Judge Ooka’s Sidekick: A Samurai Never Fears Death and The Sword that Cut the Burning Grass by Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler

Wandering through the children’s section of our local public library with my son, I encountered a new-to-me children’s mystery series based in Tokugawa Japan. The books are by Dorothy and Thomas Hobbler, and are piggybacking on the Judge Ooka character. Unlike certain other Japan-based anglophone fictions, these feature a cast of entirely Japanese characters, though the protagonist is still young and enough of a fish-out-of-water to justify significant exposition. The “Authors Note” in the back of each book briefly lays out the historical and cultural foundations of the story, and clearly notes which elements are “completely from the imagination of the authors.” (Sword, 210) Though I noted some anachronisms and some larger issues, on the whole these were surprisingly good in both detail and theme.

The books are the adventures of Seikei, an Osaka-born merchant class boy who is adopted as the son and heir of Judge Ooka in the 1730s. That kind of adoption was relatively rare, but well within contemporary norms, and the unusual nature of class-jumping adoption is fairly well integrated into the stories. The characters are a bit flat and the issues broadly drawn, but that’s not unusual for children’s fiction; more importantly, they are some of the most genuinely and humanely Japanese characters I’ve encountered in my sojourns into this literature. [Spoilers follow, of course]

As you might expect, “honor” plays a huge role in these characters’ lives, but so do ambition, literature, family and friendship, not to mention fairly frequent murders requiring investigation. I was more impressed with A Samurai Never Fears Death, the fifth of six extant books in the series, than with its much more fantastical predecessor, The Sword that Cut the Burning Grass: the latter book involves a frankly absurd series of events involving an attempt to overthrow the Shogunate in 1737 predicated on the assumption that the rallying power of the emperor (plus the magically undefeatable Sword from Atsuta Shrine) would overcome the vastly superior military forces which would be arrayed against such an attempt. If I’d read that one first, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with the vastly superior former book, which involves murders in a puppet theater troupe which is conspiring with smugglers who claim to be importing goods from China but who are actually undercutting domainal monopsonies and cheating their customers. I’ll have to get another book or two from the series before I’ll know which one is typical, I’m afraid. There was a mention of ninja appearing in an earlier book (Sword, 8) which doesn’t make me terribly happy, but there are none in these books, at least.

There is a bit of sloppiness to the details, though, which is rather grating. In A Samurai Never Fears Death, for example, Seikei eats Okonomiyaki (p. 78), though it wasn’t invented until Late Meiji, and he takes his sword to a Buddhist temple for “purification” (also cleaning) after it’s used to kill someone, a ritual practice which doesn’t appear to actually exist.1 Later, in a discussion of the Tokugawa founding, they explain that all daimyo were allies of the Tokugawa (p. 150-1), a fairly glaring error. In The Sword that Cut the Burning Grass, aside from the silly plot (which, in their defense, they admit in the authors note to having no connection to historical reality), they mangle the unifiers-songbird poem (p. 18), misspell “Tenno Heika” (p. 15)2, grossly inflate prices (p. 178), and one of the villains of the book is a daimyo named “Ponzu”3 . Having only read two of the six stories in the series, I’m not sure, but it seems like Seikei always falls under suspicion himself around page fifty: there’s a formula at work here, I’m sure.

In a larger sense, these books suffer from the same overdrawn class system as most literature.4 In their defense, the issues of law and violence would normally highlight these divisions, and Seikei’s class-crossing experience does as well. In particular, by the mid-1700s, merchant-samurai relations were becoming much more complex, and merchants were beginning to lose the sense of inferiority and resentment which those characters often display. Seikei is an interesting character in this regard: he had an interest — infatuation might be the right word for a 13-year old — in samurai values and culture before his adoption, but his tea-merchant birth family are unsympathetic to his interest and apparently agree to his adoption more out of a realization that he’ll be useless to the family business than out of a desire to aid his self-realization.

Overall, though, the sense of place and person in this series is good. If a young reader — I’d put the target audience at 10+, based on the social complexity and level of violence, but I’m old-fashioned about these sorts of things — pays attention to the authors notes, they could really learn something about 18th century Japan from these fairly entertaining stories. More importantly, they wouldn’t have to unlearn very much when they got to more advanced material.

Update: I got hold of the first two books in the series and have to retract my recommendation because only the final volume in the series is remotely worth reading.

  1. A Shinto purification would be more appropriate, perhaps, but at the very least he should clean the blood off it first.  

  2. which is anachronistic anyway, at this point  

  3. His emblem is paired shrimp, so the authors may well be having a joke with this.  

  4. And what Japan-related series would be complete without a “nail that sticks up” reference? (p. 119) Seriously: is there one which doesn’t invoke it?  

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