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February 13, 2014

Hanshichi, Japan's first fictional detective

The first fictional detective of Japanese origin was not a copy of an imported thinking machine a la Holmes, but a trusted old Edo-period sleuth called Hanshichi. It seems right that Japan first delved into its own culture before wholeheartedly adapting the foreign detective story to its needs.

Hanshichi, the detective created by Okamoto Kido in 69 stories written between 1917 and 1937, also has the honor of being the first Japanese serial investigator – appearing seven years earlier than Edogawa Ranpo's Akechi Kogoro. The Hanshichi stories are intrinsically Japanese. Perhaps Okamoto was indebted to Conan Doyle (read avidly in the original English original by him) for the idea of writing detective stories in itself, but in fact the strongest model for Hanshichi are Edo-period crime stories as those about the wise judge Oka Echizen.

In the Edo-period (1600-1868), Japan knew the genre of crime stories but these were very different from the modern Western crime novel. Crime literature consisted of courtroom narratives such as Iharu Saikaku's Honcho Oin Hiji (Trials in the Shade of a Cherry Tree, 1689; based on the Chinese Tangyin Bishi) and the anonymous Oka Seidan (Oka's Rulings). These stories emphasized the authority of the state in the form of wise and infallible judges. The criminal would be known to the reader from the start and the suspense was wholly on the question how the judge would discover him. Forced confessions and torture were also part of the trial. Based on Chinese examples and thus strongly influenced by moralistic Confucianism, these stories also put a strong emphasis on the punishment of the victim, often described in gruesome detail. Punishment was important, because the balance of Heaven which had been upset by the crime, had to be restored.

Oka Tadasuke (1677-1752), also known as Oka Echizen no Kami, who was famous for his acumen and fairness, was not a judge in the Western sense (these did not exist in premodern Japan), but a magistrate. He was machibugyo or civil governor of Edo under the shogun Yoshimune in the early part of the 18th c. One of the most famous stories in the Oka Seidan is called "The Case of the Stolen Smell." An innkeeper accuses a poor student of stealing the smell of his cooking. As this was evidently a case of paranoia on the part of the innkeeper, everyone expected Oka to throw the case out as ridiculous. Instead, he came to the following judgment: he ordered the student to pass the money he had in one hand to his other hand, ruling that the price of the smell of food is the sound of money!

In the Meiji-period, the old Edo-tales were replaced by another wave of moralism: on the one hand sensational stories about criminal woman as poisoners (there was a surge of interest in this subject after a notorious case), on the other hand very free adaptations of 19th c. Western adventure and crime novels such as those by newspaper editor Kuroiwa Ruiko (1862-1920). Kuroiwa also wrote two original novels, but the intention remained a moralistic one, not so remote from the confessional narratives of criminals appearing in the other pages of his mass publications. So we have to wait until 1917 for the appearance of Japan's first real detective, Hanshichi.

Hanshichi was the creation of Okamoto Kido (1872-1939), the son of a former senior retainer of the Shogunate. Due to a decline in his family's fortunes, Okamoto could not attend university, but started working as a journalist and reviewer of stage works. The stage was his real love and he also wrote plays himself – his breakthrough came in 1911 with the play Shuzenji Monogatari, which is still occasionally staged. He also wrote modernized Kabuki plays (Shin-Kabuki). Okamoto considered his stage work as his main accomplishment, rather than the detective and other fiction he wrote.

Posterity has judged differently: Okamoto's fame now rests in the first place on his Hanshichi stories, which have never gone out of print and are still available in various editions, from pocketbooks to ebooks. Okamoto called his stories “torimonocho,” or “casebooks,” and this designation was adopted by several other authors of historical detective fiction.

Of course, detectives in the modern sense did not yet exist in the Edo-period. Hanshichi is an okappiki, a helper of the machibugyo who was hired in an unofficial capacity. It was the task of the okappiki to make arrests, but also do a certain amount of investigation to solve cases. In that sense the job was indeed somewhat comparable to that of a detective on the police force. Okamoto has wisely left out another aspect of the okappiki's job, that of torturing criminals to obtain a confession.

On the contrary, Hanshichi is not violent at all, but rather a wise man like Okamoto's historical model, Oka Echizen. He is also very Japanese. Culturally, Japan was not a country of logical reasoning, but rather of intuition (think Zen), and that difference is clear when you compare Hanshichi to Auguste Dupin or Sherlock Holmes. Hanshichi does not use ratiocination, but rather his intuition plus his detailed knowledge of Edo, the city in which he lived. Besides that, he is also helped by simple good luck and coincidence.

Hanshichi is also not a law-enforcer in the Anglo-Saxon sense, where the law is abstractly upheld without regard for persons or circumstances. Hanshichi is a humane man and above all he is out to uphold the fabric of society. He may spare a criminal in order to preserve the reputation of a certain family, he avoids creating waves that would upset society.

The Hanshichi stories belong to the sub-category of the historical mystery, which only took off in the West after the boost by Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose in 1980, while in Japan it stood at the head of detective fiction. One could say that besides Hanshichi, the city of Edo itself is also an important "character" in these stories, with its samurai mansions and its brothels, its teahouses and its bathhouses, and its colorful superstitions. The stories are full of interesting characters and events and the pace is fast. The mystery elements are limited and there is no menace or danger. Instead, there is a lot of good humored fun.

The stories have been written according to a fixed template but Okamoto's inspiration never flags. He also deftly uses a double time frame: the stories themselves take place somewhere in the middle of the 19th century (50s and 60s), but they always start with an introduction placed in the Meiji-period (80s and 90s) in which the retired Hanshichi tells one of his experiences to the young Okamoto.

The feeling of nostalgia for a past irrevocably ended is strong, and Okamoto has been called reactionary for his looking back to Edo (for example by Mark Silver in Purloined Letters: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature), but he does not idealize. Moreover, Edo nostalgia was popular at the time he started writing about Hanshichi – think for example of the stories of Nagai Kafu as The River Sumida (1911). The Hanshichi stories are made all the more interesting because of the encyclopedic knowledge of the Edo-period Okamoto Kido could bring to his project.

The original stories are available online at Aozora Bunko. They have also been published as Kindle editions and on paper as Bunkobon (Kobunsha and others). 
We are lucky to have a magnificent translation of the first fourteen stories by Ian MacDonald as The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi: Detective Stories of Old Edo. Warmly recommended. (Avoid the slight adaptations made of four stories by Edgar Seidensticker as The Snake that Bowed - these are insipid and not worthy of the great translator).