Watching the cherry blossoms burst forth and fade always makes me think of Japan. But my Japan is not a place of samurai, ninja and serene Zen temples. The Japan I think of is lit by neon rather than a rising sun. A place of tailored suits, leather jackets, discos and hostess bars, a place where the eternal human game of life and death, cops and robbers, is played with a unique style. Here are some favorite titles – fiction and non-fiction – about this Japanese underworld (and here they are in our library catalog).
Jake Adelstien did not intend to become a crime reporter for Yomiuri Shinbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers but this was Tokyo in the 90’s and he needed a job. Jake was soon rubbing elbows with police detectives and senior yakuza figures. Adelstein uses his status as an outsider supplemented with sometimes insane courage to take the reader deep inside the Japanese criminal world. Tokyo Vice, by Jake Adelstein.
Another outsider to penetrate the darker places of Japan was British journalist, Richard Lloyd Parry. His investigation following the disappearance of Lucie Blackman while she was working in a hostess bar takes the reader along a convoluted path stretching from London to Tokyo’s Roppongi district, from the oceanside cave where her body was found through the long and complex trial of her accused attacker. People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Perry.
Shoko Tendo was born inside this darker world. In her revealing and sometimes harrowing memoir she shows us the unadorned life of someone raised inside the yakuza. This is an unblinking look at the rare joys and frequent despairs of a criminal life where women are considered accessories or chattel, if they are considered at all. Ms. Tendo’s path leads through drugs, loan sharks and violence until she creates her own way out and in so doing transforms the traditional yakuza tattoo into a symbol of strength. Yakuza Moon, by Shoko Tendo.
Turning to fiction, Natsuo Kirino’s Out details the story of a group of women working the night shift in a Tokyo factory that produces bento lunches. An accidental murder soon has the group tangling with the yakuza and the police. However do not expect quirky characters and female bonding; this dark novel owes more to Gogol and Raymond Chandler than to Thelma & Louise. Natsuo Kirino has written a tense mystery that does not shy away from the hard choices faced by those on the bottom rungs of Japan’s consumer society. Out, by Natsuo Kirino.
A similar accidental murder begins The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino. A bestseller and winner of the Honkaku Mystery Grand Prize in Japan, the story details a complex game of cat and mouse between a mathematician aiding the accidental murderers and a physicist aiding the police. The fact that the mathematician and the physicist play chess together serves to heighten the tension in this excellent psychological thriller set in the eastern and less affluent half of the Tokyo. The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino.
Tokyo also plays a major role as the backdrop for All She Was Worth, by Miyuki Miyabe. The story follows Shunsuke Honma, a 42-year-old police inspector on disability leave following a gunshot wound. What appears to be a simple favor for a friend, tracking down an errant fiancee soon becomes a complex case of shifting identities and possible murder. All She Was Worth, by Miyuki Miyabe.
The Shinjuku Shark and its sequel The Poison Ape by Arimasa Ōsawa follow maverick Tokyo police detective Samejima as he works the grimy Shinjuku district, as he grapples with an unknown sniper targeting police officers, and tries to prevent a war between the Japanese and Taiwanese mafias. The mystery novels of Arimasa Ōsawa have been likened to those of the great Raymond Chandler with the hard streets of Tokyo taking their place beside the mean streets of LA. The Shinjuku Shark and The Poison Ape by Arimasa Ōsawa.
In The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura, a skilled pickpocket strives to make himself as non-existent as possible so as to be close to his victims without their awareness, but finds himself trapped in a dangerous web after he is implicated in the murder of a prominent political figure. Nakamaura uses this framework to create a stylish and engaging thriller and explore the effects of disconnection and isolation in modern Japanese life. The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura
Tetsu is a former yakuza hit-man who has followed his boss in going straight. Yet the criminal world is unwilling to let them go quietly. This simple, even hackneyed, plot provides the framework for a highly original masterwork of 1960’s Japanese cinema, with its stunning use of color and eye-popping set pieces that make this traditional story transcend expectations. Tokyo drifter, Seijun Suzuki director.
Our final look at crime writing in Japan is surprisingly not set
entirely in Japan. In Summer of the Big Bashi, by Naomi Hirahara, Mas Ara an aging gardener and Hiroshima survivor becomes involved with the murder of a man he was sure died in the Hiroshima firestorm. This first volume of what is currently a four volume series featuring the Japanese-American gardener detective opens a window not only into frequently overlooked time in Japanese history but into a frequently overlooked area of American life. Summer of the Big Bashi, by Naomi Hirahara.
Those are some of my favorite Japanese crime stories. How about yours?