A Review of The Samurai’s Daughter by Sujata Massey
Christmas in San Francisco – what an exciting holiday! But not for Japanese-American Rei Shimura, who grew up there.
Rei has lived in Japan for several years, the fruition of a lifelong dream. She eked out a living teaching English to business people when she first moved to Tokyo, but has since put her art history degree to work, becoming a dealer in Japanese antiques. A speaking engagement for a Washington, DC museum brought her back to the US for the first time in two years, after which she headed west to visit her parents.
Rei is doing research for an oral history project, interviewing her father some of her Japanese relatives to find out more about what everyday life was like for the Shimura family prior to her father’s emigration to the US.
On Christmas Eve, Rei is pleasantly surprised when her boyfriend arrives for an unexpected visit. Hugh Glendinning is a tall, handsome Scottish lawyer, and they’ve had a rocky relationship since meeting in Tokyo a few years previously. He’s flown in from Washington, DC, where he works for an international law firm, to interview some plaintiffs in a class action suit he’s working on with a lawyer from a San Francisco firm.
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During the visit Hugh proposes (for the fifth time) and Rei accepts. His big case will take him to Japan, and she’s looking forward to being with him in Tokyo.
However, the case is messy and controversial. The plaintiffs are a group of elderly people who were used as slave labor by Japanese companies during WWII, and Hugh’s firm is suing the large companies that abused them. It causes discord within Rei’s own family, and in Japan.
Clashes of every imaginable sort ensue – past and present, culture and society, ideology and politics.
Following the suspicious death of one plaintiff and serious injury of another, Rei tries to find the responsible party. And, after a series of serious miscalculations and missteps on her part, Japan throws her out.
Rei unhappily returns to San Francisco where she wrestles with a few more demons – both internal and external – before finally solving the mysteries and acknowledging that the people you’re with are more important than where you’re located.
Thos of you who’ve been following this blog for a while know I’m a mystery fan, and that I like my books in series. Normally I would review the first book in a series, but The Samurai’s Daughter is the sixth Rei Shimura novel. I chose it because of its expatriation/repatriation theme.
I also chose it because it’s a surprisingly readable story – surprising, that is, given its subject matter of forced prostitution and slavery, war, atrocities, toxic political ideology, family and cultural history, guilt, innocence and warring personal beliefs.
In an early scene, Rei is examining an heirloom from her father’s family, a samurai sword from the 1500’s. She knows that the old Japanese religion Shinto taught that a sword contained the samurai’s soul, and therefore sword worship was practiced as part of the tradition of ancestor worship.
“I had an antipathy to weapons. In my opinion, a rice pot that had served the family through lean and lavish times was the kind of object worthy of family worship. I’d even revere a quilt patched together from old blue-and-white robes called yukata; my father had told me about such a quilt that he and his brother had slept under for many years, until it finally wore out. That was the problem, exactly: Crockery broke and fabric frayed. The delicate things that I cared about perished, while the hard things like swords survived.”
Ultimately Rei must accept her heritage – even the uncomfortable hard things passed down through her samurai grandfather.
This is a wonderful series, jam-packed with details about life in modern-day Japan. As a protagonist, Rei is unique: feisty and nosy, by Japanese standards, she has a passion for fairness and justice and a willingness to fight for the underdog that lead her into scrape after scrape. The first book in the series is The Salaryman’s Wife; the most recent and tenth in the series is Shimura Trouble. I highly recommend them.
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