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Book review: Hit Japanese mystery novel proves life is stranger than fiction

'Lady Joker' delves into bizarre kidnapping and corporate extortion case of the 1980s

Kaoru Takamura's novel "Lady Joker" is well worth the wait for anyone interested in a panoramic portrait of modern Japanese society, including its dark corners, as well as fans of intelligent mysteries. Shown at right is Ezaki Glico President Katsuhisa Ezaki, whose kidnapping in 1984 helped inspire the novel. (Nikkei Asia montage/photo by Kyodo)

One of the most mysterious incidents in the annals of sensational unsolved crimes that dot Japan's postwar history concerns the confectionary company, Ezaki Glico.

In March 1984, company President Katsuhisa Ezaki was abducted from his home and an enormous ransom was demanded. He made his escape some days later. The criminal gang -- which dubbed itself "the Monster with 21 Faces" after a villain in a series of early 20th-century mystery novels -- then threatened to poison the company's products. Shortly afterward, a "fox-eyed" (i.e., narrow-eyed) man in a baseball cap was caught on a security camera tampering with confectionaries on shop shelves.

Over the next 18 months, the Monster widened its focus to include chocolate maker Morinaga and several other food companies, while mocking the police in a series of letters to the media. Thanks to timely warnings, nobody was injured but the companies suffered severe losses as they were forced to make repeated product recalls. On Valentine's Day, some cyanide-laced chocolates were found bearing the label "poison inside," while some unlaced chocolates exhibited the hardly reassuring label "no poison inside." The fox-eyed man was sighted on numerous occasions, but always managed to slip away.

After one midranking police officer committed suicide by setting himself ablaze at his place of work, the Monster called an end to its activities. Rumors swirled, but no hard information emerged about the criminals' identity or motivation, and it is not known to what extent the companies met the extortionists' demands.

Such is the background to Kaoru Takamura's bestselling mystery novel "Lady Joker," which has just appeared in English. Given the story's length and complexity -- over 30 main characters are listed in the dramatis personae -- it was inevitable that the book should be published in two volumes. By delaying the second volume until 2022, Penguin Random House will be keeping English-language readers on tenterhooks for many months to come. It is well worth the wait for anyone interested in a panoramic portrait of modern Japanese society, including its dark corners, as well as fans of intelligent mysteries.

A description and likeness of the "foxed-eyed man" are displayed at a police station in Osaka in 1989.   © Kyodo

Takamura's novel began as a serial in a weekly magazine, running from 1995 to 1997. At the time, most of her readers would have had clear memories of the Glico-Morinaga affair. They might also have been aware that the statute of limitations had passed in 1994 without a single arrest being made. The author substituted a beer company for the food companies in the actual case, shifted the action from the Kansai region of west Japan to Tokyo, and moved the setting to the mid-1990s, with the criminal gang calling itself "Lady Joker."

At the time, there was speculation that members of Japan's burakumin minority group, the target of discrimination for centuries, were involved, and that groups with political connections had advance knowledge of the sabotage and profited from swings in the share prices of the companies. Takamura fleshes out these rumors, giving the Lady Joker crew not only credible motivation, but also something close to justification. She also incorporates some of the Monster's clever moves. Notably, a young man enjoying an intimate interlude with a girlfriend in a parked car suddenly finds himself dragooned into collecting the ransom -- and is duly grabbed by the waiting police.

"Lady Joker" features few action scenes and no bloodbaths or car chases. Conventional story elements, such as the planning of the crime, are skipped over. Instead, Takamura makes brilliant use of changes in viewpoint to explore the inner turmoil of her large cast of characters. She takes us into the mind of a chief executive who is making a huge bet on a new product; a disaffected cop who hates his arrogant superiors; a child growing up in an impoverished burakumin community in prewar northern Japan; and an ambitious young reporter aiming for the scoop of a lifetime. In the end, nearly all of them -- criminals, cops, journalists and highflying businessmen -- appear to have "drawn the joker" in life. They struggle vainly with their organizations, their own mistakes, and social injustices. Redemption is fleeting, if it comes at all.

An aerial view of the storage facility where Ezaki was held captive.   © Kyodo

Takamura studied French literature before joining a foreign trading house in the mid-1970s. Her writing is highly realistic, giving convincing depictions of horse-racing fans, blast furnace technology and stock market scams, as well as the organizational dynamics of the police, press and major companies. Like the American novelist Tom Wolfe, she believes in experiencing what she writes about and gambled at the racetrack herself. She was on the spot with reporters covering the Tokyo police when a gruesome triple murder occurred. A native of the Kansai region in western Japan, she most likely knows more about the Glico-Morinaga affair than has been publicly revealed.

In recent years Takamura has abandoned the mystery genre in favor of literary fiction -- which is perhaps unsurprising, given her preference for psychological and political exploration rather than tension-building and twists. The point of "Lady Joker" is not "whodunit," but "why?"

An excellent TV version of "Lady Joker," comprising seven one-hour episodes, appeared in 2012. Although some details, such as the prevalence of employment discrimination and the influence of "sokaiya" corporate extortionists, appear a bit dated, the story holds up well for the 21st century.

Takamura's writing is highly realistic, giving convincing depictions of horse-racing fans, blast furnace technology and stock market scams, as well as the organizational dynamics of the police, press and major companies.   © Kyodo

As for the solution to the real-life mystery, there must be several people alive today who know exactly what happened but continue to hold their peace. Tough guy Manabu Miyazaki, in his autobiography "Toppamono" (Bulldozer), described the many factors that led the police to consider him the prime suspect. Son of a yakuza and former member of a violent underground arm of the Japanese Communist Party, he indeed bore a striking resemblance to the fox-eyed man who police considered the ringleader. Yet Miyazaki was able to provide a satisfactory alibi and is now a well-known literary figure himself. The Monster's sleep is untroubled.

In her novel, Takamura also touches on the theme of a coming era where companies will be expected to follow socially responsible principles, not just the pursuit of profits. This is already happening in the shape of the ESG (environment, social and governance) investor agenda in many countries, including Japan.

Yet human nature does not change so easily. Economists John List and Fatemeh Momeni of the University of Chicago have found that employees of socially responsible companies are more likely to lie and cheat than others. Likewise, tech companies that publicly supported Black Lives Matter had 20% fewer Black employees than average.

Corporate and other institutional scandals are not going to disappear in Japan or any other place. Behind the facade of planet-saving virtue, the age-old temptations of greed, lust for power and desire to hide unpleasant realities are as common as ever. That is great news for the writers and readers of intelligent mysteries, if no one else.

"Lady Joker, Volume I," by Kaoru Takamura, Penguin Random House

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