Historical Overview: Japanese Detective Fiction

Contemporary Japan sees an enduring interest in crime fiction. Over a long period of negotiation and mediation, detective fiction has set up its ground as a highly marketable popular genre in Japan, often denoted specifically as suiri shōsetsu (推理小説) or tantei shōsetsu (探偵小説; a rather pre-war notion and is not widely used any more). The factor of translation and the context of modernization/westernization need to be taken into consideration when it comes to historicize the evolution of detection fiction genre in Japan. In his dissertation regarding the discourses around Japanese detective fiction, Saito Satomi considers this genre as a contested ground against exterior social forces, particularly in relation to Japan’s modernization and national imaginary in the cultural playground (19). I will follow Saito’s periodization to provide a brief history of Japanese detective fiction below.

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The First Phase (1880s~1940s )

In the late Meiji period (1880s-1900s), detective fiction was introduced into Japan through loose translations from the English language. Although many writers started to incorporate detective element into literary creation (with cases in the realm of “pure literature” (junbungaku; 純文学) as exemplified by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介 and Natsume Sōseki 夏目漱石) [1], most agreed that it was the prosperity of Shinseinen magazine (「新青年」)and the success of representative writer Edogawa Rampo 江戸川乱歩 in the 1920s that triggered the boom of writing detective fiction as an independent genre (although the criteria for differentiating detective fiction from other genres of popular literature was quite messy). These early practices of writing detective fiction were closely intertwined with issues of cultural authenticity and modernity, constantly confronted with a deeply rooted antagonism between a “modern West” and a “premodern Japan” (Saito Satomi, 61).

As most intellectuals at that time set the West as “standard,” they adhered to the Euro-American criticisms of this genre to regulate their own literary production, or oppositely, to assert their originality. “Authenticity” is the keyword that had dictated the narrative focus and plot construction. Generally, the prewar debates were divided into two camps. One side asserted the Golden Age puzzle formula of “whodunit” was the authentic (honkaku; 本格), healthy (kenzen; 健全), and modern/progressive format, as opposed to the allegedly inauthentic (henkaku; 変格) form of writing which was characterized by its grotesque taste, lack of scientificity/logic, and “backward” premodern references. The other side argued that detective fiction should be understood as artistic fiction with detective tastes (tantei shumi 探偵趣味) rather than scientific fiction with rigid rules. They stated that it is the fictional element, not the detective element, that is central to a detective story. (Saito Satomi, 71-80)

The Second Phase (1940s~1990s)

When the WWII broke out in 1940s, in order to arouse the nationalist sentiments and to achieve mass mobilization for a total war, the Japanese government intended to eliminate Western influence among their people. Detective fiction genre had undergone strict censorship during the war, because it was considered too frivolous and immoral for times of crisis. Bans were imposed; as the war waged on, a lot of writers voluntarily self-censored themselves or turned underground, and some writers eventually gave up writing before the war ended.

After Japan was defeated and the government ban on detective fiction was lifted in the postwar period, there exists a shared urge among detective fiction writers to re-canonize the classical whodunit as the authentic model. However, it is notable that in the 1960s another important shift occurred: the rise of the social school (shakai ha; 社会派). While Yokomizo Seishi 横溝正史 was celebrated to employ the logical reasoning of puzzle stories immediately after the war, Matsumoto Seichō 松本清張 turned his attention to realistic concerns of the rapidly changing postwar Japanese society (Saito Satomi, 187-189). He successfully elevated detective fiction into high art and later his works became the dominant type of detective fiction in the market, whose influence can be found in contemporary writers like Miyabe Miyuki 宮部みゆき and Higashino Keigo 東野圭吾.

The Third Phase (1990s~contemporary)

In 1990s, Shimada Sōji 島田荘司 sought to revive authentic detective fiction from the social school’s “repression” by establishing the New Authentic School (shin-honkaku ha 新本格派) and discovering young writers. However, scholar Saito Satomi argues that Shimada’s re-articulation/re-narrativization of the history of detective fiction is devoid of historicity, since he considers the term “authentic detective fiction” as a pure Japanese creation and has less to do with foreign importation (Saito Satomi, 221). Opposed to Shimada’s frenetic enthusiasm of the orthodoxy of authentic detective fiction, another writer Ayatsuji Yukito 綾辻行人 interested in the meta-fictional aspect of detective fiction, which embodied the crisis of the genre—the very difficulty to produce “new” detective fiction against the rule-governed “authentic” detective fiction genre. This echoes with what Fredric Jameson calls “pastiche” in postmodernism (Saito Satomi, 237-242). 

[1] See: Saito, Satoru. Detective Fiction and the Rise of the Japanese Novel, 1880-1930. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.