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Literature / Sano Ichiro

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When investigation meets feudal Japanese politics.

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. Throughout his time in the Shogun's court, he has to solve various mysteries and navigate the tricky intricacies of the government that he's now part of. Both issues are compounded by the weak-willed Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi and his manipulative Chamberlain, Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, the latter of whom views Sano as a threat to his own considerable power. Because of his status, each of the mysteries Sano has to solve link to some type of court intrigue, usually high-ranking members or relatives of the shogun, and Sano often 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.


Sano Ichirō is a series of mystery novels by Laura Joh Rowland set in 17th century Japan. While Sano and his family and friends are fictional, many of the characters, 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.

The series includes the following titles:

  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 this 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.

This series contains examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Lady Yanagisawa is one to Reiko. She envies Reiko's beauty, loving husband, and healthy son, all of which contrasts sharply with her own unattractive apperance, aloof husband, and mentally challenged daughter. Beliving there to be a miminum amount of luck in the world, Lady Yanagisawa both wants to be friends with Reiko or destroy her/her family in the hopes that some of Reiko's good fortune will rub off on her. Reiko profoundly does not want to be around Lady Yanagisawa, but due to court politics and not wanting to draw the woman's ire, Reiko keeps up the friendship while simultaneously keeping her guard up whenever Lady Yanagisawa or her obident daughter are around.
  • Abusive Parents: It's common for parents to view their kids as nothing more than political pawns to be used in order to gain higher social standing (such as Chamberlain Yanagisawa's). As such emotional, mental, and physical abuse is, sadly, not uncommon.
  • Acid Pool: Hoshina tries to murder Sano in a pool of lye. Sano manages to take him out instead.
  • Anyone Can Die: Minor characters die frequently while the more prominant characters are relatively armored. That being said, not all of them survive to see the end of series; Senior Elder Makino, Hoshina, Lord Matsudaira, and Yoritomo just to name a few.
  • Arranged Marriage: Arranged marriages are the standard, particularly within the nobility. One aspect of this practice is the miai: a meeting between the two families so each member can better access their characters. It even serves as a plot point in a few books.
  • Artistic License – History: For the most part, the way of life depicted during Edo Period Japan is fairly accurate as are various other historical facts. That being said there are times where Rowland strays from fact in favor of plot. Some specific examples:
    • The biggest one is the concept of Bushido, a rigid code of honor among the samurai class. Evidence suggests that this concept was a modern invention and part fabrication in an effort to appeal to Western audiences. This article explains the history of Bushido more thoroughly.
    • There is no evidence that Tokugawa Tsunayoshi was ever attacked. He most likely died from smallpox. Furthermore there is no evidence that he was a homosexual either other than heresay.
    • Tokogawa Ienobu was not rendered a simpleton by a mystical attack. He was a very intelligent man and a Confucian scholar. Additionally, 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. He and his family were never exiled, either.
  • Ascended Extra: Midori first appeared as a thirteen-year-old girl who just so happened to be one of the murder victim's younger sisters. She turns into a reoccuring character after she gets romantically involved with Hirata and becomes Reiko's friend.
  • Authority in Name Only: Ienobu, after suffering severe brain damage due to Hirata's mental attack. He can only answer Sano's commands.
  • Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: Edo's police aren't exactly known for putting justice and honor before self-interest, and many would rather their underlings handle the dirty work of policing while they lay back and reap the rewards. Sano manages to clean things up somewhat, but most of the truly honest investigators remain within his inner circle.
  • 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 the Chamberlain's schemes, or at least turn them to his advantage.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: A common theme throughout the series. There are many times where a character wishes for or wants something, only for that desire to be granted in a way that's detrimental to them. A minor example happens at the beginning of The Dragon King's Palace: Reiko is pressured into a pilgrimage with Lady Keisho-in, Lady Yanagisawa, and Midori to Mount Fuji, an already long trip made even longer due to Keisho-in forcing her entourage to stop at various locations along the way. She hopes for someting to cut their voyage short... which gets granted soon afterward when their entourage is ambushed and slaughtered, and her and her companions are kidnapped and held hostage.
  • Beta Couple: Hirata and Midori. Their marriage becomes rocky after Hirata goes off to train in the mystic martial arts. It provides a contrast to Sano and Reiko's more stable relationship.
  • Borrowed Catchphrase: Sano always reminds 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 to him; after Masahiro became the Shogun's assistant, the two of them had gotten into a discussion during which Masahiro repeated Sano's words.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: Sano's arguments about Haru's guilt and Reiko's belief in her innocence as well as her suspicions about the Black Lotus' true nature are both valid and backed up with various evidence: Haru is a liar and manipulator, and she was the last person to see her deceased husband alive. Said husband died of arson as did the victims in the cottage. On the other hand, there are numerous accounts of shady and treacherous behavior among the sect members, including the abduction of children as well as the poisoning water wells. There are just as many people that hate and distrust the sect as their are people who support it.
  • Bury Your Gays: Many gay characters don't make it to the end of the series or even the book they're introduced in. In the cases of Tsunayoshi and Lady Keisho-in this can be forgiven as they're historical domain characters and their deaths accurately mirror when their real world counterparts died. Yanagisawa's death can likewise be excused: even though the living Yanagisawa died a few years later than the fictional one, the fictional Yanagisawa was the main antagonist of the series and there was no way Sano and him weren't going to end up fighting to the death at some point. The other gay characters don't really have these justifications, though.
  • 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: Sano starts out by following the rules of Bushido strictly and always honoring his superior's wishes. This does not last long, since other samurai (especially Yanagisawa) aren't as willing to play by those rules.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Akiko's skill with handling dogs both saves Reiko's life and helps the both of them find a clue.
  • Christmas Cake:
    • Lady Ichiteru desperately wants to be the concubine that conceives the next Shogun before she turns 30 and is forced to return to Miyako.
    • Due to her appearance and shy nature, Lady Yanagisawa remained single for a long time before Chamberlain Yanagisawa eventually married her. Unfortunately for her, the marriage wasn't out of love but because she was a Tokugawa cousin.
  • Clear My Name: Sano has been framed for murder a couple times. Each time, the threat of death to him and/or his family members makes him all the more desperate to see the true killer be brought to light.
  • Combat Hand Fan: The titular weapon used to attack the Shogun.
  • Compulsive Liar: Haru seems incapable of telling the truth, more often defaulting to lies and deceit in the hopes that it will earn her trust and divert suspicions. By the time she finally does, it's too little, too late.
  • The Coroner: Dr. Ito Genboku serves as this for Sano. Many of the autopsies Ito preforms help give Sano a starting point for his investigations.
  • Cowboy Cop: Sano becomes this after 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 to remain in his master's good graces while he carefully stirs up trouble to find answers.
  • Cult: The Black Lotus sect, featured in the novel of the same name, is derived of a group of fanatical worshipers who believe the destruction of Japan will bring a dawn of Enlightenment. They seek obedient individuals who can be easily swayed to their thinking (though they have drugs to make this even easier). Those who resist are systematically starved and/or abused until their spirits are broken, and if that fails, they're imprisoned or killed. Underneath the temple are a series of underground tunnels dug by slaves that lead to various villages. Those who are already under Anraku's control willingly do his bidding, no matter how morally abhorrent the task. Even after the defeat of the temple, members of the Black Lotus still prove to be a problem, especially since some of them were part of the bakufu. The affects the Black Lotus case had on Sano and some of his compatriots can still be felt a couple books later.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Nokogiri-biki, the most severe form of execution available to the Shogun, in which the guilty party's body is buried alive, leaving his neck exposed so it can be sawed off.
  • Crying Wolf: During the siege of the Black Lotus temple, Haru tries to convince Reiko to get Sano to call it off, saying that they are the third sign Anraku has foretold. By this point, Reiko is completely done with Haru, thinking this is just another means of manipulation. It is anything but: soon after Sano and the Tokugawa soldiers arrive, a swarm of novices, priests, and nuns exit the temple to attack the soldiers or speed past them to wreak havoc on the nearby town.
  • A Day in the Limelight: Various witnesses and suspects get at least one chapter where their backstory and motivations are explained.
  • Dead Guy on Display: A common tactic used by the bakufu to deter would be lawbreakers, by reminding them what their fate holds be should they be caught.
  • Death by Woman Scorned: Lady Mori, revenging her son against his stepfather for raping him as a child.
  • Death Faked for You: Yoshisato dies in a fire that consumes most of Yanagisawa's home. The body that's thought to be Yoshisato's is actually some random boy's. Ienobu had Yoshisato removed beforehand then had the house set on fire so as to render the body indistinguishable, and is keeping the living Yoshisato as a barginning chip for Yanagisawa's help.
  • Decadent Court: The Shogun's court in Edo and the Emperor's court in Kyoto are both dangerous places for those who aren't politically savvy, and even for those who are half the time. The only difference between the two is that the latter doesn't have any real power over how the country is ruled.
  • Decapitation Presentation: Excuted criminials will sometimes have their heads placed on a spike and put on display, to serve as a reminder to any would be lawbreakers. One type of this trope is the practice of bundori (featured in the novel of the same), in which a head is cleaned, made up, and mounted on a spike. These "trophies" were then given to the samurai's lord as way of showing their loyalty and honor. This practice was permitted only during times of war, so you can imagine Sano's confusion when someone suddenly takes up this practice during peacetime.
  • Delivery Guy: Subverted in more than one way by the normally flighty Keisho-in; in a rare turn of events, she is the only one who is collected and confident when Midori goes into labor and coaches the younger woman through the birth of her first child.
  • Demonic Possession: General Otani, the ghost of a vengeful samurai, takes over Hirata's body with help from other members of the mystical fellowship. While Hirata does maintain some control over his body, the General can easily take that control away from him, forcing Hirata to do as he says.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: It can be easy to spot which witnesses and/or murder suspects are going to be bumped off soon if they get a chapter that shows their background and motivations. They're usually murdered by the end of their chapter or, if their lucky, that book.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Hirata lives long enough for his family to be at his side when he dies. After Mirdori forgives him for leaving them, he dies in her arms, remembering the love he always had for her.
  • Dirty Cop: A lot of Edo's police force use their status for personal gain, such as taking bribes in exchange for letting the accused off the hook, Hoshina just being one of the more high profile examples.
  • Dirty Old Man: There's at least one in every book with the Shogun being the most prominent example out of the reoccurring characters.
  • Disguised in Drag:
    • The first time we see the Shogun in the series, he's dressed as a princess from The Tale of Genji.
    • In The Concubine's Tattoo, Shichisaburo disguises himself as one of Tsunayoshi's concubines so as not to raise suspicion while enacting one of Yanagisawa's plans.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Lady Ichiteru's beauty and sensuality arouse Hirata. He keeps trying to resist her charms, but he fails each time. It's highly implied- if not outright stated- that Ichiteru is partially invoking this trope, using her courtesan training to make him want her.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male: During Hirata's last meeting with Ichiteru, she slips a powerful aphrodisiac into his drink and has sex with him. Hirata tells her to stop at least twice, but she ignores him. Ichiteru doesn't get punished for this; the closest she gets is being sent back to Miyako... which would've happened anyway once she turned 30.
  • Due to the Dead: As the Shinto religion treats death very seriously, most of the murder victims get proper funerals. (Ironically, the shogun gets no such due; his body is hastily burned in order to prevent the measles he had from spreading.)
  • Dying as Yourself: During his final battle, Hirata sacrifices his body in order to keep General Otani from killing Sano. This forces the ghost away for good. Although broken and dying, he's relieved that he's no longer possessed and allowed to be himself as he passes away.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: Many of the usual features of a Sano Ichiro novel are not present in Shinju; the murder isn't wrapped up in any political intrigue tied to the bakufu. Indeed, the Shogun and his court are in the background for a majority of the book, only appearing at the very end. (When the Shogun does appear, he lacks his usual verbal tic.) Sano's worst antagonists are a self-serving magistrate and a couple arrogant coworkers instead of the conniving Chamberlain Yanagisawa. There's also more Japanese terms sprinkled throughout the first few novels, even when it they aren't really necessary. For example, Hirata had a tendency to say "sumimasen" ("Excuse me") when addressing Sano, even after officially becoming Sano's chief retainer. This habit comes and goes before being dropped entirely about halfway through the series.
  • Evil Chancellor: The Shogun seems to attract this archetype like honey does flies: Chamberlain Yanagisawa is the first and most prominent of them; he manipulates the Shogun like a puppet and constantly tries to undermine Sano and other officials to maintain his power. After Yanagisawa gets sent into exile, Lord Matsudaira takes on this role and maintains the position for a few books until Yanagisawa returns, leading him to commit seppuku. Once Ienobu gets introduced, both he and Yanagisawa fight for this role.
  • The Exile:
    • 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 at Edo Morgue, though that's hardly an improvement. The new Shogun renounces Ito's exile at the end of the series.
    • After a failed attempt at undermining Lord Matsudaira's power, the Shogun finds out about Yanagisawa's ploy and banishes him to Hachijo Island.
  • Extreme Doormat: Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi is a weak-willed man who is easily swayed by other's opinions. Many officials (chief among them being Yanagisawa) often take advantage of Tsunayoshi's people-pleasing nature by using praise and flattery to manipulate the Shogun into doing whatever he wants. Since he's intimidated by court politics, Tsunayoshi prefers to indulge in personal pleasures than actually run the government. The few times he does try to help out, he makes a bad situation worse. While there are moments where he acts more decisive and assertive, such moments are few and far between and whatever spine he had disappears shortly thereafter. It isn't until the end of The Shogun's Daughter that, after being called out by Sano for being cowardly and ineffectual, Tsunayoshi actively changes his behavior.
  • The Exotic Detective: Sano Ichirō, who bears the equally exotic title of the Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Anraku lost an eye sometime before his rise to power. He claims that the blind eye gives him divine premonitions, and it's left ambigous just how much of his supposed power is real or faked.
  • Eye Scream: Mitsuyoshi, the Shogun's heir apparent, is killed via a hairpin through the eye.
  • Fair-Play Whodunnit: Each mystery can be solved along with Sano and Reiko. Clues are laid out clearly (some of them even before the detectives find them) and the murderer is usually a character the audience has been introduced to.
  • 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: After the murderer strikes again, Sano passes off Aisu's corpse as his own, hoping his "death" will throw off Yanagisawa. This proves to be useless as Yanagisawa was there with Aisu when the murderer attacked.
  • Finally Found the Body:
    • The victim in 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.
  • Flower Motifs: The combat fan used to stab the shogun had an iris motif. Irises symbolize boldness, courage, and power, qualities that Sano notes could be associated with someone who made an assassination attempt on the leader of the country.
  • Foil: Yanagisawa is this to Sano; he's every bit as corrupt and self-serving as Sano is honorable and modest. Yangisawa wants to control the Shogun so he can have power over others which contrasts with Sano, who doesn't want power and uses his position to help others. Yanagisawa uses his son(s) for selfish purposes while Sano only wants what's best for his kids. Really, the only thing the two have in common is that they are both intelligent samurai.
  • George Jetson Job Security: Staying within the bakufu is no easy feat, even for those who've been in it for a long time. The Shogun is fickle and easily changes his mind, something that Sano learns all to quickly; you can be demoted, exiled, or executed (as well as your loved ones and close associates) for little to no reason. How long you've worked for him or how well you've done your job has no affect.
  • Get a Hold of Yourself, Man!: Hirata administers a sanity-inducing slap to Sano after the later acts kinda histarical once he realizes that Reiko is still alive. (In his panic, he initially mistook a couple concubine's corpses to be hers.)
  • Girl in the Tower: Reiko, Midori, Keisho-in, and Lady Yanagisawa are imprisoned in an abandoned tower as hostages. Reiko manages to manipulate their kidnapper to give them a higher quality room in a less decrepit building.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Sano and Hirata invoke this dynamic if both of them are present during an interrogation of a suspect. Who takes which role depends on the suspect.
  • Good Parents: Sano and Reiko, who are concerned more about raising their children with morality and honor than using them as political pawns. Magistrate Ueda (Reiko's father), unlike many samurai fathers, actually payed attention to Reiko, even giving her the education reserved for sons.
  • Happily Married:
    • Sano and Reiko genuinely care for and love each other. Their camaraderie has helped Sano's investigations more than once. While their marriage becomes strained at various points throughout the series, they usually pull through.
    • Hirata and Midori actually married for love, and their relationship starts out lovingly enough. This slowly no longer becomes the case after Hirata begins his martial arts training.
  • Heir Club for Men: The shogun has no heir. His concubines don't conceive (granted, he's much more into boys anyway), his wife is too old, and his daughter is afraid of pregnancy and is 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 BSoD:
    • Sano has a minor meltdown in The Pillow Book Of Lady Wisteria after one too many death threat in reward for loyalty and competence.
    • He has a bigger one 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 next encounters a recovering Sano, Sano's aura is almost entirely black due to his hatred of the Shogun.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • Hirata in The Perfumed Sleeve, where he saves Sano from a potentially fatal swordstrike. While Hirata doesn't die, he does develop a permenant limp.
    • In The Iris Fan, Hirata fights against General Otani in order to keep the general from using his body to kill Sano. The fight strains Hirata's body so much, he litterly snaps his spine. Needless to say, he doesn't live very long afterward.
  • Hidden Backup Prince: Invoked: after Yoritomo's death, Yanagisawa presents one of his other sons, Yoshisato, to the Shogun. He claims that Yoshito is actually Tsunayoshi's, that he was raised by the Chamberlain to keep the Tokugawa line safe from its enemies. Sano, among many others, don't buy it for a second.
  • Historical Domain Character: Several characters that appear in the series are from Japanese history. Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, his mother, Lady Keisho-in, Chamberlain Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu and two of his sons, Tokugawa Ienobu, and several others appear or are mentioned.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Fact indicates the real Yanagisawa was not quite as scheming or nasty as the one in the books. He was likely little more than a yes man to the Shogun.
  • Honor Before Reason: Played with via various characters. Sano exemplifies this trope, often putting his life in danger for the sake of finding the truth. Various samurai avert or subvert the trope: instead of doing the right thing, they instead follow selfish pursuits or ignore injustices, or they are more concerned about protecting their master's honor, and will lie for them when telling the truth would be more beneficial in the long run. Sano has to deal with both types of people during each of his investigations.
  • Interdisciplinary Sleuth: Sano and most of his circle of investigators are also Samurai who have trained in some form of fighting art. Sano himself was a tutor and historian before becoming the Shogun's investigator. This background helps him hunt down evidence and witnesses during the various cases he's given.
  • Irony: There are a few examples sprinkled throughout the series, both minor and major:
    • A minor example occurs in The Concubine's Tattoo; Reiko- a firm believer in the power of women- completely ignores the various hints and broken alibis that implicate Lady Miyagi. Instead, she brushes her off as Lord Miyagi's insignificant shadow and believes him to be the murderer due to his obsession with death and defilement. When Lady Miyagi confesses to killing Harume, Reiko notes how social mores blinded both Sano and herself.
    • A semi-major example occurs in The Iris Fan, 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. A guilty silence shortly follows as everyone remembers how much of an Extreme Doormat the previous shogun was.
    • For a major example, there's the fact that Sano ends up having sole and absolute control over the new shogun, Ienobu, allowing him to basically rule Japan. Bear in mind, he was one of a small group of people who genuinely had no interest in ruling over Japan, and he spent a lot of his time struggling to just stay in court, keep his reputation intact, and his family alive and safe.
  • Jidaigeki: The time period the novels are set in, specifically the Edo period during the reign of Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.
  • Kangaroo Court: Trials are rarely fair, with an emphasis on expediency than actually meting out any real justice. Of the judges that appear in the series, only Magistrate Ueda, Reiko's father, is the one who actually cares about making an informed ruling. The others aren't troubled by the thought of potentially condemning innocents if it means staying within the Shogun's good graces.
  • Kicked Upstairs: Sano starts out the series as a teacher turned yoriki. After saving the Shogun's life, he becomes Tsunayoshi's top detective. Following Yanagisawa's exile, he gets his biggest promotion when he's made Chamberlain. He gets kicked back downstairs after Yanagisawa arranges for Lady Nobuko to be raped and the Shogun demotes Sano for failing to save his wife. Then he gets kicked back up again after Yanagisawa refuses to leave his home while mourning the death of Yomitoro. Then way down after Sano refuses to give up on finding evidence that will show that Ienobu had a hand in the death of Tsuruhime, the Shogun's daughter. Then up yet again after Tsunayoshi reinstates Sano to find out who attacked him. Finally, Sano becomes shogun-by-proxy when his voice is the only one that Ienobu will obey.
  • Killed Offscreen: Detective Fukida is killed by the massive earthquake. 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 a solemn Marume head off to a post-disaster investigation.
  • Kissing Cousins: Pops up from time to time; Lord and Lady Miyagi are cousins in a marriage of convenience because no one would marry into the family. One of the murder suspects in The Iris Fan is a little to close to her cousin for it to be just familial.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Sano becomes this over time; while he always knew life at court was dangerous, years of the Shogun failing to show any appreciation whatsoever for his loyalty gradually wears away at his idealism.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: The Shogun is desperate for a son and heir. Naturally, his wife never conceives and his concubines don't seem to do much better.
  • Like Father, Like Son: There are several examples. Out of the main cast there's:
    • Sano and Masahiro, who are very similar in attitude with Masahiro adoptting his father's philosophy towards honor. He even takes over Sano's post at the end of the series.
    • 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: The shogun uses "ahh" in this way in almost every bit of his dialogue. It's actually a way of showing his indisesiveness, as he drops it whenever he becomes more assertive. It goes away entirely after The Shogun's Daughter.
  • Locked Away in a Monastery: The fate of Lady Nobuko for causing the Shogun's death.
  • Long Game: Over a year after the disolution of Asano's house, the 47 ronin enact their plan to get their revenge against Kira.
  • Long Runner: The series has eighteen books that were released over the course of 20 years.
  • Loophole Abuse: The Shogun's dog keeper hides behind his attack dogs when Sano goes to investigate him. Sano can't 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 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.
    • Tsuruhime, the Shogun's daughter, dies of smallpox. Ienobu arranged for a maid in the house who had survived the disease to expose Tsuruhime 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.
  • Make Me Wanna Shout: The kiai, or "Death Cry", is used as the murder method. It is achieved through controlled breathing techniques and tightly managed concentration. The cry itself basically turns the target's body turn into a ragdoll.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe:
    • In The Concubine's Tattoo, Ito's autopsy reveals that Harume, one of the Shogun's concubines, died while carrying a child. Lady Mori thought it was her husband's, hence why she posioned Harume. It's actually the eta' chief's son.
    • In The Shogun's Daughter, it's revealed after Tsuruhime's death that she was possibly pregnant with a potential Tokugawa heir. Tsuruhime's husband hated her, and she was having an affair with another samurai.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Chamberlain Yanagisawa knows exactly how to phrase things to his lord and lover 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: Haru was married off to a much older man and was raped by him.
  • Mauve Shirt: Detectives Marume and Fukida, who accompany Sano and his family in several novels. Fukida dies in the 1703 earthquake.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The story is set in real world Edo-era Japan, but there are several instances where vaguely supernatural things happen. The "maybe mundane" part gets blurrier and blurrier as the series goes along until the spirit of a murder victim possess her lover. Hirata himself gets possessed by a vengeful ghost who forces him to do their bidding.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot:
    • In Shinjū, the bodies of a peasant man and a young samurai women are written off as yet another story of two star-crossed lovers committing a double love suicide so they could be together. It isn't until Sano probes further into their deaths that he finds out that they were murdered by Lady Niu in an effort to protect her son. Said son is plotting to murder the shogun.
    • In The Samurai's Wife, Sano's investigation of the imperial left minister's death eventually reveals a plot to overthrow the Tokugawa government and reinstate the emperor as ruler of Japan.
  • Mook Lieutenant: Aisu, Yanagisawa's chief retainer, lives through half of the book before getting killed by the murderer.
  • My Secret Pregnancy: Shortly after Hirata and Midori get together, Midori becomes pregnant. She tells no one about it expect Hirata, and even then it's only so she can explain exactly why they need to be married and fast. Much later on, her daughter, Taeko, follows in her footsteps when she becomes pregnant with Masahiro's child and says nothing until after she and Masahiro become engaged.
  • Nature Hero: During his time in Ezogashima, Hirata learns how to sense the natural aura of everything around him.
  • Ninja: Aoi is a ninja who works for Yanagisawa. She supplies him information as well as manipulating his enemies.
  • Noble Fugitive:
    • Yanagisawa pretends to be a monk after escaping from exile and planning his return.
    • After being kidnapped by Ienobu's men, Yoshisato escapes them and pretends to be a gangster, even becoming leader of the gang.
  • Non-Promotion: Before Yanagisawa's exile, the Shogun gave Sano more work and relied on him more in governing Japan, but neither promoted him nor gave him much credit.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Haru makes several failed attempts to play dumb after becoming an arson suspect.
  • Official Couple: Sano and Reiko. Once they come to an understanding, they quickly fall for and become devoted to each other. Reiko also becomes one of Sano's main consultants and confidants when it comes to brainstorming ideas and discussing evidence.
  • Out with a Bang: Makino had a heart attack while participating in a threesome.
  • Parental Incest: Many characters have this as part of their background.
  • Parental Neglect: A lot of characters have parents that ignored them or are parents that don't pay attention to their child(ren). 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.
  • Playing Hard to Get: When Midori asks Reiko for advice on how to get Hirata to pay attention to her again, Reiko basically tells to her to invoke this trope. It backfires pretty quickly; Midori tries too hard to act aloof and cold which just confuses Hirata at first. He also quickly figures out what she's trying to do and is only amused by it.
  • Pregnant Badass: Pregnant or not, Reiko will do whatever to be part of Sano's investigations. This comes back to bite her when she miscarries her third child.
  • Promiscuity After Rape: Several characters who were raped in their past are very promiscious in the present: Yanagasiwa, Haru, and Yugao, just to name a few.
  • Public Execution: Constantly, and often unfairly given. This becames a plot point towards the end of the The Fire Kimono; Sano stages Yoritomo's execution, using Yanagisawa's love for his son as a means to draw Yanagisawa out from hiding.
  • Puppy Love: Taeko develops a huge crush on Masahiro when she's seven. He doesn't feel the same way at first, seeing her as just a playmate. After saving his life at the end of The Shogun's Daugter, Masahiro starts to develop feelings for her.
  • Put on a Bus: Yanagisawa and Hoshina are not present during the investigation of the Black Lotus case, as they are on a tour of inspection. Senior Elder Makino takes their place as Sano's main detractor.
  • Rags to Royalty: Lady Keisho-in 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 that her lack of refined manners reveal her heritage.
  • Rape as Backstory: Both male and female characters have this, though there seem to be more male characters who have suffered through this. Since "manly love" among samurai was a common practice in this period of Japan, masters taking advantage of their students was sadly not uncommon. The trauma experienced from the assault often results in a motive for more power over others (as is the case for Yanagisawa) or, in extreme cases, murder (such as when Kira was murdered by his retainer for pimping out said retainer's son).
  • Rashomon Plot: Each of the suspects tells their own version of how Reiko ended up in Lord Mori's chamber. Unsurprisingly, their stories don't exactly mesh with each other: Reiko's tale explains how she came to be in the Mori estate, but not how she got into the state she was in when Sano found her; Lady Mori paints Reiko as some two-timing seductress who killed Lord Mori in cold blood; Lady Mori's son describes Reiko as a blackmailer who was doing Sano's bidding, etc.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: As this is the standard of beauty during the series, many women have this appearance and will go to desperate lengths to maintain and/or achieve it. Older women, such as Lady Keisho-in, will 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 within the Shogun's court and Edo as a whole, as corruption is rampant in both. Outside of the main protagonists, Magistrate Ueda is one of Edo's few honest and powerful men.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Sano not only calls the Shogun by name, he calls him out for his childishness, irresponsible ways, and passive-aggressive behavior, additionally calling him a coward unworthy of bearing the Tokugawa name. Much to his, and everyone else's absolute shock, Tsunayoshi agrees with him.
  • Reassignment Backfire: Sano's trip to Deshima, 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: The Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, which can be summed up as "prostitutes, courtesans, and more prostitutes."
  • Refuge in Audacity: It takes quite a bit of samurai bravado and no small amount of iron balls to not only call the most powerful person in Japan a coward, but to declare him unworthy of his name and title and get away with it.
  • Revisiting the Cold Case: When the Shogun's cousin goes missing, a search party is sent out to find him, but a few months without any success leads people to believe he died in the fire. It isn't until four decades later that his skeleton is found, and Sano is tasked with finding out the truth behind his death.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Both Sano and Reiko turn out to be right, though the actual facts were either obfuscated or hidden. While Haru did kill the Commander, she did it in self-defense and hadn't even intended to kill him outright. She also didn't murder her husband via arson: it was an accident that she took took advantage of so she could escape his abuse. The Black Lotus are indeed just as devious and dangerous as the public think them to be, even more so than anybody could have imagined.
  • Rōnin:
    • Sano is the son of a rōnin and, by extension, was one himself before becoming a yoriki.
    • The Rōnin's Mistress deals with the legend of The 47 Ronin.
  • Sadistic Choice: After her husband dies, Lady Nobuko has to choose between killing either Yanagisawa or Ienobu and letting the survivor take over the mantle of Shogun. There's just one problem: she has ample reason to murder both of them. Yanagisawa had her kidnapped and raped in order to discredit his rival and Ienobu arranged the death of her only child. Unable to decide who she hates more, Lady Nobuko snaps.
  • Screaming Birth: Midori screams through most of the birth.
  • Seppuku: Depending on their status, some samurai are given this option instead of execution, seeing it as a means for them to regain the honor they lost. Some characters take this route when their situation seems too bleak to get out of. After going against one of Sano's orders, Hirata offers this as a way to atone for his disobiedence. Sano forbids him, instead urging him to use this as a lesson. "Jigai" is the woman's version, used by Lady Yanisagawa after her husband's death leaves her and her daughter's future uncertain.
  • Sequel: While the murder and murderer of The Pillow Book of Lady wisteria weren't part of the previous book, the affect the Black Lotus case had on the main cast clearly shows: Sano's temper is quick to kindle due to the mental and emotional turmoil that formed after the raid on the sect's temple; Reiko doubts her deductive abilities and intuition due to backing a suspect that ultimately proved to be a manipulator and murderer; their marriage rests in a state of fragile equilibrium because they were on opposing sides, which fomented bad blood between them, etc. Additionally, some loose ends are tied up regarding just how the Black Lotus was able to exist for so long without reprisal: several influential members of the bakufu were Black Lotus followers, meaning they were able to cover up the sect's doings from people who might have done something about it.
  • Serial Escalation: With each progressive entry, the crimes and court politics get more intense, culminating in an attack on the Shogun himself.
  • Sex Equals Love: Lady Yanagisawa desperately holds to this belief when her husband beds her as a reward in The Perfumed Sleeve. When Lady Yanagisawa tries to explain to Reiko that Yanagisawa loves her, Reiko mocks her for thinking that lust and love are the same thing.
  • Shipper on Deck: In the Black Lotus, both Sano and Reiko would like to see Hirata and Midori get married, but their class origins and Hirata's recently aquired arragonce makes the prospect difficult.
  • Shoot the Dog: Sano generally forgoes torture, seeing it as both inhumane and an inefficient means to obtaining reliable testimony. However, every so often he will break this rule, usually when a suspect or witness tries his patience for too long.
  • Sidekick Graduations Stick: Hirata starts out as Sano's right hand man before assuming Sano's position as the Shogun's chief investigator after Sano gets promoted to Chamberlain. As the series progresses, Hirata gets more attention in the spotlight, even getting his own subplot that spans multiple books.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Reiko uses her courtly status to search for information that her husband and his detectives might not otherwise find. If she runs into trouble, she always has a knife up the sleeve of her kimono, and she knows how to use it.
  • Sleeping Their Way to the Top: While most government positions are obtained through birth, some ambitious samurai will circumvent this system by sleeping with their superiors. Yanagisawa is a promenent example, as he got the job of Chamberlain by becoming the Shogun's lover and confidante. He encourages his son, Yoritomo, to employ this method in an attempt to have him declared as next-in-line to the Shogun's position.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Lieutenant Kushida developed an obsession with Harume shortly after she entered Edo Castle.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers:
    • In Shinju, the titular case is about an upper-class lady and a shunga artist who committed double suicide in the hopes they would be able to live together in the afterlife. It's an enforced example: the two victims had never met in life, and their deaths were made to look like a shinju by the murderer.
    • In The Concubine's Tattoo, Harume and Danzaemon, the eta's headchief, were deeply in love, but could never be together because of their vast differences in class.
  • Status Quo Is God: Downplayed. Once Sano becomes sosakan, a status quo is established that includes Sano having to solve a politically charged mystery with Yanagisawa using the investigation to either take down Sano or further his own power. That doesn't mean things stay stagnant, though: Sano gets married to Reiko, who becomes an important asset to his investigations. Together they have two children, both of whom eventually help solve cases in some way. Sano's position within the court changes multiple times over the course of the series, as does Hirata's. Hirata himself has his own personal struggles regarding his duty to Sano and his family. His situation also changes considerably throughout the series: originally a doshin, he becomes Sano's chief retainer after assisting him in the Bundori case. He then gets married to Midori and becomes sosakan after Sano's own promotion to Chamberlain. Then Hirata gets gravely injured which gives him a limp, leading him to turn to mystic martial arts in order to compensate, etc.
  • Stupidity-Inducing Attack: Hirata uses his last ounce of energy to throw a mental attack at Ienobu. Although Ienobu can take care of his basic needs, the attack causes him to only be able to do something if Sano orders him to.
  • Succession Crisis: The lack of a direct heir to the Tokugawa line spurs most of the political plotting as factions compete for the Shogun's favor. Sano seems to be the only person in Edo Castle who doesn't want this for Masahiro which, naturally, no one else believes. This dilemma pretty much becomes the focus of the last two books after the death of Tsuruhime, the Shogun's daughter, and an attack on the Shogun himself.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Minister Ogyu was born female but raised as male by a family that had desperately hoped for a son. It's the threat of being exposed as a fraud that leds her to murder.
  • Those Two Guys: Detectives Marume and Fukida are two of Sano's retainers, and are often seen with one another. They don't have their own subplots, their personalities aren't as well developed as the rest of the main cast, and they only appear whenever their assitance is needed.
  • Time Skip: Utilized to varying degrees. The largest one happens between The Shogun's Daughter and The Iris Fan: five years have passed between the events of the former and the beginning of the latter. Circumstances have changed greatly for Sano and those around him, and not for the better.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Reiko is a samurai lady who prefers adventure and Midori is a women who prefers being a housewife.
  • Torture Technician: Dr. Miwa is both the Black Lotus sect's chief physician and their torturer. His background in medicine aids in his research of poisons.
  • Touch of Death: Dim-mak is a martial art techinque that involves touching someone at a specific point of the body. At least two days later, the victim will die of a burst blood vessel in their brain. This is the main murder method of the Ghost, the antagonist of The Assassin's Touch.
  • Trauma Conga Line: After he's severely injured in The Perfumed Sleeve, Hirata starts down a dark path that sorely tests his previously honorable, good-natured character. It begins when he decides to embark on mystical martial arts training to compensate for his new disability. He's forced to leave his wife and children for months at a time, which causes major resentment from Midori. He eventually falls in with a group of mystical conspirators that want use their skills to altar the course of Japan. When Hirata threatens to leave after realizing they intend to destroy the Tokugawa shogunate, they threaten to kill Sano. Their superior skills force him to protect said master by keeping quiet about what is going on and remain under their control, infuriating Sano and making it impossible for him to stick up for his retainer. Hirata tries to take down the conspirators, but they beat Hirata nearly to death and force him to become a host to a vengeful ghost general. After killing off the conspirators, the general forces Hirata to murder and steal for Ienobu over the course of five years, never letting him go home. This eventually forces Sano to label Hirata a traitor, which turns both him and his family into outcasts, leading Midori to develop a deep hatred for Hirata. When Hirata finally appears in the final battle at the palace, the general tries to make him kill his long time friend and master to prevent his plans from being stopped. Hirata fights back so hard against the ghost's control that he snaps his bones, tendons, nerves, and even his own spine in order to stop the ghost from hurting Sano. Although Hirata manages one last mental attack on Ienobu to thwart the general's plans for good, the strain and injury to his body is too much for him to ever recover from. He dies in Midori's arms a few hours later.
  • Trial by Ordeal: In The Snow Empress, Cheiftan Awetok offers a traditional Ainu trial in order to figure out who murdered Tekare. Upon being presented with a pot of boiling water, the accused plunges one of their hands into the pot. If the accused's hand remains unscathed, its because the spirit of the victim recognized their innocence and protected them. If the accused's hand gets scalded, they're guilty. Both Awetok and Urahenka go through the trail and neither of them are harmed. Daigoro posits that they used some type of native potion to prevent them from getting hurt, but Sano can't imagine any type of balm doing what he suggests. Turns out that neither Awetok nor Urahenka commited the crime, suggesting that the trail was completely legitimate.
  • Turn in Your Badge: After Sano refuses to stop investigating Ienobu, Tsunayoshi takes away his rank and bans him from court.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: Reiko looks almost exactly like her grandmother and even shares a couple characteristics with her: they are both similiarly stubborn and sharp-tongued.
  • Villainous Breakdown: After all of his careful scheming and planning, Yanagisawa loses it when it's revealed that Sano's voice is the only one that Ienobu will obey. This proves to be one too many times that Sano has interfered and won, for Yanagisawa snaps and attacks Sano.
  • Who's Laughing Now?: The reason Ienobu wants to be shogun so badly is so he can force all those who made fun of him for being weak and disabled to bow before him as ruler of Japan. Taken to its extremes when Sano finds out he's made plans to conquer the world.
  • Woman Scorned: Just one type of motive in the series. In The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria, Lady Wisteria frames several former clients she has come to loathe.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: General Otani needed the other members of the fellowship because they were the only ones who could help provid him a host. Once he's possessed Hirata's body, Otani uses his newfound physicallity to murder the rest of the fellowship within seconds.
  • You Killed My Father: The murder of a family member- usually a child- is the motive behind more than one murder.
    • Yanagisawa vows revenge against Sano for Yoritomo's death, even though Sano had nothing to do with it. Ditto with Yanagisawa's other son, Yoshisato. Although, in his case, he was later found to be alive and in hiding.
    • Lady Nobuko never forgave the one who caused the death of her daughter, Tsuruhime. She pulls a knife on Ienobu in the final battle, but is only stops herself from killing him when Yanagisawa enters, and she can't decide who she hates more.