Book lists, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Setting

6 gripping crime fiction reads from Japan

The crime genre is often accused of being formulaic and cliched, but the handful of Japanese crime novels that I have read tend to shun the usual conventions. In these well crafted stories we often know who has committed the crime. Sometimes we even know how they did it. And occasionally we know why.

Japanese crime writers, it seems, are more interested in looking at the circumstances surrounding a crime, the impact of the crime on victims, friends, family, investigators and even the accused, and  what these crimes say about society at large. I find them wholly fascinating and know that whenever I pick up a Japanese crime novel I’m going to read something entertaining as well as intelligent.

As with most Japanese fiction, these novels are generally written in a stripped back, flat, detached prose style, which only adds to the chilling nature of the stories.

Here’s a handful of Japanese crime novels that I can recommend, arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:


Devotion of Suspect X

‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino

Keigo Higashino is a master crime writer whose tales turn the genre on its head. I have read several (all reviewed here) but The Devotion of Suspect X is my favourite. In this extraordinary crime thriller, we know from the outset who has committed the crime, how they did it and who has helped cover it up. But what we don’t know is the detailed steps that have been taken to protect the real murderer. The story is effectively one giant riddle; the reader must find the clues and then join them together to create a likely scenario, mindful that the real clues have been mixed in with red herrings! It’s a brilliantly gripping read — and turned me into a Higashino fan.

‘Out’ by Natsuo Kirino

I read Out many years ago (sadly it’s not reviewed on this blog), but the story — of a group of women who help a colleague get rid of the body of the philandering husband she has murdered — is another Japanese crime novel that turns the genre on the head. Yes, we know who committed the crime and we know all the women who become accessories after the fact, we even understand why and how the murder was carried out. But what we don’t know is whether the perpetrators will get away with it and whether one of them will say or do the wrong thing to give the game away. It’s a real nailbiting novel, but it’s also an insightful one about misogyny, domestic violence and the Japanese working class.

‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato

This dark novel is a revenge story about a woman who takes the law into her own hands with devastating and gruesome consequences. It focuses on a grief-stricken school teacher, who accuses two of her students of having murdered her daughter. She doesn’t name the students but drops enough clues that everyone knows who she is pointing the finger at. She then avenges the crime, but this does not bring peace: it simply begats more crime so that a dizzying dark spiral of events unfolds, sucking people into its deadly centre. It’s a terrifying novel but it deals with big themes, including how we teach children right from wrong, how society deals with child criminals and what barriers there should be between teachers and their students. It’s a thought-provoking read.

‘The Aosawa Murders’ by Riku Onda

The central focus of The Aosawa Murders is a devastating mass murder in which 17 people (including six children) are poisoned and die agonising deaths at a family celebration. The prime suspect is the family’s blind daughter, the only family member spared death, but why would she want to kill her loved ones? The book, which has a complex structure featuring multiple view points and time frames, is about the long-lasting impact of the crime on those directly affected by it, including the police who carried out the investigation, those who knew the family well and the local community. There’s no neat ending, but it’s the kind of story that leaves a marked impression as the reader tries to process what happened and why.

‘The Thief’ by Fuminori Nakamura

This prize-winning novella is told from the point of view of a man who makes his living by petty theft. His sole occupation is to pick the pockets of the wealthiest people he can find, either on the streets of Tokyo or the public transport system. But he isn’t a particularly bad person; there’s a good heart inside of him. In one scene he is so outraged to see a man on the train groping a schoolgirl he comes to her rescue. And later, when he sees a woman and her young son shoplifting, he warns them that they have been spotted by the store detective. This isn’t a story about solving a crime; it’s merely a glimpse inside a criminal’s mind which allows you to empathise with someone you would most likely condemn. It’s an intriguing conceit.

‘Villain’ by Shuichi Yoshida

This book looks at the outfall of the murder of a young woman on a series of characters, including the woman’s hardworking parents, her friends and the accused, and shows how they adjust to their changed circumstances. So while there is a crime at the heart of this novel, it’s not a police procedural and it’s fairly obvious from the start who committed the crime, though we are never completely sure why he did it. Again, it’s another fascinating examination of the sociological and psychological impact of a crime on a community.

Have any of these books piqued your interest, or have you read any of them? Can you recommend any other crime books from Japan that are worth reading?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Natsuo Kirino, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Real World’ by Natsuo Kirino


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 208 pages; 2007. Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel.

Back in 2005, I read Natsuo Kirino’s Out as part of the online reading group I used to host on this blog. It was a dark and disturbing crime thriller told from the murderers’ point of view, and while quite gruesome in places, it did mark Kirino out as a brilliant writer and I made a mental note to read more of her work as soon as it was translated into English.

I seemed to have missed Grotesque when the English translation was published in 2007, and jumped ahead to the next one, the recently translated Real World, which was originally published in Japan as Riaru Warudo in 2003.

This slim volume is an unusual read about a young, “stoop-shouldered boy” dubbed “Worm” who murders his mother and then goes on the run. There isn’t much of a plot. Instead, the novel is largely a psychological study of the murderer and the four teenage girls who band together to protect him. Each of the five characters take turns in narrating the story so that it reads like a collection of private diaries, lending the story a voyeuristic feel.

The quartet of girls are all friends from school, and each has different reasons and motivations for helping Worm. Similarly, they also have secret identities they are hiding from each other: Toshi calls herself Ninna to protect herself from the marketers and scammers; Terauchi pretends to be simple when she’s actually an abstract, intellectual, thinker; Yuzan is a lesbian; and Kirarin, the “cute, cheerful, a well brought-up, proper young girl”, is sexually experienced and has other friends outside of the four.

What emerges is a dark study of teenage alienation in modern day Japan. In fact, Toshi claims that “the sense of danger we all feel is something my mother can’t comprehend”. She elaborates further:

Walk around Tokyo and all you see are people tryng to sell you something. Tell them okay and before you know it you’ve bought something. Make the mistake of telling them your name and address and now you’re on a mailing list. Some old guy pats you on the shoulder and before you know what hits you you’re in a hotel room. Stalkers’ victims, the ones they kill, are always women. When the media was going nuts over schoolgirls getting old guys to be their sugar daddies for sex, that was the time when high school girls like us had the highest price as commodities.

There’s something deeply unsettling about the unfamiliar, somewhat seedy, world presented here, one that makes you shudder with the horror of it. But despite this there’s something clinical about the writing style that didn’t quite gel with me. I found the girls’ voices wearing and slightly false, and because I didn’t much like any of them as people I soon grew bored of the storyline. It doesn’t help that the translation appears to have been done with an American audience in mind, because the girls use lots of American slang, such as “dude”, which only makes the book seem more alien and unrealistic.

And while the book may not exactly work as a crime thriller, it does raise some interesting points about what it is like to be young in a society that treats you as a commodity. It also provides some troubling insights into the corrupting influence of peer pressure and the dark ties of friendship.