by Naomi Hirahara
Another entry in the Mas Arai mysteries, about the geriatric Japanese-American detective whose English nor his Japanese are neither so good. But he nevertheless manages to find the culprit! Hiroshima survivor Mas Arai is a widower and longtime resident of Southern California, whose daughter lives in New York City. He lives alone and while his clientele is steadily dwindling (either they move or they find someone cheaper or they die off), he nonetheless knows a lot of people. In this story, an acquaintance has won the lottery! Literally, he’s won the lottery, and to celebrate, he throws a party, complete with musicians, one of whom plays an Asian stringed instrument. The Japanese call it a shamisen, but the Okinawans call it a sanshin. One covered with snakeskin is unusual (but not necessarily unique) and catches our hero’s eye shortly before The Incident, and this particular instrument is the crux of the story.
And once more, I really appreciate Hirahara’s work. Through all her Mas Arai books she has the characters use Japanese terms, with small, inobtrusive translations. She reminds those of us who may have forgotten, and she explains to those who never did, about Japanese terms and cultural references and historical bits (only some about the atom bomb, referred to as pikadon, a reference to the blinding light and then the noise). And in this story, we learn about the Okinawans, who aren’t Japanese, even though they’ve been classified as such by the Americans, and about their particular culture and communities here in the US. We also learn about the Red scare in the 1950s and how that played out in the Asian community back then. We also find out about the Japanese Peruvians and how they tried to start a new life down there—only to be kidnapped by government forces and used for their own nefarious purposes.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Hirahara’s books make me want to visit Southern California again and completely ignore the part that everyone hears about. I want to try Japanese Peruvian cuisine and hear a sanshin. And I look forward to another Mas Arai story.
COMING UP: THE SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, GASA-GASA GIRL, STRAWBERRY YELLOW, 1,001 CRANES