November is the perfect time for noir aka Noirvember, and that means it’s the perfect time for mystery novels. In Japan, the mystery genre is called suiri shōsetsu (推理小説) literally ‘deductive reasoning fiction,’ and has a long history in the Land of the Rising Sun. Here are just a few recommendations by Japanese authors to read during Noirvember.
As I’ve stated many times, there’s long been a blind spot about the Asian Theater of World War II. You can stack the books written about Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan side by side, the former would dwarf the latter. When books do appear about Japan during World War II, they are usually about the front in the Pacific, or, less often, in the Chinese and Burma theaters. A notable exception is Japan At War: An Oral History. However, Osprey Publishing has recently released The Japanese Home Front 1937 – 1945, which aims to help fill that gap.
The Cultural Revolution has been a taboo subject in China, but confusing and forgotten to Westerners. The political upheavals instigated by Mao Zedong between 1966-1976 were baffling to those who observed and participated. Mao ostensibly sought to create a new, permanent revolutionary China, doing away with old ideas, old customs, and old culture, but his main aim was to purge all political rivals and enshrine himself as a godlike figure, which somewhat continues to this day. It is during this tumultuous era, that the novel Serve the People! by Yan Lianke takes place.
It’s often said, “history is written by the victors,” and this only half true. While the narrative of World War II is definitely constructed from the Allied lens, this does not mean that the vanquished were unable to tell their stories. German officers and soldiers pumped out volumes of memoirs during the postwar years, many of which were consumed voraciously by readers in America and Britain. Japanese memoirs were more sparse, at least regarding translations that made it to the West. One notable exception was Masanobu Tsuji’s memoir Japan’s Greatest Victory, Britain’s Worst Defeat.
Tokyo Vice is a crime thriller series currently on HBO Max and based on the memoirs by Jake Adelstein. Set in 1999 Japan, it follows an American reporter working for a Japanese newspaper as he delves deep into Tokyo’s seedy underworld and the criminal kingdom of the yakuza.
Japanese Destroyer Captain is the postwar memoir of Tameichi Hara, a Japanese Navy officer who earned the nickname the “Miracle Captain.” He is one of the only Japanese captains to have survived the entire Pacific War from its beginning in 1941 to its end in 1945. Of the 175 destroyers the Imperial Navy possessed during World War II, 129 were sunk.
All She Was Worth is a 1992 noir mystery written by Miyuki Miyabe, one of Japan’s most famous genre writers, including crime fiction. Taking place in the early 1990s, the novel captures the zeitgeist of the Bubble Economy of the 80s/early 90s, which would soon pop and led to the infamous “Lost Decade.”
Larry Bond’s 1987 novel Red Phoenix detailed a second Korean War, day by day, hour by hour. Red Phoenix Burning by Larry Bond and Chris Carlson is a follow-up, a narrative of how North Korea collapses into a full-blown civil war.