In Japan, in contrast, the term crime fiction (“hanzai shosetsu”) is not in general use. The oldest term, popular in the 1920s and 1930s, is “tantei shosetsu,” literally “detective fiction.” That name has never completely disappeared, but was superseded after the war by “suiri shosetsu.” As “suiri” means “ratiocination, logical reasoning,” this new name points at the fact that "classical" whodunits had become the new trend in those years. A third term one sees nowadays is the more general “misteri shosetsu,” after the English “mystery,” which is a more inclusive term, but not as common as "suiri shosetsu."
1600-1867: Crime and Punishment in the Edo-period
"Trials in the Shade of the Cherry Tree" (Honcho Oin Hiji) by Ihara Saikaku
1769 - 1850
"Ooka’s Rulings" (Ooka Seidan) by anonymous
In the Edo-period, Japan knew the genre of crime stories but these were very different from the modern Western crime novel. This was the genre of “kanzen choaku” or “virtue rewarded and vice punished” which was popular in the Kabuki theater and in Kodan storytelling. Popular folk heroes were for example criminals as Ishikawa Goemon (an outlaw who stole from the rich to give to the poor like Robin Hood and who ended his life by being boiled alive in 1594 in Kyoto) and Nezumi Kozo (an expert thief who burglarized 100 samurai estates in Edo before being publicly beheaded in 1831).
[Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Nezumi Kozo, ukiyo-e by Utagawa Toyokuni II]
We also find “kanzen choaku” in courtroom narratives such as Iharu Saikaku's Honcho Oin Hiji (“Trials in the Shade of a Cherry Tree,” 1689; based on the Chinese Tangyin Bishi) and the anonymous Ooka Seidan (“Ooka's Rulings”). These stories emphasized the authority of the state in the form of wise and infallible judges. The criminal would be known to the reader from the start and the suspense was wholly on the question how the judge would discover him. Forced confessions and torture were also part of the trial. Based on Chinese examples and thus strongly influenced by moralistic Confucianism, these stories also put a strong emphasis on the punishment of the victim, often described in gruesome detail. Punishment was important, because the balance of Heaven which had been upset by the crime, had to be restored.
Ooka Seidan was also the inspiration for one of the longest running TV series in Japan, "Ooka Echizen," which between 1970 and 1999 ran for more than 400 episodes - it was only second in popularity to another famous television jidaigeki, "Mito Komon." The character of Ooka Tadasuke was in the whole series played by popular actor Kato Go (1938-2018). Kato Go was known for his clear-cut features and fine delivery of his lines, and he played in many TV dramas and films besides Ooka Echizen - an example is his starring role in the 1974 movie "Suna no Utsuwa" - based on a crime novel by Matsumoto Seicho - as an egoistic genius pianist who commits murder.
On a side note, this type of fiction originated in Chinese Gongan fiction (“case records”) about famous administrators/judges as Judge Bao and Judge Di, in plays and stories mainly written in the Ming and Qing periods. The 18th c. novel Di Gongan was translated into English as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee by the Dutch Sinologist and diplomat Robert Van Gulik, who then used the style and characters to write his original (and still popular) Judge Dee series – see my article about Judge Dee.
[The first Judge Dee novel (1951), which originally appeared in Japanese, Chinese and English]
To conclude: these Edo period “kanzen choaku” stories are fundamentally different from the modern crime story, as there is no suspense and no detective work. They were written in a climate of authoritarian legal thought, glorifying the state's authority in the form of wise judges who were presented as unfailingly clear-sighted men. The modern crime story originated much later, after Western models were introduced into Japan in the Meiji period.
1868-1912: Adaptations of Western Crime Fiction in the Meiji period
"Waran Seiden" by Kanda Takahiro, translation of Dutch collection true stories about trials
"The Story of Otsune the Female Thief" (Onna Tozoku Otsune no Den) by Kanagaki Robun (a so-called "shiranamimono")
"The Tale of Takahashi Oden the She-Devil" (Takahashi Oden Yasha Monogatari) by Kanagaki Robun (a so-called "dokufumono")
"XYZ A Detective Story" (Nisegane tsukai), a mystery novel by Anne Katherine Green, translated by Tsubouchi Shoyo
Edgar Allen Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" partially translated by Aeba Koson
Kuroiwa Ruiko adapts High Conway's "Dark Days" as "Hotei ni Bijin" (The Beauty of the Law Court)
Ruiko adapts Emile Gaboriau's "L'Affaire Lerouge" as "Hito ka Oni ka" (Man or Devil?)
Ruiko adapts Anne Katherine Green's "The Leavenworth Case" as "Makkura" (Pitch-Dark)
Ruiko adapts Fortuné du Boisgobey's "Continuations of a Duel" as "Ketto no Hate" (Beyond the Duel)
Ruiko writes his original novella, "Muzan" (Merciless)
Ruiko adapts Fortuné du Boisgobey's "La Vieillesse de Monsieur Lecoq" as "Shibijin" (The Dead Beauty)
Ruiko adapts Fortuné du Boisgobey's "Les Deux Merles de M. de Saint-ars" as "Tetsu Kamen" (The Iron Mask)
Ruiko adapts Marie Corelli's "Vendetta, A Story of One Forgotten" as "Hyakuhatsuki" (The White-haired Demon)
Ruiko adapts Elizabeth Braddon's "Lady Audley's Secret" as "Hito no Un" (People's Luck)
The very first translation of a Holmes story appears in the magazine Nihonjin under the title "Kojiki doraku" (Indulgence of Begging). The translator is anonymous, but it is on the whole a faithful literal rendering of "The Man with the Twisted Lip."
Ruiko writes his original novella, "Rokunin no Shigai" (Six Dead Bodies)
A translation of the Holmes story "The Speckled Band" appears in an anthology of English literature annotated by the scholar Inoue Jukichi (who also had a taste for detective fiction and promoted the magazine Shin Seinen in the 1920s, which contained many foreign detective stories of great quality).
Ruiko adapts A.M. Williamson's "A Woman in gray" as "Yureito" (Tower of Ghosts).
Conan Doyle's "A Study in Scarlet" is translated as "A Bloodstained Wall" (Chizome no
Kabe) and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" as "The Wondrous Detective" (Fushigi no Tantei). Both are examples of "domestication" and Japanization of foreign literature for a large Japanese public. In the Japanese version of "A Study in Scarlet" Dr Watson (called Wada Shinichi) has not been wounded in Afghanistan, but in Taiwan, and the Mormons of Utah have been replaced by settlers in Hokkaido! In "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" the names of characters and places are Japanized, but all the stories are situated in Berlin.
Ruiko adapts Alexandre Dumas' "The Count of Monte Christo" as "Gankutsu-o" (The King of the Cave")
Ruiko adapts Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" as "Aa Mujo" (How Heartless)
More literary translations of Conan Doyle appear in 1901 and 1902: three short stories in the Keio University Bulletin (Keio Gijuku Gakuho) and "A Study in Scarlet" under the
title of "The Strange Tale of Mormons" (Mormon Kitan) published serially in Jiji Shinpo Newspaper.
That replacement did not happen immediately. In the beginning of the Meiji-period we find another precursor of the detective story in the form of the “criminal biography.” These were sensational stories published in the tabloid press, and they were either about famous robbers (shiranamimono) or about criminal women (dokufumono): entertainers who stole money from their customers, concubines who plotted to kill their masters and kill their heirs, and notorious poisoners (“dokufu”) as the sensational case of Takahashi Oden, who was executed in 1879 (the criminality of women seems to have been one of the Meiji period gender anxieties). The most famous author of such sensational stories was Kanagaki Robun (1829-1894), who had been trained in the Edo-style gesaku tradition: humorous and often satirical fiction, written from a not very serious point of view for pure entertainment (in Kanagaki's case this generally meant that he satirized the peculiarities of Japanese society in the process of modernization, such as the eating of meat).
But these shiranamimono and dokufumono, although incorporating court documents and the like, were different from modern detective stories as they made no mystery of the identities of the criminals concerned. In fact, they continued the kanzen choaku mode of the Edo period. However, they also demonstrate that there had been important administrative changes since the Edo period: the gathering and interpretation of physical evidence for trials superseded the previous emphasis on forced confessions and this helped the popular acceptance of the detective story.
By the way, Japan does not differ from either Britain or France in that such real-life accounts of criminal activities initially attracted an increasingly literate populace prone to be dazzled by sensational articles. In Britain there was The Newgate Calender, containing biographies of condemned criminals, published by the prison authorities (!), and in France we find the roman feuilleton serialized in newspapers. In France we also have the autobiography of Eugène-François Vidocq (1775-1857), a criminal turned criminalist whose life story inspired several writers, including Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe, and Honoré de Balzac. The former criminal became the founder and first director of the crime-detection Sûreté nationale as well as the head of the first known private detective agency.
And again on a side note: in 1863 a Dutch book originally written in 1819 by Jan Bastijaan Christemeijer and with the long title Important scenes from the history of corporal punishmental judicature and curious peculiarities of the lives of secret criminals (Belangrijke Tafereelen uit de Geschiedenis der Lijfstraffelijke Regtsplegling) was translated into Japanese by Rangaku scholar Kanda Takahira (click here for the Dutch original). This is in fact a series of stories about real criminal cases, written with the purpose to demonstrate that detailed evidence gathering and interviewing of suspects was necessary in order to prevent miscarriages of justice. The translator's intention was to introduce “an exemplary account that demonstrates the virtues of Dutch politics equipped with a police system.” In short, a serious purpose that fitted completely to the ideas of Kuroiwa Ruiko! Part of the book was republished in 1886 under the new title of Yongeru Kidan (a book Mori Ogai mentions in his novella The Wild Goose) - see the article mentioned below by Tsutsumibayashi Megumi.
The detective story was introduced from the West (where it was also a relatively new genre, having originated in Edgar Allan Poe’s works such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" from 1841) in the year 1887 when the first partial translations of Poe and a mystery novel by the American author Anna Katherine Green appeared.
This unleashed a wave of adaptations, rather than faithful translations: the most prolific maker of such stories, newspaper editor and publisher Kuroiwa Ruiko (1862-1920), picked ideas from French, English and American detective novels on which he grafted his own elaborations (while greatly shortening the originals at the same time) – there existed no international copyright agreements yet. The adaptations usually shifted the locations of the novels to Japan and the names used were all normal Japanese names, instead of writing Western names in katakana. Such adaptations were called honan-mono. A good example is Ruiko's adaptation of Emile Gaboriau’s L’Affair Lerouge as "Hito ka Oni ka" (Man or Devil?) in 1888. But Ruiko was not just a simplistic hack writer: like most Meiji personalities he had a serious purpose. That was a critique of the Meiji period justice system and thus a pushing for “enlightenment.” As Mark Silver says, the agenda of political reform that Ruiko carried our through his translations (the abolishment of the death penalty and exposing the corruption of the Meiji establishment) was inspired by Western ideals of liberalism. But in contrary to the generation of Edogawa Ranpo in the 1920s, who created true detective stories, he had no ambition to insert himself into the Western tradition of detective writing.
Ruiko did write two original stories (the best one is Muzan or "Merciless," written in 1889), but the intention remained a moralistic one, not so remote from the confessional narratives of criminals appearing in the other pages of his mass publications.
In the 1880s and 1890s Ruiko made about 100 adaptations of Western novels of mystery, adventure and detection (in the timeline above I have only included a few of them purely as examples) - showing how huge the craving for information about the West was in Meiji Japan. Ruiko was a journalist, not a literary author. That is also the light in which we should see his adaptations: as a journalist he wanted to provide information about Western literature (and via that, about Europe and America) to his readers (and at the same time point at elements in Meiji society that should be improved), by making digests and adaptations of scores and scores of novels. Ruiko's adaptations were very influential - many later writers as Edogawa Ranpo grew up with them and retained fond memories.
In these same years, many of the Holmes stories and novels by Arthur Conan Doyle were also translated. Some were adapted and aimed at a lowbrow mass public as pure entertainment, but many others were literally translated (the quality of translations gradually improved, and became quite high from the Taisho period on) and meant to educate more sophisticated readers in the importance of science and logical thinking in the service of the state. So Sherlock Holmes lost his complex, darker features and at the same time acquired two faces: education of the elite and entertainment of the populace. Sherlock Holmes came to symbolize Western values that drove Japan towards modernization (see the article by Tsutsumibayashi Megumi mentioned below).
Concluding: detective fiction in the Meiji period consisted almost completely of translated works. Popular were the mystery stories of Edgar Allen Poe, the Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and the sensational mystery novels of the late 19th century, with an emphasis on now forgotten French writers as Emile Gaboriau and Fortuné du Boisgobey, but also Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Braddon. Translations gradually improved in quality, and finally shed the character of rather wild adaptations.
1900-: Adventure stories of the Meiji period - Oshikawa Shunro (1876-1914)
Kaitei Nimanryu (tr. Inoue Tsutomu); translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
Kaitei Gunkan (Undersea Warship) by Oshikawa Shunro (followed by 5 sequels during the years of the war with Russia).
Oshikawa Shunro co-editor of magazine Boken Sekai (Adventiure World), in which he also published his own stories.
Oshikawa Shunro starts own magazine Bukyo Sekai (World of Heroism)
We should not forget to mention another writer who next to Ruiko was popular in the Meiji period: Oshikawa Shunro (1876-1914). Shunro worked as journalist and editor, and became known as a pioneer of science fiction. Shunro had read Jules Verne in translation, and inspired by Verne’s stories of submarine warfare, in 1900 he wrote the novel Kaitei Gunkan (Undersea Warship). The shipwrecked narrator finds himself on a remote island in the Indian Ocean where Captain Sakuragi, inventor and military man, is building a ram-armed submarine called "Denkosen" (Lightning Ship) with superior Japanese technology. Captain Sakuragi saves the narrator when, on his way back to Japan, he is attached by pirates. Five sequels would follow, in which the submarine plays a heroic role during the war between Japan and Russian (1904-05). Shunro was a nationalistic author and his books reflect the imperialist "flag-planting" ambitions of Japan at the time. After the Russians, also other Western nations were battled for dominance of the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Shunro was the earliest non-Western author of scientific romances. He also contributed to the development of detective fiction by incorporating elements of ratiocination, sleuthing, mystery and crime in his adventure stories. In 1908 he became co-editor of a magazine, Boken Sekai (Adventure World) that was popular among boys, and that is how he is best remembered: as a nationalistic author who developed adventurous tales of military glory, scientific inventions and the colonizing of "primitive" cultures into an independent genre of children's fiction. Boken Sekai often contained “true” stories of adventure, exploration and military prowess, set in primitive lands as an expression of Japan’s colonial ambitions. But the magazine also published mysteries, including translations of Western detective stories, as well as ghost stories. Clearly, adventure stories (boken shosetsu), tales of ghosts and the bizarre (kaiki shosetsu) and detective fiction (tantei shosetsu) were mixed and still had to develop into separate genres. After a conflict with the publisher, Hakubunkan, in 1911 Oshikawa founded his own magazine along similar lines, called Bukyo Sekai (World of Heroism).
Other science fiction stories by Shunro were for example Ogon no Wankan (The Golden Bracelet. 1907), set in Britain, and Gessekai Kyoso Tanken (The Race to Explore the Moon, also 1907), in which the Japanese inventor uses an airship with moveable wings.
Edogawa Ranpo mentions in his autobiography (Tantei Shosetsu Yonjunen) that in his youth he was an avid fan of the stories of Shunro. Shunro’s work remained limited to Japan as it was never translated. However, it did reach Western audiences in the 1960s via a detour: the Toho tokusatsu film Atragon which was based on Kaitei Gunkan. In fact, the first film based on Shunro's novels had already been made in 1913!
For those interested in sampling Shunro in Japanese: Aozora Bunka has some of his stories online, including Kaitei Gunkan.
This article incorporates parts of my previous post, Hanshichi, Japan's First Fictional Detective.
Studies used as reference in writing this article:
Purloined Letters: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature, 1868-1937, by Mark Silver (Univ of Hawaii Pr, 2008)
Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture, by Sari Kawana (Univ of Minnesota Pr, 2008)
Mord in Japan, by Robert F. Wittkamp (Iudicium, 2002)
Monogatari Nihon Suiri Shosetsu Shi by Gohara Hiroshi (Kodansha, 2010)
“There’s a west wind coming: Sherlock Holmes in Meiji Japan" by Tsutsumibayashi Megumi (Keio Communication Review No.37, 2015)
Writing the Love of Boys by Jeffrey Angles (University of Minnesota Press, 2011)
Oshikawa Shunro in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction