Books on Japan: Japanese Crime Fiction
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Will Marquand looks at the increasing popularity of Japanese crime fiction
Amidst a wave of unconnected child killings a Peruvian immigrant with doctored papers murders a young girl. A 16 year-old poisons her mother and records the results on her blog. A conman steals 15 million yen after posing as a hitman to a woman who wanted her husband dead. Any one of these could be the plot of a crime thriller but they are examples from a stream of disturbing news reports recently in Japan.
Japan's reputation as a relatively safe country is regularly punctured by acts of extreme violence. Society has the veneer of liberalism but individual lives remain closely monitored and controlled.
For some, relief from the pressure is realised in the most painful manner. Art is a filter through which we understand our surroundings so it is no surprise to find that the crime novel is the country's most popular literary form. When people are faced with a barrage of brutal information they seek a medium through which to relate it to their lives.
At last years big literary festival in the UK the renowned crime writers Ian Rankin and P D James hit out at the snobbishness of literary critics toward the crime novel. "Crime fiction thinks out of the box. It gets you thinking about the biggest moral questions you can ... at its best [it] deals with contemporary social issues in a way that isn't preaching and is not talking down to people," said Rankin. James concurred noting; "[it] can explore all sorts of problems that worry people today ... [and] tell you more about the social mores and problems and complexities of the age." Perhaps they should start writing in Japanese because they could only dream of the crossover success achieved by Miyuki Miyabe whose 1992 novel All She Was Worth won not only Mystery of the Year but also Novel of the Year.
The Japanese crime novel has a long and honourable tradition dating back to Saikaku Ihara's 1689 Japanese Trials Under the Shade of a Cherry Tree. The genre became popularised with the publication of western mysteries in the late 1800's and Japanese writers quickly got in on the act. The acknowledged "father" of the Japanese crime novel is Taro Hirai who wrote under the pen name Edogawa Rampo, a hiragana phonetic reading of Edgar Allen Poe. Since then the genre has boomed and today many of Japan's best and most popular writers work in the field.
There is a bottleneck in terms of publication of these works into English but lately an increasing number have appeared on the bookshelves. The four novels picked out here represent some of the best work currently available but they are the tip of the iceberg.
Individually each is a high calibre murder mystery filling the conventions of the genre but collectively they tell the story of post-war Japan.
Running through the core of these books is the story of Japan's post-war economy. The spectacular rise and the lies and falsehoods built into the foundations of society that gave way when the bubble burst. The The Informer and Inspector Imanishi Investigates view Japan from the cusp of the ascent. A time when men went to work in suits and ties but slipped into their kimono when they got home. The protagonists live in a country of burgeoning confidence and wealth where the liberties and luxuries of western society are encroaching but the morals and manners of the older generation hold sway.
A time when radical ideas, financial corruption and illicit passion stream into conflict with the rigid codes of a less abundant era. It's a time when anything is permissible so long as you don't get caught. By the the later books the dream has died and the hangover of excessive living is unshakeable. Now the stories are of debt and desperation, dreams withered on the vine and people who didn't make it in the brave new world. They live cramped, unstable lives lashing out when forced to breaking point.
These are also books about the changing map of human relations between men and women, husbands and wives, parents and children, young and old. They speak of a society in flux, of expectations confounded and frustrated.
Is it any surprise that the instigators of these crimes are often intelligent and complicated women seeking an outlet in a society that demands little more of them than to be the dutiful wife? In Out the women are downtrodden workers in a bento factory.
Ignored and abandoned by their husbands they set themselves up as a body disposal unit. Their leader Masako Katori was ostracised from her respectable job when she asked for parity with her male workers. The proxy revenge she exacts when cutting up male murder victims is the clearest metaphor for feminine frustration. The women in All She Was Worth are more victims of society. Plunged into debt to meet unrealistic ideals, their work options limited to low level clerical positions, bar work or the sex trade, their path out is to manipulate the men around them.
Not that the men are the root of all evil. The cops are hard-working, loyal civil servants. Lowly paid workers diligently tracking their quarry with a patience and determination that cuts through the obstacles of bureaucracy and the egos of their superiors.
None more so than the dogged Inspector Eitaro Imanishi who dips into his wife's savings when the police budget is insufficient. Collectively they are the representation of the suited salarymen whose long hours and personal sacrifices were the foundation of the country's power. Even in The Informer disgraced stockbroker Segawa, who relies on his skill at attracting and controlling women, is not unsympathetic. A victim of stupidity and the system rather than a calculating misanthrope.
As parents both men and women are struggling to define their roles. All She Was Worth Shunsuke Honma's wife has died and he is at a loss as to how to deal with his young son, escaping into work, abandoning his son to kindly neighbours.
Inspector Imanishi rarely returns home in time to put his son to bed. His family life foregone to the demands of his job. Masako Katori's son refuses to talk to her while her friend Yoshie Azuma's daughter steals her money and dumps her young child on her mother. It seems there is an unbridgeable gulf between the generations, their needs and expectations.
These themes are both the background and the backbone to well crafted murder mysteries and police procedurals. They can be enjoyed just as straightforward thrillers or murder investigations but they are also accessible and revelatory works of fiction telling the story of modern society. As such they can be ranked with the best crime fiction from around the world.
Place them on the bookshelf next to Henning Mankell's Wallander series with its view of a crumbling Sweden or Rankin's Rebus investigations in gritty, grimy, flashy Scotland. They are novels that deal directly with our fears in a way that few other genres can. They are our angst laid bare.
Voted #17 on Amazon's "Best Mysteries of the Century" List. A disgraced stockbroker turns to industrial espionage but becomes implicated in a murder. The first two thirds of this book weave an intricate plot of great quality but the pot-boiler ending was a little disappointing. Lifts the lid on the cesspit of emotions covered up by good manners.
Classic police procedural had its rather beautiful Japanese title - Vessel of Sand - changed for obvious commercial reasons. Haiku writing bonsai tending Imanishi never gives up the hunt for a killer he traces through and an obscure Tohoku accent. Winner of Akutagawa Literary Prize and Japanese Mystery Writers' Prize. Considers the conflicts between the older generations and angry young men.
A woman murders her husband and her friends help her dispose of the body. Another Mystery Prize winner Kirino has also won literary prizes for other works. Tackles the crime novel from unusual angles. This is a fine study of the role of women in Japanese society but the writing lacked a bit of punch and the ending was odd. Now an international best seller. Recently name-checked by Blondie as the book they were reading on tour.
Miyabe has penned almost 40 novels but only a handful have been translated. This won Best Novel and Mystery of the Year in 1992. Inspector Honma recuperating after being injured in the line of duty tracks his cousins missing girlfriend. Follows a path through Japan's consumer society and its spiralling mountain of debt. A classic of its genre.
Many of these are available in big bookshops if not Amazon is your best bet. The books listed here are available in English but there are many others yet to be translated.
Akagawa Jiro - Winner of a major newspaper poll nominating him Japan's favourite writer. Yet to be published in English. Translations can't be far away.
Edogawa Rampo - Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination
Kirino Natsuo - Dispirations
Matsumoto Seicho - Points and Lines
Mishima Yukio - Ventured into crime territory with The Temple of the Golden Pavilion a fictional account of a true story of an arsonist who burned Kyoto's Kinkakuji Temple.
Miyuki Miyabe - Crossfire, Shadow Family
Murakami Haruki - Most of his work is existentialist detective fiction. Particularly The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore
Saga Junichi - Confessions of a Yakuza is the true account of an old time gambler.
Shizuko Natsuki - Japan's best selling author and along with Kirino and Miyabe is regularly titled the "Queen of Japanese Mystery". Many books available in English including; Murder at Mount Fuji, Innocent Journey, The Third Lady.
Akimitsu Takagi - Honeymoon to Nowhere, The Tattoo Murder Case, No Patent on Murder
Asa Nonami - The Hunter
David Peace - Tokyo Year Zero, Occupied City
Japanese Fiction - Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami, Ryu Murakami, Yasunari Kawabata, Natsuo Kirino, Susanna Jones, Arthur Golden, Isaac Adamson etc
Japanese Fiction #2 - Akimitsu Takagi, Peter Tasker, Yukio Mishima, Natsume Soseki, Junichiro Tanazaki, Genicihiro Takahashi, Peter Carey, Kenzo Kitakata etc
Japanese Fiction #3 - Kenzaburo Oe, Shusaku Endo, Susan Barker, Yasunari Kawabata, Shuhei Fujisawa etc
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