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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.

A total of eighteen books were released. These are:

  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:

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  • Abusive Parents: Many parents in the series are terrible to their children. Most notably are Yanagisawa's who saw him and his siblings only as tools for their own ambitions.
  • 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. He was one of Yanagisawa's most loyal defenders.
    • Red Chrysanthemum: Hoshina, decapitated by Sano after trying to murder him via a lye bath.
    • The Fire Kimono: Lord Matsudaira, who commits seppuku after being tricked by Yanagisawa.
    • The Ronin's Mistress: Yoritomo while 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 his rival once and for all.
      • After hearing of his death, Lady Yanagisawa slits both her and her daughter Kikuko's throats.
  • Arranged Marriage: Arranged marriages are the standard, particularly within the 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.
    • In the The Iris Fan, it's averted by Masahiro and Taeko, who only have each other due to essentially being exiles from the rest of society and desperately want to marry. Later played straight when due to circumstances, Masahiro is forced into a marriage with Kikuko.
  • 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 (somewhat) 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 mystic 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 happened to be the little sister of the murder victim. She later became a regular character when she got romantically involved with Hirata and became Reiko's friend.
    • Lady Wisteria was introduced in Shinjū as a friend of one of the victims. She later becomes a key murder suspect and viewpoint character during the last book she appears in.
  • Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: Many of the Edo city police, especially after Hoshina is put in charge. Sano cleans things up somewhat, but most of the truly honest investigators remain only in 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 them, or at least turn them to his advantage as well.
  • 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.
  • 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 relationship.
  • Body Snatcher: General Otani eventually takes over Hirata's body with help from the others in the mystical fellowship.
  • 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.
  • By-the-Book Cop: Sano starts out by following the rules of Bushido strictly and always honoring the shogun's wishes. This does not last long, since others, especially Yanagisawa, aren't as willing to play by those rules.
  • Christmas Cake:
    • 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.
    • Lady Yanagisawa before her marriage. Unfortunately for her, it wasn't out of love but because she was a Tokugawa cousin.
  • 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.
  • Cowboy Cop: Sano starts moving from By-the-Book Cop 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.
  • 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.
  • 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: 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.
  • 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 is about as bad with its internal struggles. The only difference is they wield almost no power over the country.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: It can be easy to spot which witnesses and, less often, 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.
  • 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 out of the reoccurring characters.
  • Disguised in Drag:
    • The first time we ever see the Shogun in the series, he's dressed as a woman.
    • 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.
  • 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 treated no differently than any other who died of the disease.
  • 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 that has to do with the Shogun's court. 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 isn't really neccasary. 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:
    • 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.
    • 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: Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. When he actually tries to take things into his own hands, he makes matters worse. He subverts this temporarily in The Fire Kimono when he gets fed up with Lord Matsudaira's jealous and condescending attitude. 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.
  • Faking the Dead:
    • In The Samurai's Wife, after finding the latest victim of kiai ("Death Cry"), Sano pretends to be dead in order to throw off Yanagisawa. This proves useless as Yanagisawa was there during the attack.
    • 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.
  • Foil: Yanagisawa is this to Sano. He's basically the epitome of a corrupt samurai.
  • 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.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Sano and Hirata invoke this dynamic if both of them are present during an interrogation of a suspect. Sometimes Sano is the bad cap and Hirata the good cop or vice versa.
  • 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 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 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.
  • 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, 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:
    • 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.
  • Interdisciplinary Sleuth: Sano and most of his circle of investigators are also Samurai.
  • Irony:
    • 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 as well. 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
  • Jidaigeki: The time period the novels are set in, specifically the Edo period during the reign of Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.
  • 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 the shogun's wife to be raped and the Shogun demotes Sano for failing to save her. Then back up again after Yanagisawa refuses to leave his home while mourning the death of Yomitoro. Then way down after he refuses to give up on finding evidence that will show that Ienobu had a hand in the death of the shogun's daughter. Then up yet again when Tsunayoshi reinstates Sano to find out who attacked him. Finally, he becomes shogun-by-proxy when his voice is the only one that Ienobu will obey. By the end of the series, his position in court has yo-yoed all over the place.
  • 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.
  • Long Runner: The series had eighteen books that were released over the course of 20 years.
  • 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.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe:
    • In The Concubine's Tattoo, one of the shogun's concubine's manages to conceive. It's actually the eta' chief's son.
    • In The Shogun's Daughter, it is 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, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Hirata gets straight up possessed by a ghost.
  • 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 commiting shinju 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Black Lotus, Haru makes several failed attempts to play dumb after becoming an arson suspect.
  • Official Couple: Sano and Reiko. Once they'd 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.
  • Parental Incest: Many characters have this as part of their backstory.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 had never met.
    • Harume and Danzaemon, the eta cheif, in The Concubine's Tattoo, who could never be together because of their difference in class.
  • 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 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.
  • Those Two Guys: Detectives Marume and Fukida, who back up Sano on almost every assignment. Otherwise, nothing is known about them.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Reiko, outgoing and eager for mystery, and Midori, content to stay in a quiet house with her children.
  • 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.
  • Trauma Conga Line: After he is severely injured in The Assassin's Touch, Hirata starts down a dark and horrible 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 handicap. He is forced to leave his wife, Midori, 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 him to use his skills for their own plans 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 allow the ghost of a vengeful general take over his body while he is in a coma. After killing his former companions, General Otani forces Hirata to kill and steal for Ienobu over the course of five years and never lets him go home, eventually forcing Sano, long time friend and master, to label him a traitor and creating a deep hatred in Midori for abandoning his family and turning them into outcasts due to his traitor status. When he finally appears in the final battle at the palace, General Otani tries to make him kill Sano 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 to stop the attack. Although he manages one last mental attack on Ienobu to thwart the General's plans for good, the strain and injury on his body is too much for him to ever recover from. He dies in Midori's arms a few hours later, now at peace, knowing that the General's scheme has been stopped, and is named as a hero by a grieving Sano.
  • Woman Scorned: One of the frequent motives for murder in the series.
    • Lady Wisteria, who frames several former clients she has come to loathe in The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria.
  • You Killed My Father: The murder of one's child 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, though 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 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.

  • Decapitation Presentation: The practice of bundori; a head is cleaned, made up, and mounted on a spike for display as a war trophy.
  • Ninja: Aoi is a ninja who works for Yanagisawa. She supplies him information as well as manipulating his enemies.
    The Way of the Traitor 
  • Reassignment Backfire: Sano's trip to Nagasaki, 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.
    The Concubine's Tattoo 
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Lady Ichiteru's beauty and sensuality inherently 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 goes through with it. Ichiteru doesn't get punished for this; the closest she gets is being sent back to Miyako to make room for a dozen new concubines. Which would've happened anyway once she turned 30.
  • Get a Hold of Yourself, Man!: Hirata admisters one of these to Sano after the later realizes that Reiko is still alive. (In his panic, he initially mistook Snowflake and Wren's corpses to be her.)
  • Kissing Cousins: Lord and Lady Miyagi are cousins in a marriage of convenience because no one would marry into the family.
  • Someone Has to Die: Shichisaburo- Yanagisawa's current paramour and spy- 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.
    The Samurai's Wife 
  • 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.
  • Mook Lieutenant: Aisu, Yanagisawa's chief retainer. He lives through half of the book before getting killed by the murderer, (albeit unintentionally).
    Black Lotus 
  • Both Sides Have a Point: Sano's arguements about Haru's guilt and Reiko's belief in her innocense 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; the fact that she was the last person to see her deceased husband alive before he died of arson isn't a point in her favor. 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 poisoning water wells. There are just as many people that hate and distrust the sect as their are people who support it.
  • Compulsive Liar: Haru seems incapable of telling the truth, more often defaulting to lies and deciet in the hopes that it will earn her trust and divert suspicions. By the time she finally does, it's too little, too late.
  • 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 of her lies. It is anything but: soon after Sano and the Tokugawa soldiers arrive at the temple, a swarm of novices, priests, and nuns exit the place and attack the soldiers.
  • Cult: The Black Lotus sect.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Anraku lost an eye sometime before his rise to power. He claims that the blind eye gives him divine premonitions.
  • Marital Rape License: Haru was married off to a much older man and was raped by him.
  • 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. Reality Ensues pretty quickly; Midori tries too hard to act aloof and cold which just confuses Hirata. He also quickly figures out what she's trying to do.
  • Put on a Bus: Yanagisawa and Hoshina are not present during the investigation of the Black Lotus case. It's mentioned that Yanagisawa is on a tour of inspection.
  • 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 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.
  • Shipper on Deck: Both Sano and Reiko would like to see Hirata and Midori get married, but their class origins and Hirata's recent behavior have made the prospect difficult.
  • Torture Technician: Dr. Miwa, the Black Lotus sect's chief physician, who moonlights as a torturer.
    The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria 
  • Eye Scream: Mitsuyoshi, the Shogun's heir apparent, is killed via a hairpin through the eye.
  • Sequel: While the murder has nothing to do with the antagonists from the previous book, the affects of the Black Lotus case are clearly felt in this one; 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 abilities due to backing a suspect that ultimately proved to be a manipulator and murderer, and their marriage rests in a state of fragile equilibrium because they were each on opposing sides which fomented bad blood between them. There's also some more information regarding just how deep the Black Lotus' influence was within the bakufu.
    The Dragon King's Palace 
  • 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.
  • Girl in the Tower: Reiko, Midori, Keisho-in, and Lady Yanagisawa are imprisoned in a crumbling tower as hostages.
  • Screaming Birth: Midori's delivery of her first child.
    The Perfumed Sleeve 
  • Out with a Bang: Makino had a heart attack while participating in a threesome.
  • Sex Equals Love: Lady Yanagisawa desperately holds to this belief when her husband beds her as a reward.
    The Assassin's Touch 

    Red Chrysanthemum 
    The Snow Empress 

    The Fire Kimono 
  • Revisiting the Cold Case: When the Shogun's cousin goes missing, a search party tries to find him, but after 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.
    The Cloud Pavilion 
  • 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. The law says nothing about dogs attacking other dogs.
  • Shoot the Dog: Sano generally forgoes torture, seeing it as both inhumane and an inefficient means to getting reliable testimony. He does eventually break this rule in an effort to get two key accomplices to speak.
    The Rōnin's Mistress 
    The Incense Game 
  • Hidden Backup Prince: After Yoritomo's death, Yanagisawa presents his son Yoshisato to the Shogun, claiming he is actually a secret son of Tsunayoshi's 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.
  • 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.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Minister Ogyu, who was born female but raised as male by a family that had desperately hoped for a son.
    The Shogun's Daughter 
  • Borrowed Catchphrase: 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 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.
  • "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.
  • 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.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: After successfully possessing Hirata's body, General Otani no longer needs the other members of the fellowship, killing each of them off within seconds.
    The Iris Fan 
  • Authority in Name Only: Ienobu, after suffering severe brain damage due to Hirata's mental attack. He can only answer Sano's commands.
  • Bus Crash: Lady Keisho-in dies in the five year gap in-between the previous book and this one.note 
  • Chekhov's Skill: Akiko's skill with handling dogs both saves Reiko's life and helps the both of them find a clue.
  • Combat Hand Fan: The titular weapon used to attack the Shogun.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Locked Away in a Monastery: The fate of Lady Nobuko for causing the Shogun's death.
  • 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.
  • 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. In short, Hirata literally makes the new shogun Sano's puppet.
  • Time Skip: There is a five year gap between the previous book and this one, though there are flashbacks of the interim period. Circumstances have changed greatly for Sano and those around him, and definitely not for the better.
  • 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, attacking Sano and leading to their final duel.
  • 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 disabled to bow before him as ruler of Japan. Taken up to eleven when Sano finds out he's made plans to conquer the world.


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