The Mystery of the Japanese Mystery

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If, as they say, crime novels unveil a nation’s deepest fears—think Stieg Larsson and James Ellroy—what do Japan’s thrillers tell us?

If you want to know what makes a certain people laugh, you can watch one of their television programs. If you want to know how they love, you can listen to one of their songs. But if you want to know what they fear—not just about their world but about themselves—then all you need is a detective novel: a mystery.

We tend to associate the genre with Agatha Christie and Sherlock Homes, but really, it is as old as neurosis itself. What was Oedipus Rex, after all, but a mystery, a horrified recognition that of all the things in the world that might do us harm, the most dangerous is our own desires?

Over the centuries, various countries and cultures have produced their own mystery novels: Think of American noir, with its weary, neon-tinged cityscapes, or the frigid, drawing-room larks of the British Edwardian era, or, most recently, the creepy, soul-searching depravities of Scandinavian serial-killer porn. But as distinctly pleasurable as they all are, I’d argue that the most revelatory detective novels these days actually come from Japan. To read one is to be offered a glimpse of an intensely self-possessed culture’s most profound anxieties.

Modern Japanese detective fiction began with Edogawa Ranpo, who was born Taro Hirai in 1894. Though Ranpo (his nom de plume—say it aloud quickly—was a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe) was active before World War II, he is perhaps best contextualized as one of Japan’s postwar populist artists, who together created a dark, grimy, often unsettling portrait of a country that had betrayed a generation of rigorously inculcated patriots: a place that had moved from self-isolation to fevered jingoism to humiliating defeat, all in less than a century. Collectively, they conjured a vision of Japan that is still remarkable for its brutality, its bitterness, its unrelenting exposure of rot. Look at Shomei Tomatsu’s photograph of a prostitute smoking, her eyes hard and wary; or Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s comics, unsettling operettas of unloved men and women struggling and failing to make respectable lives for themselves; or Ranpo’s grotesque, often gleefully lurid mysteries, in which people die in sadomasochistic experiments gone awry or are poisoned by their neighbors. In his work, there is a grim determination to reveal the nation’s seamiest, ugliest tableaux, the ones that lie just beyond the door of a faceless house or office building.

By the late 1960s, Japan’s fortunes had turned again. Once more it was becoming a superpower, a nation to marvel at, but this time its accomplishments were technological and economic, not militaristic. Gone were Tomatsu’s grainy, soot-smeared Tokyo streets with their touts and aging whores; in their place were the wide boulevards of a well-run megacity that even today remains sui generis for its efficiency, cleanliness, and composure.

And yet the Japanese love for detective and crime fiction remained, a souvenir of both pre-imperialist Japan’s affection for Western culture and post-imperialist Japan’s identity crisis. Ranpo’s macabre excesses vanished, it’s true, but not even a newly wealthy state could eliminate the niggling suspicion that one’s neighbors might not be trustworthy, or that within every house sat a dreadful secret, as ugly as a toad.

Today, along with Jiro Akagawa, probably the bestknown writer, mystery or otherwise, in Japan, English-language readers can discover Natsuo Kirino, whose novels often involve women or girls working dreary, dead-end jobs in dreary, dead-end suburbs; Keigo Higashino, whose most compelling works examine the real woman who might lurk behind the idealized housewife; and Miyuki Miyabe, whose mysteries are concerned as much with the financial difficulties of the middle class as they are with murder. One of the reasons hat mysteries are among the few books in translation that Americans will read in significant numbers is a mystery novel is a kind of confession, one that reveals what a particular culture most fears itself capable of doing. In recent fictions by Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, and Erik Axl Sund are all the insecurities of seemingly serene, wealthy, socialist northern European states: Within those tidy houses are sexually rapacious predators, their victims (often) undocumented immigrants. In these novels, stoicism is a mask for rage, and self-control is a disguise for perversion. Deviance, they seem to suggest, is unconquerable, and if it cannot be expressed in public, then it will be in private. They propose that for all their countries’ avowed tolerance, they are more resentful of the outside world’s intrusions than they pretend to be.

Contemporary Japanese mysteries, however, have very little explicit sex and even less explicit gore. They are not distinguished by ritualistic carvings of faces or bodies, or fetish objects, or pedophilia or mutilation. It might be tempting at first to find a similarity between Scandinavian countries and Japan—cultures that pride themselves on self-determination, sanitation, and thrift—since one of the central ironies of these countries’ steady churn of murder mysteries is, of course, their negligible homicide rates. In Japanese mysteries, however, the anxiety is not about the rest of the world, but about the insidious dangers of home. Here, the horror is small-scale, domestic, quiet, and always familiar. There are no serial killers clamoring for attention, no overwrought confessions, no national manhunts, no Interpol. The protagonist of a Japanese detective novel isn’t interested in the killer’s psychological profile; he is interested in making a discovery and solving the case. In a world in which we have grown more fascinated with the why of a situation than the how, there is something reassuringly decisive, incurious, and modest about the Japanese mystery: There is a crime, and it involves Japanese people in a Japanese town, and it will be solved by a Japanese detective—an anachronistic (but oddly compelling) assertion of the local in a globalized world. The fear, for the Japanese, is what happens when a citizen decides to assert the desires of the self over the desires of the society. In many Scandinavian crime novels, it takes the arrival of a foreigner to incite the citizenry’s worst instincts; in Japanese fiction, the perversion is all self-generated, and all the more inexplicable—and, therefore, terrifying—for it.

In these books’ refusal to engage with a globalized age, there is also a clue about what makes Japan so distinctly itself. So much of the country—its aesthetic, its manners, its rituals—is so completely, inimitably its own that I am always reminded that this business of having to be part of the world is a relatively new phenomenon for its citizens. Until Commodore Perry and his black ships arrived in Edo Bay in 1853 and demanded the empire open its ports to Western trade, Japan lived in a contented state of isolation, free to create and refine who and what it was without foreign intervention. I often think that if, for some reason, the country was made to isolate itself again, to shut its ports, close its airports, and cease communication with the outside world, it would do so with resignation—but then that resignation might give way to a kind of relief. It is what I admire most about the country: that for all the years I have visited it, for as much as I love it, it remains, wonderfully, impenetrable to me.

And maybe even to the Japanese themselves. Maybe this, in the end, is why they love mysteries so much, and why the novels remain such a vivid part of their cultural life and are so concerned with the domestic: because here, finally, after a century in which everything they thought they knew was upended and turned around, with no room for the indulgence of self-examination, is a question of identity that can at least be definitively answered.

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