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Whodunit, How and Why? The Evolution of Japanese Detective Fiction Literature





Bloodstains, fingerprints, and smoking guns are classic concepts of crime fiction that are prevalent in various aspects of popular culture. The genre, popularized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series, has gradually incorporated modern elements and blended with other media forms in Western societies. While obscure to international audiences, Japanese murder mystery also occupies a unique space in the country’s literary history; its development can be categorized into distinct stages that reflect Japanese thought on death, society, and the human experience.

The concept of detective fiction was introduced to the Japanese public in the early 1920s by Edogawa Ranpo, a Japanese author who admired western works and wanted to popularize crime-solving novels as a form of entertainment. His work focused extensively on how the detective figured out the murderer while also incorporating grotesque and erotic features. This created significant excitement and attraction among the Japanese public, who were living under social strains as rapid industrial changes collided with traditional ways of living. Readers never knew that fictional deaths could be intellectually fascinating and were amazed by the role science played in crime-solving. In this sense, detective fiction familiarized the Japanese public with modernizing forces and western thoughts of enlightenment rationalism that, at the time, generated significant social unease [1].

At the same time, the rise of intellectualism and rationalism among the Japanese elites further promoted the authorship of murder mysteries. Several prominent authors published works that emphasized the role of logical deduction in crime-solving, later categorized as the "orthodox school" of detective fiction [2]. This school's main characteristics include methodological sleuthing and laying out all evidence to the reader before disclosing the answer in the end. For this reason, discussions and even competition surrounding the truth of the crime became a popular form of entertainment among the upper-class.

Japan's defeat in the Second World War brought new shocks to the literary culture. People lived in extreme poverty, and the destitute material life generated extensive anxiety in popular culture and detective fiction. Rampant social problems emerged as the nation tried to rebuild. The detective fiction literature quickly incorporated these issues into the "social school" era. Works under this category were mainly concerned with corruption, poverty, injustice, and other social motives of crimes [3]. Usually, these stories are preoccupied with the "why do it" rather than the who and the how. The Social school wrote preeminently on the adverse side effects of rapid post-war economic growth and the human psychology behind crimes. Later in the 1980s and 1990s, more contemporary issues like family dynamics, disability, and women's social roles were also featured [4]. During this time, fictional works were also heavily influenced by real crimes and reflect injustices in the Japanese criminal system. For instance, teenage perpetrators of appalling crimes were often shielded from heavy punishment under Japanese juvenile law [5]. Cases like the murder of Furuta Junko in 1988 shed light on the extreme sentencing of teenage perpetrators under the law. The rise of news media and exposure to these cases left society in shock. The public were confused about how and why young kids were capable of committing such hideous crimes. Detective fiction literature quickly captured the public anxiety and used fictional crimes to discuss the origins of violent crimes. These discussions often included Japan's education system, peer pressure among teenagers, problematic police handling of juvenile cases, and societal stigma against marginalized populations. By dissecting how these problems affect human psychology and perception of violence, these works point out that such social diseases enable juveniles to commit violent crimes without repercussions. This literature plays an important role in facilitating public discussions around the justice system and numerous reform proposals.

The social school dominated the literary space until the 1980s, when classical rationalism resurged. The "new orthodox school" combines deductive reasoning with modern elements. Although the core of this work is still centered on logical crime-solving, authors of the new orthodox school experimented with novel renderings of archaic literary concepts of murder mysteries through modern technology and understandings of human psychology [6]. The focus had been brought back to "whodunit" and intricate procedures of crime-solving. Social media and evolving technologies enable more creativity and flexibility in crime-making. For instance, whereas the limits of forensic capabilities in the 20th century shaped the old-fashion crime procedures, the new orthodox school actively engages with surveillance technologies, digital capabilities, and modern forensic innovations. Elements in science fiction become widely embraced, such as the use of complex machines in crimes, themes of drastic societal transformations, and even dystopian revelations that engage with the plot.

Today, the popularization of social media has transformed the detective fiction experience for the contemporary Japanese public. The genre became a perpetual theme in TV shows, comic books, and games. Elements of murder mystery frequently blend with science fiction, thriller, action, and even romance and continue to adapt to today's entertainment landscape trends. As more and more general audiences become acquainted with detective fiction concepts, the literature remains a separate genre that continues to attract transitional fictional crime enthusiasts.


[1] Kawana, Sari. Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture. U of Minnesota Press, 2008.

[2] Saito, Satomi. "Culture and authenticity: the discursive space of Japanese detective fiction and the formation of the national imaginary." Theses and Dissertations (2007): 145.

[3] Manji, Gonda. "Crime fiction with a social consciousness." Japan Quarterly 40, no. 2 (1993): 157.

[4] Seaman, Amanda C. Bodies of evidence: women, society, and detective fiction in 1990s Japan. University of Hawaii Press, 2004.

[5] Dawkins, Marika, and Camille Gibson. "The Juvenile Justice System of Japan: An Overview." In Crime and Justice in Contemporary Japan, pp. 321-331. Springer, Cham, 2018.

[6] Saito, Satomi. "Culture and authenticity: the discursive space of Japanese detective fiction and the formation of the national imaginary." Theses and Dissertations (2007): 145.

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