Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Is Mas Arai based on a real person?
A: Mas was inspired by a real person, my father. My father was a gardener and an atomic-bomb survivor—much of the general historic details are true. He was in the basement of the main train station when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. But Mas's personality is very different from my father's. My father was a jokester, who always wanted people around him to be happy. I don't think that I could have written the series from Mas's point of view if I didn't have a close relationship with my dad. My father's nickname was Sam; spelled backwards, it is Mas.
Q: Why did you decide to write Summer of the Big Bachi as a mystery?
A: The book evolved into a mystery. I like to say that the mystery genre turned out to be the appropriate container for Mas's story. I had rewritten Big Bachi countless times; it even went through a number of titles. The first was L.A. Shakes, and then The Handicapper and Broken Branches. My husband likes to say when the title became Summer of the Big Bachi, the book found its voice.
Q: Why do you use so many Japanese words? Why don't you have a glossary in the book?
A: Language is a big theme throughout these Mas Arai books. Mas is a Kibei Nisei, a second-generation Japanese American who was born in the United States but raised in Japan. During the 1930s, a number of Japanese immigrant families sent their children to Japan for their education. As result, many of these Kibei Nisei mix Japanese and English in their speech. Yiddish writers have boldly used Yiddish words in their books, and now many of these words have become part of the American lexicon. I hope to do the same with Japanese American terms. I try to give clues to the meaning of words via context. For readers requiring more exact definitions, check out the glossary on this website.
Q: How long do you plan to continue writing the Mas Arai books?
A: As long as there are weighty Japanese American issues and phenomena that have not received widespread attention. The main mystery that I want to shed light on is Japanese American culture and history. Luckily, I've also authored and edited a number of nonfiction books, so the material is plentiful!
Book Club Discussion Questions
Summer of the Big Bachi
1) What does bachi mean? Does your culture have an equivalent concept? Do you believe in bachi? In what ways has a belief in bachi failed Mas?
2) On page 132, Mas's friend Haruo comments, "You got no mark on you." What do you think of this observation?
3) Does Mas view himself as being American or Japanese? How was he perceived when he was in Japan as a child?
4) There are many nicknames throughout the book. What do you think of the nickname Wishbone? How about Tug? How do these names reveal or not reveal true qualities of the character?
5) Mas is a very flawed character. Is he a sympathetic character? In what ways, if any, could you empathize with him? In what ways did he anger or irritate you?
6) Silence figures prominently in Summer of the Big Bachi. How did silence play a role in the life of Mas and the other characters?
7) An important scene takes place in Hiroshima in August 1945. How much did you know about the atomic-bombing before reading Summer of the Big Bachi?
8) How do you think Mas views his daughter and their relationship at the end of the book? What do you think will happen next?
1) "Gasa-gasa" means restless, always moving around. It refers to Mas's daughter, Mari, as a child, but also can be applied to other people and events in the book. How are the settings gasa-gasa? How are the characters' histories gasa-gasa?
2) The book is about relationships between fathers and daughters. In what ways do you observe that Mas and Mari's relationship is less than perfect? Some readers have been disturbed by Mari's reaction to her father. What could account for her dark mood? What do you think is wrong with Tug and Joy's relationship? How do you interpret the New York gallery scene (pages 279-284)?
3) Mas is a fish out of water in New York City. Can you recall any descriptions of his experience navigating his way through the city? Do you have your own fish-out-of-water stories?
4) Language is also a prevailing theme in the book. Think about how language is used. How integral is language in solving this mystery? How have people lost a language?
1) Although inanimate, the shamisen has its own history that is key in solving the mystery. Do you own something that reveals a larger story?
2) Did you have any knowledge or experience about Okinawa before you read Snakeskin Shamisen? What did you know before and what did you learn?
3) The Japanese concept of "osewaninatta," or obligation, is woven throughout the book. Where do you see this sense of obligation at work? Where doesn't it work well? Do you do things out of obligation and regret it later?
4) Snakeskin Shamisen explores male relationships—relationships among friends, brothers, and fathers and sons. What are the dynamics between G.I., Jiro (Kermit), and Randy? How about the relationship between Randy and his brother Brian? Describe other male relationships you see in the book.
5) Different kinds of food are described throughout the book. What kinds of food are you familiar with? What aren't you familiar with? What are you curious to try?
© Naomi Hirahara.