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Mas Arai: An Unlikely Hero Solves L.A.'s Mysteries

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
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.

Mystery literature is full of interesting, oddball characters, but few are so original as amateur investigator Mas Arai, the protagonist in Naomi Hirahara's series set in and around Los Angeles. An American of Japanese ancestry, Mas journeyed to Japan as a teen to spend a couple of years to cement cultural ties to his parents' homeland. Their hometown was Hiroshima, and he happened to have been there on Aug. 6, 1945.

"It was really important for me for Mas to have the experience of being a hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivor -- but an American-born hibakusha," says Hirahara, who is a former reporter and editor for The Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese-language Los Angeles daily. She says Mas Arai's unique status was inspired by her own family history: both of her parents were in Hiroshima when the pikadon -- "bomb of light" -- was dropped. Her mother, Mayumi, lived in the countryside, but her father was only a few miles from ground zero. Hirahara believes his after-school job at the Hiroshima train station saved Isamu Hirahara's life.

"He happened to be in the basement," she explains. "He says he saw a flash, then the rubble. Then he was knocked unconscious." When Isamu Hirahara came to, "he climbed up the rubble, and he said everything was just ... on fire."

Eventually, Isamu returned to the U.S., settled in the hills above Pasadena, and began his own business: tending the gardens of the comfortably well-off white people in the Los Angeles suburbs. The hostility toward Japanese -- including Japanese-Americans -- made it hard for many to find jobs, regardless of their education or background. Hirahara wanted to reflect that struggle in her books.

"You have a degree from UCLA [but] you don't have a job because you're a Jap?" she says crisply. "Well, OK, get a beat-up lawnmower, a pickup truck and go to work and you can have as many clients as you want."

That, she says, is why there were so many Japanese gardeners, including her father, in Southern California from the late 40s until about 15 years ago. (Now Latino gardeners have made the trade their entry into the American job market.) Hirahara says it wasn't until she was older that she understood the sacrifice her father made by soldiering on to provide for his family. So she modeled Mas Arai after him, as a thank you -- and as an apology.

I'm basically making a character like my father a hero.

"I'm basically making a character like my father a hero," Hirahara admits. "I think all the times I complained that my dad was a gardener and we couldn't afford this trip or that trip, I'm trying to make up for it by creating this heroic, iconic figure that's underestimated."

Those in power and/or authority tend to underestimate Mas: He's little, brown and wizened from his years in the Southern California sun. His English is mangled. ("I dunno youzu gonna be here" is how he greets a university professor he runs into unexpectedly.) He's usually in worn jeans, sneakers and an ancient baseball cap that proclaims fealty to his beloved Dodgers. Busy people who are always looking over their shoulders for someone more important to talk to overlook him completely -- which turns out to be to Mas' advantage, because it allows him to slip into crime scenes unnoticed, observe and slip away again.

So far, Mas has solved crimes in four books. We meet him in Summer of the Big Bachi, Hirahara's maiden effort, in which a murder in Pasadena forces Mas to confront the trauma of his Hiroshima past. In Gasa Gasa Girl, Mas' almost-estranged daughter needs him to clear her name -- and his tall blond son-in-law's -- when they're accused of murdering their boss. The third book, Snakeskin Shamishen, has Mas trying to discover who killed the winner of a half-million-dollar lottery ticket, while he races against the clock to keep his lawyer alive. And in Hirahara's most recent book, Blood Hina, an expensive antique doll (or hina) goes missing just as Mas' best friend, Haruo, is about to marry his longtime fiancee, making Haruo a suspect -- and making Mas his champion.

Hirahara's books have garnered her an enthusiastic following here in the U.S., and a few years ago they began being released in Japan. She says after some initial skepticism, her father has enjoyed being immortalized in fiction.

"He loves being the center of these mysteries," Hirahara says with a chuckle. But she has to remind him: "Hey Dad, you don't really solve crimes. There's still a fictional Mas Arai out there!"

As to where Mas might show up next, Hirahara is guarded:

"All I can say is, the next one involves baseball."

That's something that would probably get a grunt of approval from Mas Arai.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.