Fiction » Mystery

Best Classic Japanese Mysteries

recommended by On Nomoto

Crime novels are hugely popular in Japan, but English translations of Japanese mysteries not always easy to come by. As Pushkin Vertigo publishes translations of two novels by Seishi Yokomizo, one of Japan's most famous mystery writers, his grandson, On Nomoto, talks us through the best classic Japanese mysteries of the last century.

Interview by Sophie Roell

You’ve chosen Japanese crime mysteries for us that chart the evolution of the genre in Japan. These really are the classic works of the last hundred years, is that right?

Yes. These five are, I believe, the key Japanese crime mystery books. Chronologically, each book/author had a significant impact on the crime mystery genre. In Japan, there’s a ranking of the bestselling crime books. All of the ones I’ve chosen are normally in the top ten. So, it’s still a good list, luckily.

Reading the introductions to some of these books, I gather crime mysteries are an incredibly popular genre in Japan, but not that many get translated into English.

I totally agree. When I was selecting the books, I noticed that the choice was very limited. So, I decided to go to some key books that track the history of the Japanese detective or crime mystery chronologically. Each of the books and authors I’ve chosen impacted other authors and new generations and contributed to the growth of the Japanese crime mystery genre.

I really hope that this interview focuses more attention on Japanese crime mysteries, so that more are translated into English—like Keigo Higashino, who is probably the most popular Japanese crime mystery author globally these days.

Classic crime fiction is also a good way of getting a feel for Japanese history.

I think so. And cultural background as well. One of the books I’ve chosen—recently published by Pushkin Vertigo—is by my grandfather, Seishi Yokomizo. He became very popular right after World War II. He always put some flavour or component of Japanese history and culture into his books, to give a feel for what life looked like during and after the war, for example. I hope English readers can see the Japanese folk culture lurking beneath Japan’s vertically structured society, the roots of the Japanese mind lurking in the historical background to these stories.

That’s the fun part of reading books by authors from other countries.

Let’s go back to the origins of the crime mystery genre in Japan, where it began with the translation of popular Western authors like Edgar Allan Poe. Indeed, the pen name of Hirai Taro, the author of the first book you’ve chosen, was Edogawa Rampo. 

Have you noticed the pronunciation of the name, which sounds like ‘Edgar Allan Poe’? He is probably the father of the classic Japanese mystery, the one who made detective stories popular in Japan.

He was not the first. Before him there was Ruiko Kuroiwa, the journalist who went to Europe right after the Meiji Restoration in the 1870s. He basically imported the crime mystery to Japan by translating foreign authors. Before that in the Japanese market, it was mainly ghost stories (like Amabie, a spirit which cures people from plagues).

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But it was Edogawa Rampo who laid the foundation of the mystery genre though the Shin Seinen magazine, published by Hakubunkan Press. He was also my grandfather’s mentor and an editor at Shin Seinenwhich means ‘new youth’and he asked my grandfather to join it. They spent time working together as editors there in the 1920s.

The book you recommended by Edogawa Rampo is Beast in the Shadows, first published as a serial in 1934. Tell me why you chose it.

In Beast in the Shadows, he put in a lot of the elements of what he wanted crime mysteries in Japan to be about. At the beginning of the story he writes, “there are two types of detective novelist.” One is the “criminal sort” who depicts “the cruel psychology of the criminal.” The other is “the detective type . . . whose only interest is in the intellectual process of detection.” The two types are combined in this novel, reinforcing each other through the two detective novelists in the story, Shundei Oe (who represents the first type) and Samukawa (who represents the other type).

It doesn’t have the horrific taste of some of his other works, which are more like Edgar Allan Poe’s, but it does have the great deduction-focused process with sadistic elements that characterises his novels.

In the same edition, there is also another story by Edogawa Rampo, The Black Lizard. This is one of his masterpieces. It has been broadcast as a TV drama many times with different casts.

I preferred Beast in the Shadows, so I think you made the right choice.

I like the translation too. Compared to The Black Lizard, the way the plot unfolds is more interesting, people want to know what’s going on.

Continuing chronologically, it was your grandfather, Seishi Yokomizo, who was the next big mystery author in Japan.

I’m afraid to say so myself, but yes.

Tell me a bit about him and how he got interested in writing mysteries.

He was born in Kobe, in the west side of Japan right by Osaka. It’s one of the big cities, which has been a trade hub in Japan since the 19th century. So there were a lot of foreign books available with many people coming in, GIs as well. He was always hanging out in the bookstore street, picking up used foreign books. That’s actually how he started to get into mysteries, when he was a very little.

He had a great buddy in middle school and high school. They always got together, hopping around that street picking up magazines and books of detective mysteries. I believe Detective Story Magazine, from the US, was one of them. Right after the Tokyo air raid in the spring of 1945, my grandfather decided to leave Tokyo and go to Okayama with his family. They ended up staying there until July 1948. At that time, he took his entire collection of western crime mystery stories with him to be ready after the war. Now the house where they lived in Okayama has become a museum and his collections are still there.

So after the war he started writing books featuring his fictional detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, starting with The Honjin Murders. This was translated into English for the first time last year. The book you’re recommending by your grandfather is The Inugami Curse. When was that first published?

The Inugami Curse was originally written from January 1950 to May 1951 in a magazine called King, published by Kondansha Press. This was towards the end of the period of the United States occupation, after government censorship of Western-style detective mysteries had been lifted. It was one of the most popular stories of the Kindaichi series.

My grandfather’s work resulted in the solid establishment of the classic detective mystery. He used to be called “the devilish trick man” because he was always thinking of tricks, 24/7. But he does not forget the murderer’s psychological motivation and the Japanese social and historical component as a flavour in the background of the stories.

He wrote quite a lot of books, didn’t he?

Yes, in terms of the Kosuke Kindaichi detective series, he wrote 77. Since he was writing multiple stories of Kindaichi in different magazines at the same time, it is hard to say precisely, but The Inugami Curse was probably fourteenth or fifteenth story of the Kindaichi series. The first one was The Honjin Murders.

Is The Inugami Curse your favourite?

Let’s put it this way: this is my favourite for your readers. Unfortunately, although he passed away in 1981, only two of his books have been translated into English. This one was translated before with another title, but I’m so glad Pushkin Vertigo have published it again, because it’s a great way for people to know about the book. I like the new title as well.

In The Inugami Curse, one of the sons is coming back from the Pacific War. You very much have a sense of a society recovering from this horrific conflict, which ties in with what you were saying about how it’s not just about reading a mystery; it’s also about getting a sense of the society and history.

For me, I like the mystery, but I like the history, also. For every book, the writer has the idea of a plot to write a mystery, but there’s something behind that: the social issues of the time and the historical background. Seishi Yokomizo is a detective mystery author, but there’s always that historical part.

In this book, the oldest son coming back from the war is critical for the family in terms of who is going to be inheriting the family business. The story is about the series of mysterious and dreadful murders committed in response to the will. But you also glimpse how the life of people during and after the war in Japan was screwed up not only for the person who went to the war, but also the others, who stayed home and prayed for their family member to come back safely. That’s interesting for me, as one of the post-war generation.

Tell me a bit about the story of The Inugami Curse, and how your grandfather came to write it.

The story is set in one of the towns in Nagano prefecture. It’s about Sahei Inugami, who is the king of the silk mill industry there. The silk mills had become one of the major industries since modernisation in Japan in the mid-19th century. Through the Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War and the Pacific War, Sahei Inugami had climbed to the top of the industry.

At the beginning of the book, family members are sitting on the tatami floor around him as he lies on his Japanese futon, waiting for his last words as to who is going to inherit the business. However, he stops breathing without any word, except that the family lawyer has his will and that its contents can only be disclosed when all the family members are present. There is one person missing: Kiyo Inugami, the oldest son, who is on his way back from World War II.

As I said before, the location of the story is one of the towns in Nagano. It’s the prefecture where my grandfather lived, right after he left Hakubunkan Press to become a writer. My grandfather was supposed to succeed his parents’ pharmaceutical business, but he ran away after a couple years of helping there and went to work for Hakubunkan Press as an editor for 7-8 years. Then he decided he wanted to be a writer for a living.

“Each of the books and authors I’ve chosen impacted other authors and new generations and contributed to the growth of the Japanese crime mystery genre”

Unfortunately, at that time, he was also diagnosed with tuberculosis, and so in 1934 he had to move from Tokyo to Fujimi Nagano for treatment for a couple of months, along with his wife. After that, they moved there with their two children. They spent about five years there. It was at that time that my mother was born. He was only allowed to write for 30 minutes a day, and according to my grandmother he spent the rest of the time brainstorming protagonists’ characters and structuring every sentence and the story while lying in bed.

One of Japan’s silk conglomerates was actually located at Suwa in Nagano, the same prefecture where my grandfather lived. For me, I see a very interesting contrast between my grandfather, who was struggling with his life as a writer and fighting against tuberculosis, and the ‘King of Silk’ whose business was so successful at that time. It’s not that my grandfather was critical of it, but it makes the story more interesting for me and I would love to share that with readers of this book.

After World War II, the United States authority running Japan tried to break up the major conglomerates or zaibatsu.

The system of inheritance changed too, didn’t it?

Yes, the constitution of the Great Japanese Empire was replaced with a new constitution and Japanese civil law was also extensively amended. Under the old Japanese family system, the right of inheritance goes to the oldest son. Because of further democracy coming to Japan via the United States occupation, that changed so the wife as well as the other sons were included. That was in 1947. It did not directly affect this story, because the story was based on the will. But I wonder if my grandfather had been reading some articles about it in the newspapers, because it was a newsworthy topic back then.

Let’s move on to the third book, which was published in 1958. It’s called Points and Lines and it’s by Seicho Matsumoto.

Points and Lines was another turning point for Japanese crime mysteries. After some short stories, Seicho Matsumoto’s debut was sensational. With this book he brought a new ingredient, called social realism, to Japanese mysteries.

In your email, you mentioned the timetable trick in the book (with only four minutes to see platform 13 from platform 15) and how it showed the resilience and quick restoration of metropolitan Tokyo. Can you explain?

Tokyo Station was completely burned out because of air raids during World War II. My understanding is that there was very little left. That was in 1945. This book was written just over ten years later. In that short time, Tokyo’s metropolitan station had been completely restored, and more. By mentioning trains coming into platforms 13 and 15 it suggests there are a lot of platforms. Also, the trick is that from platform 15, there’s only four minutes in which you can see a train on platform 13. Otherwise, every platform has trains coming in and out. I was not born at that time, but that crowdedness is telling me how quickly Tokyo was coming back to life. That’s an interesting view for me.

So, on the one hand, there’s the rapid move to modernity, but there is also a dark side to that, which is captured in this book. 

Japan recovered after the war from almost nothing. After the United States occupation ended in 1952, a new direction was launched for Japan, of Americanization, so to speak. We put our foot on the ladder of rapid economic growth under democracy and capitalism. Seicho Matsumoto captured its reality and the sacrifice of people behind Japan’s success. Government bribery was one of them.

It was partly from Seicho Matsumoto’s experience of hardship before becoming a writer. He had to work after middle school—instead of going to high school—in order to support his parents. He probably wanted to portray the reality of these sacrifices through his crime mysteries.

Also, while the scale of events and its meaningfulness for world history is totally different, realism in art and literature in Europe sprouted in the wake of the European revolutions in the mid-1800s. Japanese social realism in crime mysteries was born as a reaction to the new Japan in the post-war period by the voice of Seicho Matsumoto. That’s my view.

Let’s move on to the next Japanese crime mystery on your list. This is The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada, which was published in 1981.

This is a famous book in Japan. I think this book triggered orthodox detective crime mysteries coming back to the market in the 1980s.

The story is set on the same day as the 2/26 incident in 1936, an important date in Japanese history when a coup d’état by right wingers failed, but as a result the military gained more control over the government, leading to the Sino-Japanese War the following year in 1937. It was also an unexpected snow day, which plays a part in the story.

This is a crime mystery quite focused on tricks. It’s continually making readers use their brains. I used lots of post-it notes to mark pages and phrases, but I didn’t do well enough to figure it out. I actually own a used copy, and the book has the original owner’s writing all over it. There are notes everywhere. It gives you an idea of how to read the book, what the excitement is.

I saw it made a Guardian list of “The Top Ten Locked-Room Mysteries” and it does seem to be more about the clues, about the writer directly inviting you, the reader, to work out what is going on. Maybe it’s more a puzzle than a novel, but I enjoyed it.

I enjoyed it too. In the middle there is a lot of conversation between the two friends, the detective and his friend about ‘What’s the situation?’ ‘How about this way?’ There are a lot of scenarios, there is a lot of back and forth. I felt I had to work it out in my head.

I liked the fact there was even a map of Japan.

Yes, that’s great, as well as the astrological analysis of Japan and its territory. Once I had read through everything my interest in the book really came to me. Once I understood how the mystery had been solved, I went back and forth quite a lot to see on which page to find the clues.

So, you chose The Tokyo Zodiac Murders because it’s so well known in Japan that you had to include it.

This was a key book in reviving authentic detective mysteries again in Japan, where, at that time, social realism dominated. After him, there were many writers who were encouraged to write authentic detective mysteries—such as Alice Arisugawa, Yukito Ayatsuji and more.

On to your last choice, All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe, from 1992. I loved this one. 

I really enjoyed this book. I wanted to include other women writers as well, to be honest, but I felt that I couldn’t eliminate the first four I chose. It’s another social realism mystery. There are loan sharks, there’s credit card debt and bankruptcy, there’s identity theft. It’s a mystery story about capitalism and the bubble economy.

This is one of the most successful economic and business-themed crime mysteries. There are many business mysteries in the market, stories written from the top down, from the view of the government or business insiders. This book, on the other hand, is from the consumer’s point of view, how they deal with credit card loans, how their lives are messed up by the materialistic economic mindset. It’s easy to think that if you get into debt, it’s your own fault, it’s a personal matter. This book makes us deliberate a moment and scrutinizes this matter from different perspective. It’s saying, ‘It’s not the fault of individuals, it’s the market.’

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Japan’s rapid economic growth after the Pacific War, and especially in the wake of the Korean War in the 1950s, triggered a ‘my home’ boom. Loan sharks also increased, because many people could not afford their mortgage. Credit cards became popular in the 1960s. It made people more materialistic, there was the illusion that you could make yourself happy by spending money. Purchasing more than you can afford is surely its own burden. But this story also looks at immature regulation due to conflict between government departments, the lack of education about personal finance in school, the lack of a safety net for people who got stuck in this trap. It’s the same as a road accident when a truck driver falls asleep due to overwork and hits another car. Should we only blame the driver? Or does the management of the company the truck driver works for also be accused? What about the department of national traffic safety, which allows people to work for so long?

I also want to address the excellence of the protagonist who solves this mystery. He is a police detective, but off duty because of an injury sustained in a previous case. The off-duty investigation gives him a different angle in approaching the case; he is eager to dig into what the motivation was that made the suspect perpetrate the murders. He wants to relieve the criminal from a life forever under threat, rather than just catching the criminal. The gap between his approach and that of his partner, who is still on duty as a police detective, makes for a superb protagonist in this story.

For me, this book is going in the same direction as the Seicho Matsumoto book. He’s writing about people sacrificing themselves for the growing Japanese economy. Miyabe’s book is also about that, but the subject matter is more up-to-date. It’s a good book.

It’s about the fallout of the 1980s boom in Japan?

In the 1980s, everyone thought the Japanese economy would keep on growing. But then the bubble burst in early 1992, after the peak at the end of 1991. This book was published in 1992. The story is not entirely about the Japanese economic bubble, but it describes aspects of the materialistic consumer mindset.

On, thanks so much. Here you can see the pile of Japanese mysteries I’ve been reading, including both books by your grandfather available in English. They were both published by Pushkin Vertigo, who seem to be doing an excellent job of translating classic mysteries from around the world. Are we going to see any more of Seishi Yokomizo’s books translated into English and, if so, which one would you recommend?

It is very hard to pick. I have so many favourite stories. But if I need to pick one, there is a story of his that is always at the top of the crime mystery lists in Japan, which hasn’t been translated into English yet. I shouldn’t say too much about the details, but I can say that he learned about detective mysteries from lots of classic Western detective mystery writers like John Dickson Carr, David Hume, Gaston Leroux, the Ellery Queen series and more. In this particular case, it was inspired by Van Dine and Agatha Christie. Hopefully someday it will be translated.

Interview by Sophie Roell

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On Nomoto

On Nomoto is the grandson of Japanese mystery writer Seishi Yokomizo.