(Note: This is an author’s essay I wrote for Mystery Scene when my second Mas Arai mystery was released. To learn more about contributing an essay to Mystery Scene, refer to this.)
FINDING TAKEO was the working title of my second mystery, eventually named GASA-GASA GIRL. As it turns out, doing research for the book became a search for a real-life Takeo.
This Takeo was Takeo Shiota, a Japanese immigrant who designed the famed Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden in Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York City from 1914-15. I wanted to set my second book in present-day New York, because the estranged daughter of my amateur sleuth/gardener, Mas Arai, lived there and I had left their tenuous relationship hanging at the end of my first book, SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI. I also desired to expand my mystery world beyond the Japanese American community in Los Angeles, the milieu of BIG BACHI to avoid any Cabot Cove "why is everyone getting killed off in a small village" syndrome.
Since my murder would take place in a Japanese garden, I had to investigate the Japanese-inspired landscape in New York City. My research took me to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), which also has an amazing collection of bonsai hundreds of years old. The Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden is still one of BBG’s crown jewels, with its serene koi pond and the majestic orange torii gate reminiscent of a much larger one in Miyajima, near Hiroshima. The pond is in the classic kokoro shape–kokoro being the Japanese language character for spirit or heart. The garden, as is most Japanese-style gardens in America, is a fusion of cultural influences. The stonework on the waterfalls resemble the style found in the construction of grottoes, no doubt due to the Italian workmen who had been hired to do the hard labor.
When I visited New York City in April, the weather was extremely erratic–no surprise to the natives. As a Southern Californian who was leaving mild sunny weather, I was shocked to arrive to melting snow and a temperature of 30 degrees. An early trip to the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden revealed bare trees with tiny buds. But on our last day in Brooklyn, the temperature had risen to 80 degrees, pushing open the cherry blossoms, magnificent pink umbrellas around the placid pond. Spring had sprung.
My husband and I continued our research to the New York Public Library, where I was able to locate a document that Takeo Shiota himself had written in English in 1915 about "The Miniature Japanese Landscape." In some ways, the language was childlike, in other ways profound: "And the older a Japanese garden, the more natural it looks, and added years serve also to increase its glories."
There has been surprisingly little written about Shiota’s life. His best biographer so far has been artist and architecture expert, Clay Lancaster (1917-2000), who wrote brief articles and excerpts on Shiota’s work all along the East Coast. After consulting his writings, other documents and books, professors, and Japanese journalists, I hit a roadblock. No one, not even relatives in Japan, was quite sure how and exactly where he died. The only common thread was that he had spent his last days in an internment camp on the East Coast in the 1940s.
Shiota had a white wife. They had no children. Shiota had one foot in the Japanese world and one foot in white world–and neither one embraced him totally as their own. As a result, he had no personal historian who followed and recorded intimate details of his life. That nobody really knows about his demise is a tragedy in itself.
Shiota is only a shadow historic character in my mystery, which is essentially a contemporary story with echoes in the past. I quote from Shiota’s essay in a few places; Mas’s grandson is named after the master gardener. But Shiota’s life, his risk-taking, and his interracial marriage are all reflected in the spirit and theme of GASA-GASA GIRL. Gasa-gasa in Japanese means "restless," or "always moving around," and this characteristic not only refers to Mas’s daughter, but the frenetic nature of New York, and even our ever-changing history as Americans.
As I watched mothers with children in strollers, seniors, and nuns in short, grey habits walking around the kokoro-shaped pond, I was amazed how vibrant the garden experience was to these disparate people. Even though Shiota had created this landscape masterpiece close to a hundred years ago, it is literally alive today. If only my attempts to write mysteries could have the same effect.
(Photos of Takeo Shiota and his wife are courtesy of the Shiota family)
REI AND MAS TOGETHER FOR THE FIRST TIME: It was only after I had written my second mystery that I discovered that Sujata Massey had a secondary character named Takeo. (Really, Sujata!) Anyway, Sujata, the author of the Rei Shimura series, and I will team up this Thursday night for a joint book program at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. It’s going to be the first time we’ll be speaking together, so if you’re in the area, please come by. Later this week will be the Sisters in Crime Goes to Hollywood conference; I’ll be moderating a discussion about heroes and heroines with Sujata, Anne Perry, and Marcia Talley at the Mystery Bookstore at 4 p.m. I’ll have a few notes in next week’s post about the event.
WEDNESDAY’S WORD: gasa-gasa (GASA-GASA GIRL, title and page 1)
Well, again, I’ve given you the definition in my text above. Gasa-gasa is also an onomatopoeic word for "rustle" or "rustling sound."
Wow, Naomi, that was fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing. Wish, wish, wish I could see you at the Pacific Asia Museum and the Mystery Bookstore. Say hi to Sujata for me.
Fascinating – Takeo Shiota’s legacy – is at least-the lasting beauty he had created – and perhaps he was satisfied with that. What more can a mere mortal desire?
Thanks so much, Naomi – for sharing what little you knew of so great a master.
Naomi that is great:) I like japanese garden and I am trying to make one for myself:First of all I drew up the plans, well actually my very significant other did it. She is a graphics designer so that helped. Once we had the design it was time for the heavy stuff. My girlfriend was determined to have a Koi pond and to be fair no Japanese garden is complete without one. So out came the spade and I dug a nice deep ditch for the Koi pond. There is never a chain gang around when you need one is there!