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  • Combating Youth ViolenceThe Emergence of Boy Sleuths in Japan’s Lost Decade
  • Tsugumi Okabe (bio)

The boy sleuth is a common character type in shōnen tantei manga (Japanese comics that feature boy detectives), which flourished against the backdrop of the shifting political and cultural landscape in Japan during the so-called Lost Decade of the 1990s and was intended to make sense of a society run amok by escaping into the past. Many tantei manga produced in this decade appropriated the works of classic authors and their iconic detectives from both the Japanese and Western literary traditions, recreating classic tales of detection in a graphic medium for a contemporary Japanese audience. Kindaichi shōnen no jikenbo1 (Case files of young Kindaichi, 1992–) written by Yōzaburō Kanari or Seimaru Amagi and illustrated by Fumiya Satō, and Meitantei Konan (Detective Conan, 1994–) by Aoyama Gōsho, particularly revived the classic mode of detective fiction in the 1990s, popularizing the genre of shōnen tantei in their manga series. Classic tales of mystery and detection proved nostalgic, fostering a kind of escapism for an audience that sought to cope with a society in a state of crisis. In a society struggling to define itself in the aftermath of the burst of the economic bubble, which some have argued “allowed the Japanese populace to perceive that Japan had again been defeated by the US in the war over the global economy,”2 the boy sleuth reemerged as a site of national trauma from which Japanese audiences could consider contentious questions of youth identity, hybridity, tradition, modernity, and Japan’s relationship to the West.

Since the publication of the abridged and translated version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip” (Kojiki Doraku) in 1894, followed by the serialized version of A Study in Scarlet in 1899, the character of Sherlock Holmes has undergone various cultural transformations in Japan, as seen in examples such as Edogawa Rampo’s Akechi Kogorō (1894–1965), Okamoto Kidō’s Inspector Hanshichi (1917–37), Unno Jūza’s Homura Sōroku (1897–1949), and Yokomizo Seishi’s Kindaichi Kōsuke (1902–81), to the extent that Kindaichi Kōsuke demonstrates astute observational skills. Considering the international and imperial climate in which Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes emerged—in which [End Page 92] foreign caricatures proved necessary for the empire’s claim of superiority and that worked to stabilize the values of a predominantly white, male, and Victorian middle-class society—it is not surprising that these various adaptations of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes emerged at a time when the Japanese empire itself was experiencing rapid urbanization, modernization, and total war. As Caroline Warren Reitz has observed, the detective story is itself “a product of heated debates about national character.”3 Martin A. Kayman proposed that “detective stories are divided between those, most frequently American, set in the world of industry and finance, and those which dwell on the family and the home. With British stories in particular, the public dimension is often provided by the trace of Empire.”4 Early Japanese detective fiction, which often dealt with themes regarding writers’ deep-seated anxieties about the limitations of cultural imitation, served as a commentary on what was at stake for a nation trying to gain footing equal to the West,5 drawing curious attention to the ways in which discourses of imperialism, nation, and identity were negotiated in the role of the “Japanese” detective. In my research on Japanese detective fiction and manga, I have found that the questions of identity and hybridity, which lie at the core of many classical detective narratives, tend to flourish at pivotal moments in Japanese history: the rise and fall of the empire, its period of postwar recovery and restoration, and again during the Lost Decade. Moreover, it is especially within the magna genre, adapted or inspired by classic Japanese and Western detective fiction, that this theme is invoked.6

Public discourse on perceived youth problems is common across cultures and generations. Critics such as Ilana Nash have made a strong connection between the rise of the cultural anxieties of American teenagers, who were “recognized as...


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pp. 92-112
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