Mysteries in the Land of the Rising Sun

The mystery genre has been, and is, enormously popular in Japan. A major newspaper survey in 1999 revealed that the most popular author in the country was a mystery writer - Jiro Akagawa - and three of the top four were also writers of detective stories. One of the most popular TV shows in 2000 was a detective program - Hagure Keiji - in which a hero named Yasura solves crimes in 27 exciting episodes! In a country where guns are strictly regulated and rare and the crime rate is relatively low (but there are organized crime groups known as the Yakuza), crime fiction is universally admired and avidly consumed.

Crime stories had a rather early start in Japan as evidenced by the publication of a collection of criminal cases by Saikaku Ihara in 1689. The 1880s, however, marked the real onset of the mystery literary genre as western authors including Jan Christemeijer, Poe, Doyle and Freeman were translated and published. The first Japanese authors also arrive on the scene at this time - Ruiko Kuroiwa published "Three Strands of Hair" in 1889 and also adapted a number of Emile Gaboriau's Paris-based stories to a Japanese context. Also, Rohan Koda published a detective story entitled "Surprise" in 1889. Haruo Sato, a poet, completed a crime story entitled "The Finger Print" in 1919 and wrote an essay in 1924 about mysteries and their "romantic and erotic origins". The essay had a huge influence on later Japanese writers.

One of the writers deeply influenced by Kuroiwa was Edogawa Rampo (aka Taro Hirai) who became the acknowledged "Father" of the Japanese mystery genre. His pen name was a Japanese phonetic version of Edgar Allan Poe said rapidly with a mouth full of marbles as well as a bit of a funny pun based on the Edo River! His best-known story, "The Two-Sen Copper Coin", published in 1923 became his best-known work although he was a prolific writer and a number of his works were made into films (e.g. "Murder on D Street" and "The Dwarf"). His later stories tended toward the grotesque and erotic but his influence was enormous. Since 1955 the author of the best mystery in Japan has been awarded the Edogawa Rampo prize for Mystery Literature. A sample of his work can be found in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Charles Tuttle, Rutland, Vt., 1956).

Another early writer, Seishi Yokomizo, wrote a number of mysteries with ghostly themes (a not uncommon characteristic of Japanese popular literature in general) including Murders at the Inn, Honjin in 1947 and The Village of Eight Tombs in 1950. The most remarkable and popular writer of the early post-war years, however, was Seicho Matsumoto, a very talented master of the puzzle type mystery. He was also very sensitive to settings and excellent at character development. He is credited with elevating the mystery out of the haunted house and away from the grotesque. His 1957 novel, Points and Lines (John Morton Publishers, London, 1979) starts with an ostensible double suicide that Matsumoto's detective, with great patience and persistence, finally proves is a double murder most heinous. Matsumoto's novel, Inspector Imanishi Investigates (Soho Press, N.Y., 1989) is my favorite in which a dogged and ordinary policeman tracks down a murderer by tracing the origin of a regional Japanese dialect. A collection of his short stories is also available in "The Voice and other Stories" (Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1995). Matsumoto's work provides a wonderful window on Japanese culture.

Another very well known and admired writer is Shizuko Natsuki who has gained an international reputation for her work. Many of her novels reflect Japanese family life. A number of her books have been translated and published in English including, Murder at Mount Fuji (Ballantine, N.Y., 1987) and The Obituary Arrives at Two O'clock ( Ballantine, N.Y., 1988). Miyake Miyabe is a younger, distaff writer whose novel, All She was Worth (Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1997) is a fascinating examination of a murder in a consumer-crazed society. The late Takagi Akimitsu was enormously popular for his mysteries focused on corruption in the business world - The Informer (Anthos Publishers, Queensland, Australia) and No patent on Murder (Playboy Press, 1977). He also wrote The Tattoo Murder Case (Soho press, N.Y., 1999) and Honeymoon to Nowhere (Soho press, N.Y., 1999), both rather grim and bloody tales. One of the more prolific writers is Masako Togawa who specializes in psycho-sexual suspense stories. A number of her books are available in English including Slow Fuse (Pantheon, N.Y., 1995); The Master Key (Simon Grove, N.Y., 1985); and The Lady Killer (Simon Grove, N.Y., 1986). Ms. Togawa is also a nightclub singer and entertainer. An example of a bloody and ghostly murder mystery that is well written and riveting can be found in the Togakushi Legend Murders (Charles Tuttle, Vt., 1994) by Yasuo Uchida. Jiro Akagawa, mentioned earlier as the most popular author in Japan, has written at least 20 mysteries in the last few years but none have been translated. In addition, there are a plethora of other, popular and talented Japanese mystery writers but, regrettably, their work also is not available in English.

In Japan, as in many other countries of the world, a number of mainstream literary luminaries also dip their pens into the mystery ink. The late Naoya Shiga, a leading writer of confessional novels, wrote a number of mysteries (two of his stories and other short Japanese mystery tales can be found in J. L. Apostolou and M. Greenberg, eds. Murder in Japan: Japanese Stories of Crime and Detection, Dember Books, N. Y., 1987). One of Japan's most distinguished writers, Kobe Abe, wrote a classic and very suspenseful detective novel that was published in English, The Ruined Map (Putnam's Sons, N.Y., 1981). Haruki Murakami, a currently popular avant-garde writer has penned an absurdist and ghostly detective story in A Wild Sheep Chase (New American Library, 1990).

There are also a number of non-indigenous Japanese writers who set mysteries in Japan and are worthy of note. James Melville, a Brit, published a set of light and urbane tales featuring the inscrutable Inspector Otani of Kobe. More recently, Laura Joh Rowland, a Korean/Chinese- American has contributed some well-turned tales set in 17th. Century Japan. Her most recent is The Samurai's Wife (St. Martins, 2000). Sujeta Massey, an American resident, English-born woman of Indian ancestry writes a series set in Tokyo featuring a Japanese-American woman who entangles herself in interesting problems and eventually succeeds in solving the crime. Her most recent is Flower Master (Harper, N.Y., 1999). The Japanese- American writer Dale Furutani has created a Ken Tanaka series employing a Japanese-American detective who solves crimes in Los Angeles and Tokyo. He has also written a series called the Samurai Mystery Trilogy (published by William Morrow), an interesting historical set of tales.

In Japan the mystery genre is remarkably vigorous and always changing. In general, there is still an old fashioned tendency to emphasize the puzzle-solving dimension of the genre. Given the absence of guns, murders are often rather messy and/or very imaginatively performed - methods may vary from axes to sound! The majority of mysteries are police procedurals and there is a dearth of flashy and flamboyant private eyes, no doubt a reflection of the Japanese penchant for order and predictability. Level-headed police inspectors are preferred although blood, gore and sexual titillation are allowed. Reputation or "face" is a very persistent and frequent motive for many crimes and their solution. The genre is enormously popular and the output of mystery literature is prodigious. And, if one wants a lively, accurate and imaginative peek into a society that is rapidly changing and dealing with social pathologies once thought to be uniquely "western", the Japanese mystery field is one of the most entertaining and effective entryways.


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