Friday, 23 March 2018 09:55

Site update

Books from Japan was updated on March 20, 2018, adding synopses for 5 works of fiction and 1 of nonfiction. (Italicized English titles are those of finished translations; others are tentative titles.)

■ Natsuhiko Kyōgoku, Jorōgumo no kotowari
(The Web of the Spider Woman)

■ Yukiko Mari, Shūgen-jima
(Wedding Island)

■ Hisaki Matsuura, Meiyo to kōkotsu
(The Honor and the Ecstasy)

■ Kenji Takemoto, Ruikō Meikyū
(Ruikō’s Maze)

■ Yourou Wen, Mannaka no kodomotachi
(The Children in the Middle)

■ Kumiko Kakehashi, Kuruu hito: “Shi no toge” no tsuma, Shimao Miho
(Losing It: Miho Shimao, the Wife in The Sting of Death)

The winner of three prestigious literary awards, the autobiographical novel Shi no toge (1977; tr. 1985 as The Sting of Death) by Toshio Shimao (1917–1986) portrays the turbulent lives of Shimao and his wife Miho (1919–2007) as they struggle with her mental illness after she learns of his extramarital affairs. In this critical biography, author Kumiko Kakehashi draws on a voluminous body of unpublished manuscripts, diaries, letters, and other primary materials to meticulously reconstruct the true story of Miho that was hidden behind the account presented in the novel.

Nine months before the end of World War II, Miho Ōhira, the daughter of a prominent family on tiny Kakeroma, one of the Amami Islands south of Kyushu, was working as an elementary-school teacher when Shimao arrived on the island as the commanding officer of a suicide torpedo-boat unit. Though a military man, the mild-mannered Shimao mixed easily with the civilian community, gaining their confidence and favor. Before long he became romantically involved with Miho, and with the knowledge that he was fated soon to die, their relationship grew increasingly intense: Miho declared that she would not survive him. Then, just after his unit was placed on standby alert, the war came to an end and the final orders never arrived. Their lives spared, the two lovers married early the following year. But the love that had burgeoned under extraordinary wartime conditions was soon to fade; the marriage began to collapse under the everyday realities of peacetime. Moving in with Shimao at his family home in Kobe, Miho experienced friction with her father-in-law. She was discriminated against for her Amami birth. The mental distress that later became the subject of Shi no toge has been attributed to the wounded pride, anger, and depression that came from the indignities she suffered in the marriage.

On the other hand, Miho’s life was also buffeted by Shimao’s portrayals of her in his literary works. When Shimao wrote a story, he often intended it for a specific woman to read, and the story faithfully portrayed the real relationship between Shimao and the woman at that time. For Miho, the period when she enjoyed being a character in Shimao’s stories can be said to have ended with her marriage. As the rising literary star, caught between ambition and self-doubt, began stepping out with other women, the Miho in his stories became a “dull woman” and “depressing wife.” Seeing herself in her husband’s stories consequently became difficult for Miho to endure. Then, following her breakdown, when Shimao turned back to her and wished above all else to help her regain mental peace, he sought to make every line he wrote accord with Miho’s wishes. Miho in effect gained complete control over her husband through his portrayal of her in his writings.

Perhaps most astonishingly, we learn that Miho had access to Shimao’s diaries from the time they were newlyweds. That is to say, the entries that caused Miho to become unhinged were in fact written with the knowledge that she would see them. What emerges is the portrait of an artist who will stop at nothing—not even driving those near him to madness or despair—in the effort to produce fine literature.

Monday, 19 March 2018 16:33

Kumiko Kakehashi

Kumiko Kakehashi (1961–) was born in Kumamoto Prefecture and graduated from Hokkaido University with a degree in Japanese literature. She worked as an editor before striking out on her own as a writer in 2001, producing articles for weeklies such as AERA. In 2006 she received the Ōya Sōichi Nonfiction Award for Chiru zo kanashiki: Iō-tō sōshikikan Kuribayashi Tadamichi (So Sad to Fall in Battle: An Account of War Based on General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s Letters from Iwo Jima, tr. 2009); the work has been translated into seven languages including English, French, and Italian. Her 2016 work Kuruu hito: “Shi no toge” no tsuma, Shimao Miho (Losing It: Miho Shimao, the Wife in The Sting of Death) received triple honors, taking home the Yomiuri Prize for Literature (Criticism & Biography), the MEXT Award for the Arts, and the Kodansha Nonfiction Award in 2017. Among her many other titles are Iō-tō: Kuribayashi Chūjō no saigo (Iwo Jima: The Death of Lieutenant General Kuribayashi), Haisen kikō: Mō hitotsu no tetsudō-tabi (Abandoned Rails: Another Kind of Rail Trip), and Yūki no hana ga hiraku toki: Yanase Takashi to Anpan-man no monogatari (When the Flower of Bravery Blooms: The Story of Takashi Yanase and Anpan-man).

Monday, 19 March 2018 18:04

Ruikō’s Maze

This mystery novel revolves around a real-life figure, Ruikō Kuroiwa (1862–1920), a newspaper founder, journalist, and prolific translator and adaptor of numerous English and French novels.

The protagonist is Tomohisa Makiba, an 18-year-old with an IQ of 208 who is a professional player of the game of go and has several of the seven honorary go titles to his name. Makiba solves two intertwining mysteries to bring the novel to a dramatic finish.

The first revolves around a murder in an old traditional inn. The victim is a man in his seventies who has been stabbed in the back with an ice pick. The wound is deep, piercing right through the heart. The body is slumped over a go board, and go stones are scattered everywhere, suggesting he was murdered in the middle of a game. Naratsugi, the detective in charge, reaches out to Makiba for help. Naratsugi is an avid go player himself and knows Makiba from a previous case on which they also worked together. Arriving at the scene, the first thing Makiba points out is that there seem to be an awful lot of the black and white stones, but other than that he offers no fresh insights.

The second mystery concerns a large stash of codes apparently left by Kuroiwa in a secret location. A wealthy scholar named Asō has been researching Kuroiwa for some time and enlists Makiba’s help in his search for the fabled hideaway. Thanks to Makiba’s sleuthing skills they find it in the basement of a dilapidated building on the shores of a lake situated at the bottom of a steep ravine in the mountains of Ibaraki Prefecture. On August 20, at Asō’s request, Makiba and a number of others make their way to the isolated site to participate in an excavation. On his way to the hideaway, Makiba is hurt by a boulder that comes crashing down a cliff, but the injury is not serious. Later a woman in the group, a mystery aficionado, dies from drinking poisoned orange juice that was intended for Makiba. The pelting rain and raging winds of a typhoon accentuate their isolation and force the group to hunker down in the basement, everyone wondering all the while who the murderer may be.

At this point the storyline veers back to the first mystery. With Makiba’s help, the victim is identified as Yūsai Sugamura, age 75, an avid player of renju, a variant of go played according to rules defined by Kuroiwa. It turns out Sugamura had attended a party held by Asō in July as a prelude to an exhibition about Kuroiwa, planned for December. At the party, he confides to Asō that he has something he wants included in the exhibit. Makiba guesses that the person who tried to kill him is the same one who murdered Sugamura, and as he follows the clues readers are led into a maze of go games, puzzles, and wordplay that reflect the author’s encyclopedic knowledge and his almost maniacal obsession with language and the game of go.

Monday, 19 March 2018 17:56

Kenji Takemoto

Kenji Takemoto (1954–) published his first mystery, Hako no naka no shitsuraku (Paradise Lost in a Box), in a journal of detective stories when he was still a university student. In 1978, the story was published again as a separate volume. He has since come out with works in a range of genres including mysteries, science fiction, and horror stories, and has a devoted following of readers. He is particularly noted for his self-conscious metafiction writing style and for anti-mysteries in which the conventions of the genre are studiously avoided. Games are central to many of his mysteries, beginning with a trilogy written between 1980 and 1981 involving the games of go, shōgi, and playing cards. Takemoto continues to write to this day, his mystery Ruikō Meikyū (Ruikō’s Maze), published in 2016, winning the Honkaku Mystery Award in the novel division as well securing a Konomys No. 1 ranking. One of Takemoto’s most representative works is a trilogy titled Uroborosu no gisho (The Ouroboros Forgery) that features Japanese mystery writers, including Takemoto himself, under their real names. Other works include the novel Kirara tantei su (Kirara, Detective) and the collection of short stories Kakumo mizu fukaki fuzai (The Water Too Deep to Stay Seen).

Monday, 19 March 2018 17:47

The Honor and the Ecstasy

A suspense thriller set in Shanghai during the period of Japanese expansion on the Asian continent in the late 1930s, prior to the commencement of all-out war. Author Hisaki Matsuura vividly captures the dynamism of the highly international city that had grown out of the British, American, and French enclaves established nearly a century earlier, following the Opium War.

A month after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 1937, which triggered a full-on Japanese invasion of China, the Battle of Shanghai breaks out. The story traces the next two years in the life of protagonist Ichirō Serizawa, 29, an officer in the Security Division of the Police Department under the Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC), the body through which England, the United States, and Japan jointly administer the International Settlement. After graduating from the Tokyo School of Foreign Studies, Serizawa did a stint at Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department headquarters before being transferred to Shanghai, where he has been engaged mainly in intelligence-gathering activities for the last four years.

According to the official Serizawa family registry in Japan, Ichirō has a brother Tamotsu and sister Shizuko, from whom he is separated by 18 years. But he is actually Shizuko’s son, born when she was just 17 and living with her family in Seoul, where her father’s export-import business had taken them. When the child’s father, a Korean shipbuilding engineer, died in an accident before he and Shizuko could get married, the family reported the birth as their third child. Shizuko succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 39, and Tamotsu died two years ago in a traffic accident, leaving Ichirō without any family—the last of the Serizawa line. Several plot points in the story turn on the fact that he is half Korean by blood.

The story begins when he receives a summons by phone from a Major Kiyoshi Kayama, 34, of the Imperial Army. With the Japanese military already occupying the areas surrounding the International Settlement, the authority of the SMC has come into question, and even as a police officer, Serizawa is in no position to refuse an Imperial Army officer, especially one affiliated with the General Staff Office (the major later emerges as the leader of a secret unit engaged in covert operations). Kayama has a favor to ask, which under the circumstances has the force of a command: he wants Serizawa to arrange a meeting for him with Xiao Yanbin, one of the most powerful members of the Green Gang, an organized crime group in Shanghai. Xiao is the czar of Shanghai’s three vices: opium, prostitution, and gambling. And with ambitions that go beyond the city’s underworld, he has managed to expand his influence to become a ranking member of the Municipal Administrative Council that governs the French Concession. He has also gained the favor of Chiang Kai-shek and sympathizes with the Kuomintang, making him an enemy of Japan. Serizawa can’t imagine why Kayama would think a Japanese police officer has an in with a top Chinese crime boss, but then Kayama informs him that his friend Feng Dusheng is Xiao’s uncle by marriage: his third wife (Xiao is now on wife number four) had been Meiyu, the daughter of Feng’s sister.

Feng is an elderly street vendor of watches and antiques and such, whom Serizawa has known for about two years. He studied in Japan in his youth, and he also knew the Japanese intellectual Ikki Kita when he lived in Shanghai. A friendship had developed between Serizawa and Feng as a result of Serizawa’s interest in the beautiful dolls Feng makes. Serizawa also has a homosexual relationship with Anatoly, a White Russian orphan Feng has taken in and looks after like a son.

Serizawa initially tries to ignore Kayama’s request, but the major summons him again, reveals that he knows about Serizawa’s birth and the falsification of the family registry, and threatens to inform the police hierarchy back in Japan if he does not arrange the meeting without delay. While wondering how and why the major dug so deeply into his personal life and background, as well as what sort of business he might wish to discuss with an enemy and crime boss, Serizawa has no choice but to comply, and he quickly becomes entangled in Kayama’s intrigues. The narrative proceeds like a Hitchcockian thriller such as Rear Window or Vertigo, with the same well-honed touch Matsuura showed in such novels as Tomoe (Triangle) and Hantō (Peninsula): what follows is a suspense-filled noir with the usual femme fatale, violence, betrayal, and more.

With Feng as the intermediary, Xiao and Kayama meet in October. Kayama does not want Serizawa to be present, so Xiao tells him to take the bored and hungry Meiyu to a nightclub. At this point, everything begins tumbling rapidly downhill for Serizawa. In January his boss orders him to resign. If he refuses, he will receive a disciplinary discharge on suspicion of violating the Military Secrets Law and the Peace Preservation Law as well as accepting bribes. His boss also knows about his friendship with Feng, his relationship with Anatoly, and the details of his birth. Kayama has betrayed Serizawa by testifying that Serizawa is the one who initiated the contact with Xiao. Kayama had paid Tomokichi Inui, one of Serizawa’s few friends on the force, to spy on him, set up the affair with Anatoly, and gather dirt that could be used against him. A confrontation between the enraged Serizawa and Inui comes to blows, and Inui dies. Now a murderer, Serizawa leaves his identity as a former cop behind and disappears into the Shanghai underworld as a Chinese—ultimately escaping to Hong Kong with Feng and Meiyu.

Under the extraordinary conditions of the Shanghai settlement in wartime, everyone finds themselves in uncertain limbo. Serizawa’s position is particularly difficult. He chose a career on the police force out of his regard for law and order, but because of the circumstances of his birth, he becomes an object of scorn from his superiors on the force as well as from men in the military for being a “halfbreed.” He experiences a crisis of identity, but ultimately upholds his pride and honor by ignoring the dangers and confronting Kayama again. Matsuura once more proves his mastery at portraying men who have lost their position in society and must somehow find a way to redeem themselves.

Monday, 19 March 2018 18:53

Wedding Island

This is a deeply disturbing suspense story of unsolved serial murders and the sinister history behind a disappearing island.

In 2006, three people are murdered in what comes to be known as the December 1 murders. The victims are Masakazu Ichinose, a young actor, Lily Naoki, a former pornographic film star, and Julie Kunisaki, Lily’s daughter and also an actress.

At 33, Julie is a struggling actress with no claim to fame, her only friend another actress named Ruby. She is dating the charismatic Masakazu Ichinose, a well-known womanizer and son of the famous movie director Akiyoshi Kano.

Ruby and Masakazu are spending the night together at a hotel when Ruby receives a call from her mother, who is despondent and hints at suicide. By the time Ruby gets to the apartment where her mother lives, she has been taken in an ambulance to the hospital. At the hospital, Ruby is questioned by the police. They want to know her relationship with Masakazu, who was found dead right after she rushed out to see her mother. That same day, Julie is found dead in her own condo.

Looming behind these mysterious deaths is the volcanic island of Shūgen, which erupts on the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, forcing survivors to move to Tokyo. Years later, it is as if Shūgen had never existed, but the movie director Kano undertakes to film a documentary about the island. In the process, it is revealed that there once was a reformatory on the island housing children with behavioral problems. These children were subjected to lobotomies to correct their problem behavior.

It turns out that Kano was one of these children, sent to the reformatory for having a gender identity disorder that compelled him to dress as a girl. He has a lobotomy that years later leaves him with multiple personalities. At one point he assumes the identity of Sara Kokonoe, a deceased woman, and later even forges a career as a woman stylist known as Sara Nona.

Another former resident of the island is Lily. Kano approaches her saying he wants to film a documentary about her, but Lily is not interested, choosing instead to pursue a career as a pornography star. At one point Kano and Lily are lovers, but he abandons her when she becomes pregnant. Lily gives birth to Ruby and raises her on her own. Lily resents Kano for abandoning her and attacks him repeatedly on her blog.

Ruby grows up to become an actress, but she struggles, and her agency decides she must undergo a lobotomy. The surgery turns her into Julie, but every so often Ruby makes her presence known and the two personalities converse.

The murders, as it turns out, were committed by Kano, who is actually just one of the split personalities of Akira, the illegitimate younger brother of Yoshishige Shinonome, the plastic surgeon who performed the lobotomies. Julie and Masakazu are, in fact, Kano’s children, and their relationship is therefore incestuous. Kano murders them to ensure he will have no descendants with deviant sexual behavior. He also kills Lily whose constant berating has become bothersome.

The story ends with the aging Yoshishige holding an icepick in his hand as he prepares to perform a lobotomy on Akira, who has begged him to erase once and forever the troublesome personality of Akiyoshi Kano.

Monday, 19 March 2018 15:56

The Children in the Middle

This is the story of a child of two worlds—Japanese and Taiwanese—and the identity crisis she faces as a young woman.

Kotoko Amahara’s father is Japanese, her mother Taiwanese. Kotoko is born in Taipei and lives there until she is three years old, when the family moves permanently to Japan. By the age of four, Kotoko believes the Taiwanese-Chinese mix spoken at home and the Japanese spoken outside are the only two languages in the world. Now age 19 and attending a Chinese language school in Tokyo, she departs to spend a month studying in Shanghai.

Kotoko struggles to improve her Chinese only to be berated by her teacher. Two friends, however, support and encourage her. One is her roommate, Ling Ling, a classmate from the same Chinese school Kotoko attended in Japan. Ling Ling’s father is Taiwanese and her mother, Japanese. Her Chinese is much better than Kotoko’s. The other friend is Long Shunzai, a university junior. Long’s grandfather is a former Taiwan immigrant to Japan with Japanese citizenship.

The story bounces from language to language in a dizzying mix of standard Japanese, the Japanese Kansai dialect, Chinese, and Taiwanese with its strong southern Chinese accent. (The text, too, is a visual kaleidoscope of Chinese and Japanese characters, Japanese hiragana script, and English—promising fertile ground for rendering the mix creatively in translation.)

The language teacher in the Shanghai school scoffs at Kotoko’s faltering Chinese and scolds her for not speaking the “national language” “correctly” and “normally.” Kotoko’s two friends, however, tell her to stay proud, not to mind when she is taunted as a fake Japanese, not to concern herself with whichever language she chooses to speak.

Fifteen years later, Kotoko prepares to depart for Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where she has gotten a job teaching the children of immigrants from mainland China. She has persevered since her days in Shanghai, acquired a master’s degree, and has been teaching Chinese at her former school in Japan.

Much of this story is based on the author’s own experiences and carries a strong sense of reality throughout as she explores in depth the intricate web of relationships and language.

Monday, 19 March 2018 15:57

Yourou Wen

Yourou Wen (1980–) was born in Taipei and moved to Japan with her family when she was three. She grew up with parents who spoke a mixture of Taiwanese and Chinese in the home. In 2009 she received an honorable mention in the Subaru Newcomers’ Award for her story Kokyōkorai uta (Send-off Song), and in 2011 she published the novel Raifuku no ie (House of Good Fortune). In 2013 she began a series of collaborative performances with the musician Kojima Keitaney Love combining readings and music, titled Mapo de ponto: Kotoba to oto no ōfuku shokan (Mapo de Ponto: A Correspondence of Words and Music). That same year Wen appeared in A Home within Foreign Borders, a documentary directed by Keiko Ōkawa about American-born Japanese-language author Hideo Levy and his return to Taichung, Taiwan, where he had lived 52 years earlier. In 2015 she published a collection of essays, Taiwan umare, nihongo sodachi (Born in Taiwan, Raised in the Japanese Language), which won the 64th Nihon Essayist Club Prize. Mannaka no kodomotachi (Children in the Middle) was nominated for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. Like Hideo Levy, her mentor in graduate school, Wen represents a new generation of authors writing in Japanese despite it not being their native language.

Friday, 23 March 2018 09:57

The Web of the Spider Woman

This is the fifth installment in author Natsuhiko Kyōgoku’s series of mystery novels and stories featuring master sleuth Akihiko Chūzenji, a.k.a. Kyōgokudō, who runs an antiquarian bookshop and is also an occultist. Beginning in 1994 with Ubume no natsu (tr. 2009 as The Summer of the Ubume), the series now runs to over a dozen volumes, including linked-story collections. The crimes Kyōgokudō solves invariably involve legendary supernatural creatures known as yōkai, which represent the mysterious forces that lurk in the deep, dark shadows of the human heart. Kyōgokudō’s friends—the novelist Tatsumi Sekiguchi, the private eye Reijirō Enokizu, and/or Detective Shūtarō Kiba of Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department CID I—are typically the ones who begin the investigations, but it takes Kyōgokudō stepping in later to finally break the case. Along the way he displays his vast knowledge of yōkai and of the many legends that surround them.

In late 1952 and early 1953, at a time when the scars of World War II have yet to fully heal in Japan, four women are killed in a series of murders spanning Tokyo and neighboring Chiba Prefecture. The victims range in age from their upper teens to their upper twenties, and in each case their eyes have been gouged out with a chisel. Although Yūkichi Hirano is initially identified as the prime suspect and gains the nickname of “Eye Gouger,” further leads appear to point instead toward multiple other suspects. But with these individuals lacking any personal motives for murder, attention turns toward a shadowy figure pulling the strings behind the scenes, and referred to as “the spider”.

Meanwhile, at the St. Bernard Catholic School for Girls on the Bōsō Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture, 13-year-old Miyuki Kure is utterly unprepared for what lies in store for her. She has heard rumors of a group at the school that worships a “Dark Madonna” and conducts Black Masses. The same group is said to be involved with prostitution and curse-killings. Now her best friend Sayoko is raped by a teacher named Honda. Sayoko determines to summon the powers of the Dark Madonna to kill Honda with a curse. But then she and Miyuki find Honda strangled to death on the roof of the school building. The shaken Sayoko attempts to kill herself by leaping from the roof right in front of Miyuki’s eyes. Miyuki passes out in shock. But when she comes to, she learns that things are not as she thought: Sayoko is alive, and it is another girl who has plummeted to her death. Miyuki is then locked up on suspicion of murdering both Honda and the other girl.

Enter Enokizu and his assistant, who have been hired to find a missing man named Sugiura, last seen on the Bōsō Peninsula; a short while later, leads in the “Eye Gouger” case bring Kiba and his CID I team to the school as well. Thanks to Enokizu’s efforts, Miyuki is cleared of the murder charges, but immediately thereafter Sayoko is found strangled to death. The strangler nabbed by Enokizu is none other than the missing Sugiura, wearing a mask of the Dark Madonna. As he drifted from one place to another after having a nervous breakdown, Sugiura had found his way to St. Bernard and taken a job as a custodian. Although he had liked Sayoko and had been the one who saved her from death by catching her when she threw herself from the roof, he had subsequently received orders from “the spider” and switched from being her savior to her killer.

Numerous parallels become apparent between the “Eye Gouger” murders and the deaths at St. Bernard, and the cases appear to be nearly mirror images of each other. But the lines linking victims, suspects, and killers are constructed in such a way that the identity of “the spider” remains unclear. Concluding that suspects and investigators alike have become puppets of the figure pulling the strings, Enokizu calls in Kyōgokudō to untangle the mysteries of the cases.

As the investigation proceeds, attention turns to the prominent local family that founded the school. The Orisaku family has had a matrilineal succession for many generations, with its daughters marrying “adopted husbands” who take the Orisaku family name. As it happens, the husbands have also all been relatively short-lived. Recently, eldest daughter Yukari and her father Yūnosuke died in unusual circumstances in quick succession, and there is reason to suspect that they were poisoned. Still living in the Spiderweb Mansion (as the dark, Western-style family home is known) are former matriarch Ioko, now in her late nineties; Yūnosuke’s widow Masako, the current family head; her second daughter Akane, 28, and her husband Koreaki; third daughter Aoi; and fourth daughter Midori, 13. Each of the women has her own distinctive appeal: the beautiful Masako exudes a cultivated grace and dignity; Akane is quiet and modest, deferential to all; the highly accomplished Aoi is active in efforts to expand women’s rights; and the fresh-faced Midori is a much-admired honor-roll student. Meanwhile, Akane’s husband Koreyuki cuts a less favorable figure: his business ventures fail, he has a roving eye, and he not only tyrannizes his wife but behaves highhandedly towards all. He also serves as chairman of the board at St. Bernard, where he ultimately falls victim to the strangler.

Kyōgokudō learns that young Midori, who is so highly regarded by both her teachers and her peers, is the one conducting the Black Masses and running a prostitution ring. But he also sees through to the fact that she is merely acting as the pawn of someone else. Midori flees to the chapel, where she encounters “Eye Gouger” Hirano hiding out and meets her demise. Hirano, who suffers from scopophobia (fear of being seen or stared at), has been assigned the role of killer by “the spider.” He is being harbored at the school by Aoi, but she, too, is being controlled by “the spider.”

The case is ultimately solved through exorcisms that Kyōgokudō performs on the suspects. All of the events can be traced back to internal strife within the Orisaku family. The family worships as its ancestral deity a god that manifests itself as a “spider woman” (jorōgumo) yōkai, and its matrilineal family precepts call for the matriarchs of each generation to actively seek out additional partners besides their husbands in producing descendants. Nocturnal assignations are officially sanctioned to ensure the continued prosperity of the Orisaku house. In Ioko’s time, however, her husband had objected, and her daughter’s husband Ihei had resisted the practice as well, threatening to undermine the longstanding power of the women in the family. It was in fact in an effort to put an end to the tradition of polyandry that Ihei had founded St. Bernard, and had used an incantation from Kabbalah teachings to seal off the sanctuary used for those assignations. The tradition has nevertheless passed down from Ioko to her daughter to Masako, and Masako’s four daughters all have different fathers. When the family servant who is Aoi’s biological father learns that Aoi has been harboring Hirano, he kills her. After rebuking him for overstepping his place—male parents have no rights with regard to their issue in this family—Masako kills him. Then she tells Akane she is turning the family over to her and takes her own life as well. The battle begun by Ioko to preserve the matrilineal bloodline and women’s control of the family appears to be over.

With characteristic incisiveness, Kyōgokudō pieces together what has actually happened: the quiet and unassuming Akane is “the spider.” While appearing to have nothing but altruistic motives, she has been cunningly manipulating the others to serve her own interests. Drawing on her pharmacological training, she personally poisoned both Yūnosuke and Yukari, but beyond that she had simply created an environment in which the others would self-destruct without her having to soil her own hands—all in order to make the Orisaku house her own.

“There’s nothing in this world that can’t be explained,” Kyōgokudō is in the habit of saying, and once again he has shown that all “coincidences” can be traced back to a single suspect. Everything that transpired has taken place according to her plan. Featuring a prominent old family trying to preserve its traditions, an elite school where there is more going on than meets the eye, and a cast of highly distinctive characters, the novel draws readers into a world all its own.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018 10:45

Site update

Books from Japan was updated on February 28, 2018, adding synopses for 4 works of fiction, 1 of nonfiction, and 1 of other categories. (Italicized English titles are those of finished translations; others are tentative titles.)

■ Yoshinaga Fujita, Ōyuki monogatari
(The Big Snow)

■ Masato Honjō, Middonaito jānaru
(Midnight Journal)

■ Kōtarō Isaka, Howaito rabitto
(The White Rabbit Incident)

■ Kiwamu Satō, QJKJQ

■ Shiori Itō, Black Box
(Black Box)

Other Categories
■ Takeshi Furukawa, Manga de wakaru: Yameru shūkan
(Habit of Quitting: Release Yourself from Old Patterns of Behavior)

Tuesday, 27 February 2018 19:42

Black Box

While she is studying in the United States, Shiori Itō, a young aspiring journalist, becomes acquainted with Noriyuki Yamaguchi, the chief of the Washington bureau of a Japanese broadcaster. Yamaguchi promises her a future job under him. Later, when both are back in Japan, Yamaguchi invites Itō to dinner to discuss “business.” After her third drink at their second sushi bar, Itō puzzlingly loses consciousness—and awakes on a hotel bed with a pain in her lower body and Yamaguchi pushing himself down against her.

Itō is so completely panicked by the incredibility of what is happening that all she can do is run away, and five days pass before she gathers herself together enough to go to the local police. The officers are at first reluctant to work on the case, saying that an arrest will be difficult, but nevertheless persist in their investigation until they are nearly ready to bring Yamaguchi in.

Suddenly the head of the Criminal Investigation Bureau in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department puts a stop to the arrest, transferring the case from the local precinct to the First Investigation Division inside the central organization. Could it be because of Yamaguchi’s proximity to prominent members of the incumbent cabinet, including Prime Minister Shinzō Abe himself? In the end, the charges against Yamaguchi are dropped.

Distrustful of the police, Itō brings the case before the prosecution review committee, which fails to overturn the initial decision. As she comes to learn all too well, Japanese society abounds with “black boxes” that serve to protect the perpetrators of sexual crimes: indeed, those accused cannot be found guilty unless evidence such as semen is extracted immediately after the act and the victim can prove she physically resisted the assault.

If the law cannot bring rapists to justice, then clearly something must change. As a journalist and a rape survivor, Itō exposes the situation faced by victims in Japan today, fleshing out her own story with those of others like her. Her book is both a highly charged work of nonfiction and an argument for increased measures including rape hotlines and legal reform.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018 19:29

Shiori Itō

Shiori Itō (1989–) is a freelance journalist who contributes news footage and documentaries to The Economist, Al Jazeera, Reuters, and other primarily non-Japanese media outlets. In 2017 she published Black Box, about her own experiences as a rape survivor.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018 19:24

The White Rabbit Incident

Describing this novel as a suspenseful overnight hostage drama may conjure up images of an action-packed thriller like the Hollywood films Hostage, Die Hard, or The Negotiator, but author Kōtarō Isaka delivers his own unique take on the genre, with surprise twists repeatedly altering the reader’s perception of what is taking place. When all is said and done, the titular White Rabbit Incident—publicly perceived as a hostage situation that brings out the police and media in force—turns out to have been nothing of the kind.

The incident takes place in an upscale neighborhood atop a hill in the city of Sendai. Shortly after sundown Takanori Usagita, dressed entirely in black and wielding a handgun, invades the Satō home, where he finds Mr. and Mrs. Satō and their unemployed adult son Yūsuke. He binds the three with duct tape. Yūsuke manages to briefly gain access to Usagita’s phone and reports to the police that they have been taken hostage, which triggers deployment of the department’s Special Investigation Team, headed up by detective Natsunome. When the police arrive at the scene and Natsunome calls back, Usagita demands that they bring him Yutaka Orio, whom he claims is hiding out somewhere very near by. He says he will free the hostages in exchange.

As it happens, these events have been precipitated by another hostage-taking. Usagita works in the “Acquisitions Department” of a firm that kidnaps people for profit, and it is his employer that wishes to find Orio. Hired by the firm as a consultant, Orio had worked his charms on a woman in accounting and gotten her to transfer nearly all of the company’s funds to another account. In need of money for a client payment due the following day, head honcho Inaba had ordered the kidnapping of Usagita’s beloved wife, Watako, and demanded that he find Orio by midnight if he wants her back—or at the very latest by morning. Usagita had in fact found his way to the Satōs’ house by following a tracking device he’d slipped into Orio’s bag in an earlier encounter when Orio had managed to give him the slip.

The reader is kept guessing with one unexpected twist after another. The man Usagita thinks is Mr. Satō proves to be someone else entirely—a complete stranger named Kurosawa, who was breaking into the house through an upstairs window even as Usagita was coming in the front door and encountering Mrs. Satō and Yūsuke. Readers of Isaka have met this professional-thief-cum-private-eye previously in his Rasshu raifu (A Life, 2002) and other works. Then it comes out that when Usagita found him upstairs and subdued him, Kurosawa had seen the corpse of a man hidden under the bed. Yūsuke explains that the man had picked a quarrel with him when they bumped into each other on a nearby street while distracted by their phones, and as the quarrel escalated into a scuffle, the man had fallen and hit his head hard enough to kill him. In a panic, Yūsuke had called his mother, and together they had hauled the body home. When they heard Usagita at the door, they’d hurriedly hidden him under the bed and stuffed his bag in the kitchen garbage. Usagita confirms in dismay that the dead man is Orio.

With Orio dead, Usagita has no way to satisfy his boss Inaba’s conditions for getting his wife back. What’s more, he doesn’t know where Inaba is holding his wife. Kurosawa comes up with an elaborate scheme to first get the police to trace a call from Inaba to Usagita’s phone, thus determining Inaba’s location, then allow Usagita to escape by throwing Orio’s body from the second floor with the media watching, and claiming to the police that the hostage-taker jumped to his death. In the ensuing confusion, Usagita slips away to rescue Watako. Once all the details get sorted out, it becomes clear to the reader that the entire hostage-taking incident as seen by the police and media was staged by Kurosawa and the others in order to let Usagita rescue Watako and get Yūsuke off the hook for killing Orio.

Isaka is in top form in this, his latest crime novel, masterfully manipulating both the timeline and the point of view as he moves the plot through twists and turns replete with wit and playfulness.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018 19:10

Masato Honjō

Masato Honjō (1965–) joined a major newspaper company after graduating from university to embark on a career as a reporter and sportswriter. He turned to writing fiction after retirement, and in 2009 his baseball mystery novel, Nobody Knows, was nominated as a candidate for the Matsumoto Seichō Prize. Just a year later, in 2010, the same book won the grand prize for a newly established award for baseball fiction and manga. In 2017 he was awarded the Eiji Yoshikawa Prize for New Writers for Middonaito jānaru (Midnight Journal), a suspense-filled story revolving around a small group of investigative newspaper reporters. Other representative works include Sukauto dēzu (Scout Days), Kyūkai shōmetsu (Farewell, Japanese Baseball), Kyōkai: Yokohama Chūkagai senpuku sōsa (Boundaries: Underground in Yokohama Chinatown), and Toridashi (Scoop).

Tuesday, 27 February 2018 18:55

Midnight Journal

This story of old-fashioned investigative journalism revolves around three reporters, two men and a woman, at a national newspaper. The three were once part of an elite team whose beat was the criminal investigations division at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. After three young girls are kidnapped at different times in Tokyo and Yokohama, the team publishes an exclusive identifying the kidnapper when he is arrested and then follow up with another article when they learn the police have discovered the hideout where the kidnapper may have sequestered his third victim. Their editor, however, changes the article to report that the victim’s dead body has been found when, in fact, the victim is alive and well, and this leads to the team’s disgrace and punishment. One of the three, who was never very popular to begin with, is transferred to the newspaper’s Saitama branch, where he is put in charge of training new recruits. Another remains at Tokyo headquarters but is left at loose ends with no specific assignments. The third, who has just had a son, volunteers for dull but less controversial in-house layout work.

Seven years later, there are two successive incidents in which two elementary schoolgirls in Saitama are almost kidnapped by a man in a car. Less than a week later, a sixth-grade girl disappears in Tokyo and is later found dead, and then another girl is kidnapped in Chiba. Is the same person responsible for the abductions and the murder? One of the Saitama girls says there were two men, but is she right?

Stirred by the uncanny resemblance to the kidnappings seven years earlier, the three reporters and a new recruit converge once again to trace slim leads and faint clues that seem to tie the past and present abductions to the same perpetrators. In a counterpoint to our Internet era, Honjō infuses his tale with the reality of the painstaking physical footwork and commitment of good investigative reporting.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018 10:44

The Big Snow

It is winter and Japan is wrapped in a cold front. More than one meter of snow has accumulated in Karuizawa, a resort town north of Tokyo. The roads are covered and traffic has come to standstill. A cluster of villas nestled in the hills is isolated by the snow and this has had a transforming effect on the local residents and vacationers. The author, himself a resident of Karuizawa, crafts six short stories of chance encounters and painful separations played out against this snowy backdrop.

The main character in the last of these stories, Amadare no purerūdo (The “Raindrop” Prelude), is Hidemitsu Nitta, a 48-year-old pianist. He arrives the day before a scheduled Chopin recital only to have it cancelled because of the snow. Hidemitsu’s visit to Karuizawa brings back poignant memories of his first encounter there with the woman who would later become his wife. The two are divorced now, and his ex-wife and daughter are living far away in Chicago. His ex was a painter, and all had been well with their marriage so long as both remained unknown artists, but their relationship began to sour as Hidemitsu’s music attracted a growing number of fans. He ended up having an affair with an opera singer and she, with a younger painter. At the time of the snowfall it has been three years since their divorce. Back now in the place where they first met, Hidemitsu regrets their separation. Knowing how much his ex-wife had loved Karuizawa in the snow, he emails her a photo of the scene. Later, he makes his way to the empty hall where he was supposed to have had his recital and begins playing the piano. Thoughts of her float through his mind and he is startled by the sound of clapping in what should have been an empty concert hall. It is his ex. His heart and mind in turmoil, Hidemitsu turns back to the piano and starts playing Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude. This is just one of a fine collection of short stories in which the protagonists, their emotions and thoughts, are painted with masterful, mature brushstrokes of literary expression.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018 18:31


The premise is nothing if not gruesome in this horror-mystery, which starts off with a family of four psychotic killers who daily indulge in mass bloodshed.

Narrator Aria Ichino, a 17-year-old high-school girl, is an ardent admirer of Marilyn Manson and Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. The first chapter, “Kill House,” follows her and the three other members of her family—her mother, Kiyuka; Jōbu, her reclusive brother, four years her senior; and her father, Kirikiyo, a real-estate agent—in grisly detail as they set forth every day on murderous pursuits from their family home in suburban Tokyo. All are smart about covering their tracks, so that on the surface, at least, there is absolutely nothing untoward about them. Yet that seeming normalcy is shattered near the chapter’s end, when Aria discovers her brother inside the house stabbed to death with a bread knife. The body moreover inexplicably disappears, and the next day her mother too vanishes. Upon investigation, Aria comes face to face with a most shocking truth: her entire family life is a figment of her imagination, and neither her mother nor her brother existed in the first place.

The charade had all begun 13 years ago in 2003 with the killing of antiques dealer Kumika Itoyama and her dog, a male Doberman, inside her home in the Tokyo suburbs. Kumika’s husband, Kiriaki, and their four-year-old daughter went missing in the case, which was never solved; Aria is that daughter.

Kirikiyo, Aria’s supposed father, is in fact a top agent in a secret government organization that works to eliminate murderers in general and serial killers in particular. Back in 2003, Kirikiyo had been staking out Aria’s real father, a murderer known to have already claimed at least ten lives, so he could be captured after his next homicide and his brain intensively examined to see what makes killers tick. As expected, Kiriaki butchered his wife and her dog with a bread knife before Aria’s very eyes, prompting Kirikiyo’s team to swiftly move in to secure both their target and his traumatized daughter before the police could intervene. Ultimately, Kiriaki was rendered totally incapacitated by rigorous testing and torture, while Aria, now under observation herself as a carrier of his depraved genes, was raised by Kirikiyo as his “daughter.”

The fantastic conceits and erudite prose of QJKJQ promise great things to come from this author of singular talent.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018 18:21

Kiwamu Satō

Kiwamu Satō (1977–), born in Fukuoka Prefecture, made his debut in 2004 under the name Norikazu Satō when he received a Gunzō Prize for New Writers honorable mention with Sājiusu no shinigami (The Sardius Messenger of Death). He continued writing while maintaining various night jobs before eventually switching his field to mysteries. In 2016 he won the Edogawa Ranpo Award for QJKJQ, his second submission; the following year Ank: a mirroring ape received the Haruhiko Ōyabu Award, giving evidence of his steadily growing acclaim. He is an avowed fan of the surrealist writer Kyūsaku Yumeno (1889–1936), who was also from Fukuoka.

Steadfast persistence, it turns out, isn’t always the answer to letting go of a bad habit or resisting temptation. In this manga version of the best-selling Habit of Quitting office worker Yui Nakagaki, who has just suffered a breakup with her boyfriend, tries to stop overeating—in part a response to the fact that her weight was the reason he gave for dumping her. She learns that in order to meet her true desires, she first needs to grow her own heart strong.

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