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It’s often the great European and American mystery writers of the 19th and 20th centuries whom we often turn to when looking for a great detective novel. However, during the Meiji period and the re-opening of Japan to the West many Japanese writers took inspiration from these Western writers and in turn crafted some of the finest detective stories ever penned. These writers covered a wide variety of subjects but one particularly Japanese approach stressed their subjects’ inner lives expanding against the wider society around them. In Japanese crime fiction of this era, authors commonly tie plot development and action to historical or cultural facts, creating works that entertain and provide foreigners with genuine insight into Japanese cultural history.

In recent years, UK publisher Pushkin Press launched their Pushkin Vertigo label, which focuses on crime fiction in translation. Thankfully, this has helped increase the number of available translations, allowing English-language readers to dive deeper into Japanese culture and history. Below are four brilliant mysteries to get you started exploring this exciting genre.

Japanese Crime fiction- The Lady Killer

A hunter prowls the night spots in Shinjuku. But he’s the one walking into a trap… Ichiro Honda, The Lady Killer, leads a double life: by day a devoted husband and a diligent worker, by night he moves through the shadow world of Tokyo’s cabaret bars and nightclubs in search of vulnerable women to seduce and then abandon. But when a trail of gruesome murders begin to appear in his wake, the hunter becomes the prey and Ichiro realises he has been caught in a snare. 

The Lady Killer pulls from author Masako Togawa’s personal life as a cabaret performer in Tokyo’s vibrant gay nightclub scene during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Throughout her writing career, she championed the LGBT community sealing her reputation as one of Japan’s most prominent crime fiction authors and LGBT heroines.

Japanese Crime Fiction- The Tattoo Murder

Tokyo, 1947. At the first post-war meeting of the Edo Tattoo Society, Kinue Nomura reveals her full-body snake tattoo to rapturous applause. Days later she disappears. Her dismembered corpse is discovered in the locked bathroom of her home, her skin and tattoos nowhere to be found. Kinue’s horrified lover joins forces with young detective Kyosuke Kamizu to try to get to the bottom of the macabre crime.Set in a seedy Tokyo riddled with bomb sites, dive bars and Yakuza gangs, similar deaths soon follow and the two race to uncover the culprit. Is someone being driven to murder by their lust for tattooed skin or something much more sinister?

Takagi Akimitsu was a man of many passions. Throughout his life, he studied metallurgy, law, the history of espionage, the detective fiction genre, and other subjects. He also had an interest in the history and culture of tattooing in Japan. His book of photographs titled ‘The Tattoo Writer’ is currently the largest archive of images on the subject. 

Japanese crime fiction- The Meji Guillotine Murders

Tokyo, 1869. It is the dawn of the Meiji era in Japan. The recent civil war’s scars remain unhealed, and the new regime grapples with maintaining peace while settling old scores and grappling with the influx of dangerous new ideas from the West. Against this unstable backdrop, fact and fiction intertwine to create an origin story of the Japanese police force (which came into being in the Meiji restoration’s first years) and chief inspectors Kazuki and Kawaji are right at the heart of it. Together with the help of a mysterious shrine maiden they investigate a spree of baffling murders across the capital, moving from dingy drinking dens to high-class hotels and the heart of the Imperial Palace. Can they solve each gruesome death and piece together the dark connection between them?

Futaro Yamada is well known for blending fiction with fact and focusing on themes of modernization and Japan’s relationship to the West although in the Anglophone world it is usually the manga and anime adaptations of his series The Kouga Ninja Scrolls that he is best known for. Yamada’s novels are far more than typical detective stories, providing an accessible way of thinking about different time periods and their unique issues.

Japanese Crime Fiction- The Black Swan Mystery

Early one morning, someone found a body lying next to the railway tracks just outside of Kuki Station in Saitama Prefecture. They identified the body as that of the local mill owner, who was embroiled in labor disputes. Suspicion initially falls on the workers’ union, then on a new religious sect that has been gaining followers recently. Chief Inspector Onitsura and his assistant Tanna respond to the investigation call and quickly embark on a web-like train journey across Japan, hunting for the killer. As they delve into the case, the killer commits more murders… Can Onitsura and Tanna catch the murderer before more lives are lost?

Set squarely during the Post-War era, The Black Swan Mystery looks at class politics, workers rights and conflicting social values. Tetsuya Ayukawa’s signature style shines through in the novel, which presents a plot riddled with water-tight alibis meticulously timed with the extensive railway network covering the Islands of Japan.

Conclusion

The above crime novels all successfully use cultural facts and historical moments of profound change to elevate the plot and deepen the context of the story. So if you want a bit of a historical or cultural lesson on Japan alongside a bloody murder then pick up one of these Pushkin Press Japanese crime classics to read.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q1: What makes Japanese crime fiction unique compared to Western detective novels?

A: Japanese crime fiction often delves into the inner lives of characters, reflecting on how they interact with the wider society. It intertwines plot development with historical and cultural facts, offering both entertainment and insight into Japanese cultural history to its readers.

Q2: Why should readers interested in Japanese culture pick up these novels?

A: These novels offer more than just thrilling mysteries; they provide a historical and cultural lesson on Japan. They are a gateway to understanding profound changes in Japanese society through the lens of crime fiction.

Q3: What themes are explored in Tetsuya Ayukawa’s ‘The Black Swan Mystery’?

A: The Black Swan Mystery’ examines class politics, workers’ rights, and social values during the Post-War era. The novel features complex plots, alibis, and an intricate railway system that plays a central role in unraveling the mystery.

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About Keltie Mechalski

A self-proclaimed pastry aficionado, outdoor enthusiast and film lover from Canada. Keltie is based in London and writes on film, literature and anything else that piques her fancy.