When I first went to Japan several years ago, I knew very little about Japanese crime. Oh, I had seen Michael Douglas’ film “Black Rain” in 1989. And I knew something about the Japanese mob, the Yakuza, the bold, vicious network of crime families that, Hollywood tells us, terrorizes the country. But reputation and reality are two very different things. The Japanese absolutely love mysteries. From Edogawa Rampo, the “Father of Japanese Mystery,” to Timothy Hemion’s Inspector Morimoto series, mysteries have enthralled Japanese audiences. Japan is popular with historical mystery authors, but the pickings are somewhat slim for novels set in contemporary Japan. And that makes it fertile ground for novelists. Here are some things that any potential author or consumer of Japanese mysteries ought to know.
First, although there has been a significant uptick in technological crimes (credit card fraud, etc.), most crime that Japanese police deal with is low grade. Petty theft is not really a problem. It’s not unusual at all for department stores to deliver your purchases and leave them right in front of your door, with no fear that they’ll be stolen. The two most favored items for theft in Japan are (drum roll please)–bicycles and umbrellas. That’s right, a good portion of any Japanese police officer’s day is spent taking reports on stolen bicycles and tracking them down. (If they took reports on umbrellas the entire Japanese criminal justice system would grind to a halt.) Bicycles have to be registered, just like a car. When my bicycle was stolen, my Japanese boss took me to the local police station. More than an hour later, I signed a report written completely in Japanese. And within a week, the police sent for me. Out of the millions of bicycles in Japan, they had found mine, not too awfully far from my apartment. Now, that’s efficiency.
But major crimes do happen in Japan. The Super Free rape club claimed, by some estimates, 500 victims before it was outed in 2003. Handguns are banned in Japan, and hunting rifles are strictly controlled, so, a mystery author can be a bit more creative in the choice of murder weapons. While knife murders are common, killers have also used such interesting methods as arsenic-laced curry.
In a society where honor and saving face are extremely important, new motives for murder show up, and grudges for what we might consider minor incidents can last a long time, like in the Iccho Itoh murder in 2007. Itoh was the mayor of Nagasaki, and he was murdered by a member of the Yakuza over damage to the mobster’s car at a city construction site four years before.
And that brings us to the subject of the Yakuza. They run a vast empire of enterprises, but the astute mystery writer, going for realism, will remember that the heads of the Yakuza families travel in pure white (not black) Mercedes and BMWs, with antenni sprouting like weeds. They dress impeccably in tailored suits, and they always wear long sleeves, so their heavily tattooed arms don’t show.
I lived in Sendai, and it was common knowledge which buildings served as headquarters for the Yakuza. And it quickly became apparent that some of my students (I taught English for the YMCA) made more than I did riding around the city on their bicycles and plastering every telephone booth and the entrance to every love hotel (think “no-tell motel”) with baseball cards for hookers, so to speak. Every morning, little old Japanese ladies would sweep the street clean of the cards. And every evening, my students were dutifully out there, replacing the cards that came complete with photos, statistics, favorite positions, and contact numbers. But before the blatancy of this shocks you, this is one of the Yakuza’s more respectable sidelines. Prostitution is legal in Japan. Think about the possibilities there!
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