By Sujata Massey
Published by Harper Collins
March 2003; 0-066-21290-1; 304 pages
"Way too salty. I bet the chef used instant dashi powder."
My judgment delivered, I laid down the chopsticks I'd used to spear a slippery cube of tofu from the unfortunate miso soup. The Asian-American waitress who'd served us passed by with a smile; apparently, she didn't understand Japanese. Well, this was San Francisco, packed full of people with faces that mirrored the world's races, but who often spoke only English. I guessed that I'd been saved.
"But this soup is so tasty!" Toshiro Shimura, my father, raked a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. It was cut in a slightly shaggy style typical for a San Francisco psychiatrist -- but was distinctly odd for a Japanese-born, fifty-something man. "Rei-chan, you don't realize how hard it is to find pure Japanese ingredients here. Anyway, I hear that in Japan a lot of the cooks now use bonito powder."
"Not real cooks. I grate bonito fish -- you know, the kind that's so hard that it feels like a piece of wood." I closed my eyes for a minute, feeling nostalgic for the petrified hunk of fish resting in a wooden box in my tiny kitchenette in North Tokyo. "It's worth the extra effort because then the soup tastes like it comes from the sea, not the convenience store. Now, Dad, where were we? The ten grave precepts of Buddhism. The ones your grandfather felt were so important to live by. I thought it was interesting that he had them on display."
"Yes, they were recorded on a calligraphy scroll. I think it originally came from a monastery, but it hung in the office where he worked. Unfortunately, I don't know where it is now."
"Do you recall, approximately, what it said?"
"The precepts. You know them, don't you?"
I rolled my eyes. "I know some of them, but not all. You didn't raise me Buddhist, remember?"
"But you did take an Eastern religions class at Berkeley, yes?"
"It was so long ago, Dad. just tell me. This is an oral history project, not a go-to-the-library project. I remember the first one: Don't kill. The next: Don't steal. And then the one about not lying -- "
"Well, the precept against lying is actually the fourth, not the third, if I remember correctly. And in Japan, it's always been considered allowable to tell certain kinds of lies out of compassion, or because that lie serves a greater good."
"Well, I'd agree with that," I said. "What was the third one, then?"
"It's a precept against sex. Misusing sex, to be exact. That would cover situations such as rape and extramarital sex and -- "
"Fine. Ah, what's number five?" I wasn't going to pursue the subtleties of the Buddhist rule governing sex -- that was just a little too up-close and personal. It had been two years since I'd last come home to San Francisco, and I wanted to leave on as good terms as I'd arrived.
"That, if I remember correctly, is not to give or take drugs."
"But priests drink sake all the time!" I pointed out.
"Well, a person may take sake, but not in an amount to cause intoxication. My grandfather drank sake at supper, but only a single glass."
"Would you say in general that laypeople's interpretations of these rules were looser than that of priests? I mean, Zen priests don't eat meat, but most people in Japan do. But how is it that people are allowed to eat meat, when the first precept is against killing?"
"That's the rule I thought my vegetarian daughter would jump on." My father laughed. "The answer is that killing animals in self-defense, or to eat them, is permitted. It's just not right to kill them for sport."
"Aha. So the basis of the rule is that an animal's life is valued only when it might be threatened with involvement in a game, say hunting or cockfighting," I said. "I'm not sure I agree with that. A death is a death, to me. But the rule certainly provides an interesting look at the Japanese mind."
"The Buddhist mind," my father corrected me. "And as you know, Buddhism has its origins in India, and these laws are known to Buddhists in all nations. They are universal."
I put my notebook aside for a break, because as much as I'd complained about the noodles, I was hungry for them. Actually, my feelings about food, my hometown, and my father were about as mixed up as the Buddhist rules.
San Francisco was a typical tourist's dream, but in my mind it was a far second to Tokyo, my adopted home. Sure, the architecture in San Francisco was superb. But how could you enjoy it with all the rolling power blackouts? My parents' lifestyles had changed dramatically since California had faced its energy crisis -- their huge Victorian home was no longer lit up welcomingly in the evenings, not even now, at Christmas, when my mother once had routinely lit electric candles in all sixty windows.
Tokyo didn't have such problems yet. And when there, it was easy for me to live simply, keeping my appreciation low to the ground, for things like the miniature Shinto shrines decorated with good luck fox statues, and the gracious rows of persimmon trees that line the ugly train tracks. And then, there were the Japanese people: the serene older generation moving through their own private dances of tai chi in the city's small parks, and the serious kindergarten students striding off to school wearing the kind of saucer-shaped hat and tidy uniform that hadn't changed since the 1920s. Not to mention my father's brother, Uncle Hiroshi, Aunt Norie, and my cousin Tom, who had become an important part of my life: so important that I planned to hightail it out of America before December 31 so I wouldn't miss New Year's Day with them ...
Antiques dealer Rei Shimura is in San Francisco visiting her parents and researching a personal project to trace the story of 100 years of Japanese decorative arts through her own family's history. But Rei's work is interrupted by the arrival of her long-distance boyfriend, lawyer Hugh Glendinning, who is involved in a class action lawsuit on behalf of people forced to engage in slave labor for Japanese companies during World War II.
Suddenly, when one of Hugh's clients is murdered, their two projects intertwine. Before long, Rei uncovers troubling facts about her own family's actions during the war. As she starts to unravel the truth and search for a killer, the notions of family ties and loyalty take on an entirely new meaning.
Sujata Massey, whom critics consistently praise for her ability to balance murder and mystery with captivating cultural lore, is back with another gripping and provocative tale sure to keep readers charmed from start to finish.(back to top)
Sujata Massey was born in England to parents from India and Germany. She studied writing at Johns Hopkins University and worked as a reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun before moving to Japan, whre she taught English and began writing mystery fiction. The Rei Shimura series starts with The Salaryman's Wife, which won the Agatha Award for best first novel of 1997, and continues with Zen Attitude, and Edgar and Anthony nominee, and The Flower Master. At present Sujata Massey lives with her husband and daughter in Baltimore and travels to Japan to research future Rei Shimura novels.