The Shadow and the Star

A charming 5-yen story full of holes

By William Wetherall

First posted 20 October 2006
Last updated 20 October 2006


Laura Kinsale
The Shadow and the Star
New York: Avon Books, 1991
449 pages, paperback

Fans of such fiction could probably tell you the name of the model for the hunk on the cover. I can't.

The shadowy stars

The principle characters in this historical romance are introduced on the back cover.

Wealthy, powerful and majestically handsome, he is a man of dark secrets -- a master of the ancient martial arts of an exotic distant land. Scarred by a childhood of shocking degradation, he has sworn to love chastely . . . but burns with the fires of unfulfilled passion.

Lovely, innocent and nearly destitute, and drawn to him by a fevered yearning she could never deny -- following her enigmatic "shadow warrior" into a dangerous world of desire and righteous retribution.

The story is a bit convoluted. The odd chapters, from 1-19, unfold in London feature Leda Etoile and Samuel Gerard in 1887. The even chapters, from 2-18, unfold in Hawaii, and tell the story of how Gerard came to be the Shadow, a master of darkness, martial arts, Japanese, and women, from 1869-1882. From Chapter 20, the stories converge in Hawaii in the late 1880s.


The story is a mystical mishmash of things Japanese, Hawaiian, Chinese, and English, involving a hodgepodge of characters and venues. There are Chinatowns and plantations, Chinamen and Orientals and Hawaiians and Haoles, royalty from both Japan and the Sandwich Islands, plus a martial arts guru named Dojun who speaks pidgin and makes his points with tales about the samurai warriors.

Page 1 of the brief preface introduces "The Shadow Warrior" first in terms of kabuki, kuroki, and tabi -- then in terms of "Earth . . . water . . . wind . . . fire . . . and the void." The enigmatic figure simply "rose to his feet and vanished" (page 2).

The English narrative and dialog is strewn with Japanese and Hawaiian words and expressions, italicized so you can't miss them, and glossed in proper tour-guide-ese in case you want to what the author thinks they mean. Here is a sample of the action.

"May we go home now?" Leda asked.

Samuel smiled. "Listen to me, Leda," he said approvingly, in that smooth flow of English that he'd said Mr. Ikeno wouldn't understand, "no matter what happens, do as I say. Bow to this man, and to me."

She hesitated, and then obeyed him, copying the motion she'd seen him and Mr. Dojun do a hundred times.

Mr. Ikeno ignored her. He looked at Samuel and made a nod, the sword held across his chest, his shoulders stiff. "This honorable Jurada wife, may Kwannon favor. Petition ask, Ikeno petition grant. Future, honorable wife-san not alone while lifetime of Ikeno."

"Sumimasen," Samuel said. "For this, my debt to you will never end." He looked at Leda, and she remembered to bow to him. Softly, before she raised her head, he said in a slurred and tender voice, "Leda, when I tell you, the instant I tell you, you get off this boat. Overboard."

Symbol of friendship

The whole story is overboard. Leda Etoile, the Star, cherishes a 5-yen coin on a ribbon given her by Samuel Gerard, the Shadow and man of her dreams (pages 204-205).

She dropped her eyes. He caught her hand in the same instant, pressing a small roll of cloth into it.

"Good night, Miss Etoile." He pushed back from the window, and from her, and moved into the shadows of the room. She heard nothing, not even the click of the door latch, but she knew when he was gone.

She sank down into the window seat. The cloth in her hand unrolled into a ribbon of dark silk. She could not tell the true color in the lamplight from outside, but a small foreign coin gleamed in the middle.

A single coin.

A single coin, like bits of feathers and a silver ring. She found her way to her chair and then back to the window, bending over to try to read in the book by the outside lamplight.

It was there, among the simple line drawings of Japanese money. Five yen. She flipped forward to a section of festivals and gift-giving. A roll of silk is a mark of respect, which still survives in ceremonial rites, the book said. And a few pages on: By the peculiarity of a pun on Goen, meaning both the coin and a sense of relation, the five-yen coin is considered a symbol of friendship.

She wrapped the coin and silk between her fingers, holding the bundle up to her lips until it grew as warm as her own hands.

This lays the foundation for a later scene (page 252).

Her heart ached for him.

She remembered his face in the half-light of a street lamp outside her window, the brief pressure of his hand as he pushed a small roll of cloth into her palm. She still kept the five-yen coin, the symbol of friendship, on a thin ribbon beneath her blouse.

There are two problems here. One: The 5-yen coin, first minted in 1870 and redesigned in 1897, was a gold piece -- for then, five-yen was a huge amount of money. Two: Meiji coins did not have holes in them -- so how could the coin have been "on a thin ribbon"?

History of 5-yen coin

Meiji coins did not have holes. The first post-Meiji coin to be holed was the nickel 5-sen piece struck from 1917. The brass 5-yen coin, minted in 1948, did not have a hole -- which appeared in the 1949 design. The 50-yen coin was not holed until 1959.

"5-yen" is "go-en" in Japanese. The "yen" spelling reflects an older orthography of what was pronounced and is now written "en".

Since "go-en" is homophonous with a word which means "[good] ties, relationships, marriage, karma, fate, luck", some people have carried a 5-yen coin or bill, or given one to someone, "in order to have go-en" [go-en ga aru yo ni].

Since "yen/en" is a Meiji denomination, the superstition about 5-yen coin (and 5-yen bills) could not have begun before then. I am presently trying to find out when the practice of carrying such currency on strings or in wallets, as good-luck charms, began.

In the United States, people are known to have bored holes near the rims of coins to carry them on a string or chain. Would anyone in the Meiji period have made a hole in a gold piece in order to use it as a "relationship" charm?