CRIME FICTION IN JAPAN

Over the past few years EQMM has received a number of excellent stories from Japanese writers, and that has inspired me to expand on a post I made on EQMM’s Web-site forum four years ago, shortly after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Everyone who loves mysteries ought to be at least a little bit of a Japanophile, since Japan’s mystery-writing tradition goes back almost to the beginning of the genre in the United States, Britain, and France—and since it is in Japan, more than anywhere else, that the puzzle mystery continues to give off healthy new shoots today. I’ve written elsewhere about the oddness of the fact that the only place in the world in which the novels of Ellery Queen have remained consistently in print is Japan, a country whose respect for tradition and order is about as far, culturally, from the New York of Ellery and Inspector Queen as could be imagined. Think of the Queen novel Cat of Many Tails, in which the whole city hovers on the edge of chaos over the work of a single serial killer, and compare that to the calm cohesiveness and cooperation one could observe in TV news reports of Japan after the harrowing earthquake of 2011 and the Fukushima leaks.

Japanese interest in Western mystery writing goes back to the 1880s, when the work of Poe, Doyle, and others began to appear in Japanese translation. The writer often called the father of the Japanese mystery, Tarō Hirai, wrote under the pseudonym Edogawa Rampo, which a little thought, or fast pronunciation, will tell even the uninitiated is a phonetic nod to the most important name in the pantheon of American mystery writers, Edgar Allan Poe. Edogawa Rampo had already produced some of his most famous work before Ellery Queen appeared on the American scene at the end of the 1920s. But once the work of Ellery Queen became available in Japanese translation, interest in his distinctively American version of the detective story took root and continues to exist in Japan to this day.

In 2004, EQMM first published the work of Norizuki Rintaro, a writer of the “new traditionalist movement” in Japanese mystery writing. Following in the footsteps of Ellery Queen, the writer-sleuth protagonist of the Rintaro books and stories bears the same name as the books’ author. And the author’s decision to cast a father-son/police inspector-mystery writer detecting team as the central players in his stories and novels further mirrors Ellery Queen—his acknowledged inspiration.

For a number of years EQMM has been commissioning translations of the Mystery Writers of Japan Award (Best Short Story) winners and runners-up. These awards are the equivalent of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgars. For all the respect and reverence the Japanese have shown Western mystery writers, there has been relatively little reciprocal translation or homage. And this is a loss to Western readers, for Japanese writers have brought their own innovations to the classical forms established by American and European masters of the genre. In my own reading of Japanese mystery fiction I’ve discovered writers with an interest in more subtle aspects of human psychology than is typically found in American writers of the classical whodunit. The little I’ve been able to read in English translation convinces me there must be a treasure trove of material there waiting for American publishers. The only Japanese writer I’m aware of who’s gained sufficient entry into the U.S. mainstream to garner a major award nomination here is Natsuo Kirino, who received an Edgar nomination in 2004 for her novel Out.

But I think things are starting to change. As I mentioned, EQMM has an ongoing commitment to bringing as many of the Edogawa Rampo short-story winners into print in the U.S. as possible. And in recent years a new publisher, Locked Room International, founded and run by John Pugmire, a frequent translator for EQMM, has been making classical puzzle novels from a variety of other languages available in the U.S. Some of Locked Room’s titles are by Japanese writers, including Koga Saburo (a pseudonym of Haruta Yoshitame), a contemporary of Edogawa Rampo who trailed the father of Japanese mystery writing into print by only four months. 2015 sees Locked Room International’s release of the first English-language edition of Ayatsuji Yukito’s The Decagon House Murders. At around the same time, EQMM will publish the first English translation of Saburo’s short story “The Spider.”

Another writer of the Japanese neoclassical school, Soji Shimada, will see the re-release of an earlier English translation of his novel The Tokyo Zodiac Murders this year by Pushkin Vertigo. One of Soji Shimada’s locked-room short stories, “The Locked House of Pythagoras,” appeared in EQMM’s August 2013 issue, and another, “The Executive Who Lost His Mind,” is upcoming in this year’s August issue.

I don’t want to give the impression that all the good mystery and crime writing coming out of contemporary Japan belongs to the classical school. In 2013 EQMM published Nagase Shunsuke’s “Chief,” a nominee for the Edogawa Rampo Award. Like many of the other Rampo Award nominees we’ve seen over the years, its focus is more on societal issues, and how the police and others deal with social conflict, than on the solving of a puzzle. Reader engagement with the characters and their struggles is of central importance in such stories, and this trend in Japanese mystery writing parallels the currently dominant school of crime writing in the West.

Last but certainly not least, there is the Japanese psychological thriller. Some of the stories belonging to that category that have crossed my desk barely qualify as crime stories: no murder, no puzzle, no enacted violence. The brilliant story “Eighteenth Summer” by Mitsuhara Yuri, which first appeared in English in the December 2004 EQMM and which we later reprinted in the anthology Passport to Crime, centers almost exclusively around its characters’ inner lives. Yet out of that material of emotions, thoughts, and mistaken assumptions the author managed to craft a sensitive, suspenseful narrative that leads somewhere quite different from where the reader expects. It’s a shame that Mitsuhara Yuri’s work (and that of many other Japanese psychological-suspense writers) is not available in English. It seems to me that this is a subgenre of the mystery at which Japanese writers truly excel.—Janet Hutchings

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