Naomi Hirahara’s Snakeskin Shamisen

Naomi Hirahara’s readers may have wondered whether Mas Arai, the reluctant detective in Summer of Bachi and Gasa-Gasa Girl, had settled into permanent retirement, but as luck would have it, Mas Arai, Japanese gardener, Hiroshima survivor, and private investigator, is back in Snakeskin Shamisen, the third book in the series.

The novel opens with Mas Arai thinking about his favorite pastime—gambling. “Sonofagun,” he mutters, as he reads a story in a Los Angeles Japanese newspaper about a friend of Mas’s pal, G.I. Hasuike, winning a $500,000 jackpot in Las Vegas. On a spam slot machine no less! When the jackpot winner, Randy Yamashiro, throws a party for G.I., his “good luck charm,” Arai attends out of a sense of obligation to his long-time friend. Soon enough, Arai finds himself entangled in yet another investigation when Randy Yamashiro is found dead in the restaurant’s parking lot on the night of the party. The only clue is a broken snakeskin shamisen, a Japanese instrument shaped like a banjo, found by the side of the victim.

Although the solving of the mystery takes center stage, the novel also provides a kind of Japanese American history lesson. The author has drawn many of her characters from the Okinawan American community, and there is much to learn of its rich culture. Naomi Hirahara, in an interview with the Japanese American National Museum, discussed her knowledge of the Okinawan culture. “When I worked at The Rafu Shimpo, I wrote a series of articles on Okinawan culture, from arts and crafts to the Okinawan government’s struggle with the U.S. military over American bases on the islands. Later, when I was doing research for one of my history book projects, I uncovered articles written by Okinawan immigrants in Los Angeles during the 1930s and their perspectives were very different than those from the main island of Japan.” In addition to this research, she credits The History of Okinawans in North America, produced by the Okinawa Club of America and translated by Ben Kobashigawa, and Okinawan music with furthering her knowledge of the culture.

In addition to references to Mas Arai’s personal history as a Hiroshima survivor, Naomi Hirahara also weaves in details of the Japanese American internment throughout her novel. The details obviously add depth and dimension to the characters, but the author deems these details an essential part of her novel for other reasons as well. She explained, “I think the camps cast a shadow over Japanese America and will continue to do so, even after the internees are gone. We think of this experience as being frozen in time in the 1940s, but it has affected the psyche of subsequent generations of Japanese Americans. Some have decided to completely ignore what happened and barrel ahead, striving to become part of mainstream society. Others have great suspicion of certain decisions made by governments and feel very marginalized. Both responses and varying shades of them are diverse but they are all still reactions to what happened. My protagonist, Mas, himself wasn’t in camp—so in some ways, he’s an outsider. But he also acutely feels how this experience has damaged people around him and the Japanese American community in general.”

Of course, the snakeskin shamisen, the all-important clue to the murder of Randy Yamashiro, takes on a life of its own with its own story to tell. Naomi Hirahara revealed how the musical instrument became part of her novel. “After my husband’s grandmother had passed away, we were cleaning out her residence in the Uptown area of Los Angeles. One of the found items was a battered and dusty shamisen covered in snakeskin, a traditional Okinawan musical instrument also called a sanshin. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but obviously the image of the sanshin remained in my mind...When you write histories about people and communities, you are a bit of detective. Sometimes you can’t interview people directly, so you have to rely on objects to talk to you.”

Snakeskin Shamisen will captivate its readers. They will be drawn into the murder investigation, educated about the Japanese American culture, amused and entertained by the idiosyncrasies of Mas Arai, and touched by the conflicts of the characters, and even though readers will finish the book with a pang of regret that the book must indeed come to an end, Naomi Hirahara has good news for all of her fans: “I’m currently working on a non-mystery—I guess you can categorize it as more of a women’s book. Its working title is 1001 Cranes and it explores marriage and rites of passage in the Japanese American community in Los Angeles. Most of the story takes place in the 1980s in Gardena. After writing three novels in an aging man’s voice, now I’m faced with inhabiting the characters of four females, including a thirteen-year-old Sansei. It’s challenging, but great fun.”

For her mystery readers who might be curious, the author adds, “This doesn’t mean, however, that I’ve abandoned Mas Arai! As long as I have stories and adventures for him to pursue, I plan to continue the series.” Fortunately for us, neither Naomi Hirahara nor Mas Arai has plans for immediate retirement. For those interested in more information about Naomi Hirahara and her writings, check out her website,, for updates.

April 2006

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