from THE PILLOW BOOK OF LADY WISTERIA
Genroku Period, Year 6, Month 11 (Tokyo, December 1693)
"Virtuous men have said, both in
poetry and classic works, that houses of debauch, for women
of pleasure and for street-walkers, are the worm-eaten spots
of cities and towns. But these are necessary evils, and if
they be forcibly abolished, men of unrighteous principles will
become like raveled thread."
--from the 73rd section of
the Legacy of the First Tokugawa Shogun
Northwest of the great capital of Edo, isolated among marshes
and rice paddies, the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter adorned the
winter night like a flashy jewel. Its lights formed a bright,
smoky halo above the high walls; the moon's reflection shimmered
silver on the encircling moat. Inside the quarter, colored
lanterns blazed along the eaves of the teahouses and brothels
that lined the streets. Courtesans dressed in gaudy kimono
sat in the barred windows of the brothels and called invitations
to men who strolled in search of entertainment. Roving vendors
sold tea and dumplings, and a hawker beckoned customers into
a shop that sold paintings of the most beautiful prostitutes,
but the late hour and chill weather had driven most of the
trade indoors. Teahouse maids poured sake; drunken customers
raised their voices in bawdy song. Musicians played for guests
at banquets in elegant parlors, while amorous couples embraced
The man in an upstairs guest chamber on Ageyacho Street lay
oblivious to the revelry. Drunken stupor immobilized him on
the bed, which seemed to rock and sway beneath him. Singing,
samisen music, and laughter from the parlor downstairs echoed
up to him in waves of discordant sound. Through his half-open
eyelids he saw red lights glide and spin, like reflections
in a whirlpool. A painted landscape of gardens slid along the
periphery of his vision. Dizzy and nauseated, he moaned. He
tried to recall where he was and how he'd gotten here.
He had faint memory of a ride through winter fields, and cups
of heated sake. A woman's beautiful face glowed in lamplight,
eyes demurely downcast. More sake accompanied flirtatious conversation.
Next came the hot, urgent intertwining of bodies, then ecstatic
pleasure, followed by much more drink. Because he possessed
a hearty tolerance for liquor, he couldn't understand how the
usual amount had so thoroughly inebriated him. A peculiar lethargy
spread through his veins. He felt strangely disconnected from
his body, which seemed heavy as stone, yet afloat on air. A
pang of fear chimed in his groggy consciousness, but the stupor
dulled emotion. While he tried to fathom what had happened
to him, he sensed that he wasn't alone in the room.
Someone's rapid footsteps trod the tatami around the bed.
The moving hems of multicolored robes swished air currents
across his face. Whispers, distorted into eerie, droning gibberish,
pervaded the distant music. Now he saw, bending over him, a
human figure--a dark, indistinct shape outlined by the revolving
red light. The whispers quickened and rose to a keening pitch.
He sensed danger that shot alarm through his stupor. But his
body resisted his effort to move. The lethargy paralyzed his
limbs. His mouth formed a soundless plea.
The figure leaned closer. Its fist clenched what looked to
be a long, thin, shaft that wavered in his blurry vision. Then
the figure struck at him with sudden violence. Pain seared
deep into his left eye, rousing him alert. A squeal of agony
burst from him. Music, laughter, and screaming rose to a cacophonous
din. Turbulent shadows rocked the chamber. He saw a brilliant
white lightning bolt blaze through his brain, heard his heart
thunder in his ears. The impact heaved up his arms and legs,
which flailed as his body convulsed in involuntary spasms.
But the terrible pain in his eye pinned him to the bed. Blood
stained his vision scarlet, obliterated the person whose grip
on the shaft held him captive. His head pounded with torment.
Gradually, his struggles weakened; his heartbeat slowed. Sounds
and sensations ebbed, until black unconsciousness quenched
the lightning and death ended his agony.
The summons came at dawn.
Edo Castle, reigning upon its hilltop above the city, raised
its watchtowers and peaked roofs toward a sky like steel
coated with ice. Inside the castle, two of the shogun's
and their soldiers sped on horseback between barracks surrounding
the mansions where the high officials of the court resided.
A chill, gusty wind flapped the soldiers' banners and tore
the smoke from their lanterns. The party halted outside
the gate of Sano Ichiro, the shogun's sosakan-sama--Most
Investigator of Events, Situations, and People.
Within his estate, Sano slept beneath mounded quilts. He dreamed
he was at the Black Lotus Temple, scene of a crime he'd investigated
three months ago. Deranged monks and nuns fought him and his
troops; explosions boomed and fire raged. Yet even as Sano
wielded his sword against phantoms of memory, his senses remained
attuned to the real world and perceived the approach of an
actual threat. He bolted awake in darkness, flung off the quilts,
and sat up in the frigid air of his bedchamber.
Beside him, his wife Reiko stirred. "What is it?" she
Then they heard, outside their door, the voice of Sano's chief
retainer, Hirata: "Sosakan-sama, I'm sorry to disturb
you, but the shogun's envoys are here on urgent business. They
wish to see you at once."
Moments later, after hastily dressing, Sano was seated in
the reception hall with the two envoys. A maid served bowls
of tea. The senior envoy, a dignified samurai named Ota, said, "We
bring news of a serious incident that requires your personal
attention. His Excellency the Shogun's cousin, the Honorable
Lord Matsudaira Mitsuyoshi, has died. As you are undoubtedly
aware, he was not just kin to the shogun, but his probable
The shogun had no sons as yet; therefore, a relative must
be designated heir to his position as Japan's supreme dictator
in case he died without issue. Sano had known that Mitsuyoshi--twenty-five
years old and a favorite of the shogun--was a likely candidate.
Ota continued, "Mitsuyoshi-san spent yesterday evening
in Yoshiwara." This was Edo's pleasure quarter, the only
place in the city where prostitution was legal. Men from all
classes of society went there to drink, revel, and enjoy the
favors of the courtesans--women sold into prostitution by impoverished
families, or sentenced to work in Yoshiwara as punishment for
crimes. The quarter was located some distance from Edo, to
safeguard public morals and respect propriety. "There
he was stabbed to death."
Consternation struck Sano: This was serious indeed, for any
attack on a member of the ruling Tokugawa clan constituted
an attack on the regime, which was high treason. And the murder
of someone so close to the shogun represented a crime of the
most sensitive nature.
"May I ask what were the circumstances of the stabbing?" Sano
"The details are not known to us," said the younger
envoy, a brawny captain of the shogun's bodyguards. "It
is your responsibility to discover them. The shogun orders
you to investigate the murder and apprehend the killer."
"I'll begin immediately." As Sano bowed to the envoys,
duty settled upon his shoulders like a weight that he wasn't
sure he could bear. Though detective work was his vocation
and his spirit required the challenge of delivering killers
to justice, he wasn't ready for another big case. The Black
Lotus investigation had depleted him physically and mentally.
He felt like an injured warrior heading into battle again before
his wounds had healed. And he knew that this case had as serious
a potential for disaster as had the Black Lotus.
A long, cold ride brought Sano, Hirata, and five men from
Sano's detective corps to the pleasure quarter by mid-morning.
drifted onto the tiled rooftops of Yoshiwara; its surrounding
moat reflected the overcast sky. The cawing of crows above
the fallow fields sounded shrilly metallic. Sano and his
men dismounted outside the quarter's high wall that kept
contained and the courtesans from escaping. Their breath
puffed out in white clouds into the icy wind. They left
with a stable boy and strode across the bridge to the gate,
which was painted bright red and barred shut. A noisy commotion
"Let us out!" Inside the quarter, men had climbed
the gate and thrust their heads between the thick wooden bars
below the roof. "We want to go home!"
Outside the gate stood four Yoshiwara guards. One of them
told the prisoners, "Nobody leaves. Police orders."
Loud protests arose; a furious pounding shook the gate's heavy
"So the police have beat us to the scene," Hirata
said to Sano. An expression of concern crossed his youthful
Sano's heart plunged, for in spite of his high rank and position
close to the shogun, he could expect hindrance, rather than
cooperation, from Edo's police. "At least they've contained
the people who were in Yoshiwara last night. That will save
us the trouble of tracking down witnesses."
He approached the guards, who hastily bowed to him and his
men. After introducing himself and announcing his purpose,
Sano asked, "Where did Lord Mitsuyoshi die?"
"In the Owariya ageya," came the answer.
Yoshiwara was a world unto itself, Sano knew, with a unique
protocol. Some five hundred courtesans ranked in a hierarchy
of beauty, elegance, and price. The top-ranking women were
known as tayu. A popular epithet for them was keisei--castle
topplers--because their influence could ruin men and destroy
kingdoms. Though all the prostitutes lived in brothels and
most received clients there, the tayu entertained men in ageya,
houses of assignation, used for that purpose but not as homes
for the women. The Owariya was a prestigious ageya, reserved
for the wealthiest, most prominent men.
"Open the gate and let us in," Sano ordered the
They complied. Sano and his men entered the pleasure quarter,
while the guards held back the pushing, shouting crowd inside.
As Sano led his party down Nakanocho, the main avenue that
bisected Yoshiwara, the wind buffeted unlit lanterns hanging
from the eaves of the wooden buildings and stirred up an odor
of urine. Teahouses were filled with sullen, disheveled men.
Women peeked out through window bars, their painted faces avid.
Nervous murmurs arose as Sano and his men passed, while Tokugawa
troops patrolled Nakanocho and the six streets perpendicular
The murder of the shogun's heir had put a temporary halt to
the festivities that ordinarily never ended.
Sano turned onto Ageyacho, a street lined with the houses
of assignation. These were attached buildings, their facades
and balconies screened with wooden lattices. Servants loitered
in the recessed doorways. Smoke from charcoal braziers swirled
in the wind, mingling with the snowflakes. A group of samurai
stood guard outside the Owariya, smoking tobacco pipes. Some
wore the Tokugawa triple-hollyhock-leaf crest on their cloaks;
others wore leggings and short kimonos and carried jitte--steel
parrying wands, the weapon of the police force. They all fixed
level gazes upon Sano.
"Guess who brought them here," Hirata murmured to
Sano in a voice replete with ire.
As they reached the Owariya, the door slid open, and out stepped
a tall, broad-shouldered samurai dressed in a sumptuous cloak
of padded black silk. He was in his thirties, his bearing arrogant,
his angular face strikingly handsome. When he saw Sano, his
full, sensual mouth curved in a humorless smile.
"Greetings, Sosakan-sama," he said.
"Greetings, Honorable Chief Police Commissioner Hoshina," Sano
said. As they exchanged bows, the air vibrated with their antagonism.
They'd first met in Miyako, the imperial capital, where Sano
had gone to investigate the death of a court noble. Hoshina
had been head of the local police, and pretended to assist
Sano on the case--while conspiring against him with Chamberlain
Yanagisawa, the shogun's powerful second-in-command. Yanagisawa
and Hoshina had become lovers, and Yanagisawa had appointed
Hoshina as Edo's Chief Police Commissioner.
"What brings you here?" Hoshina's tone implied that
Sano was a trespasser in his territory.
"The shogun's orders," Sano said, accustomed to
Hoshina's hostility. During their clash in Miyako, Sano had
defeated Hoshina, who had never forgotten. "I've come
to investigate the murder. Unless you've already found the
"No," Hoshina said with a reluctance that indicated
how much he would like to say he had. Arms folded, he blocked
the door of the ageya. "But you've traveled here for nothing,
because I already have an investigation underway. Whatever
you want to know, just ask me."
The Miyako case had resulted in a truce between Sano and Yanagisawa--formerly
bitter enemies--but Hoshina refused to let matters lie, because
he viewed Sano as a threat to his own rise in the bakufu, the
military government that ruled Japan. Now, having settled into
his new position and cultivated allies, Hoshina had begun his
campaign against Sano. Their paths crossed often when Sano
investigated crimes, and Hoshina always sought to prove himself
the superior detective while undermining Sano. He conducted
his own inquiries into Sano's cases, hoping to solve them first
and take the credit. Obviously, Hoshina meant to extend their
rivalry into this case, and there was little that Sano could
do to stop him. Although Sano was a high official of the shogun,
Hoshina had the favor of Chamberlain Yanagisawa, who controlled
the shogun and virtually ruled Japan. Thus, Hoshina could treat
Sano however he pleased, short of causing open warfare that
would disturb their superiors.
"I prefer to see for myself." Speaking quietly but
firmly, Sano held his adversary's gaze.
Hirata and his detectives clustered around him, as the police
moved nearer Hoshina. The wind keened, and angry voices yelled
curses somewhere in the quarter. Then Hoshina chuckled, as
though his defiance against Sano had been a mere joke.
"As you wish," he said, and stepped away from the
But he followed Sano's party into the ageya. Beyond the entryway,
which contained a guard stationed at a podium, a corridor extended
between rooms separated by lattice and paper partitions. A
lantern glowed in a luxurious front parlor. There sat two pretty
courtesans, eight surly-looking samurai, several plainly dressed
women who looked to be servants, and a squat older man in gray
robes. All regarded Sano and Hirata with apprehension. The
older man rose and hurried over to kneel at Sano's feet.
"Please allow me to introduce myself, master," he
said, bowing low. "I am Eigoro, proprietor of the Owariya.
Please let me say that nothing like this has ever happened
here before." His body quaked with his terror that the
shogun's sosakan-sama would blame him for the murder. "Please
believe that no one in my establishment did this evil thing."
"No one is accusing you," Sano said, though everyone
present in Yoshiwara at the time of the murder was a suspect
until proven otherwise. "Show me where Lord Mitsuyoshi
"Certainly, master." The proprietor scrambled up.
Hoshina said, "You don't need him. I can show you."
Sano considered ordering Hoshina out of the house, then merely
ignored him: Antagonizing Chamberlain Yanagisawa's mate was
dangerous. But Sano must not rely on Hoshina for information,
because Hoshina would surely misguide him.
Eyeing the group in the parlor, Sano addressed the proprietor: "Were
they in the house last night?"
Sano ascertained that four of the samurai were Lord Mitsuyoshi's
retainers, then glanced at Hirata and the detectives. They
nodded and moved toward the parlor to question the retainers,
courtesans, other clients, and servants. The proprietor led
Sano upstairs, to a large chamber at the front of the house.
Entering, Sano gleaned a quick impression of burning lanterns,
lavish landscape murals, and a gilded screen, before his attention
fixed upon the men in the room. Two soldiers were preparing
to move a shrouded figure, which lay upon the futon, onto a
litter. A samurai clad in ornate robes pawed through a pile
of clothes on the tatami; another rummaged in a drawer of the
wall cabinet. Sano recognized both as senior police commanders.
"Yoriki Hayashi-san. Yoriki Yamaga-san," he said,
angered to find them and their troops disturbing the crime
scene and ready to remove the body before he'd had a chance
to examine either. "Stop that at once," he ordered
all the men.
The police halted their actions and bowed stiffly, gazing
at Sano with open dislike. Sano knew they would never forget
that he'd been their colleague, nor cease resenting his promotion
and doing him a bad turn whenever possible. He said sternly, "You
will all leave now."
Hayashi and Yamaga exchanged glances with Chief Commissioner
Hoshina, who stood in the doorway. Then Yamaga spoke to Sano: "I
wish you the best of luck, sosakan-sama, because you will surely
need it." His voice exuded insolence. He and Hayashi and
their men strode out of the room.
The proprietor shrank into a corner, while Hoshina watched
Sano for a reaction. Sano saw little point in losing his temper,
or in regretting that his old enemies now worked for his new
one. He crouched beside the futon and drew back the white cloth
that covered the corpse of Lord Mitsuyoshi.
The shogun's heir lay on his back, arms at his sides. The
bronze satin robe he wore had fallen open to expose his naked,
muscular torso, limp genitals, and extended legs. A looped
topknot adorned the shaved crown of his head. From his left
eye protruded a long, slender object that looked to be a woman's
hair ornament--double-pronged, made of black lacquer, ending
in a globe of flowers carved from cinnabar. Blood and slime
had oozed around the embedded prongs and down Mitsuyoshi's
cheek; droplets stained the mattress. The injured eyeball was
cloudy and misshapen. The other eye seemed to stare at it,
while Mitsuyoshi's mouth gaped in shock.
Sano winced at the gruesome sight; his stomach clenched as
he made a closer observation of the body and recalled what
he knew about the shogun's cousin. Handsome, dashing Mitsuyoshi
might have one day ruled Japan, yet he'd had little interest
in politics and much in the glamorous life. He'd excelled at
combat, yet there was no sign that he'd struggled against his
killer. A reek of liquor suggested that he'd been drunk and
semiconscious when stabbed. Sano also detected the feral smell
"Who was the woman with him last night?" Sano asked
"A tayu named Lady Wisteria."
The name struck an unsettling chord in Sano. He had met Lady
Wisteria during his first case, a double murder. One victim
had been her friend, and she'd given Sano information to help
him find the killer. Beautiful, exotic, and alluring, she'd
also seduced him, and memory stirred physical sensations in
Sano, even though four years had passed since he'd last seen
her and he'd married the wife he passionately loved.
Hoshina narrowed his heavy-lidded eyes at Sano. "Do you
"I know of her." Sano wished to keep their acquaintance
private, for various reasons. Now unease prevailed over nostalgia,
because he had reason to know Wisteria had left Yoshiwara soon
after they'd first met. He himself had secured her freedom,
as compensation for wrongs she had suffered because she'd helped
him. Afterward, he'd visited her a few times, but his life
had grown so busy that he'd let the connection lapse. Later
he'd heard that she had returned to the pleasure quarter, though
he didn't know why. Now he was disturbed to learn that she
was involved in this murder.
"Where is she now?" he said.
"She's vanished," Hoshina said. "No one seems
to have seen her go or knows where she went."
Sano's first reaction was relief: He wouldn't have to see
Wisteria, and the past could stay buried. His second reaction
was dismay because an important witness--or suspect--was missing.
Did her disappearance mean she'd stabbed Mitsuyoshi? Sano knew
the dangers of partiality toward a suspect, yet didn't like
to think that the woman he'd known could be a killer.
"Who was the last person to see Lady Wisteria and Lord
Mitsuyoshi?" Sano asked the proprietor.
"That would be the yarite. Her name is Momoko." The
man was babbling, overeager to please. "Shall I fetch
A yarite was a female brothel employee, usually a former prostitute,
who served as chaperone to the courtesans, teaching new girls
the art of pleasing men and ensuring that her charges behaved
properly. Her other duties included arranging appointments
between tayu and their clients.
"I'll see her as soon as I'm finished here," Sano
said, conscious of Hoshina listening intently to the conversation.
The police commissioner was a skilled detective, but glad to
take advantage of facts discovered by others. "Did anyone
else enter this room during the night?"
"Not as far as I know, master."
But if Lady Wisteria had left the house unobserved, so could
someone else have entered secretly, and committed murder. Sano
drew the cloth over the body and rose. "Who found the
body, and when?"
"Momoko did," the proprietor said. "It was
a little after midnight. She came running downstairs, screaming
that Lord Mitsuyoshi was dead."
All the more reason to question the yarite, thought Sano.
She might have noticed something important, and in some murder
cases, the culprit proved to be the person who discovered the
crime. He bent to sort through the clothes on the floor, and
found a man's surcoat, trousers, and kimono, presumably belonging
to the victim, and a woman's ivory satin dressing gown. The
gown was soft to his touch, and Sano recognized its odor of
musky perfume. Closing his mind against memories of Wisteria
and himself together, he moved to the dressing table behind
the screen. The table held a mirror, comb, brush, jars of face
powder and rouge. On the floor around the table lay a red silk
cloth and a few strands of long black hair.
Sano addressed Hoshina: "What have you done to locate
"I've got men out searching the quarter, the highways,
and the surrounding countryside." Hoshina added, "If
she's there, I'll find her."
Before you do, said his inflection. And Hoshina might indeed,
because he had a head start. Sano felt an urgent need to find
Wisteria first, because he feared that Hoshina would harm her
before her guilt or innocence could be determined.
"Did Lady Wisteria often entertain clients here?" he
asked the proprietor.
"Oh, yes, master."
Then she would have kept personal possessions at the Owariya,
instead of just bringing a set of bedding with her for a night's
visit, as courtesans did to houses they rarely used. "Where
is her kamuro?" Sano said.
A kamuro was a young girl, in training to be a prostitute,
who waited on the courtesans to learn the trade and earn her
keep. Her chores included tending the courtesans' possessions.
"In the kitchen, master."
"Please bring her up."
The proprietor departed, then soon returned with a girl of
perhaps eleven years. Small and thin, she had an oval face
made up with white rice powder and red rouge, and wispy hair.
She wore the traditional pine-leaf-patterned kimono of her
"This is Chidori-chan," the proprietor told Sano,
then addressed the kamuro: "The master wants to talk to
Her frightened gaze veered around the room, then downward;
she bobbed a clumsy bow.
"Don't be afraid," Sano said in a reassuring tone. "I
just want you to look over Lady Wisteria's things with me."
Chidori nodded, but Sano saw her tremble. He pitied her, trapped
in Yoshiwara, destined for a life of sexual slavery. She might
someday attract a patron who would buy her freedom, but could
instead end up begging on the streets, as did many courtesans
when they got too old to attract clients. Sano gently led Chidori
over to the cabinet, where they examined the folded garments
and pairs of sandals on the shelves. Hoshina watched, leaning
against the wall, his expression attentive.
"Is anything missing?" Sano asked Chidori.
" . . . The outfit Lady Wisteria had on last night." Chidori
risked a glance at Sano, seemed to discern that he wouldn't
hurt her, and spoke up more boldly: "She wore a black
kimono with purple wisteria blossoms and green vines on it."
Her conspicuous costume would aid the search for her, Sano
thought, and saw the idea register on Hoshina's countenance.
Opening the cabinet's other compartments, Sano revealed quilts,
bath supplies, a tea service, a sake decanter and cups, a writing
box containing brushes, inkstone, and water jar. A drawer held
hair ornaments--lacquerware picks, silk flowers mounted on
combs, ribbons. Chidori attested that all the possessions were
present as she remembered from when she'd tidied the cabinet
yesterday. This left Sano one last task for the girl.
"Chidori-chan, I must ask you to look at the body." Seeing
her blench, he added, "You need only look for a moment.
Try to be brave."
The kamuro gulped, nodding. Sano stepped to the bed and peeled
back the cloth just far enough to reveal the upper part of
Mitsuyoshi's head. Chidori gasped; she stared in horror at
the hairpin stuck in the eye.
"Does the hairpin belong to Lady Wisteria?" Sano
Emitting a whimper, Chidori shook her head. Sano experienced
a cautious relief as he replaced the cloth. That Wisteria didn't
own the hairpin was evidence that hinted at her innocence. "Do
you know who it does belong to?"
"Momoko-san," the girl whispered.
The yarite again, thought Sano. Revealed as the last person
to see Wisteria and Lord Mitsuyoshi, discoverer of the body,
and now, owner of the murder weapon, she seemed a better suspect
than Wisteria. He said to Chidori, "Look around the room
again. Are you sure nothing is missing?"
"Yes, master." Then a frown wrinkled Chidori's brow.
Sano felt his instincts stir, as they did when he knew he
was about to hear something important. Hoshina pushed himself
away from the wall, eyeing the kamuro with heightened interest.
"What is it?" Sano said.
"Her pillow book," said Chidori.
A pillow book was a journal in which a woman recorded her
private thoughts and the events of her life, in the tradition
of Imperial court ladies. "What was in the book?" Sano
said, intrigued to learn that Wisteria had followed the centuries-old
"I don't know. I can't read."
More questioning revealed that the pillow book was a pack
of white rice paper, bound between lavender silk covers tied
with green ribbon. Wisteria wrote in it whenever she had a
spare moment, and if she heard someone coming, she would quickly
put it away, as though fearful that they might read it. She
took the book with her whenever she left the brothel, and Chidori
had seen her tuck it under her sash yesterday evening, but
although Sano searched the entire room, the pillow book was
"Wisteria could have removed it when she left," Hoshina
Or someone had stolen the pillow book, Sano thought, resisting
Hoshina's attempt to draw him into a discussion and elicit
ideas from him. He considered possible scenarios for the crime.
Perhaps the killer had entered the room while Wisteria and
Mitsuyoshi slept, stabbed Mitsuyoshi, kidnapped Wisteria, and
stolen the pillow book. But perhaps Wisteria herself had killed
Mitsuyoshi, then fled, taking her book with her. Each scenario
was as plausible as the other, and Sano realized how little
he knew about his former lover. What had happened to her since
they'd parted ways? Was she capable of such a grisly murder?
The idea alarmed Sano, as did the suspicion that this case
would bring him and Wisteria together again, with unpredictable
Hiding his uneasiness, Sano turned to the proprietor and said, "I'll
see the yarite now."
Excerpt from THE
PILLOW BOOK OF LADY WISTERIA
©Laura Joh Rowland, 2002
Published by St.