Laura Joh Rowland - The Concubine's Tattoo

I ran the Mensa Feudal Japan group for over 10 years, and have loved the Japanese culture since childhood. I was thrilled to pick up The Concubine's Tattoo - the fourth in a series about 1600s-era detective Sano Ichiro and his brand new wife, 20 year old Reiko. I wasn't expecting real historical accuracy - just a fun afternoon read with mystery and romance.

On the historical side, Rowland gets many things right and several things wrong. That's to be expected from most books, and I won't let that bother me too much. They're a bit heavy on the tea ceremony for this period. The story is set in 1690 Japan - but they're reading Dream of the Red Chamber which is a Chinese masterpiece written in the 1700s. In any case, most people don't read casual one-afternoon mysteries in order to learn deep historical lessons, so that is fine.

On the other hand, when I read historically based novels -whether it's in England of the 1200s or Italy in the 1400s, I expect the characters and culture to be authentic. That's generally why I'm reading those stories, to lose myself in "another time". It was really hard, therefore, to get a handle on the characters that populate this particular world. Ichiro, the lead character, is 31 and a detective in high Japanese society. Suddenly through the course of this story he "becomes aware" - in a week or so - of all the plights of Japanese women, on how evilly they're held down by society. None of his previous 31 years had made him think of this? He has the same startling revelations about 'eta' - the outcast of Japanese culture.

Many of the quotes and situations in the book are deliberately set up for modern audiences to gasp in outrage, thinking "how could they treat a woman like that!" I'm trying to think of a modern day situation that people wouldn't immediately try to shoot holes in. OK, what if we assumed that 100 years in the future, that "kids" could not vote or marry until age 25 and any sexual or drinking activity by them was considered evil child abuse. Now let's say that a book written then was set in modern times (i.e. 2006). This book had parents who were aghast that their 22 year old son was having wine with dinner and had a girlfriend who he slept with. It just wouldn't make sense. It would, in fact, be quite odd for the time. There are LOTS of things we consider normal now, that simply weren't considered normal at other times. To force a couple in Japan to have "modern day sensibilities" to suit a modern audience is betraying the whole reason you set a book in another time period.

I'm not squeamish about sex, and I understand that some soldiers in Japanese history were homosexuals. Heck, some soldiers in Roman history were homosexuals, some in Greek history were .... you can find prostitutes and affairs and sexual toys in any culture in the world, in any time frame. However, this book goes a BIT overboard. I think the author was trying to toss in every strange Japanese sex practice she could think of in order to liven up the story. Sure, they story involves the Shogun's official prostitutes - concubines. Yes, it involves a Shogun who likes boys. But does EVERY single character we run into have to have a bizarre sexual fetish? We're talking about a general cross section of Japanese society here; the novel wasn't about the "sex addicts group" and their weekly tell-all sessions. It got a bit much.

I'm not saying I dislike female characters. Far from it!! I *love* female characters, especially female strong characters. There were tons of strong female characters in Japanese history! Certainly women did many things - they weren't just all prostitutes and feeble housewives, as the book sometimes says. What makes it worse is that the female character in the book is a ninny virgin 20 year old who possesses little common sense. She's supposedly well educated and trained in patience and law - but her technique is just to harass the person in front of her until she gets her way. If I was her guardian, I wouldn't have let her out to help with a dangerous mission, whether she was female OR male. The way that she interacts with her new husband - going from demanding to petulant to "you must be my constant assistant" in such a short period of time is really quite unbelievable.

We get the same problem of unbelievability from other characters. The Shogun and his mom are cardboard cutouts of 'brainless rulers who you have to humor'. Other characters exist to serve a purpose, most of them presenting a specific stereotype. In a parallel problem, there is a huge fascination on the part of the author with physical beauty. People with physical beauty are praised and loved. People without physical beauty are evil and beat on. It's thought of as "tragic" when a woman, once beautiful with make-up and hair care, has to "go natural" and be herself. Several characters are described as "no longer attractive" because they're no longer under age 30.

I don't mean to pick on the series too much here. I own the books, obviously I enjoyed them enough to read and re-read them. There is a lot of great detail in here, a lot of clear imagery that is very moving. I enjoy the poetry and the environment that has been created. I just wish the characters themselves had been more robust and three dimensional. Again, I don't mind occasional historical inaccuracies; it just happens. However, when the entire basis for characters is completely out of "time appropriateness" and when a large number of characters seem to be two dimensional, that does bother me in a book. It turns the book from one I can really savor into a quick page-turner to zip through on a rainy afternoon.

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