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  The Way of the Traitor by . . .
Laura Joh Rowland
"Exciting, exotic entertainment."
— Library Journal on THE WAY OF THE TRAITOR

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Cover: The Way of the Traitor by Laura Joh RowlandJapan, Genroku Period, Year 2, Month 5 (June 1690)

Like a pale moon, the sun's white globe rose in a mesh of drifting clouds above the eastern hills beyond Nagasaki, the international port city on Kyushu, the westernmost of Japan's four major islands. Mist clung to the forested slopes and shrouded the city clustered around the harbor. Bells echoed from hillside temples, over the governor's stately mansion, the townspeople's thatched houses, and the foreign settlements. In the harbor, a salt-laden summer breeze stirred the sails of Japanese fishing boats, Chinese junks, and myriad vessels from the exotic, faraway lands of Arabia, Korea, Tonkin. A patrol barge glided down the corridor formed by the harbor's high, wooded cliffs, past the watchtowers, toward a calm sea. On the western horizon, the silhouettes of distant ships appeared as dawn gradually pushed back night's curtain.

On a steep road leading away from town, a low, anguished moaning heralded a solemn procession. First came Nagasaki's highest officials--mounted samurai dressed in black ceremonial robes and caps--then four hundred lesser dignitaries, attendants, servants, and merchants, all on foot. Last marched a small army of soldiers armed with swords and spears, guarding the terrified prisoner in their midst.

"No," whispered the samurai between his moans, which grew louder as the procession climbed higher into the hills. He had been stripped of his swords, and all clothing except a loincloth. He tried to break free, but heavy shackles hobbled his ankles; ropes bound his wrists behind his back. Spears prodded him up the path. "This can't be happening!"

Amid the lower ranks of officials, one witness fought back fear and nausea. He hated watching executions, but his attendance at this one was mandatory, along with that of everyone else who had dealings with Nagasaki's foreign community. The bakufu--the military dictatorship that ruled Japan--wanted to remind them all of what would happen to anyone who violated the nation's harsh anti-treason laws, to warn them against any allegiance with the foreigners, no matter how innocent, or any act of disloyalty toward the government. Here, in the only place where foreigners were allowed in Japan, an ambitious man might gather powerful allies and launch a rebellion against the Tokugawa regime. To prevent this, the bakufu enforced the laws more rigorously than anywhere else in the country, devoting immense effort to identifying and punishing traitors. Even a minor infraction would inevitably lead to death.

"Why are you doing this?" the prisoner pleaded. "I beg you, have mercy!"

No one answered. The march continued relentlessly, until at last the members of the procession gathered on a plateau overlooking the city and harbor. None spoke, but the witness sensed their emotions, hovering in the moist air like a malignant cloud: fear; excitement; disgust. He watched, terrified and appalled, as the army bore the captive into the center of the plateau.

There waited four grim, muscular men with cropped hair, wearing ragged kimonos. One, hammer in hand, stood beside a newly erected frame composed of two wooden pillars joined by a crossbeam. Two others seized the prisoner's arms and forced him to his knees beside the man holding a sword; the sharp blade gleamed in the dawn light. These were eta, outcasts who served as executioners, and they were ready to cut off the prisoner's head and mount it on the frame as a warning to would-be criminals.

"No!" the prisoner screamed. "Please!" Straining away from his captors, he entreated the audience. "I've committed no crimes. I haven't done anything to deserve this!"

The witness longed to clap his hands over his ears and shut out the screams, to close his eyes against the sight of the panic-stricken samurai whose courage had fled before this ultimate disgrace, to deny his terrible sense of identification with the condemned prisoner.

Hoofbeats clattered as the governor of Nagasaki urged his horse forward. "The prisoner, Yoshido Ganzaemon, is guilty of treason," he announced in grave, ceremonial tones.

"Treason?" The samurai ceased struggling, his face blank with shock. "I'm not a traitor. I've served the shogun well all my life." His voice rose in disbelief. "I'm the hardest-working officer in the harbor patrol. I always volunteer for extra duty. I risk my life in rough weather. I practice the martial arts so that I can someday bring my lord glory on the battlefield. I've never acted against the shogun or his regime. Whoever says so is lying!"

But the governor's voice drowned out his plea. "Yoshido Ganzaemon has cravenly denounced the lord to whom he owes his ultimate duty and loyalty. He has called His Excellency the Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi a weak, stupid fool."

The witness knew that Yoshido had insulted the shogun during a party in the pleasure quarter, where the courtesans flattered and the sake flowed freely, removing men's inhibitions and loosening their tongues. Nagasaki boasted more spies than anywhere else in Japan, all alert to the slightest transgressions. They'd overheard Yoshido's careless words and brought him to this sorry fate as they had many others.

"I didn't mean it," Yoshido protested. "I was drunk; I didn't know what I was saying. A thousand apologies!" He tried to bow, but the two eta held him firmly. "Please, you can't kill me for one little mistake!"

No one spoke in his defense, not even the witness, who knew of the man's exemplary record and character. To take a traitor's side would mean sharing his guilt, and punishment. "For his dishonor, Yoshido Ganzaemon is hereby sentenced to death." The governor nodded to the executioners.

Now the prisoner's fear turned to rage. "So you condemn me as a traitor?" he shouted at the silent, watchful assembly. "When there are much, much worse criminals in Nagasaki than I?" Harsh, bitter laughter exploded from him. "Just take a look around Deshima, and you'll see!"

The crowd stirred; murmurs swept the plateau like a troubled wind. The witness gasped at the accusation, for Yoshido spoke the truth. By unfortunate accident, the witness had discovered shocking activity on Deshima, the Dutch trade colony. He'd observed clandestine comings and goings, illegal transactions, forbidden collusion between foreigners and Japanese. Even worse, he believed he knew who bore the primary responsibility for the crimes. Now his bowels loosened; he swayed dizzily. If an underling like Yoshido knew about the crimes, then who else did, or would eventually find out?

The governor held up a hand, arresting all sound and motion. "Proceed!" he ordered.

The eta seized the looped knot of hair at Yoshido's nape and yanked, forcing his head high, holding it immobile. The witness's heart thudded; his limbs went numb and cold in horrible empathy. He saw himself in Yoshido's place, ready to die not in glorious battle, or honorably by his own hand in ritual suicide as befitting a samurai, but in disgrace, a convicted traitor.

Then he pictured the person he suspected of the Deshima crime, kneeling beside the executioner whose sword now rose in a high, deadly arc. A person to whose fate his own was inextricably bound. Would they die together like this, someday? The penalty for a crime of such magnitude was death not just for the criminal, but also for his whole family and all close associates. Please, the witness prayed in mute terror, let it not happen!

"Oh, yes, there are bigger villains than I, who are probably committing their evil, treasonous deeds even now. Punish them instead!"

Yoshido's hysterical voice echoed through the hills, in vain. Panic sharpened the witness's senses. He heard the crowd's simultaneous intake of breath, smelled anticipation mingling with the salty sea breeze. Under the sun's blind, merciless eye, and over the hammering of his own heart, he heard Yoshida scream: "No, please, no no no NO!"

The executioner's sword slashed downward. In a great red fountain of blood, the blade severed Yoshido's head, forever ending his protests and accusations.

But the witness's terror lived on. If matters continued along their present course, the danger would escalate. There would be more violent death, more mortal disgrace . . . unless he stopped the crimes before someone else did.


©Laura Joh Rowland, 1997

"...well constructed, superbly written, and very entertaining excellent whodunit."


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