The Distinctive Gaze of a Literary Scholar Produces Unique Works in the Mystery Genre


Yutaka Maekawa, Professor

Department of Intercultural Communication, Faculty of Intercultural Communication

Posted Nov. 6, 2019

Faculty Profile

Yutaka Maekawa is both a university professor and the author of a number of popular works of mystery fiction. He continues to write vigorously, incorporating his insights as a scholar of literature into his creative works. 

Putting Theories Encountered as a Researcher into Practice as a Novelist

For many years I have been doing comparative research on Japanese and Western literature.

Works of literature are deeply imbued with the culture of their country of origin, and the issue of cultural difference is a vexing one for literary translators. Take the example of Edward G. Seidensticker, whose English translations introduced numerous works of Japanese literature to the wider world. Seidensticker did not mechanically substitute Japanese words for their English equivalents in the dictionary, but rather produced idiomatic translations that encapsulate the implicit nuances of the original text.

Technically speaking they may be mistranslations, but they have enabled the works to be enjoyed widely even by foreign readers unfamiliar with Japanese culture. It is even said that Seidensticker’s skillful translations helped Yasunari Kawabata win the Nobel Prize in Literature. To translate literary works you need not simply to substitute the words of one language for another, but also to substitute one culture for another.

One topic that I’ve been investigating in recent years is how authors end their novels. Focusing on novels from the modern era, I’m looking at how the structure and how the ending is played out, and trying to ascertain the author’s intentions. I’m especially interested in the technique known as “peripeteia,”*1 a sudden change in direction midway through a narrative.

For me, exploring the structure of novels is also an embodiment of “practical wisdom.” I apply the theories I encounter as a researcher to my own creative work as a novelist. It’s a complementary relationship.

Integrating Fiction and Reality to Create Genuine Suspense

It was six years ago that I entered the literary world, after receiving the New Author’s Prize in the Grand Prize for Best Mystery Novels, awarded by the Kobun Foundation. I had been writing since my youth and dreaming of one day becoming a novelist, so I was delighted finally to have that ambition realized, albeit as a late-bloomer.

I was somewhat uncertain as to whether I could be both an author and a professor at the same time, but I feel that maintaining my post here at university and continuing my work as a researcher has actually had a positive effect on my creative activities.

Although I produce fictional narratives, I also incorporate reality into my work. When writing I flesh out my ideas using hints from real-life incidents.

For example, when I refer to a certain date in a narrative, I look up what the weather was really like on that date to ensure that my writing is consistent with reality. I also take care in how I use specialized police vocabulary. The document used to initiate a police search for someone who is missing used to be called a “Runaway Search Request”, but this was changed to “Missing Person’s Report” pursuant to new regulations that came into effect in 2010, so I need to change the way I refer to the document depending on the year and month I’m writing about.

In order to generate a sense of reality in my writing, I sometimes visit the actual locations in which my narratives are set, and verify that the actions of my characters are not unnatural in those settings.

What distinguishes my style is realism: the narratives are fictional, but they deal with crimes that could well happen in real life. I hope to maintain this obsession with reality in my future works as well.

In the novel Kuripi (Creepy), as the title suggests, I tried to evoke an ineffable sense of creepiness. The impact that this novel had might be why publishers always ask me to write scary mystery stories. But I don’t see myself as a mystery writer. If I have the chance, I’d like to try my hand at new genres as well, such as pure literature (junbungaku) and pure-love (jun’ai) novels.

Use Written Texts to Gain the Knowledge and Wisdom to Survive in Today’s World

I’ve been teaching at Hosei University for 36 years now. Looking back at how students have changed over this time, as an educator I find it disappointing that students are reading less and developing a stronger aversion to engaging with written texts.

I am fortunate, however, in that my works have also been dramatized. Creepy became a feature-length film, and my 2016 novel Iari Mienai Kao (Eerie: Invisible Face) was made into a serial drama on the WOWOW satellite TV network. I was very happy that a commemorative screening was held on campus, and many students came along to catch a glimpse of the popular actors in attendance. I hope that the screening inspired some of these students to read the original novel too.

I believe that the integrated knowledge and wisdom needed to survive in today’s world can be cultivated by honing one’s reading comprehension and imagination through engagement with text-based media. I hope to continue writing quality works that stimulate students’ interest in reading.

Eccentric character underpins strengths as a novelist and an educator

I’ve been an avid reader ever since my elementary school days. Ichiyo Higuchi’s Takekurabe (Growing Up) is in the list of my top five favorite novels even today. Other works that influenced me included Tatsuo Hori’s Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Has Risen) and Mugiwara Boshi (The Straw Sunbonnet), and in junior high school I started writing my own pure love novels.

Submitting my work for the New Author’s Prize in the Grand Prize for Best Mystery Novels and winning a prize has led to my reputation today as a mystery writer, but I don’t think my work can be called mystery in the strict sense. I’m not concerned with genre, and I still hope someday to write a work of pure literature.

To tell the truth, when I first started working at university I saw it as a way of getting by until I achieved my dream of becoming a novelist, so I wasn’t serious about it. I also felt some hesitation at entering the same profession as my father, who had also been a university professor. When I entered graduate school it was with the same sense that I was simply stalling for time. Even when I finally decided to get a job as a university faculty member I continued to cherish the dream of one day becoming a novelist.

Now that my dream has been fulfilled, I hope to continue my work as an educator as well. This work also contributes to my activities as a writer.

Reading over my prizewinning novel Creepy now, I notice that the paragraphs are lengthy and the style is rigid. The plot development is also idiosyncratic. I suspect that these characteristics are things I picked up over many years working as an educator. They make the novel rather rough around the edges, but it seems that people interpreted them as intriguing marks of the author’s eccentricity.

Assuming this eccentricity is what makes people appreciate my novels, if I was to give up my position as a university professor, my work might lose its unique character and become less interesting. As an educator, I get to see how students of today tend to seek out broad interpretations of the world around them, and this makes me think it best to keep a balance between my two roles.

Observing students recently, I sense a uniformity of taste and a tendency to conform to others’ expectations. I want my students not to be afraid to accept things that are different from others, or to resist conformity. Being eccentric and individual can sometimes help you achieve your dreams. What do I want to do? Is this the right way? Ask yourself those questions, and hold on to your individuality.

*1 Peripeteia: An unexpected outcome that is the reverse of expectations. Originally defined by Aristotle in Poetics.

Yutaka Maekawa, Professor

Department of Intercultural Communication, Faculty of Intercultural Communication

Born in Tokyo in 1951.

Graduated from the Department of Law, Faculty of Law at Hitotsubashi University, completed the Master’s program and withdrew after admission to the Doctoral program in Comparative Cultures, Graduate School of Human Sciences at The University of Tokyo. Master of Letters. Served as a Lecturer in the Faculty of Liberal Arts of Gunma University before his appointment to Hosei University in 1982 as a Lecturer in the Faculty of No.1 Liberal Arts. Appointed Professor at the same faculty in 1989 and in the Faculty of Intercultural Communication in 2003, a position he has held ever since. Awarded the New Author’s Prize in the Grand Prize for Best Mystery Novels in 2012. His latest works include Creepy Criminals (Kobunsha Bunko) and The True Criminal: Kawaguchi Incident Investigation Report (Kobunsha)