Snakeskin Shamisen

by Naomi Hirahara

Snakeskin Shamisen

Paperback, 255 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $14 | purchase

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Snakeskin Shamisen
Author
Naomi Hirahara

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Book Summary

When a close friend is found murdered shortly after winning a half-million dollars from a novelty slot machine, Japanese-American gardener Mas Arai discovers that a snakeskin shamisen, a traditional Okinawa musical instrument, could hold a clue to the killer's identity and follows a trail that leads from the streets of L.A. to Okinawa in pursuit of the truth. Original. 20,000 first printing.

Read an excerpt of this book

Awards and Recognition

Edgar Award (2007)

NPR stories about Snakeskin Shamisen

Los Angeles is the setting for Naomi Hirahara's Mas Arai series, in which a gruff, mystery-solving, 72-year-old gardener guides readers into the hidden corners of L.A.'s Japanese-American communities. Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Snakeskin Shamisen

Snakeskin Shamisen

Chapter One

Mas Arai didn't think much of slot machines, not to mention one with a fake can of Spam mounted on top of it. Mas was a poker and blackjack man, and he had been for most of his seventy-odd years. Slots were for suckers. For heavy hakujin women in oversized T-shirts and silly earrings. And as far as he was concerned, Spam was strictly for eating—a fat, shimmering slice resting on a rectangle of sticky rice and tied together with a band of nori, dried seaweed. That's how most of the Japanese he knew in L.A. ate it.

His late wife, Chizuko, hadn't been a fan. She was straight from Japan, while Mas had bounced back and forth from row crops in his native California to the rice fields of Hiroshima. Chizuko had disapproved of Spam, and instead attempted to push natto—fermented soybeans, sticky as melted glue and rancid smelling as a baby's behind—onto their unsuspecting neighbors. Only Mrs. Jones, a large black woman with a middle as wide as one of the tires on Mas's Ford gardening truck, had taken up Chizuko's offer. After she'd opened her mouth wide, placing the web of natto on her tongue and swallowing the sticky and stinky beans, Mas had half-expected her to rise from their kitchen table and head for the bathroom. But instead she'd smiled sweetly as if holding on to a secret. "Like okra," she'd said. "Only chewier."

Mas was more of a Spam man, with some limits, of course. Spam was perfectly acceptable at potlucks of the Americanized Japanese, in particular the second generation, the Nisei, and their children, the Sansei. Mas could live with Spam being served at the coffee shop of the California Club, a favorite casino choice of Nisei families, Hawaii-born gamblers, and gardeners like Mas. Hell, he would be first in line to order Spam, eggs, and rice for breakfast or a couple of Spam sushi, referred to as Spam musubi, as a midnight snack. But once he left the confines of the coffee shop, he just wanted to fix his eyes on the clean surface of green felt tables.

Yet to get to those dollar blackjack and poker games, Mas always had to make his way through rows of slot machines. In recent years, it had only gotten worse. Instead of the standard slots, with cherries and 7s, these new machines joined the video age and took their themes from old television and game shows. Others looked more like children's games, with jumping frogs and Chinese takeout boxes and silly cartoon sounds. Too much noise. Mas just gritted down on his dentures and shook his head as he passed by.

But when he first laid eyes on a Spam slot machine, he knew that the gaming industry had gone one step too far. First it was that ridiculous lit-up giant Spam can positioned on top of the machine like an askew crown. Then there were the multiple video images of people eating and serving Spam, and then Spam itself. What did any of that have to do with gambling?

Those thoughts returned to Mas as he sat in his fake leather easy chair in his own living room after a meal of rotisserie chicken from the local discount warehouse store. He was reading the L.A. Japanese daily newspaper, The Rafu Shimpo, as he did every evening, when he saw it—a quarter-page photo of a Spam slot machine on page three. And that wasn't the worst of it: two Sansei men were clutching the slot machine as if it were a Vegas showgirl. They had leis around their necks and glassy looks on their faces. Drunk as skunks, thought Mas. He adjusted his reading glasses. One of the men in the photo, a guy with long graying hair pulled back in a ponytail, looked familiar. No, couldn't be. Mas turned on the light beside the easy chair, pounding excess dust from the lampshade. There was no doubt now; it was his best lawyer friend—well, only lawyer friend—G. I. Hasuike. Beside him was a thick-chested Sansei man in a tight T-shirt. He had a mustache and sideburns. He looked like any other Japanese American man of a certain era. The type to hang out in smoky bowling alleys and pool halls. In the man's left hand was a cardboard rectangle, a giant check from the casino. Mas carefully counted the zeros. Five of them, all behind a number 5.

"Sonafugun," Mas muttered. Half a million dollars. He read the caption underneath the photo. "Randy Yamashiro, left, celebrates winning $500,000 in the Spam Slot Machine Sweepstakes at the California Club casino in Las Vegas with friend George Hasuike." Mas groaned. Now every Japanese fool, every single aho, would be making their way to the California Club for a try on the Spam slot machine. Any child, or even a monkey, could stuff coins into a slot. It didn't require the guts and smarts necessary for card games. It wasn't fair and it wasn't respectable. But then again, $500,000 could buy its share of respect.

There was a brief story underneath the photo and caption:


Randy Yamashiro, a resident of Hawaii, credits George Hasuike as his "good-luck charm." Yamashiro, who is visiting the mainland from Oahu, announced that he will be holding a luncheon in Torrance, CA, in Hasuike's honor later this week. The two men were in Las Vegas for a reunion of Asian American Vietnam War veterans.


Mas knew that he should be impressed with Yamashiro's generosity, but instead it made him sick. Going to rub our noses into it, thought Mas. The last thing he would do was go to any meal paid for by a winner of a game based on a food product.

Mas's best friend, Haruo Mukai, of course, was of another opinion. Haruo, like Mas, had escaped from the ravages of the Bomb in 1945. Mas returned to America, his birthplace, physically intact, whereas Haruo had left his dead eye behind in Hiroshima. Haruo's good eye was as good as, if not better than, a pair of Mas's eyeballs; he saw things that Mas had a hard time seeing. Like their obligation to go to that luncheon. Haruo had received a personal invitation—Mas would have, too, if he'd bothered to get an answering machine.

"We gotsu a go, Mas," Haruo insisted over the phone. It was close to eight, the time Haruo usually went to bed before working the graveyard shift at the flower market in downtown Los Angeles.

"I don't have to do nutin'," Mas replied. Sitting at home seemed like a more appealing option.

"Osewaninatta. G. I. the one who help youzu out wiz a ton of legal problems, rememba?"

Like a typical Japanese, Mas thought, Haruo would pull out that card. Osewaninatta, Japanese would say to each other. I am in your debt. You've helped me out, and I owe you, big-time.

"Get you, Mari, out of more jams than you can count," Haruo kept going.

Mari was Mas's daughter in New York City, and Mas didn't appreciate Haruo using her as part of his argument.

"Yah, yah, yah," Mas said quickly, not wanting to be reminded of past troubles. "Orai, orai."

Mas ended the call soon after that. He immediately regretted agreeing to go to the party. It was fall, a time to reassess and rescue scorched lawns and dried-out plants on his gardening route. It was a season to restrategize, not to wander twenty miles south to the coastal suburb of Torrance.

Haruo had invited Mas to go with him and his girlfriend of two years, Spoon Hayakawa. Spoon's real name was Sutama, but Mas guessed that it could have been worse—being called "Fork," "Knife," or "Chopstick," for example. Shaped like a gourd, she had long salt-and-pepper frizzy hair, which she held back with a stretchy headband. She was also a Nisei, and being an all-American gave her an easy sense of humor. Mas and Haruo, on the other hand, were Kibei Nisei, which meant born in the U.S. but raised in Japan. This duality resulted in men and women who were either sweet or sour. Haruo was sickeningly sweet, the type to hold hands with his girlfriend even when he was pushing seventy-two. That was hard to take for Mas, the classic sour, so he declined Haruo's offer. Another invitation came from other family friends, Tug and Lil Yamada. Again, Mas passed, making up a story about needing to deliver some plants to a customer on his way to the restaurant. The last thing Mas wanted to be was a third wheel. Indeed, if he had to go, Mas would go alone.


A lot of times, Mas noticed, when you looked forward to something—like the start of the horse race season at Santa Anita Racetrack on the day after Christmas—time went slow. Each gardening job before the twenty-sixth of December seemed tedious, because it was the very thing that stood between Mas and his favorite holiday activity. But when you weren't that excited, it was entirely different. So cutting trees, shaving hedges, clipping rosebushes—they all seemed to merge together, and then finally it was Saturday and Mas was parking his truck in a gravel parking lot in Torrance.

Torrance had an Orange County feel to it—new land, large, pristine boulevards, and only a few bunches of trees in the business parks. Aside from its main high school building and the old retail section by the defunct train depot, nothing seemed to predate 1950. There had once been strawberry fields and flower farms, but then progress came, wiping out the farms and bringing in tract homes, super-sized malls, and corporate buildings, all shiny and reflective like structures to be launched into space.

Since the 1990s, Torrance had become king of the Japanese American communities, beating out its northern neighbor Gardena, which had held the throne since post-World War II. As the Sansei left their fathers' jobs as gardeners and producemen to become dentists, lawyers, and doctors, and made more money, they headed south to Torrance. It was like a hole in a dam—soon Japanese American families and businesses poured into the lowlands and then climbed up the Santa Monica Mountains into the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

G. I.'s party was being held at a Hawaiian restaurant called Mahalo. It must have been an International House of Pancakes in a previous life, because it had the same gingerbread-house sloped roof and concrete-block columns. But instead of being painted baby blue, the building was a tan color, perhaps to simulate Hawaii's sand, even though Mahalo stood along a huge six-lane boulevard filled with whizzing cars.

Mas was late because his 1956 blue-green Ford truck had been giving him problems. It had been stolen a few years ago, stripped of its guts like a cleaned-out trout. But the thieves hadn't been able to open the mouth of the machine, the hood, which had been dented and scarred when Mas's daughter, then six, and her friends had jumped on it like a trampoline. Ironically that past pummeling was the one thing that ultimately saved the engine, since no one but Mas knew how to open the damaged hood.

With the engine still operational, Mas had simply improvised on the truck's gutted interior. He found an old neon yellow Chevy driver's seat at the junkyard and jammed it into place. As it was a little too wide, Mas had to saw off part of the passenger's-side cushion and seal it with some black duct tape. Haruo had located an old dashboard from a 1970 Ford pickup, giving the truck the clashing look of two disparate decades. An old mug glued onto the driver's-side door with rubber cement had served as an adequate ashtray back when Mas had smoked. He'd kicked the habit a couple of years ago, so the mug was now filled with old Bic pens and a free promotional flashlight from a Clippers basketball game. Mas locked the car with a screwdriver (who would steal his truck anyway, especially with new Toyota Camrys, Infinitis, and Honda minivans all parked in nice, straight rows?). Lately, the dependable engine had been sputtering out, a flame growing fainter over time. Mas knew that one day he would have to finally retire the Ford, but today was not the day.

He walked to the restaurant and opened the heavy wood door. Inside, it was cool and dark; Mas blinked a few times to get his bearings. He could make out a counter filled with macadamia cookies, bean cakes, and other pastries. Up above were fake palm fronds and strings of leis made from mini conch shells.

"Aloha," said an Asian woman in her twenties, her cheeks as smooth and brown as the Hawaiian sweet bread on display. Her hair was long and straight, and she wore a yellow Hawaiian shirt with a pattern of white hibiscus flowers.

"Yah. Lookin' for G. I.," Mas said.

"Huh?"

"The party in the back, Tiffany." Another waiter, his hair standing straight up like the teeth of a comb, jabbed an elbow in Tiffany's side.

"Oh, please come this way." Tiffany led Mas down the stairs into a large open room with bare wood beams draped with more fake palm fronds. The youngster then returned to her post at the hostess table, while Mas stayed on the bottom stair, surveying the crowd. There were people logjammed at the buffet line, scooping steaming noodles and meat out of metal trays and onto white plates. Families, including harried Sansei mothers and old ladies with their grandchildren, sat at round tables. A bar to the side with an overhead television tuned to a college football game attracted a couple of men with apparently no social skills. A stage in front held microphones on stands. And in the back were a bunch of Sansei men in polo shirts and long-sleeved button-down shirts. Two of them were wearing white carnation leis: G. I., the man of the hour, and his friend Randy, the jackpot winner. Mas's plan had been to say hello and then good-bye, but the smell of soy sauce, ginger, and bacon made him reconsider. He was here anyway; couldn't hurt to get in an early dinner.

A Sansei man in a windbreaker apparently observed Mas's change of mind.

"You a friend of G. I.?" He had a raspy voice, like a coil of wire being unraveled.

Mas nodded.

"Well, come in, come in. Have some food, beer." The man extended the Sapporo beer in his right hand toward the buffet line. "I'm Jiro. Another buddy from 'Nam."

Mas introduced himself and stepped down so that he was on the same ground level as Jiro. The man was about Mas's height, a little over five feet tall, and his face was marked by a spray of freckles, splatters of different sizes and shapes. When he closed his mouth, his lips both puckered out as if he were waiting for a kiss that would never come.

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