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The Prewar Discourse

With its first introduction in Japan in the late 19th century through loose adaptations, detective fiction genre—in Japanese, tantei shōsetsu (探偵小説); later, suiri shōsetsu (推理小説)—has been a site of contested discourses among its practitioners and critics.

Conventionally, scholars have taken this genre as established and seldom probe into its historicity. Some take it as a unitary Western cultural influence on Japan, while some consider it an “alternative” development in Japan. However, both views underpin a familiar East/West, premodern/modern binarism, neglecting the negotiating role of this genre in relation to Japan’s modernization and national imaginary in the cultural playground.

Edogawa Rampo (江戸川乱歩), the non de plume of Hirai Tarō (平井太郎), was one of the most significant figures of detective fiction in this period. His success triggered a boom in writing original detective stories rather than translating foreign works.

After the appearance of Rampo, the maturity of the detective fiction genre in Japan was discussed in relation to the degree of proper implementation of the Western format. Amid this discursive space, Rampo’s localization of the genre was frequently criticized for deviating from a healthy course of development thereby producing “unhealthy” (fukenzen; 不健全) Japanese literature (Saito, 14). While acclaimed as having a potential to truly master the genre, Rampo was at the same time a harbinger and a residuum, caught in the dichotomy of a grotesque premodern and an “authentic” modern (Ibid, 52).

This timeline presentation will mainly trace the trajectory of Edogawa Rampo’s prewar career as a pioneer writer of detective fiction who was often involved in critics’ literary debate concerning this genre formation. Rampo’s writing career will be juxtaposed with one major debate about detective fiction genre during the mid-1930s.

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