Japan Books: The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi: Detective Stories of Old Edo
By Kido Okamoto (岡本綺堂), translated by Ian MacDonald
Johannes Schonherr, February 2015
The Ghost of Ofumi, the first tale told in the story collection The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi, was the story that introduced Inspector Hanshichi to Japanese readers in 1917.
First published in a popular literature magazine, the purely fictional story purports in the opening chapter to hark back to childhood memories of author Kido Okamoto (1872 -1939). Nobody in his family wanted to talk to young Kido about what had happened at a nearby samurai residence back in the late Edo years until one day, an old family friend, Uncle K, relates the tale.
A soaking wet female ghost named Ofumi had begun to appear at the bedside of the samurai's young wife, Uncle K reports, terrifying her to the point that she wanted to divorce her husband just so she could leave the premises in order to never return to his haunted horror house.
The samurai asks Uncle K to find out what could behind his wife's troubling ghost visions. Clueless himself, Uncle K happens to cross paths with the respected Inspector Hanshichi of Kanda. Hanshichi soon solves the case - which turns out to be all-too-human.
In the final paragraphs of the story, Kido Okamoto writes that years later, he met the fabled Hanshichi in person and became friends with him. Hanshichi would tell him many more of his old Edo cases by himself - published in the follow-up stories of Okamoto's Hanshichi detective story series.
The Hanshichi Series
The second story in the book, The Stone Lantern, is already told in the typical fashion of all future Hanshichi stories: the then young author meets retired but energetic Inspector Hanshichi over a cup of tea or two back in the 1890's and Hanshichi reminisces about one of his great exploits in late Edo.
Thus, the stories work via three time levels: the Edo of the 1840's to 1860's Hanshichi is talking about, the 1890's when it was still possible to actually encounter people who had been active in Edo times and the time of the publication when the Edo era was all but a faint memory.
Altogether, Kido Okamoto wrote 69 Hanshichi detective stories between 1917 and 1937. All of them were serialized in Japanese magazines before they were collected in books.
Okamoto did however not regularly churn out Hanshichi stories over the years. He would write many of them in relatively short spans of time and then let the detective character rest for a number of years before eventually continuing the series, often on the demand by a public hungry for more Hanshichi tales.
Influence of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes detective stories were published in Japanese for the first time in 1892 and they were immensely successful. By all accounts, Okamoto read the English originals.
He readily admitted to the influence of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories on the creation of his own Inspector Hanshichi already in The Ghost of Ofumi where he calls Hanshichi, "an unsung Sherlock Holmes of the Edo era."
Though Hanshichi does possess the sharp wit of Holmes and Okamoto himself serves as a kind of Watson, explaining Hanshichi's thought combinations to the public, Hanshichi is an absolutely unique character, as deeply steeped in Edo culture as Holmes was a product of Victorian England.
The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi: Detective Stories of Old Edo
The book at hand presents 14 Hanshichi stories, all of them written in Okamoto's first and perhaps most inspired Hanshichi writing period from 1917 to 1920.
Okamoto portrays Inspector Hanshichi of the Edo law enforcement agency as a rational and sober investigator. It's not that he would totally rule out supernatural forces as driving forces in some inexplicable disturbances of the public order.
The belief in mischievous ghost and mythical creatures was all too pervasive in Edo and even Hanshichi cannot completely shake it off. But first and foremost, he employs rational thinking and a focused eye on the details of Edo life in the service of solving the crimes at hand.
In fact, Hanshichi is in the know regarding all aspects of Edo culture - be it kabuki plays, popular ghost novels, risky stage performers or wayward acrobats. He occasionally hints at having spent his own wild youth in the quarters populated by such characters.
Hanshichi's solving of the case presented in The Stone Lantern results from exactly that knowledge of a netherworld of desperate artists living in poverty on the fringes of Edo society.
As informed by a deep knowledge of Edo culture as Okamoto's Hanshichi stories are, they are certainly not nostalgic. Edo Japan had its fair share of murderers, robbers and scammers of both sexes and Okamoto talks freely about them using the voice of Inspector Hanshichi.
The second and third sons of samurai were a spoiled bunch without much of a future, the girls serving at the tea and bath houses were all about keeping up appearances while secretly heading into even the most dangerous amorous adventures.
Old Edo appears in the stories as gritty and dangerous and the law would hand out cruel sentences once it caught a criminal.
And yet, Okamoto's Hanshichi tales are full of humor and a great reading pleasure.
Kido Okamoto, the author of the Inspector Hanshichi series, was born in 1872 as son of a former samurai who found refuge and a job at the British Legation in Yokohama after the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
The Meiji Restoration brought an end to the old days of Edo and introduced Western modernity to Japan. Okamoto grew up in a well-to-do household and received a good education which included, due to his father's work, intensive English-language instruction.
Once he was of university student age, however, his family encountered sudden financial difficulties. Instead of entering institutions of higher education, Okamoto was forced to earn a living. His choice of job was newspaper reporter. For his paper, he covered the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895).
The newspaper job also gave him the opportunity to review many kabuki plays staged in Tokyo theaters. He became an expert on Edo arts and eventually, he did write his own kabuki plays.
Okamoto achieved a certain degree of success with his plays, some were performed at famous old Tokyo kabuki playhouses. Today, however, Okamoto is mainly remembered as the author of the Inspector Hanshichi detective stories.
The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi
By Okamoto Kido, translated by Ian MacDonald
Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007