If you're familiar with translations of Japanese fiction into English and other languages, you have probably heard of Edogawa Rampo. His real name was Taro Hirai (1894-1961), but most people remember him and his considerable body of literary works by his fiendishly clever nom de plume, which is pronounced to resemble that of American author Edgar Alan Poe.
Poe, who many regard as the father of the modern mystery story, died in 1849. Japanese translations of stories by Poe had first appeared in 1887 -- seven years before Hirai was even born. And Hirai was already 28 years old when, a century ago, he submitted his first short story mystery, "The Tuppence Coin," to Shin Seinen magazine in September 1922. That story, under the nom de plume Edogawa Rampo, ran the following April.
For an unpublished Japanese writer to adopt the name of a foreign literary giant would seem terribly brash, if not outright impertinent.
Writing in Shukan Shincho (May 5-12), Kenji Kazama, author of a "Full History of Fantasy Literature," reviews the careers of Rampo and his contemporary, novelist Seishi Yokomizo, and the times in which they lived.
In earlier decades, Japan's literati were less tolerant of the mystery genre during the 19th century. Soseki Natsume was have said to dislike them to the extent that he remarked, "Along with loan sharks, the detective is among the lowest of occupations." A passage in Natsume's novel, "I Am a Cat" went out of the way to denounce the detective genre, and other contemporary Japanese authors harbored similar views.
They were more tolerant of "native' hanka-cho (police blotter) crime literature, by such popular authors as Kodo Nomura and Kido Okamoto, which consisted of period pieces relating to the exploits of okappiki (paid informers), feudal lawmen such as yoriki (sergeants) and doshin (constables) and meakashi (police spies).
In Europe, France's Eugene Francoise Vidocq (1775–1857) came to be known the father of modern criminology. He also founded the first private detective agency. Vidocq's published memoire was to inspire Poe (1809-1849), who set some of his mysteries in Paris.
On March 2, 1917, Japan's first documented case of a homicide motivated by sado-masochism occurred in the Shitaya district of Tokyo, and, inspired by the heavy media coverage, Rampo began to turn out noir stories that explored sexual pathologies, such as "The Murder on D-Slope."
Rampo afterwards expanded to juvenile fiction and also created series characters, including a fiendish villain, a master of disguises, who managed to outwit the police at every turn. Referred to as "The Phantom of Twenty Faces," he locked horns with his nemesis, a brilliant sleuth named Kogoro Akechi.
Rampo's contemporary, Seishi Yokomizo, turned out ghoulish tales that took place in his home prefecture of Okayama, the pastoral settings for such blood-curdling works as "Guillotine Island." Perhaps his most famous is "Village of the Eight Graves." Based on a true incident in 1938, a mass murderer in a hamlet near Tsuyama City shot and stabbed 29 neighbors before killing himself.
In recent years, a younger generation of critics and readers in the UK and U.S. have begun to reevaluate these two Japanese authors, spurring renewed interest in their works.
"I would like to re-read the works of these two heroes of detective fiction," writes Kazama. "One hundred years ago they led the modernist culture of bad taste and B-movie culture -- a culture of kitschy erotic nonsense -- reaffirming that eroticism in its pop form is actually a celebration of a free spirit, which deviates from the systemic perspective that assumes the veneer of 'normal' and 'orthodox.'
"The world is presently in a state of uncertainty, and the corona pandemic has given us a glimpse into the true nature of human beings," Kazama added. "It is precisely in this unstable and uncertain society that we need a perverted perspective -- of erotic and heretical thinking -- that deviates from what has been regarded as normal, usual and natural."© Japan Today