Saturday, 14 September 2013

Looking for Information on Japanese Detective Stories

As will become clear, I'm no kind of expert on the subject.  If you want to read Japanese mysteries, you've probably tried searching the internet for information and suggestions about what to read. If you're like me, you've probably not found very much. Searching in English (or French or German) turns up a huge amount of useless pages and very little that is really about the subject. I can't search in Japanese. Although I can read Japanese on paper well enough, I find Japanese websites very trying, except for a few whose format I've slowly got to understand. But for what it's worth I thought I'd note down here the things I'd found while hunting round on the internet. (My interests tend more towards "puzzle" detective stories. So my searches probably missed hundreds of useful pages on tough guy gangster melodramas and other parts of the wider genre.)

There don't seem to be many English language blogs about books in Japanese at all. For detective stories, I've only found three, of which two are dead or dormant. The only one being updated at the moment is "The Case Files of Ho-Ling (浩寧の事件簿)", which is also the most wide ranging. It's mostly reviews of Japanese detective fiction, with some posts on detective games, detective manga, films and European or American detective stories. The emphasis is on puzzle detective stories. (There's also a page with secondary literature.)

The two inactive blogs are On the Threshold of Chaos  (混沌の狭間), which has mostly reviews of Japanese detective fiction, with some European or American books, and How to escape a locked room (密室脱出方法) with a few reviews of Japanese detective fiction.

One thing I notice in all these blogs, is that hardly any of the writers discussed are women. Actually that applies to the detective stories I've written about here too. (I've read one book, a spy story, by NATSUKI Shizuko, but I wasn't planning to write about it.) There are certainly female mystery writers in Japan; but perhaps the puzzle oriented mystery has more male writers. If so, that would be quite a difference to Britain, where women probably make up the majority in the top ranks. I'll make an effort in the future to balance things out a bit in my choice of books.

As a rule, if a writer has had a book translated into English, they are likely to have a Wikipedia page, otherwise very unlikely, however famous they may be in Japan, e. g. HIGASHINO KeigoSHIMADA Souji, MATSUMOTO Seichou. Wikipedia has a page on Japanese detective fiction, but it's really not very good. On the other hand, its "See also" section links to lists of winners of various Japanese mystery prizes, which seem well maintained and might suggest good books. (Sadly, at least one translation of prize lists from the Japanese Wikipedia have fallen to the English Wikipedia's deletion policy. So you may find it worthwhile hunting around there too.)
[Update: the text of the "Japanese detective fiction" page is still no good; but someone has added some very useful lists to the article since I wrote the paragraph above. Of course with Wikipedia, you never know it'll last.]

Other Pages
There's a page listing a desultory selection of impossible crimes here.    
There's a page at Columbia by Satoru Saito with a bibliography of works on various popular genres, including mysteries, here.

Online reading
Buying Japanese books can be expensive or difficult in Europe. One good supplement is to read older public domain works. Japan has relatively sane copyright duration, fifty years after the author's death, which is at least better than the seventy that Europe and many other countries currently have. That means that many prewar writers and a few postwar writers who died young are out of copyright (EDOGAWA Ranpo has a few years still to go; he died in 1965.) Many public domain texts can be downloaded from Aozora Bunko (like Project Gutenberg but Japanese). I've only read a few short detective stories from this period, including three by OOSAKA Keikichi (大阪 圭吉). I mean to put up a translation of one of his stories here soon; but I need time to get the phrasing right and solve a few difficulties (or give up on them and guess).

I would really like to be able to read a good history of Japanese mysteries aimed more at the general reader than at an academic audience, something like Julian Symons' Bloody Murder. English language works are usually academic, which means that they are generally not good guides to the literature. Apart from the misrepresentation, there is the problem of spoilers. German has a booklet that seems aimed at serving as an introduction to Germans looking for "Krimis"; it doesn't read like the product of deep research and the number of writers covered is small. But it should certainly help a new (German speaking) reader looking for suggestions: Wittkamp, Robert, Mord in Japan. Der japanische Krimi und seine Helden: Vom Zweiten Weltkrieg bis zur Gegenwart, 2002 • ISBN 978-3-89129-745-2 · 132 pages. · EUR 12 (Eine Publikation der OAG Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde Ostasiens, Tokyo, im IUDICIUM Verlag). I'll try and look at some of the Japanese language guides to detective fiction in the near future. (Feel free to recommend one, if you know of a particularly good one.)


  1. Thanks for the link (I really should update the secondary literature list one of these days... I wrote my thesis on JP detective fiction so I have a bunch of new entries...). Oh, and I have some non-review editorials posted at Criminal Element, the first ones are rough introduction articles to the Japanese mystery novel.

    Funny thing you noticed about the female writers. I don't particularly look at gender when looking for books, but is indeed surprising how skewed it is on my blog. Miyabe Miyuki is one I keep postponing (though I have read one or two novels by her), and popular names like Natsuki Shizuko and Yamamura Misa, somehow I just never get around to their work.

    Oh, by the way, I also do films/games/TV/anything besides novels, because I consider it all fiction. In fact, I don't really get why so many blogs seem to focus on novels as a medium, because the genre has come to alive in so many media.

    The German work seems interesting, but I can't order it anymore from my usual stores, it seems :/

    1. I agree that games, films, tv, manga are all potentially interesting examples of storytelling; but I don't think it's surprising that most people writing about mystery only discuss books. There's a question of competence in any medium, and since most mysteries are books, that's where people feel at home. Also, tv and films are generally aimed at a wider audience than detective novels. They can afford to be less original (for most viewers the trick will be new) and they need to be more accessible. That means that for book readers the puzzle aspect often comes across as watered down. (It's the same with science fiction.) Of course there are other things to make the thing worth watching, particularly the relations between the main characters. A puzzle oriented show like "Jonathan Creek" is a big exception in the west, less so in Japan, I suspect. But there too, there are ideas lifted straight from John Dickson Carr, and it's really the main characters who are the draw.

      I haven't played any Japanese detective games, because I've given up on computer games at my age (the time demand is too large); when I did play, I found the puzzle adventure genre too tedious to spend time on anyway. From your reviews, it may have got better. Living in Europe, I don't have (legal) opportunity to see many Japanese detective films or TV (and the price of Japanese DVDs means that I won't be buying many).

      I don't think the German book would have anything new for someone at your level.

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