from BLACK LOTUS
Genroku Period, Year 6, Month 8 (Tokyo, September 1693)
The day of tragedy dawned with an iridescent sheen in the
eastern sky. As the heavens gradually lightened from indigo
to slate blue, stars disappeared; the moon's crescent faded.
The dim outlines of forested hills framed Zojo Temple, administrative
seat of the Buddhist Pure Land sect in Shiba, south of Edo
Castle. Across a vast tract of land spread the domain of ten
thousand priests, nuns, and novices who occupied the more than
one hundred buildings of Zojo proper and the forty-eight smaller
subsidiary temples clustered around it. Above countless tiled
and thatched roofs soared the tiered spires of pagodas and
the open framework structures of fire-watch towers. The Zojo
Temple district was a city within a city, deserted and silent
in the waning darkness.
On the platform of a fire-watch tower stood a lone figure
in the unpopulated landscape: a young priest with a shaven
head, a round, innocent face, and keen-sighted eyes. His saffron
robe billowed in the cool early autumn wind that carried the
scent of fallen leaves and nightsoil. His high perch afforded
him a splendid view of the narrow lanes, walled compounds,
and courtyards that comprised the district.
"Namu Amida Butsu," the priest repeated over and over again. "Praise
to the Buddha."
The chant would insure his entry into paradise after his
death, but also served the practical purpose of keeping him
alert during a long night of guarding the religious community
against Edo's most dangerous hazard: fire. The priest's stomach
rumbled with hunger; still chanting, he stretched his cold,
stiff muscles and longed for food, a hot bath, and a warm bed.
Looking forward to the end of his vigil, he turned slowly on
Around him revolved the panorama of morning. As the sky brightened
to luminous pearl, colors appeared in the landscape: green
foliage and multihued flowerbeds in gardens; scarlet woodwork
on buildings; white monuments in cemeteries; the hazy violet
mirrors of ponds. The first tentative waking trills of birds
rose to a chorus of songs. Sparrows darted over the peaked
and gabled roofs; pigeons cooed and fluttered in the eaves;
crows winged in the blue distance above the hills, against
rosy wisps of cloud. It would be a clear, warm day. Another
night had passed safely. Yet even as the thought soothed the
priest's mind, his sharp gaze sighted an aberration in the
A small, dark cloud hovered low over the western sector of
the district. While the priest watched, it thickened and spread
with disturbing speed. Now he smelled the bitter tang of smoke.
Frantically, he pulled the rope that dangled from inside the
roof of his tower. The brass alarm bell clanged, echoing across
The insistent ringing of a bell jarred her from deep, black
unconsciousness into dazed stupor. She lay facedown on the
ground, with damp, fragrant grass pressed against her nose
and cheek. Where was she? Panic shot through her, followed
by the certainty that something was terribly wrong. Pushing
herself up on her elbows, she groaned. Her head throbbed with
pain; soreness burned on her buttocks and calves, between her
thighs, around her neck. Aches permeated her muscles. The world
spun in a dizzying blur. Thick, acrid air filled her lungs.
Coughing, she fell back on the ground and lay still until the
dizziness passed. Then she rolled over, looking around in bewilderment
as her surroundings came into focus.
Tall pine trees pierced the dim blue sky above her. Smoke
veiled stone lanterns and orange lilies in the garden where
she lay. She smelled smoke and heard the crackle of fire. Moaning,
she sat upright. Nausea assailed her; the pain in her head
intensified, and she covered her ears to muffle the loud clangs
of the bell. Then she saw the house, some twenty paces distant,
beyond red maples circling a pond.
It was a rustic, one-story cottage built of plaster and weathered
cypress, with bamboo lattice over the windows and deep eaves
shading the veranda. Fire licked the foundations and crept
up the walls, curling and blackening the paper windowpanes.
The thatched roof ignited in an explosion of sparks and flame.
Instinctively she opened her mouth to call for help. Then the
first hint of returning memory stifled her voice to a whimper
of dread. Through her mind flashed disjointed impressions:
a harsh voice; the taste of tears; a lantern glowing in a dark
room; loud thumps and crashes; a violent thrashing of naked
limbs; her own running feet and fumbling hands. But how had
she arrived here?
Baffled, she examined herself for clues. Her brown muslin
kimono was wrinkled and her long black hair tangled; her bare
feet were dirty, her fingernails torn and grimy. She struggled
to piece the fragmented recollections into a comprehensible
whole, but terror obliterated the images. The burning house
radiated menace. A sob rose from her aching throat.
She knew what had happened, yet she did not know.
As the fire bell pealed its urgent call, an army of priests
clad in leather capes and helmets, carrying buckets, ladders,
and axes, raced through the crooked lanes of Zojo Temple district.
A burgeoning cloud of black smoke rose from one of the subsidiary
temples enclosed in separate walled compounds. The fire brigade
stormed through the gate, whose portals bore the circular symbol
of a black lotus flower with pointed petals and gold stamens.
Inside, priests and novice monks stampeded the lanes between
the temple's many buildings, up the broad central flagstone
path leading to the main hall, toward the rear of the compound
and the source of the smoke. Children from the orphanage followed
in a chattering, excited flock. Nuns in hemp robes chased after
the orphans, trying in vain to herd them away from danger.
"Let us through!" ordered the fire brigade commander, a muscular
priest with stern features.
He led his troops through the chaos, around the main hall
and past smaller buildings, into a wooded area. Beyond a cemetery
of stone grave markers, he saw flames through the trees. The
priests of the Black Lotus Temple had formed a line from a
cylindrical stone well, along a gravel path, and across a garden
to the burning house. They passed buckets down the line and
hurled water at the fire, which had climbed the timbers and
engulfed the walls. The fire brigade quickly positioned ladders
to convey water to the blazing roof.
"Is anyone in the building?" shouted the commander.
Either no one knew or no one heard him over the fire's roar
and the din of voices. Accompanied by two men, he ran up the
steps to the veranda and opened the door. Smoke poured out.
Coughing, he and his companions fastened the face protectors
of their helmets over their noses and mouths. They groped through
the smoke, down a short corridor, through fierce heat. The
house contained two rooms, divided by burning lattice and paper
partitions. Flaming thatch dropped through the rafters. The
commander rushed through the open door of the nearest room.
Dense, suffocating smoke filled the small space. Amid the indistinct
shapes of furniture, a human figure lay on the floor.
"Carry it out!" the commander ordered.
While his men complied, he sped to the second room. There,
the fire raged up the walls and across the tatami mats. The
heat seared the commander's face; his eyes stung. From the
threshold he spied two figures lying together in the corner,
one much smaller than the other. Burning clothing enveloped
them. Shouting for assistance, the commander waded through
the fire and beat his thick leather sleeves against the bodies
to extinguish the flames. His men came and helped him carry
the two inert burdens out of the house, just before the roof
collapsed with a great crash.
Away from the other priests still fighting the blaze, they
laid the bodies on the ground beside the one previously carried
out. Choking and coughing, the commander gratefully inhaled
the cool, fresh air. He wiped his streaming eyes and knelt
beside the victims. They lay motionless, and had probably been
dead before he'd entered the house. The first was a large,
naked samurai with a paunchy stomach; knotted gray hair looped
over his shaved crown. There were no burns on him. But the
other two . . .
The commander winced at the sight of their blistered, blackened
faces. Breasts protruded through the shreds of charred cloth
clinging to the larger corpse: It was a woman. The last victim
was a very young child. With its hair burned away and the remains
of a blanket swaddling its body, the commander couldn't discern
its sex or exact age.
Priests and nuns gathered near the sad tableau. Shocked cries
arose from them, then the click of rosary beads as they began
chanting prayers. Someone passed the commander three white
funeral shrouds. He murmured a blessing for the spirits of
the deceased, then tenderly covered the bodies.
Lying huddled behind a boulder, she watched the priests continue
throwing water on the house while the fire brigade hacked apart
the burning shell with axes. The flames and smoke had diminished;
ruined walls and timbers steamed; the odor of charred wood
filled the air. Soon the fire would be out. But she felt neither
relief nor any desire to call out to the firemen, who were
walking around the site, examining the wreckage. She saw their
worried expressions. In her confusion and terror, she felt
an overwhelming urge to flee.
She raised herself on her elbows and knees. Her throbbing
head spun. Nausea convulsed her stomach; she retched, but nothing
came up. Moaning, she crawled. Her body felt enormously heavy
and cumbersome as she dragged herself across the ground, her
lungs gasping. She mustn't let anyone find her here. She had
to get away. Gritting her teeth against pain and sickness,
she inched across coarse white gravel and damp lawn, toward
shadowy woods and the temple's back gate.
Then she heard purposeful footsteps approaching from behind
her. Strong hands lifted her up, turned her around. She found
herself looking at a fireman in leather robe and helmet. His
stern face was daubed with soot; his eyes were red.
"What are you doing here, little girl?" he demanded.
His accusing glare sent tremors of fear through her. Whimpering,
she writhed and kicked in a feeble attempt to escape, but he
held her tight. She tried to speak, but panic choked her voice;
her heart pounded. Dizziness overcame her. The world grew dim
and hazy. As she descended into unconsciousness, her captor's
She wished she had a good answer to his question.
I have come into this impure and evil world
To preach the ultimate truth.
Hear, and you shall be released from suffering
And attain perfect enlightenment.
--From the Black Lotus Sutra
"There was lamp oil spilled along the path to the cottage
and on the ground around it." In the private audience chamber
of Edo Castle, Sano Ichiro addressed Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi,
Japan's supreme military dictator. "The fire brigade found
a ceramic jar containing a small quantity of oil hidden in
some bushes nearby. And a search of the garden turned up what
appeared to be a torch: a stump of pinewood with a charred
rag wrapped around the end. I've examined the scene and the
evidence. The fire was definitely the result of arson."
"Ahh, this is most serious." A frown crossed the shogun's
mild, aristocratic features. Dressed in an embroidered bronze
satin kimono and the cylindrical black cap of his rank, he
stirred uncomfortably upon the dais, where he sat with his
back to a mural of blue rivers and silver clouds, facing Sano,
who knelt on the tatami floor below. Attendants rearranged
the silk cushions around the shogun, filled his silver tobacco
pipe, and poured more sake into the cup on the low table beside
him, but he waved them away and turned toward the open window,
contemplating the crimson sunset descending upon the garden.
From the distance came the neigh of horses, the footsteps of
patrolling guards, the muted bustle of servants. "I did hope
that the, ahh, suspicions of the fire brigade would prove unfounded," the
shogun continued morosely, "and that the fire was just an accident.
But alas, you have confirmed my, ahh, worst fears."
That morning, a messenger had brought word of the fire at
the temple of the Black Lotus sect, along with a report from
the fire brigade commander, which stated that the blaze had
been set deliberately. Zojo was the Tokugawa family temple,
where the clan worshipped and its ancestors lay entombed, and
any crime against the main temple or its subsidiaries constituted
an attack against the shogun. In addition, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi
was a devout Buddhist, a generous patron of religion, and took
a strong personal interest in the Zojo community. Therefore,
he'd assigned Sano to investigate the fire. Sano had begun
inquiries at the Black Lotus Temple and had just returned.
Now the shogun said, "I suppose you have also confirmed the,
ahh, identity of the man who died in the fire?"
"I regret to say that I have," Sano said. "It was indeed
Oyama Jushin, chief police commander. When I viewed the body,
I recognized him immediately."
Prior to becoming the shogun's sosakan-sama--Most Honorable
Investigator of Events, Situations, and People--Sano had served
on Edo's police force as a yoriki, senior police commander.
He and Oyama had been colleagues, although Sano hadn't particularly
liked Oyama. As a hereditary Tokugawa vassal whose family had
served the shogun's clan for generations, Oyama had scorned
Sano, who was the son of a ronin, masterless samurai. Oyama
had been promoted to his present higher rank last winter. From
priests at the Black Lotus Temple, Sano had learned that Oyama
had recently joined the sect. Now the death of an important
official transformed the arson into a politically sensitive
murder case and grave offense against the bakufu, Japan's military
dictatorship. Fate had brought Sano the responsibility of catching
"The other two victims haven't been identified yet," Sano
said. "One was a woman and the other a small child, but they
were badly burned, and at the moment, it seems that no one
knows who they are. Membership in the sect has grown fast;
there are presently four hundred twenty holy men and women
living on the premises, with more arriving every day, plus
ninety servants and thirty-two orphans. Nobody seems to be
missing, but I got the impression that the sect has difficulty
keeping its records up to date. And because of the crowds that
frequent the temple, they can't efficiently monitor who's in
the compound at any given time."
This situation sometimes occurred as a sect became a fad
among people in search of spiritual guidance or a new diversion.
The many new followers of the Black Lotus Temple could worship
or even live together while remaining virtual strangers. Two
particular individuals might have easily gone unnoticed by
the sect leaders.
"Ahh, there are so many Buddhist orders nowadays, that it
is difficult to keep them all straight," the shogun said with
a sigh. "What distinguishes the Black Lotus from the rest?"
Sano had familiarized himself with the sect while at the
temple. He said, "Its central doctrine is the Black Lotus Sutra." A
sutra was a Buddhist scripture, written in prose and verse,
parables and lectures, containing the teachings of the Sakyamuni,
the historical Buddha who had lived in India approximately
a thousand years before. There were some eighty-four thousand
sutras, each of which elucidated different aspects of his wisdom.
Various orders structured their practices around various texts. "The
sect members believe that the Black Lotus Sutra represents
the final, definitive teaching of the Buddha, and contains
the essential, perfect, ultimate law of human existence and
cosmic totality. They also believe that worshippers who absorb
the truth contained in the sutra will attain nirvana."
Nirvana was a state of pure peace and spiritual enlightenment,
the goal of Buddhists. The state could not be articulated,
This explanation seemed to satisfy Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. "Will
you keep trying to identify the dead woman and child?" he ventured
timidly. A dictator with little talent for leadership and less
self-confidence, he hesitated to make suggestions that he feared
might sound stupid.
"I certainly will," Sano reassured his lord. Who the unknown
victims had been might prove critical to the investigation.
For reasons involving Tokugawa law, Sano forbore to mention
that he'd sent all three bodies to Edo Morgue for examination
by his friend and advisor Dr. Ito.
"This is a sorry state of affairs," lamented the shogun,
fumbling with his pipe. A manservant lit it for him and placed
the stem between his lips. "Ahh, I wish the Honorable Chamberlain
Yanagisawa were here to offer his opinion!"
Yanagisawa, the shogun's second-in-command, had gone to Echigo
Province on a tour of inspection with his lover and chief retainer,
Hoshina; they wouldn't be back for two months. Although Sano
couldn't share Tsunayoshi's wish, neither did he welcome the
chamberlain's absence with the joy he might have once felt.
From Sano's early days at Edo Castle, Yanagisawa had viewed
him as a rival for the shogun's favor, for power over the weak
lord and thus the entire nation. He'd repeatedly tried to sabotage
Sano's investigations, destroy his reputation, and assassinate
him. But two years ago, a case involving the mysterious death
of a court noble in the ancient imperial capital had fostered
an unexpected comradeship between Sano and Yanagisawa. Since
then, they'd coexisted in a truce. Sano didn't expect this
harmony to continue forever, but he meant to enjoy it while
it lasted. Today his life seemed replete with wonderful blessings
and challenges: he had a family he adored, the favor of the
shogun, and an interesting new case.
"Have you any idea who committed this terrible crime?" asked
"Not yet," Sano said. "My detectives and I have begun interviewing
the residents of the Black Lotus Temple, but so far we've found
neither witnesses nor suspects . . . with one possible exception.
The fire brigade found a girl near the scene. Her name is Haru;
she's fifteen years old and an orphan who lives in the temple
orphanage. Apparently she tried to run away, then fainted."
Tokugawa Tsunayoshi gulped sake; his brow furrowed in thought. "So
you think that this girl, ahh, saw something? Or did she set
"Either alternative is possible," Sano said, "but I haven't
been able to get any information from her."
By the time he'd arrived at the Black Lotus Temple, the nuns
had put Haru to bed in the orphanage dormitory, a long, narrow
room where the children slept on straw mattresses atop wooden
pallets. Haru had regained consciousness, but when Sano approached
her, the small, slender girl shrieked in terror and dived under
the quilts. When two nuns pulled her out, she clung to them,
"I won't hurt you," Sano said gently, kneeling beside the
pallet where the nuns held Haru. "I just want to ask you some
She only sobbed harder, hiding her face behind her tangled,
waist-length hair. Sano ordered a soothing herb tea brought
to her, but she refused to drink. After an hour of repeated
failed attempts to calm and question Haru, Sano told his chief
retainer Hirata to try. Hirata was young, personable, and popular
with girls, but he fared no better than Sano. Haru cried herself
into a fit of choking, then vomited. Finally Sano and Hirata
As they left the dormitory, Sano asked the nuns, "Has Haru
told anyone what she was doing outside the cottage, or what
she saw there?"
"She hasn't uttered a word since she was found," answered
a nun. "When the fire brigade and the priests questioned her,
she behaved as you just saw. With us nuns she's calmer, but
she still won't talk."
Now Sano explained the situation to Tokugawa Tsunayoshi,
who shook his head and said, "Perhaps a demon has, ahh, stolen
the poor girl's voice. Ahh, how unfortunate that your only
witness cannot speak!"
But Sano had a different theory about Haru's behavior, and
a possible solution to the problem. "Tomorrow I'll try another
way of breaking her silence," he said.
After leaving the shogun, Sano walked down the hill on which
Edo Castle perched, through stone passages between enclosed
corridors and watchtowers manned by armed guards, past security
checkpoints. Lanterns carried by patrolling troops glowed in
the deepening blue twilight. The evening was almost as mild
as summer, yet a golden haze veiled the waxing moon. The wind
breathed the scent of charcoal smoke and dry leaves. In the
official quarter, where the shogun's high-ranking retainers
lived, Sano quickened his steps as he passed estates surrounded
by barracks with whitewashed walls. He was eager for the company
of his family, and he had a plan to propose.
He hurried through the gate of his estate, greeting the guards
stationed there and in the paved courtyard inside the barracks.
Beyond an inner gate, he entered the mansion, a large, half-timbered
building with a brown tile roof. As he removed his shoes and
swords inside the entry porch, he heard feminine voices singing
and laughing, and the excited shrieks of a child. He smiled
in bemusement while he walked down the corridor toward the
private chambers. He still couldn't believe that the addition
of one tiny person had transformed his peaceful household into
a place of noisy activity. He stopped at the nursery door.
His smile broadened.
Inside the warm, bright room, his wife Reiko sat in a circle
with four other women--her old nurse O-sugi, two maids, and
Midori, a family friend. They were singing a folk tune. Little
Masahiro, eighteen months old, dressed in a green cotton sleeping
kimono, his soft black locks disheveled and his round face
rosy, toddled on plump legs from one woman to the next within
the circle. His happy, childish whoops joined their song; his
tiny hands clapped against theirs.
Reiko glanced up and saw Sano. Her delicate, lovely features
brightened. "Look, Masahiro-chan. It's your father!"
Arms outstretched, chortling in excitement, Masahiro ran
to Sano, who picked him up, tossed him in the air, and caught
him. Masahiro laughed with glee. Sano hugged his son close,
enjoying Masahiro's softness and sweet smell. Love clenched
his heart; awe sobered him. He was a first-time father at the
late age of thirty-four, and this boisterous little creature
seemed a miracle.
"My little samurai," Sano murmured, nuzzling his son's face.
O-sugi and the maids gathered up the water basin and damp
towels from Masahiro's bath and departed. Sano greeted Midori. "How
are you tonight?"
"Fine, thank you." Midori bowed. Dimples flashed in her plump
cheeks; her lively eyes danced. Eighteen years old, she was
a daughter of a powerful daimyo--provincial lord--and held
a post as a lady-in-waiting to the shogun's mother. Sano had
met her during an investigation some years ago. She and Reiko
had become friends, and Sano suspected that Midori and Hirata
were somewhat more than friends. Because the shogun's mother
had many other attendants to serve her, and great esteem for
Sano, she allowed Midori to visit the estate often.
"I guess it's getting late," Midori said, rising. "I'd better
go back to the palace." To Reiko she said, "Shall I come again
Reiko smiled and nodded. "Good night."
After Midori left, Sano and Reiko played with Masahiro, discussing
his appetite, bowels, and all the endearing things he'd done
today. Then Reiko announced, "Bedtime!" This entailed much
fussing and coaxing, but finally Masahiro was asleep on his
little futon. Sano and Reiko settled in the parlor, where he
ate a meal of miso soup, rice, grilled trout, and vegetables.
Reclining upon cushions, Reiko sipped tea. Tendrils of hair
had escaped her upswept coiffure; fatigue shadowed her eyes;
food stains blotched her maroon silk kimono. She was twenty-three
years old, and motherhood had given her a new, mature beauty. "Masahiro
is so lively, he wears me out," she said.
"You work too hard," Sano said between bites of fish. "Let
the maids help with Masahiro."
"Oh, well. Masahiro keeps me busy." Reiko smiled, adding
wistfully, "There's not much else for me to do."
Sano knew that Reiko, the only child of Magistrate Ueda,
had enjoyed an unconventional girlhood. Her indulgent father
had hired tutors to give her the education usually reserved
for samurai sons bound for careers in the bakufu. However,
despite all her training, which extended to the martial arts,
women couldn't hold government posts or work as anything except
servants, farm laborers, nuns, or prostitutes. Not until she
married had Reiko found a use for her talents: helping Sano
with his investigations.
She'd uncovered clues in places where male detectives couldn't
go. She'd gathered information through a network composed of
women associated with powerful samurai clans. Often her discoveries
led to the solution of a case. But since Masahiro's arrival,
Reiko had spent almost all her time at the estate. The child
had occupied her, and there'd been no work for her in Sano's
"What did you do today?" Reiko asked.
The eager curiosity in her voice told Sano that she missed
the challenge of detective work. Now he realized with consternation
that she'd lost some of her spirit. That he hadn't noticed
this before signified that they'd grown apart. Maybe a short
break from housewifery would refresh Reiko and bring them closer
"I have a new case," Sano said. While he ate rice and pickled
daikon, he told Reiko about the fire and the three deaths.
He described his unsuccessful interrogation of Haru, then said, "From
her behavior toward the fire brigade, the priests, Hirata,
and myself, I believe she's afraid of men. I ordered her moved
from the orphanage to the main convent at Zojo Temple because
I don't want potential suspects--as all the residents of the
Black Lotus Temple are--to influence my only witness. I'd like
you to go there and interview Haru."
Sano smiled at Reiko. "You're my only female detective, and
I'm hoping that you can get some information from her. Do you
want to try?"
"Do I!" Reiko sat up straight; her eyes sparkled, and she
shed her weariness like a cast-off garment. "I would love to!
How I've been longing for some adventure!"
"I must warn you that Haru may not cooperate with you," Sano
said, though pleased by Reiko's enthusiasm.
"Oh, I'm sure I can persuade her to talk. How soon can we
go to the Black Lotus Temple?" Reiko looked ready to jump up
and leave immediately.
"I have to go to Edo Morgue tomorrow," Sano said, "then make
inquiries around town." Seeing Reiko's disappointed expression,
he said, "But my detectives are going to Zojo district in the
morning. They can escort you, if you like."
"Wonderful! I can hardly wait!"
Reiko shimmered with happy energy. Sano saw in her the young
bride who on their wedding day had pleaded to help solve a
murder case, then forged ahead on her own after he'd refused.
He felt a surge of love for her.
"All right," he said. "We can share our results in the evening."
A distant look came into Reiko's eyes, as if she'd mentally
moved ahead in time to tomorrow. "This is a very important
interview. I must be very careful with Haru. Tell me everything
about her, so I can decide how best to draw her out."
They discussed possible strategies, just as they had in the
days before Masahiro. Sano realized he'd missed their partnership,
and was glad he could include Reiko in the investigation.
Excerpt from BLACK
©Laura Joh Rowland, 2001
Published by St.