The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows: Introduction
In March, 1984, a team of criminals abducted Ezaki Katsuhisa, president of confectioner Ezaki-Glico, from his home in the Osaka suburb of Nishinomiya. After Ezaki escaped his captors unharmed, the gang embarked on a string of audacious blackmail attempts against food manufacturers in the Kansai region. In a stream of sarcastic letters to local newspaper bureaus, the criminals taunted the police. Their typewritten notes were signed Kaijin Nijūichi Mensō (The Mystery Man of Twenty-one Faces) — an unmistakable allusion to Edogawa Rampo's fictitious criminal mastermind, Kaijin Nijū Mensō (The Mystery Man of Twenty Faces), nemesis of detective Akechi Kogorō, whose exploits first appeared in an eponymous 1936 magazine serial.
The incremental increase, from twenty faces to twenty-one, may suggest the criminals' wish to surpass the exploits of their literary namesake. Their true motive, however, remains elusive. None of the gang was ever apprehended and the fifteen-year statute of limitations on the last of their twenty-eight crimes expired in February 2000.
Had Edogawa Rampo (nom de plume of Hirai Tarō, 1894-1965) still been living during the infamous "Glico-Morinaga Incident," he would no doubt have been visited by flustered detectives in hope of obtaining insights into the criminals' identity. And while this once again calls for speculation, the late author would doubtless have been secretly delighted to see his character return to the chase after a hiatus of nearly half a century.
With his reputation as the acknowledged master of Japanese crime fiction secure, Rampo certainly needed no publicity from a gang of notorious felons. In his own country, his name is intimately linked to the development of the genre from its nascent stages, and as I shall subsequently demonstrate, it is no exaggeration to state that he exerted a more influential role on mystery writing in Japan than did either Edgar Allan Poe in the United States or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Great Britain.
Today in Japan, a flourishing body of mystery and detective fiction entertains millions of loyal readers. It is, alas, almost entirely a domestic market. Some years back, John Apostolou, editor of the short story anthology Murder in Japan, made the observation that the sum total of all Japanese mystery titles currently available in English translation was still fewer than a single month's output by Japanese authors. Their monthly output may vary, but it is safe to say that since the appearance of nine stories by Rampo in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, published in 1956 by Charles E. Tuttle, the number of new titles in English translation has increased by fewer than ten per decade.
In his preface, translator James B. Harris wrote that Rampo felt it was time for Western readers to know Japan boasted an extensive and growing body of mystery literature, and was eager to see his work appear in English.
Harris' preface also gave some clues to some of the stumbling blocks Japanese-to-English translators encountered in those days.
While able to read English, Rampo did not speak it well; Harris, while completely fluent in spoken Japanese, had never learned the written language. It may seem incredible in these times when personal computer software can generate approximate translations in seconds, but the two hammered out the nine stories orally, during weekly meetings conducted over a period of five years.
As Harris relates:
"...for each line translated the two collaborators' were forced to overcome manifold difficulties in getting every line just right, the author reading each line in Japanese and painstakingly explaining the correct meaning and nuance, and the translator sweating over his typewriter, having to experiment with sentence after sentence until the author was fully satisfied with what had been set down in English."
Even though the language barrier no longer prevents wider dissemination of Japanese crime fiction abroad, its acceptance has been limited by other factors too diverse and complex to enumerate here. The result, however, is clear: while mystery titles on the New York Times' best-seller list invariably appear in Japanese translation within short months of their US release, the reverse, alas, is not the case. Despite the relative paucity of titles, one positive recent development was the nomination in 2004 of Kirino Natsuo's novel Out for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America — the first time in that organization's history that a Japanese translation had been so honored.
This new work, containing translations of two of Rampo's best known novelettes, will take readers back to the formative years of the genre, and for this reason some details regarding Rampo's personal background would seem appropriate.
The son of a government clerk, Hirai Tarō was born on October 21, 1894 in Nabari, Mie Prefecture, in an area once famous for ninja, Japan's legendary assassins for hire. His life was to coincide with the often-tempestuous reigns of three modern emperors, each of which left behind a distinctive cultural imprint. However, Rampo today stands out as a cultural icon associated with the moody times of the Taishō era (1912-1926), a noir period in which Japan's brief experiment with democracy and freewheeling popular culture were soon to give way, in the Shōwa era (1926-1989), to economic depression, ultranationalism, militarism and repression.
The Meiji era (1868-1912), into which Hirai was born, was notable for Japanese adaptations of cultural imports from the West.
In these times, two schools of mystery and detective fiction began to develop. The first were native stories by writers such as Okamoto Kidō (岡本綺堂,1872-1939). Okamoto was familiar with the English language and had read Sherlock Holmes stories. He was to pen some sixty-eight short stories, set in the late Edo period (1603-1868), featuring a series character named "Mikawachō no Hanshichi" who was a meakashi, or "paid informer" who reported to the police — as private detectives did not exist in feudal times.
Referred to as torimonochō ("case book" or "police blotter") Okamoto's stories nevertheless followed the structure of the modern mystery narrative in that the hero would encounter a puzzling incident and apply deduction and logic to reach a solution. The torimonocho never developed into a singularly Japanese mystery novel, but instead became established as period fiction, popularized by the author's ability to portray Edo period manners and customs in a realistic manner. This genre has continued to develop in parallel with contemporary stories, with works by such authors as the late Ikenami Shotaro enjoying a huge following.
Meanwhile young Hirai had moved with his family to Nagoya, a major commercial and industrial hub. From around the time he entered primary school his mother, Kiku, used to read him detective stories that were serialized in the Osaka Mainichi Shinbun.
Among Mrs. Hirai's favorites were works by a writer named Kuroiwa Ruikō (黒岩涙香,1862-1913). Translations of stories by Poe first appeared in Japan in 1887; Conan Doyle's works made their debut in 1899. Kuroiwa took the next step in the evolution of the Japanese mystery story by adapting — "reconstructing" may be a more appropriate description — stories by such French authors as Emile Gaboriau and Fortune Du Boisgobey to fit his audience, taking liberties with the contents such as giving the main characters Japanese-sounding names.
In addition to these adaptations of mystery stories, Kuroiwa also penned his own original stories; but he is remembered mainly as a translator. Rampo was later to write an essay in defense of his works, blaming audiences for having been unprepared to appreciate Kuroiwa's original works.
While weak and sickly as a boy, young Hirai showed a fervor for the printed word, pouring his energies into producing his own magazine, from age eleven, using a mimeograph improvised from kon'yaku, a jellylike vegetable paste. Fascinated by the stories of Poe and Conan Doyle, he began reading them in English and translating them during his college years. After graduating from Tokyo's Waseda University in 1916, he drifted from one job to another, at times even selling noodles from a pushcart. In the four years between 1920 and 1923, he briefly held at least six different jobs.
Hirai's big break as a writer came in September 1922, when he submitted two short stories — Nisen Dōka (which has been rendered as "The Two-Sen Copper Coin" and "Tuppence Coin") and Ichimai no Kippu (One Ticket) — to Morishita Uson, editor of Shin Seinen, a popular magazine that had been started two years earlier by publisher Hakubunkan. Shin Seinen specialized in translations of foreign crime stories and Nisen Dōka, which appeared in the April 1923 edition, created an immediate sensation. For the work of a previously unpublished author, Nisen Dōka stands out as a remarkably polished piece. Written in a lively, contemporary style, it is credited as the first Western-style mystery in Japanese and acted to spur more writers to take up the writing of mystery stories.
Strangely, this work that launched Hirai's career has never been published in English translation. It is possible that translators have shied away because it concerns the decipherment of a cryptogram; although that part of the story, upon examination, is not especially complicated.
The story is told in the first person by an unnamed Asahi Shimbun newspaper reporter, who, together with a friend named Matsumura, attempts to earn a generous reward for recovering a stolen factory payroll of fifty thousand yen (in Taishō times a considerable sum of money).
The puzzle appears in the form of a piece of paper cunningly concealed inside a trick copper coin. The paper only bears a prayer consisting of the six characters for namu amida butsu (Save us, merciful Buddha). This is written out repeatedly, but with each set of six characters always incomplete. It is obviously a cipher of some kind, pointing to variations on the number six.
The story's narrator makes a brilliant deduction that establishes a connection between the six-character cipher and the copper coin in which the message was enclosed. The two, he supposes, suggest a connection with the "Rokurensen," the flag hoisted in battle by a general, Sanada Yukimura, during Japan's sixteenth century civil wars. That flag was composed of two parallel rows of three coins with holes in their centers. Recalling the flag's design, the narrator aligns the six characters in the prayer, i.e., NA MU A MI DA BUTSU, into two vertical lines of three each, like the dots on a domino, thusly:
Then, he replaces the six characters with dots (or "coins," if you prefer) to give:
In a portion of the cipher with BUTSU missing, for example, the characters:
Would then assume the shape of:
Which, as it turns out, happens to be the Japanese Braille symbol for the syllable te. A blind masseur in the neighborhood is immediately enlisted to explain the Braille code, and the message is easily deciphered, revealing the location of the money (with several additional twists along the way).
The Shin Seinen story ran under the byline "Edogawa Rampo." Hirai deserves credit for coming up with a nom de plume that was both fiendishly clever and well suited for his purposes. Read aloud, it indeed sounds like a slightly mangled version of "Edgar Allan Poe," a writer whose works were already admired by many Japanese readers. But the name had an alluring visual impact as well, and it is uncertain if very many readers dwelt a great deal on the association with Rampo's literary namesake.
For reasons not entirely clear, Hirai initially originally wrote the name "Rampo" as 藍峰, using characters that mean "indigo peak" — picturesque, perhaps, but not the kind of image he was seeking to convey. This was soon discarded in favor of 乱歩, meaning "disordered steps." The character 乱 (ran or midare in its verb form) conveys the nuances of being agitated, disordered, lax, in disarray, rebellious, etc. So the ideographs in his nom de plume convey the connotation of something like "staggering along the Edo River." Such a name projected roguishness and perhaps a faintly unpleasant air of menace, since rivers, after all, were known to be murky places where, from ancient times, the corpses of suicides and victims of foul play were occasionally found floating.
Touches of Poe, his namesake, were certainly in evidence in some of Rampo's early works — a few were quite grotesque — but he was not loath to adapt ideas from other sources as well. To give his fictitious detective, Akechi Kogorō, the esoteric knowledge to contend with his treacherous twenty-faced nemesis, Akechi was said to have spent several years in China and India — as did Sherlock Holmes (in India), during his "missing" years.
Only four years after the publication of Nisen Dōka, in 1927, Akechi made his film debut in Issunboshi (The Dwarf). The film, however, failed badly and cinematic adaptations of Rampo's stories did not appear again until after the Pacific War, when "The Psychological Test" was produced. To date, several dozen of Rampo's works have been adapted for TV and film, including a 1955 remake of Issunboshi.
Although US air raids destroyed much of Rampo's neighborhood near Ikebukuro, his house and library, containing not only his books and writings, but a lifetime of correspondence, notes, and photographs, miraculously survived the war. He was to amass these into a voluminous 1961 memoir titled Tantei Shōsetsu Yonjūnen (Forty Years of Writing Detective Stories), which provides a detailed chronology of his personal life.
At a gathering of fellow authors in 1946, Rampo proposed that they hold regular meetings and by June of the following year, the gatherings led to the formation of the Nihon Tantei Sakka Club (Japan Mystery Writers Club), for which Rampo served as the first president, from 1947 through 1952. His contributions continue to be acknowledged by the award of an annual prize bearing his name, conferred on the work judged to be the best mystery of the year. To Japanese readers, the Edogawa Rampo Prize carries the same prestige as do the Silver Dagger and the Edgar Allan Poe awards for readers in Great Britain and the US.
According to research conducted by Yamamae Yuzuru (editor of the Kōbunsha edition of Rampo's Collected Works), Rampo can be credited with sixty seven novels (including juvenile fiction) and seventy six short stories (counting stories within series individually). However, in his later years, Rampo increasingly channeled his remarkable energies in myriad directions, proposing new ideas to publishers, networking with fellow authors, engaging in energetic overseas correspondence and — perhaps most important — researching, translating and disseminating criticism on the genre of mystery and detective fiction.
In a rambling collection of essays titled Gen'eijō (The Illusory Castle), Rampo helped to classify and dissect the various elements of the mystery genre. He pointed out what he saw as deficiencies in Japan's native stories, identifying their shortcomings and comparing themes taken up by Japanese authors with their foreign counterparts.
To this end, Rampo made use of such sources as Howard Haycraft's 1941 essay "Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story," which was published in observance of the centennial year of Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue."
In 1946, Haycraft followed this work with The Art of the Mystery Story, a five hundred and sixty-page anthology that provided contributions from some of the biggest names in the genre, including Black Mask editor Anthony Boucher, John Dickson Carr (the acknowledged master of the locked-room mystery), Raymond Chandler, S.S. Van Dyne, Earl Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen and Rex Stout, among others.
Criticism and analysis of the mystery genre was vital to help readers nurture an appreciation for well-crafted, original works. Yet social mores were in flux, and books could not go against the standards of the times. When writing tales of terrible crimes, for example, how could the use of humor be justified? Yet as Haycraft astutely noted, "murder for pleasure" became socially acceptable and humorous stories about amateur detectives who are eccentric geniuses, and who inevitably outsmart klutzy policemen, came to enjoy great popularity. (Japan's master of this genre was Rampo's friend and contemporary, Yokomizo Seishi.)
We tend to forget how execrably bad many stories of mystery and detection once were, several generations ago, before critics began to lay down the rules. Such stories frequently hoodwinked readers, by giving, for example, an obvious suspect an airtight alibi, only to reveal at the end that he has an identical twin. Perplexing locked-room mysteries were resolved by disclosing the existence of secret passageways. Or detectives unmasked the killer by calling upon paranormal talents, frightening them into confessing during a seance, and so on, ad nauseum.
Haycraft's 1946 work provided not one, but three sets of guidelines for mysteries, all of which had been advanced during the late 1920s. First was "A Detective Story Decalogue," in which Ronald A. Knox, an English Roman Catholic priest and mystery author, laid down "Ten Commandments" of detection. Second was "The Detection Club Oath," administered to those initiated into the London Detection Club. (Sample: "RULER: Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them... not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?")
Then, in "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories," S.S. Van Dyne listed devices "which no self-respecting detective-story writer will now avail himself of." A few of his examples include: "Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect," "The bogus spiritualistic seance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away," "The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar," and so on. "To use them," asserted Van Dyne, "is a confession of the author's ineptitude and lack of originality."
Thus, by setting down these parameters demanding originality — and, more importantly, fair play — mystery writers, publishers and readers were able to establish a covenant that enabled the genre to take root and flourish. As a conduit for these studies taking place in English-speaking countries, Rampo deserves full credit as the "mastermind" who played the key role in transforming Japanese mystery fiction — from foreign translations, to an obscure subgenre, which eventually sprouted into a full-blown category of popular literature, over a span of less than two decades (disregarding the war years when such works were prohibited).
Despite the ravages of Parkinson's disease and increasingly frail health before his death, at age seventy, in July 1965, Rampo continued in his unflagging efforts to lay the foundations for the mystery genre in Japan, and perhaps this stands out as his most important contribution of all. Three decades after his passing, the centenary of his birth, 1994, was marked by a resurgence of Rampo-related films, articles, books and commemorative publications that attested not only to his enduring popularity as an author, but recognized his status as a cultural icon who helped to define the Taishō era.
(Note: See the printed version in the book for footnotes and bibliography.)
Mark Schreiber has lived and worked in Asia for the past forty years. Best known perhaps for his summaries from men's tabloid weekly magazines that appeared in the now-defunct Mainichi Daily News' 'Waiwai' page (which moved to the Japan Times under the name 'Tokyo Confidential' from April 2001), he has authored, co-authored, ghostwritten or translated some dozen books, the most recent of which is Tabloid Tokyo (Kōdansha International).