Japan, 1825: Low-ranking samurai Uchida Tomonosuke is a devotee of the way of manly love, but he has never pledged himself to another man. Until one day he accidentally crosses paths with Ichi, a beautiful blind masseur who challenges everything he thought he knew about love between men.
Ichi is independent and confident, but his blindness means he is considered a non-person in the rigid social hierarchy. Tomonosuke is torn between his passion for this elegant young man, and the expectations of his rank. Not to mention his obligation to his unhappy wife, Okyo. But when betrayal and natural disasters strike, it is Ichi who holds the key to saving Tomonosuke’s life.
This vivid, meticulously researched novel depicts unconventional lives during the first half of the 19th century in Edo–the city that would become Tokyo. Step into a world in which the gay-straight binary doesn’t exist, where androgyny in both men and women is celebrated. This thoroughly researched historical novel presents a realistic, deeply moving view of samurai, geisha, Japanese culture, and disability. It’s also a steamy, explicit gay love story that knowingly bends the m-m romance genre.
Targeted Age Group:: adult audiences only
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 4 – R Rated
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I was inspired in part by travel in Japan. Most of the novel is set in Edo, the city that is now Tokyo. In the 19th century, Edo was the largest city in the world, with the highest rates of literacy. Edo boasted a lively, raucous street culture, that we know today through woodblock prints and kabuki theater. But it was also wracked by frequent natural disasters, including earthquakes and floods. Fires were so common that they were called “The Flower of Edo.” There are still many traces of Edo culture in Tokyo today. I tried to incorporate as many real historical details in the novel as possible.
As an author of historical fiction, it was tremendously freeing to write about a past culture where the gay-straight binary didn’t exist, where homosexuality was normal and not stigmatized or suppressed, as well as a culture in which people with disabilities were not hidden away or institutionalized. Stories about people who have been marginalized or forgotten do not have to be depressing or tragic. There are so many possibilities for empowering, positive, exciting stories of gay lives and about disability, even in a historical setting. The past can be surprising, especially if we turn our attention to cultures outside Europe.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I was inspired to write the character of Ichi after coming across references to the Todoza or guild of blind men, which was a self-governing society that provided social support and vocational training for blind people. I realized that ideas about disability and social acceptance were very different in 19th century Japan compared to Europe at the same time, and I wanted to explore that world through someone who lived it.
I was also inspired by samurai films and anime. There are hardly any films that show same-sex relationships between samurai, even though it was very common and socially accepted. I wanted to tell a story that reflected the real history of homosexuality in Japan.
Later that evening, back at home, Uchida Tomonosuke sat staring at the scroll hanging in the alcove. The stark black characters proclaimed, "In the void there is no form," a line from the Heart Sutra. The calligraphy was by his mother, the Lady Chacha. A stern composition for a lady, perhaps, but his mother was a formidable woman.
The youngest maid, no more than a child, lit a candle and removed the tray with the remains of Tomonosuke's evening meal. With a deep three-fingered bow, she snapped the shōji shut crisply. Tomonosuke drew his tobacco pouch from his waistband, filled the tiny bowl of a long thin pipe, and lit it from the andon or oil lamp. With a barely audible sigh, he shifted his legs to a more comfortable cross-legged position.
Tomonosuke was a member of the Uchida clan and indeed a direct relation to the daimyō of Omigawa, Uchida Masakata, styled Ise-no-kami. Still, the higher ranking positions had gone to Tomonosuke's two elder brothers. Officially Tomonosuke was a hatamoto or bannerman, but in reality he was merely a retainer of the third rank employed in the daimyō's office of the exchequer. From this position he was painfully aware of the sad state of the domain's finances. A small holding far enough from Edo to be considered provincial, yet close enough to still be under direct control of the shogunate, Omigawa domain provided an income of only ten thousand koku of rice per annum, the bare minimum for the rank of daimyō. Of that, Tomonosuke's personal income was a mere five koku a year. It was just enough to maintain his small household, or rather his small rooms within the narrow row houses that accommodated the other low ranking retainers and their families. Every month Tomonosuke watched the lists of figures pile up in the domain account books; if the rice harvest this year was good, they might scrape by, but if not, well, they would all be staring into the void.
The maid slid open the shōji again. "A masseur is here to see you, my lord," she announced timidly.
It took Tomonosuke a moment to recall the incident earlier in the teahouse. He did not think to wonder how the masseur had found him, as he had given no more direction than simply stating his name. Whatever lengths the man might have gone to were none of his concern. "Very well, show him in," he said.
The maid disappeared and in her place the blind man knelt in the doorway, bowing stiffly.
"Ichi, masseur of the rank of zatō, at your service, my lord," he said.
Tomonosuke was struck by how boyish his voice sounded. "Come in," he grunted.
Feeling ahead of him with careful fingers, Ichi pulled himself over the threshold without standing and bowed again, seated directly before the samurai in the tiny room.
Tomonosuke stared at him. How ridiculous that one so lowly should be possessed of such beauty and grace. His tonsure, the mark of his station as a lay monk, had grown out slightly, and his black hair stood up stiffly away from his head, but the effect was charming. A single petal of a cherry blossom, which just now were falling, clung to the shoulder of his indigo kimono. Tomonosuke stared at the contrast between the pale petal and the deep blue of the rough fabric. Without thinking, softly he recited,
yuki to nomi
furudani aru o
ika ni chire to ka
kaze no fukuramu
like snow in the valley
the cherry blossoms
sad enough that they scatter,
must the wind attack them so?
Ichi bowed his head and murmured,
hana no iro wa
kasumi ni komete
I can’t even see
the color of the flowers
shrouded in mist
His voice was so low it could barely be heard.
"What did you say?" Tomonosuke demanded. Ichi sat up straight, his face paled.
Tomonosuke cut him off. "Recite the whole thing," he demanded.
Ichi repeated the poem and added the final lines,
ka o dani nusume
haru no yamakaze
I only steal their scent
on the spring mountain breeze
It was a poem from the classic collection, the Kokinshū, a companion poem to the one Tomonosuke had recited. In these degenerate times, one was more apt to hear satiric comic verses or the wooden recitation of the sutras; how unexpected to hear the elegant lines of an ancient aristocratic age from the mouth of an anma.
"Most impressive! How do you come to know such a verse?" Tomonosuke inquired.
Ichi brightened, his face creasing into a smile. "My lord, I was trained by the Tōdōza. I can play the shamisen and biwa, recite any poem or song, old or new. I can chant the entire Tale of the Heike from the sounding of the Gion bell to the battle of Dan-no-ura–"
"That won't be necessary," Tomonosuke cut in. Impulsively he reached out and brushed the petal away; it fluttered down to the rush matting laid on the polished wood floor. Sensing the movement of Tomonosuke's hand, Ichi flinched and drew back in surprise. Instantly Tomonosuke regretted frightening him. The brief look of confusion and fear that flitted across Ichi's mobile features reminded Tomonosuke of the earlier incident at the teahouse.
Quickly regaining his composure, Ichi bowed again and said, "Will your lordship allow me to begin the massage?"
Tomonosuke grunted in assent, and with a sharp rap, emptied the ashes from his pipe into the brazier. Ichi felt his way along the floor until he was kneeling behind him. With expert hands, he began kneading the samurai's shoulders. As he worked, Tomonosuke felt a slow, languorous heat rise to his head. It was pleasant.
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