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Who is Edogawa Rampo?

Rampo in 1954

Edogawa Rampo (江戸川 乱歩; also romanized as Edogawa Ranpo; 1894-1965) is the pen name of Hirai Tarō (平井 太郎), one of the most prominent figures in the early formation of Japanese detective fiction. Rampo had been active both before and after WWII. He took this pen name to pay tribute to Edgar Allan Poe, This name, Edogawa Rampo, in fact is the phonetic renderings of Poe’s name in Japanese (Edoga=Edgar; wa Ram=Allan; po=Poe), and literally means “randomly walking along the Edo River.” Having grown up reading foreign detective fiction of Poe and Sir Conan Doyle alike in the translation by Kuroiwa Ruikō (黒岩 涙香), he gained interest in this genre since childhood.

In 1923, Rampo made his debut with Nisen dōka (「二銭銅貨」; English: “The Two-Sen Copper Coin”) as a prize-winner story published on one trending magazine called Shinseinen (『新青年』). The editors highly acclaimed Rampo’s effort to apply western tradition to a unique Japanese setting, and insisted that this was the first story that is “no inferior to the foreign ones”[1]. This issue became a huge hit and triggered a fervent response from the reader. Rampo quickly gained fame and started to publish more detective stories on Shinseinen. His success inspired many writers to create their own detective fiction, and he was celebrated as a pioneer in the early development of Japanese detective fiction.

In 1930s, Rampo largely incorporated elements of horror, bizarre and grotesque into his works, which greatly influenced the ero guro nansensu (エロ・グロ・ナンセンス) literary movement[2]. Instead of following the well-established tradition of delineating investigation process and logical ratiocination, his works placed more emphasis on nonnormative sexuality, macabre violence, as well as other fetishisms.

When the WWII broke out, the detective fiction had gradually undergone censorship accompanied by the total mobilization of war. Like many other writers, Rampo refrained from writing. After Japan was defeated and the government restrictions were lifted, most detective fiction writers were promising of reviving the detective fiction genre (Satomi Saito, 129). The revival praised Western-style classic detective fiction as the dominant form. Amidst this atmostphere, Rampo also embraced this authentic or orthodox detective fiction (honkaku tantei shōsetsu) and left his ero guro nansensu stories behind. Instead of creating more adult-oriented detective stories, much of his attention was directed to writing juvenile literature (the Boy Detective Club series), engaging in literary critic realm, and promoting detective fiction to both domestic and overseas public.

Footnote:
[1] This line appears in the advertisement for the spring supplement issue, in which editors previewed the stories they selected. The original text reads as below:

真に外国の名作にも劣らない、いやある意味に於ては外国の作家の作品よりも勝れた長所をもった純然たる創作が生まれたのである。

[2] Erotic-grotesque-nonsense media is a print form that was widely consumed in 1930s, which “included elements from soft-core pornography, tabloid news, avant-garde montage,” and horror and mystery fiction (Driscoll, 1). For a well-rounded analysis of Rampo’s relationship with ero guro nansensu (エロ・グロ・ナンセンス) movement, see Driscoll 2000.

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