tattoo, the actor Shichisaburo takes the blame for Yanagisawa's failed plot against the Shogun's mother and is executed, to the stunned disbelief of all assembled, including Yanagisawa himself.
  • Stalker with a Crush:
    • Lady Yanagisawa idolizes Reiko and is fairly obsessed with the woman. She also wants to kill her, since Reiko has a husband that loves her and children who aren't handicapped.
    • Lieutenant Kushida in The Concubine's Tattoo towards the titular concubine, Harume.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers:
    • The original mystery that leads to Sano's career with the Shogun, between an upper-class lady and a shunga artist. It was actually made to look like a lovers' suicide by the murderer; the two victims never met.
    • Harume and the eta Danzaemon in The Concubine's Tattoo, who could never be together because of their difference in class.
  • Stupidity-Inducing Attack: In The Iris Fan, Hirata uses his last ounce of energy to throw a mental attack at Ienobu. Although Ienobu can take care of basic needs, the attack causes him to only be able to do something if Sano orders him to. In short, Hirata literally makes the new shogun Sano's puppet.
  • Succession Crisis: The lack of a direct heir to the Tokugawa line spurs most of the political plotting in the series as factions compete for the shogun's favor. Sano seems to be the only person in Edo Castle who doesn't want this for this son, which naturally, no one else believes. It pretty much takes the focus of the last two books in the series, as Sano ends up investigating the death of the shogun's only child, a daughter who could have produced him an heir.
  • Surprise Pregnancy: Taeko was conceived before Hirata and Midori were even engaged. Oops. And double oops, because Taeko proceeds to do exactly the same thing when she falls in love with Masahiro.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: In The Incense Game, Minister Ogyu, who was born female but raised as male for a family that had hoped desperately for a son.
  • Those Two Guys: Detectives Marume and Fukida, who back up Sano on almost every assignment. Otherwise, nothing is known about them.
  • Time Skip: There is a five-year gap between The Shogun's Daughter and The Iris Fan, though there are flashbacks of the interim period. Circumstances have changed greatly for Sano and those around him, and definitely not for the better.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Reiko, outgoing and eager for mystery, and Midori, content to stay in a quiet house with her children.
  • Torture Technician: In The Black Lotus, there is Dr. Miwa, the Black Lotus sect's chief physician, who moonlights as a torturer.
  • Touch of Death:
    • The murder method used in The Assassin's Touch.
    • Hirata eventually learns it himself in his mystical martial arts training after he is seriously injured in the same book.
    • In The Iris Fan, Hirata is forced by General Otani to use it against certain individuals that might give away Ienobu's plans to invade Korea.
  • Turn in Your Badge: Or the samurai equivalent; after Sano refuses to stop investigating Ienobu following the events of The Shogun's Daughter, the shogun takes away his rank and bans him from court.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: Reiko looks almost exactly like her grandmother. They are also similarly stubborn and sharp-tongued.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. This is a trait he shares with his mother Keisho-in (who lucked into being upper class) and his only daughter Tsumihime (who can't shut up about being the shogun's daughter).
  • Villainous Breakdown: After all his careful schemes and plans, Yanagisawa loses it when Ienobu reveals the brain damage caused by Hirata's attack allows Ienobu to only obey Sano and no one else. It is one too many times that Sano has interfered and won, and he snaps, attacking Sano and leading to their final duel.
  • Waif-Fu: Reiko is an accomplished martial artist, but she's also a tiny woman.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy:
    • Yoritomo towards Yanagisawa. Oddly, Yanagisawa actually feels rather affectionately towards him as well, but maintains emotional distance out of caution.
    • Averted by Yoshisato, who strongly resents his father using him as a pawn, even if has inherited his father's taste for ambition and decides to take full advantage of it.
  • Who's Laughing Now?: The reason Ienobu wants to be shogun so badly is to force all those who made fun of him for being weak and crippled to bow before him as ruler of Japan. Taken up to eleven when Sano finds out he has actually made plans to conquer the world.
  • Woman Scorned: One of the frequent motives for murder in the series.
    • Lady Wisteria herself, who frames several former clients she has come to loathe in The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: After taking Hirata's body, General Otani's ghost turns on the other members of the fellowship and makes quick work of them through his powerful spells.
  • You Killed My Son: This is the motive behind more than one murder.
    • Yanagisawa vows revenge against Sano for his son Yoritomo's death, even though Sano had nothing to do with it. Ditto with his other son, Yoshisato, even though Yoshisato was later found to be alive and in hiding.
    • Lady Nobuko never forgave the one who caused the death of her daughter, Tsumihime. She actually pulls a knife on Ienobu in the final battle, but is only stopped when Yanagisawa enters and she can't decide who she hates more.