Violence and Globalised Anxiety in Contemporary Tokyo Fiction1

Beth Widmaier Capo, Illinois College [About | Email]

Volume 18, Issue 1 (Article 5 in 2018). First published in ejcjs on 29 April 2018.


Beyond anime and manga, translated fiction provides another medium introducing Japan to Western audiences. Fewer than thirty works of Japanese fiction are translated into English each year. This article will explore how what gets translated, a product of “cool Japan” soft power, and of American publishing economics, supports recent theories on the “already translated” nature of world literature. Focusing on a subset of works set in Tokyo, the article will demonstrate how both genre fiction and postmodern literary fiction express anxiety over the violence inherent in contemporary life. Japanese anxiety regarding economic decline and inequality, aging demographics, social disintegration, and governmental distrust are framed within the context of familiar literary conventions and global fascination with violence.

Keywords: violence, gender, Tokyo, anxiety, contemporary Japan, translation.

“Japan knife attack kills 19 at centre for disabled” read a July 26 New York Timesheadline. Noting that the violence occurred in a Tokyo suburb, the article stated that the “attack was the worst mass killing in Japan in decades. The country has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.” This headline reinforces the perception of Japan as a safe country, due partly to the lack of guns. Indeed, Japan ranks as one of the safest countries globally, with a homicide rate that is 9 percent of the U.S. rate.2 But relative safety does not preclude anxiety. In his 2006 book Think Global, Fear Local, David Leheny argues that Japanese anxiety grows out of the “narrative of decline” after the post-bubble economic collapse, creating a “definitive sense of crisis” and “a developing narrative about contemporary Japan, in which institutions of social and economic life had broken down, [leaving] in their wake a new generation untethered by traditional expectations of how their lives were supposed to work” (23, 28). In Precarious Japan, anthropologist Anne Allison demonstrates the pervasive sense of precarity fed by growing economic disparity, aging demographics, natural disaster, and distrust of the government.3 Recent incidents confirm the gendered nature of violence: a knife attack at Tokyo Summerland wounded nine women in August 2017; in September, a group from Keio University (Minato Ward, Tokyo) gang raped a female student; and in October dismembered bodies were discovered in coolers in a Tokyo apartment, the victims of a serial killer (“Amusement Parks”; “Rape”; “Suspected”).

Japanese popular culture conveys awareness of and anxiety about violence. Interest in Japan often grows out of a “first contact” with the culture—usually in the form of popular culture forms like manga and anime (McLelland 3). Some Westerners, however, experience Japanese culture through translated fiction. Unlike image-centric manga and anime, or text-based fanfiction and scanlations widely available on the Internet, the fiction in translation under discussion here is obtained through commercial publishers and consumer delivery platforms. While many critics have noted the graphic sexual violence against women in men’s manga, the trend may also be discovered in translated fiction.4 Stephen Snyder is working on a large-scale ethnographic project that demonstrates “how the traffic of translation is subject to the larger economic concerns of the publishing industry, and how these concerns shape a canon of literature in translation that may bear little resemblance to that in the source literature and culture, but that comes to play an important role in the way that culture or nation is perceived in the national imagination of the target culture” (2016: 133).

In the U.S., a third of all fiction purchases are mystery or crime titles, according to Publishing Research Quarterly, and fiction is the second-most-lucrative genre for the publishing industry.5 While “the total number of Japanese crime novels that are translated into English is probably equivalent to the number of crime novels published in Japan in a month” (Davis 10), crime novels dominate translated fiction. For instance, 10 of the 25 works of Japanese fiction published in 2015 and 2016 are mystery or crime.6 Genre fiction retains enough familiarity to appeal to American audiences while gaining an exotic gloss if set in Japan. Some works may attract as cultural objects of Nihonjinron,or Japanese exceptionalism marketed to Western readers interested in learning about a “unique” culture, a form of Orientalism. On the other hand, some works appeal as mukokuseki(without nationality), such as the postmodern genre fiction of Murakami Haruki.7 As Chozick notes, Japanese critics have denigrated Murakami’s work as foreign, while “American reviewers often treat the author’s fiction as inseparable from his cultural heritage” (62). A discussion of Murakami as simultaneously exotic and familiar can be broadened to the larger body of works discussed here,8 which are absent a need for specific or nuanced cultural knowledge (and linguistic difficulty that cannot be translated), making them widely accessible while retaining enough “Japanese-ness” (often via a Tokyo setting) to be of interest to Western readers and thus a commodity to publishers. Expressions of contemporary alienation specific to Japan—such as hikikomori(shut-ins) andenjo kōsai (compensated dating)align with an anxious global zeitgeist. The strong tendency toward depictions of gendered violence in translated work contributes to what Mark McLelland has argued is a “growing public consensus that there is a ‘dark side’ to Japanese popular culture” (3). While McLelland is referring specifically to child sexuality, the themes of violence, alienation, and urban despair in these works transcend a sense of any “distinctly Japanese pathology” for a shared global anxiety.

Many of these works are set in Tokyo, global centre of economic, political, and cultural power and the centre of the Japanese publishing trade.9 Tokyo has a long history in Japanese fiction, as Ai Maeda demonstrated in Text and the City. As a fictional setting, the global homogeneity of urban space works to ease cultural translation. Violence has been central to Tokyo’s history, from Edo’s original defensive spiral design to its role in World War II. While physical harm commonly springs to mind, sociological theorists also trace organised violence in the form of unequal power at the level of social institutions (Walby 98-101). Using Slavoj Žižek’s tripartite explanation of violence, contemporary Tokyo can be viewed as a locus of the systemic violence of capitalism, leading to the subjective violence of crime, expressed in the symbolic violence of language. Indeed, some literary and cultural critics debate whether reading graphic violence is itself a form of violence.10 In fictional depictions of violence in Tokyo, Japanese writers express cultural anxiety.

Generic Gendered Violence: Crime, Mystery, and Horror

Capitalising on the popularity of hardboiled crime novels, thrillers, and mysteries, publishers invest in translating genre fiction. Some presses, such as Vertical, have translated works by earlier masters of Japanese hard-boiled crime and mystery fiction, including Kitakata Kenzo (b. 1947), Takahashi Gen’ichirō (b. 1951), and Shimada Sōji (b. 1948), two or three decades past their original printing in Japanese. Recent works reveal contemporary Japanese culture and expressions of violence in the context of economic precarity. Fiction that subscribes to identifiable or formulaic genres is more readily translatable and familiar to Western audiences. For instance, mystery and crime fiction often share the following traits: detectives or law enforcement characters; an often violent crime as grounding situation or conflict; a mystery that the plot will resolve; a mood of suspense; and an urban setting. In addition to its popularity, or perhaps in explanation of it, scholars have argued that mystery and detective fiction reflect “more immediately than other literary genres the fears and fantasies of the modern, urban bourgeoisie,” with the formulaic natures itself serving as “a good vehicle for the expression of cultural complexities in an accessible format” (Seaman 7). Their native representations of Japanese characters, as both criminals and justice seekers, work against previous racist caricatures of Orientalist writers (Makhijani).11

For instance, contemporary novelist Yoshida Shūichi (b. 1968) has garnered both literary and popular awards in Japan, including the Bungakukai Prize for New Writers, the Akutagawa Prize, and the Mainichi Publishing Culture Award. Two of his fifteen novels have been translated into English by Philip Gabriel. Both novels include violent murders of women, and both were marketed in English as crime novels.12 Tokyo is the setting for Parade,the story of four twenty-somethings sharing an apartment. Their lives are interrupted when a young male prostitute comes to live with them. The tone is of deep generational malaise and pervasive threats to women: the novel references a string of attacks on neighbourhood women, a possible brothel in the apartment next door, a flashback to domestic abuse, and movie rape scenes.

Parade is structured in five first-person narrative sections, each narrated by a character in the apartment.13 These characters are detached from each other, from family and other social institutions, and from themselves. “I have no interest in anything,” one female character states, while another describes himself as having a “lack of genuine concern” for anyone (53, 198). Their relationships are described as a “group-of-people-playing-at-being-friends” by one character (141). They fail to construct chosen kinship, rejecting moral or familial grounds that would force them to sacrifice individual comfort. The apartment is a microcosm of Tokyo and the failure of community spirit in the face of individual alienation. The lack of plot intensifies the shock of the novel’s final double reveal: the man who has been attacking women in the neighbourhood is one of the five protagonists, and not the young male prostitute, but rather Naoki, a seemingly mild-mannered and mature man. Parade contains a single, graphically described instance of subjective violence: in the novel’s last 12 pages, Naoki brutally smashes in a woman’s head with a chunk of concrete. This violence has the most tenuous of apparent causes. Naoki has appeared placid, and well-adjusted, but a fortune-teller reveals that he has a desire “for change… In seeking change you’re struggling against the world” (138-9). This motif of the quiet psychopath as hidden danger intensifies feelings of anxiety, where threat is invisible and ubiquitous.

But even more shocking than the revelation of the killer’s identity is what quickly follows: the realisation that his roommates “knew. That they really had known” (229). In the final scene, as they invite him into another meaningless conversation in the apartment, the novel concludes with Naoki’s words: “I was left hanging, by the doorway, unjudged, unforgiven, null and void… We’re not going to give you anything, they seemed to be telling me. You can forget about the right to explain yourself, confess, or apologise—we’ll never give it to you” (230). In ending the novel with his re-submersion into the stagnant apartment world, and his roommate’s conscious denial of his true identity, the novel reveals a society dependent on systemic violence—not just physical violence against women, but an environment structured on the denial of individual identity and human connection—for the maintenance of its comfortable functioning. All are complicit. While violence serves as a plot device, the violence is pervasive, transcending a single act or perpetrator, and not limited to a subjective physical act.

Another frequently translated crime writer, Nakamura Fuminori14 (b. 1977), has had seven novels translated by Soho Press as part of their Crime Series. Set in noir Tokyo, these novels have been called philosophical thrillers for their explorations of contemporary ennui and the nature of evil.15 Power resides in familiar gender and class hierarchies. Two novels, The Thief andThe Kingdom,each feature a petty criminal narrator who becomes a pawn of the shadowy Kizaki, a powerful villain who manipulates others as a game. Murder and violence are natural to Kizaki, whoenjoys playing god: “I’m about to witness the end of a human life, totally arbitrarily, exactly as I decided, in the place I decided. There’s nothing else like it,” he tells the Thief before shooting him (208). The characters whose lives he plays with are marginal, alienated, and lack community protection. Kizaki uses extreme violence casually to manipulate and control, telling the Thief that his mentor has been not only killed but physically erased: “To be completely accurate, only his teeth are left. We burned his corpse and ground his bones into white powder. His teeth are probably scattered somewhere in Tokyo Bay. Too much trouble to crush them. It’s not like there’s a body buried some place. He has literally disappeared” (129).

Contemporary alienation degrading community ties manifests among those in power as boredom. Violence acts as a livening agent, an outgrowth of power: in The KingdomKizaki says “Simply put, this is a game. And I’m bored” (116).16 Set amid the love hotels and alleys of Ikebukuro, The Kingdom employs a first person female narrator acting as a pawn to Kizaki’s empire, seducing and drugging men. “The feeling that I was in control of him got me hot,” she reports after drugging a mark in the opening pages (3), but the novel quickly makes apparent that men control her, and Kizaki controls them all. A violent scene in a sex club, with a graphic description of a woman attached to a sex machine, prefaces Kizaki’s threatening lecture to the narrator about power and control (90-94). The protagonist, an orphan, has lost everyone she has been close to and learned to alienate herself from human relationships and emotion itself. Kizaki’s decision to let her live at the novel’s end is not mercy, but part of his long-term plan to play god and “rewrite your life” (201; italics original).

Violence resulting from the boredom of powerful men is also a theme of Nakamura’s Evil and the Mask.The narrator is raised by his father, who tells him “Under my guidance, you will become a cancer. A personification of evil… By ‘cancer’ I mean a being that will make this world miserable” (6). Toying with and hurting others is a privilege of power: “With our wealth and power that have been passed down through the generations, we can use this life to do whatever we want. Then when we feel that our time is running out, by breeding one of these cancers we can mask the fear of death with amusement at the entertainment it provides” (8). Nakamura dramatises the male protagonist’s violent resistance to continuing his family’s immoral legacy: he kills his father, and others, to protect his adopted sister (and true love), and wrestles to “fight back against that darkness in some way” (22). As in Yoshida’s work and so much of this contemporary fiction, the violence is largely gendered, an outgrowth of patriarchygenerally and an expectation of the corrupt urban underworld. This narrative use of women has been criticised, as in Kathryn Hemmann’s review of Nakamura’s Last Winter, We Parted, as misogynistic.”17 A similar critique can be made against Triangleby Matsuura Hisaki (b. 1954). Masculine privilege allows the protagonist to wander Tokyo, although his economic precarity and past addiction make him vulnerable to a shadowy underworld figure who entangles him in a strange pornographic film, false identities, and violence. The female characters are simultaneously sex objects and victims, but the focus (as in Yoshida and Nakamura) is on male power and violence in a dangerous city. The narrator himself has a history of violence, having attempted to strangle a woman, and fantasises violent acts against women. His downward psychological spiral, an inability to distinguish reality, provides a symbol for the decline of Japanese society. In the Sanya neighbourhood the narrator overhears “another labourless labourer” articulate the nation’s anxiety: “Killings, y’know? Murders… lot of them these days. A few too many, don’ ya think? There are, right? I’m right, ain’t I? Huh? You watch TV and you’ll see. One day there’s a murder, another day there’s another murder. People getting their heads cut off. Their arms and legs cut off. Japan… at this rate… is really, I think, really goin’” (41).

Other translated work demonstrates a similar confluence of alienated, victimised characters in a Tokyo setting.Best-selling author Miyabe Miyuki (b. 1960) explores the ways women disappear and violence as the result of economic desperation and failed social relationships. For instance, All She Was Worth centres on the disappearance of a woman with a history of debt who had herself assumed the identity of a woman she murdered.18 The male detective realises there was a new kind of Japanese woman with “an iron will to survive. For herself and no one else” (124). In The Devil’s Whisper, women who seduce and steal from men are hypnotised into killing themselves by a man who thinks they “got what they deserved” (212). Their sexuality is a means to money, but a patriarchal mastermind still holds power. Although society is callous to the suffering of others, the main character, a teenage boy, retains his relationship to friends and family and makes the moral choice (244). Miyabe’s most recent thriller, Puppet Master,furthers the social critique. Yoshio, the grandfather of one of the murder victims, thinks while watching commercials during a talk show segment about the murders, “Now seeing these attractive young women prancing around in the commercials, he couldn’t help thinking that their purposewasn’t to advertise those products, it was something else altogether: It was an invitation: We are toys, beautiful toys! Toys you can use any way you want—we don’t mind what you do with us. You can catch us, kills us, bury us, if you like” (np; italics original). While the police officers are male and the victims are female, a young ambitious woman writer and an aggressive young daughter up-end passive stereotypes. Miyabe makes a pointed social critique of the trap of gender roles, including the idea that “A daughter being targeted by a pervert was proof of a mother’s negligence” (np).

While its conservative formula often creates a repetition of stereotypes of the male detective genius (Higashino Keigo’s Professor Galileo, for instance) and female victims, several writers feature female detectives capable of holding their own physically as well as mentally, including Nonami Asa’s (b. 1960) motorcycle-riding detective Otomichi Takako of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police in The Hunter and Miyabe Miyuki’s middle-aged arson squad sergeant Ishizu Chikako in Crossfire. Women can also perpetuate violence, although most often as purveyors of justice. For instance, Miyabe’s pyrokinetic Aoki Junko in Crossfiresees herself as “a loaded gun. My mission is to hunt down monsters who live only to consume and destroy innocent lives” (41; italics original). Questions of justice also feature in popular crime writer Higashino Keigo’s (b. 1958) Salvation of a Saint,when a wife poisons her cheating husband, and The Devotion of Suspect X, when a woman strangles her abusive ex-husband. However, while Higashino imagines women who murder for revenge or self-defense in the context of traditional heterosexual relationships, he is more invested in developing male characters.

Another female justice fighter is Murakami Haruki’s Aomame in 1Q84.The novel is set in a generalised and surreal Tokyo that serves to emphasise the estranging power of urban space and its violent potential.19 The novel thus continues a line throughout Murakami’s work of an apocalyptic vision of Japan, as noted by Chilton and Snyder (1996). The main characters, Aomame and Tengo, suffer the personal psychological trauma endemic to the systemic violence of the age: abandonment, abuse, loneliness, extremism, and alienation. Aomame is unlike Murakami’s previous female characters, who are usually victims, and is “Murakami’s first female character to fight violence against women in an aggressive way” (Hansen 237). A skilled female assassin hired to kill abusive husbands by a widow who runs a domestic abuse shelter, the novel centres on Aomame’s assassination of the leader of a religious cult who has sex with young girls. She sees herself as an apocalyptic force, for by killing abusers she “present[s them] with the end of the world” (168; italics original). This is characteristic of post-1995 Japanese apocalypse narratives, according to Tanaka, where the female character is an “invincible warrior” who “fights apocalyptic crises while the male protagonists are in love with these empowered girls but play little role in the fight” (166). Aomame’s turn outward, her violent action to stop abusers and her willingness to risk her life for another, posit social engagement as a force of survival in the face of violence and chaos. As Aomame concludes: “The two of us entered a dangerous place, where logic had no purpose, and we managed to survive some terrible ordeals, found each other, and slipped away. Whether this place we’ve arrived in is the world we started out from or a whole new world, what do I have to be afraid of? If there are new trials ahead for us, we just have to overcome them, like we’ve done before. That’s all. But at least we’re no longer alone” (920). This offers a more positive ending than traditional crime fiction, providing a productive remedy to social violence through human relationships. But there is no simple happy ending to the novel, which blurs reality and fiction through its otherworldly Little People subplot and the inclusion of a fictional work of non-fiction: the boundary between the real and surreal, and between genres, is malleable, permeable, false.

A final example of female violence as justice occurs in the “feminist noir” fiction of Kirino Natsuo (b. 1951).Marketed as suspense and set in Tokyo, Kirino’s hardboiled fiction focuses on women who murder (Out), are brutally murdered (Grotesque), or are affected by murder (Real World). Interestingly, some of Kirino’s earlier novels feature a female detective and gendered violence but they have not been translated into English (see Seaman chapter 4). Kirino became well known in English with her first translated work, Out. Out features a group of regular housewives who dismember the body of a friend’s murdered husband and scatter his parts around Tokyo, a form of violent gender justice. This depiction of “normal” women disrupts gender stereotypes of women as passive, weak, or squeamish. Seaman argues that “Kirino’s conflicted perspective on gender, sexuality, and violence is made even more explicit in Out,with its gritty yet surreal portrayal of factory women whose side business involves dismembering and disposing of corpses. Here, the stereotypically male realm of violent crime is made into a site for women’s solidarity and resistance, a transformation rendered problematic by the novel’s graphic finale, in which one protagonist affirms her violent rape as a sexually liberating moment” (146).20 Capitalism and patriarchy have harmed these women as much as the abusive husband and the rapist murderer whom the women kill in self-defense. The novel’s violent ending does not offer a vision of feminist utopia, but rather a dangerous world of brutal survival.

In these works, Kirino joins several contemporary Japanese writers to invent women as detectives and criminals—as active and often violent agents, not just as victims or sex objects—thus marking ongoing shifts in the gender code. Kirino’s two other translated crime novels also explore gendered violence in and around Tokyo, with women as victims, ambivalent narrators, and accessories to violence. Grotesqueis loosely based on a real 1997 “Tōden” OL case, demonstrating again how fiction responds to and rewrites social issues (Yoda). The case involved the murder of a career woman who lived a double life as a sex worker. Yoda discusses Grotesque as a critique of sexism, misogyny, classism, consumerism, and the competitive ethos of Japanese society (193). These forms of subjective violence take centre stage, and the grotesque murders of two women, which occurred before the novel begins, seem to be unremarkable outcomes. An unreliable and unlikable narrator deconstructs the murder of two women who went from elite girl’s school to prostitution, raising the question of who or what is not “grotesque.” In Real World, the title questions the divide between fiction and reality. Kirino enters the realm of the juvenile killer, a young male sociopath who involves schoolgirls in his crimes. Like other young killers in contemporary Japanese fiction, the killer invokes the 1997 Sakakibara case as a model, and his peers take up his crime as a rebellion against the pressures of education and conformity. Worm, on the run after killing his mother, and the girls he enlists to help him express an alienation from others that enables them to enact violence. “There’s this gap now between my world and other people’s. And I’m totally alone” (65), thinks Worm in language echoed later by one of the girls: “There’s this huge gap between me and other people—a gap in ability, experience, and feelings” (135). Violence against family members and larger worries over shōnen hanzai (youth crime) result from a loss of social cohesion within the family unit brought about by economic precarity and generalised despair (Allison 2013: 97). In Kirino’s fiction, Tokyo is the setting to violence and alienation among groups that are often ignored by politics and economics.

The dark vision of Tokyo and Japanese society is given different form in contemporary Japanese horror fiction. Horror is another genre whose popularity fast-tracks publication (helped along, as with crime fiction, by the high rate of film adaptation). While some works of horror rely on the “creepy” nature of unexplained phenomenon and malignant ghosts, such as Koike Mariko’s (b. 1964) The Graveyard Apartmentor the “feminist horror” of Nonami Asa’s Now You’re One of Us, another strand exploits the dark psychology of violence to create the intense dread that is the emotion “horror.” For instance, Otsuichi (b. 1978) is a horror writer whose work is not only translated into English but into multiple genres, such as film and graphic novels. His novel Goth, first published in 2002 and spinning off manga and film versions, was published in translation by TokyoPop in 2008. Goth opens with a scene of the discovery of body parts discovered nailed to a tree in a forest, “the first victim in the gruesome murders that had caused a stir all across Japan,” the work of a serial killer (9). Two high school students are fascinated with the murders, and their obsession with death aligns with concerns about the state of Japanese youth later depicted in Real Worldand other fiction. People are murdered in a variety of way, including strangulation, dismemberment, and being buried alive. The horror follows recognisable gender lines, with male characters acting on their violent urges and female characters vulnerable to violence as victims of the serial killer, victims of self-harm, and victims of abusive men. (In one exception, “Dog,” the young girl trains her dog to defend her against her mother’s abusive boyfriend).

Two recent story collections utilize a specific Tokyo setting to convey contemporary urban horror. Suzuki Koji (b. 1957), the “Stephen King of Japan,” has earned success in English translation, thanks in part to the Ring seriesand its film, television, video game, and manga adaptations. Dark Water, a collection of stories published in Japanese in 1996 and in English ten years later, offer conventional horror themed around Tokyo Bay and a water motif. The horror is familiar: ghostly hauntings (“Floating Water,” “Dream Cruise”), repressed memories and the discovery of murdered bodies that then themselves seek revenge (“The Hold”), and cursed talismans that bring madness and death (“Adrift”). The ghosts are children and wives, the violence caused by men or by larger economic forces. This urban horror makes use of the unique landscape of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay in a manner similar to Hino Keizo’s (b. 1929) 1985 (translated posthumously in 2010) novel Isle of Dreams, a surreal and sinister place symbolising the rapacious hunger of urban development and the concomitant decay of human relationships.

Ogawa Yoko (b. 1962) is best known for her intimate, spare, and slightly surreal fiction; her style and emotionally distant characters earn her comparison to Murakami Haruki (Siegel). While much of her fiction features a faintly sinister air, such as Pregnancy Diary and Hotel Iris, in 2013 her 1998 collection Revenge: Eleven Dark Taleswas published in a translation by Stephen Snyder. The settings are interior spaces within Tokyo, emphasising an unsettling message of the difficulty of connection with others. These stories have a playful horror created by the linked story structure and by the understated presence of violence reported on by an observer narrator. For instance, in “Old Mrs. J,” the narrator, a woman who lives in an apartment building, talks about her strange landlady with a very fertile garden who starts growing carrots that look like hands. A newspaper reporter comes to do a story on these grotesque vegetables and discovers that Mrs. J had strangled her husband and buried his body in the garden (37). In “Lab Coats,” a nurse confesses to the narrator that she had last night murdered her doctor lover when he wouldn’t leave his wife (57-8). The casual confession is compounded by the grotesque mundanity of their job—sorting lab coats stained with blood and bodily fluids—and by the narrator’s crush on the nurse. This keeps the violence, and the passion behind it, at a distance. In the same hospital, a bag maker kills a woman who had asked her to sew a bag to carry her heart, which was outside of her body, and who then cancels the order to try surgery instead (75). Women are the murderers, enacting their rage and frustration on those who thwart their desires, but their violence is muted by the surreal nature of the stories and the observer status of the narrators. For example, in “Lab Coats” the narrator imagines the specifics of the crime that her coworker has coolly admitted to: “I calmly imagine the scene: the knife in her pretty hand; the blade slicing into him again and again; skin ripping, blood spurting. But she’s spotless” (57-58). The crime seems distant but is made more immediate and surreal by the story’s final lines, as the narrator picks up a lab coat: “It’s his. I shake it and out falls a tongue. It’s still soft. Maybe even warm” (58). The stories do not pathologise women, nor invest empathy in the victims, and the “revenge” of the title is not a moral justice. Rather, violence seems the natural outgrowth of contemporary relationships. While the stories are dark, they don’t offer conventional chills—the decay is not of flesh, but of relationships; the haunting is not of ghosts, but of our own emotions.

Sexual Violence in Contemporary Fiction

The urban setting is significant in crossing cultural boundaries as a site of contemporary alienation enabling violence and as a space of sexual predation and possibility for women. Sexual violence against women, including the exploitative nature of terekura (telephone clubs) and enjo kōsai (compensated dating), are part of Žižek’s configuration of systemic violence constituted through patriarchy and capitalism. In the genre fiction discussed above, the conflict between sexual exploitation and empowerment in these forms plays a narrative part in several novels. For instance, telephone clubs feature in Miyabe’s Puppet Masterand Devil’s Whisperand Nonami’s The Hunter, while compensated dating and prostitution play a role in Yoshida’a Villian andKirino’s Grotesque.These novels incorporate contemporary social issues that nationalist critics cite as evidence of the degradation of traditional Japanese society. Another strand of recent fiction deals more explicitly with Tokyo as a site of sexual violence. For instance, the “Fruits of Shinjuku” in Morita Ryuji’s (b. 954) story of that name are sex workers. The eighteen-year-old narrator, a prep school student dropout, addict, and petty thief, wants to rescue a thirteen-year-old prostitute trafficked from the Philippines (27). But he is powerless in the face of the system that entraps her, and he lacks the economic means to buy her out of sex slavery. The same population density that enables his petty criminality supports the trafficking of marginalised foreign girls.

Commodifying consensual sexual violence through S&M is also centred in Tokyo in the work of Murakami Ryū. For instance, In the Miso Soup (1997) is narrated by a tour guide who begins to suspect his foreign client is a serial killer targeting women in the sex clubs and hostess bars of Shinjuku. He witnesses several murders and “felt I was already knee-deep in the world of the dead” (134). The violence is enacted upon Japanese citizens by Frank, a white tourist, placing the threat on a colonising white male figure but making the male tour guide an unwilling accomplice. Recently a collection of excerpts and short fiction was published as Tokyo Decadence,including three selections from his 1988 work Topaz. The first-person female narrators of “Topaz,” “Lullaby,” and “Penlight” are prostitutes specialising in sadomasochism. Their emotions, desires, and relationships are depicted alongside graphic descriptions of their sexual labour. The narrators are called to anonymous hotel rooms, the Tokyo setting generalised as a centre of normalised heterosexual violence against women. For instance, the female narrator of “Topaz” describes being tied up, hurt, and insulted by customers, but it is of the nosy cab driver she thinks “If I had a knife I’d probably stab him” (78). The sexual violence, in the matter-of-fact voice of female narrators, is an example of Murakami’s use of shock to reject boredom, demonstrate “contempt for stability and continuity,” and assert independence against a totalising social order (Cassegard 199). Can this violence shock readers out of complacency, or does it contribute to a normalisation of violence against women? Either way, Murakami’s work acknowledges our continued complicity in systemic violence.

The Tokyo sex economy is also the setting for Yamada Amy’s (b. 1959) “Kneel Down and Lick My Feet,” written in the voice of an S&M dominatrix. Yamada’s work contains the violence within the controlled space of S&M, giving the female dominatrix physical power while acknowledging the structural violence of economic need and limited choices that led her to her line of work (187). The “shock” here is in the contrast between the bored tone of the narrator and the sexual acts that she describes. The narrator matter-of-factly discusses her job, arguing for its benefits: “this line of work is, surprisingly, quite safe, and you don’t have to sleep with anybody you don’t like. At first it’s weird, but once you get used to it, it’s like manual labour” (188). It is clean and rule-bound, a safe fantasy world for clients and workers (197), safer than being a hostess in a “Ginza bar” or “glitzy Akasaka and Roppongi night spot” (188). While it maintains heteronormativity, the male clients are in economic power while the female workers have physical control. But although the violence may be consensual and contained, the underlying economic and gender dynamics remind readers of the instability of female agency in a capitalist and patriarchal society. The body is capital, sex is exchange value, and violence is the standard mode.

In most of these works women are victims, with few means—economic, physical, or communal—to resist the systems working against them. This behaviour may be depicted as part of a dystopic world of escalating violence and diminishing compassion. For instance, the narrator of Sakurai Ami’s Innocent Worldis a bored student who goes from compensated dating to phone-sex worker to being gang raped at a party. The novel’s disturbing violence is rooted in personal alienation resulting in self-harm. Kanehara Hitomi’s (b. 1983) female protagonists also engage in self-destruction through sex, drugs, and other acts in Tokyo’s street culture. In Snakes and Earrings,21 the occasional reference places the novel in Tokyo, such as the headline “29-YEAR-OLD GANGSTER BEATEN TO DEATH IN SHINJUKU” (46). The narrator takes pleasure in the pain of tongue piercing, tattoos, and violent sex that she believes will “one day… end up killing me” (90).22 Her violent boyfriend is tortured and killed by the sadistic tattoo artist who becomes her next boyfriend. As David Holloway argues, this conclusion is a seeming acquiescence to gendered scripts for female survival (“Gender” 76).23 The protagonist is numb and adrift from mainstream society. Violent, non-reproductive sex is a sign of the disintegration of community and the nation’s future.

Maijo Otaro’s (b. 1973) Asura Girlportrays a similar narrative voice of a teen girl caught up in casual sex and violence in a surreal and dystopian Tokyo. Immersed in pop culture and self-drama, Aiko knees a female classmate in the face until the blood created “a scene straight out of a horror flick” (34). Violence surrounds the narrator, including a serial killer on the loose and the Voice of Heaven cult advocating “Armageddon” in the form of street riots, beating up middle school students, and gang rape. Murder has become mundane, as Aiko recounts:

a slasher in Nigata Prefecture had run through a shopping centre stabbing everyone in sight. He managed to kill seven people and wound five more before heading for the hills. Everybody was really tense for a week or so until they found his body—he had committed suicide. And then there were the three families living tooth-to-jowl in Tottori Prefecture. A three-way feud that had been simmering for more than a decade boiled over one night. Weapons of choice: kitchen knives, hatchets, aluminum bats, lead pipes. Casualty count: four dead, twelve seriously injured. (68)

Many crimes are copycat killings and often perpetuated by “kids who do really wacked-out shit. Almost like it’s some kind of fad” (69). In this apocalyptic context Aiko is focused on her own unrequited crush and “always always thinking about fucking and kissing and nothing but fucking and kissing” (76). While the surreal and at times humorous voice differentiates the novel from work by Kanehara and Sakurai, it reinforces the sense of pervasive alienation among Japanese youth and the resulting self-loathing, sex, and violence.

There are exceptions to this pattern of sex and violence in contemporary Japanese fiction in translation. Yoshimoto Banana’s (b. 1964) quiet fiction speaks to a nostalgic aesthetic that offers insight into a transformed Tokyo. Sometimes derided among Japanese literati as popular among girls and women,24 Yoshimoto’s translated novels offer a vision of Japan that is quite different from the noir violence described above yet still manifests a cultural ennui with global contemporary resonance. In Postmodern, Feminist and Postcolonial Currents in Contemporary Japanese Culture, Fuminobu Murakami argues that Yoshimoto Banana’s fiction contrasts “the erotically charged desire to do violence against the stranger” with the “gentle but autistic emotion experienced in relation to the family” (164). Violent acts affect her troubled narrators, who seek healing through domestic life and safe consumerism in an anonymous Tokyo. For instance, in her latest, Moshi Moshi,the narrator’s father was the victim of a love suicide-murder. The violence occurs before the novel and in a forest outside the city. The narrator and her mother find solace in the Tokyo neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa. Outsourcing the violence and other action from the plot is part of Yoshimoto’s narrative style, creating gently unfolding novels with little suspense or action. As in her other novels, such as Kitchen,consumption of goods plays an important role in constructing the sense of safety and connection that form a “home.” In Moshi Moshi, it is specifically the independently owned neighbourhood businesses—bar, restaurant, tea shop, thrift store—that offer solace to the narrator and her mother. This gives the novel a sense of being “like a glossy lifestyle magazine in the form of a novel” (Hemmenn). The slower pace and individual relationships in Shimokitazawa contrast the “Meguro madame” coldness and distance of their previous life in an upscale area. As she leaves for Paris at the novel’s end, the narrator thinks “Thank you, Shimokitazawa. You wrapped me gently and let me rest and showed me what was true” (200; italics original).

This vision of place as healing community is one that Yoshimoto acknowledges in her afterward as under threat: “Sadly, the neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa continues to become a lonelier place. Its wonderful independent shops are disappearing one after the other, being replaced by chain stores and hostess clubs” (205). The rapacious homogenising force of capitalism destroys the independent retailers that provide identity to each community. This negatively affects individuals. She continues, “the way things are going, there will be less and less space for individuals to find their niche within a community, and less and less leeway for people to live at a pace that suits them. Customers will be forced to conform to the business’s timetable, and learn to consume what they are given within the time they are allotted, like livestock. In that kind of situation there can be no opportunity for personal relationships to take root” (205). Yoshimoto’s Tokyo keeps violence outside the city and offers a vision of community neighbourhood as antithesis, but the homogenising forces of capitalism are threatening those unique spaces. As with her earlier work, the novel is infiltrated by a sense of loss and nostalgia.


The significance of Tokyo as a setting for contemporary translated fiction is threefold: First,the urban setting works as a shorthand crossing cultural boundaries, making these texts “born translated” as readers of the English translation understand the city, even in a comparatively safe nation like Japan, as a locus of violence and alienation. Second, although the city has long been a space of possibility for women, it remains a space of sexual predation, a point of concentration for the gendered power structure and its violent effects. Finally, these texts honour Tokyo’s history and its contemporary struggles with economic disparity and psychological isolation. Violence threatens communities within Tokyo while symbolising existential threats to the larger nation and world. While the previous discussion examined a wide variety of fiction, these works share a propensity for ambiguous endings. This is somewhat surprising, especially for crime and mystery fiction, a convention of which is that problems are resolved and crimes solved by the end of the text, “with the guilty punished and justice prevailing” (Seaman 2004: 9). In fiction generally, a sense of resolution of the plot may be achieved via reconciliation, a symbolic act such as marriage, or the acknowledged growth or change in characters. But for many contemporary Japanese writers regardless of genre, ambiguous or at least ambivalent endings better suit ideological questioning of the very notion of justice, human growth, and meaningful relationships.

Many recent works of translated Japanese fiction represent an anxious, apocalyptic Japan threatened by gendered violence, and this motif resonates with similar anxieties and literary themes in American fiction. This article was, thus, an initial attempt to heed the call put forth by Rebecca Walkowitz: “Historians of the novel will need to analyse how a work participates not only in one literary system, the literary system of the language in which it was composed, but also in the other literary systems in which it has a presence” (83). While violence and societal fragmentation are not new themes to literature, their prevalence speaks to global concerns. These novels and stories, many of them originally bestsellers in Japan, are finding an audience of readers in America, circulating conceptions of Japan while building a global community.


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[1] Portions of this work were presented at the Japan Studies Association 2017 conference, the Association for Asian Studies 2015 conference, and the 2012 American Comparative Literature Association conference. With thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities and Florida International University for its 2016 Summer Institute for College Faculty, to Illinois College for grant support, to students Daniel Korunka and Jessica Sanders, to Nick Capo for editorial and moral support, and to the anonymous readers of ecjcsfor valuable feedback.

[2] According to the United Nations, the homicide count was 506 in 2009 (the latest date available), for a rate of .4 per 100,000 people. For comparison, the United States reported 13,636 homicides for the same year, for a rate of 4.4 per 100,000 people. In their 2001 comparative analysis of responses to violence in Japan and America, Dussich and his coauthors conclude that “not only is the threshold of violence different, but so too are the context in which the threat occurs, how it is defined, and the range of options citizens in each country give themselves to respond” (150).

[3] She notes “Yet Japan also has the second highest level of poverty among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries. Calculated as the number of people who fall below half of the mean income, Japan—with a rate of 15.3 percent—is second only to the United States, which has a rate of 17.1 percent” (5). See Pinsker for a summary of a recent study in Oxford Economic Papers supporting the growing “amount of research from all over the world that suggests that places with pronounced income inequality are more likely to have high rates of violent crime.”

[4] See Allison (2000) and Cather on graphic violence and sexuality in manga.

[5] Chad Post notes that in general “the most translated works are detective stories or tales of an erotic, even pornographic nature.” His database at Three Percent only tracks “original translations of adult fiction, poetry, and some literary nonfiction.”

[6] Based on my analysis of Post’s database, in the last five years Japanese fiction makes up only 3.6% of those translations, or .1% of books published annually in America. Rouse notes that Japanese fiction is often translated into languages other than English. Allison Markin Powell’s Japanese Literature in English database offers a searchable but incomplete resource at

[7] See Strecher 2011and Zielinska-Elliott. Walkowitz coined the term “born translated” to describe works where “translation functions as a thematic, structural, conceptual, and sometimes even typographical device. These works are written for translation, in the hope of being translated, but they are also often written as translations, pretending to take place in a language other than the one in which they have, in fact, been composed” (4). She places Haruki Murakami in this category (14-15). See also Snyder 2016 and Suter.

[8] Indeed, recent debates in Japanese critical circles question the distinction between junbungaku (“pure” literature) and taishū bungaku (mass or popular literature), a distinction in part marked by the Akutagawa Prize and the Naoki Prize. See Strecher 1996 for an overview of the debate. The growing number of Western scholars investigating Japanese “popular” writers that Strecher noted in 1996 has flourished in the last twenty years. See also Seaman on shifting critical views of Japanese detective fiction as junbungaku or taishūbungaku (10-11).

[9] Tokyo has long been and still is a literary city, home to Haruki Murakami, Yukio Mishima, and Banana Yoshimoto. See “The Culture Trip Literary City Guide to Tokyo.” Scholars such as Mina Qiao and David Holloway (“Topographies”) have analyzed Tokyo settings in specific works.

[10] See Abel, Cassegard, Giles, Hume, and Mandel.

[11] Some Western crime writers, such as Sujata Massey, whose Rei Shimura series feature a Japanese American detective and are set partly in Japan, are the subject of post-colonial critique regarding degrees of “Orientalism.” See Sarkowsky and Nesbitt. See Seaman pages 2-14 for a brief history of Japanese detective fiction.

[12] While Villain (2010) was published in the “Vintage Crime” imprint of Random House, Parade (2014) was published in the “Vintage Contemporaries Original” series. This reflects the more experimental narrative structure of Parade.

[13] The plot drifts along in each of the five sections, leading one critic to compare the novel to the television show Seinfeld and another to describe it as “a sort of Japanese fusion of Friends and American Psycho” (Root).

[14] A pseudonym. Winner of the 2010 Oe Kanzaburo award for The Thief, he has won several awards, including the 2005 Akutagawa Prize. He has written over 12 novels since 2003 and several story collections.

[15] Tom Nolan calls The Thief “a chilling existential thriller,” while Maureen Corrigan calls it “less a crime novel than a meditation on crime.”

[16] Boredom seems to be a key condition of violence. Freedman notes that “Death Note—consisting of a manga series (2003-06), television anime (2006-07), three films (2006, 2008), “light novels” (2006, 2009), and video games (2007, 2008), all commercially available in several languages—is the story of a bored male student who kills criminals by writing their names in an old notebook”… “that he received from a bored death god” (italics added; 33, 36).

[17] Hemmann states “female characters seem to only be there to be photographed and/or fucked before being burned alive, but that comes with the territory. Let’s be real here, this is a crime novel written by a man who won the Ōe Prize , what were you expecting.”

[18] See Seaman 2004 chapter 2 for an analysis of (male) protagonist Honman Shunsuke’s nostalgic relationship to the danchi of Sumida Ward.

[19] Haruki Murakami’s work has been called hard-boiled postmodern or deconstructed noir (Hantke 3), and can be fruitfully discussed alongside more traditional genre fiction.

[20] Seaman notes that “Notably, the film version of Kirino’s novel, released in Japan in October 2002, was made more palatable to a mainstream audience by replacing the violent sexual episode with an ending in which the four friends simply flee to Hokkaido to watch the aurora borealis” (146).

[21] Qiao notes that the Tokyo setting is key in the film version of Snakes and Earrings(2008) and Murakami Ryu’s film version of Topāzu (Tokyo Decadence) (1992). Because of the visual nature of film, this is not surprising. Kanehara’s other work in translation, including Auto Fiction and “Mambo,” also feature female self-harm.

[22] Mark Driscoll contextualises this sexuality within contemporary Japanese sexual politics, including non-reproductive sex and asexuality, and the political right’s attacks on those youth who have rejected reproducing the nation.

[23] This conformity to gender scripts reinforces the structural violence of patriarchy. See also DiNitto.

[24] On her audience and popularity in Japan, see Kawasaki and Chilton.

About the Author

Beth Widmaier Capo is professor of English and director of the honors program at Illinois College. In 2009-2010 she was a Fulbright Visiting Lecturer in American Studies at Doshisha University and Osaka University.

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