I was looking forward to Prefecture D, Hideo Yokoyama’s four loosely interconnected novellas, which presents itself as a mystery novel. I’ve enjoyed the spattering of crime novels/authors translated from Japanese that I’ve read over the past decade or so: Keigo Higashino, Miyuki Miyabe, Kirino Natsuo. This book, published 20 years ago in Japan (and set in the late 1980s), won the country’s leading prize for crime fiction. It is set in the police headquarters of the prefecture of the title. Yokoyama himself was an investigative reporter before turning to fiction.
I expected the novellas’ mysteries to have crime, criminals, detectives, and weapons. Unfortunately, this book carves out a completely new species of crime/mystery fiction: the plodding bureaucratic procedural.
Yokoyama’s new sub-genre offers psychological insights into the mindsets and situations faced by investigators and bureaucrats (i.e., middle management types). It focuses on the intricacies and underpinnings of a prefecture’s police department and the hierarchical relationships among management, workers, and miscellaneous personnel. It’s neither a “who done it?” nor a “why done it”; it’s more of a “how-can-I-protect-the-organisation-from-losing-face-due-to-this-incident thing?” No real crime, few criminals, neither hero detectives nor heinous/ingenious criminals.
Halfway through the second of the four novellas, I finally identified the protagonist: it’s the bewildering, labyrinthine police bureaucracy within which the officers/officials struggle for promotion, security, and status. Layers of departments and sections, managers and superintendents, sub-managers, division heads, and sub-heads. Mazes where Machiavellian back-stabbing flourishes and stepping over your prostrate rivals while they are bowing is rewarded. Little or no transparency. Mutual back-scratching between persons A and B that oils the layers of the bureaucracy and silences their creaking.
The quintessentially Japanese idea of transfer season functions as a plot device or backdrop in these stories. In many Japan’s industries, in February and March, thousands and thousands of company personnel are transferred horizontally. Although these transfers aren’t “mandatory,” refusing them will damage future job prospects because in Japan, nails protruding from a piece of plywood are hammered back into it. Japanese corporations and bureaucratic institutions want team players.
In the first story, Shinjo Futawatari is juggling an intricate staff-assignment puzzle during transfer season when he learns that a high-level executive refuses to accept his move, threatening to topple his elaborate schedule. He must convince Michio Osakabe to accept it or “the force will lose face.” Osakabe blows him off, “It’s none of your concern,” an attitude that is anathema to Japan’s corporate culture that generally discourages independent thought or action. Futawatari investigates Osakabe’s recalcitrance, but his efforts involve more waiting outside of his house than actual sleuthing. The ending seems pat and involves a series of crimes that happened years ago.
In the next novella, Shindo Yamamoto of the Internal Affairs section investigates a fax that accuses a member of the department of cavorting with a bar hostess. He delegates to his subordinates without doing much investigating himself. The officer is eventually cleared based on the analysis of a word processor’s font type.
The book does offer glimpses into Japan for either the uninitiated or the curious. For example, young workers live in gender-segregated-dormitories and endure evening curfews. Department officials quickly and easily gain access to a missing colleague’s bank accounts to determine whether she withdrew any large sums, even though she’s only been missing for a few hours. A clerk reduces the shame of a buyer of pornography by avoiding any hint of eye contact. The career of an officer who suffers from a temper, especially when he’s drunk, is shielded when his verbal berating of a taxi-driver incident is hushed up.
Yokoyama criticises how Japan is dealing with the idea of women working outside the home. A senior management officer complains that his branch has too many women: “I suggest you look into getting some of these girls a husband.” Such gender attitudes continue to plague Japan, but Yokoyama recognised the problem 20 years ago.
The last story focuses on Masaki Tsuge who vets the interaction between politicians and police officers before an important prefectural assembly to ensure that no “gotcha” questions surface. Cooperation must be preserved at all costs: more saving face. This story’s ending pulls back the silk screen of a trap that was set within a trap that functions as an insurance policy to shape another officer’s future actions. The conclusion is slick, unconvincing, and cynical; perhaps that is Yokoyama’s point. He is clearly not a supporter of this Japanese bureaucratic system. Earlier in the story, Tsuge experiences a strong sense of the mediocrity of his own life. His materialistic wife is only interested in shopping and pushing their son to academic success. His son is being bullied at school: “He said nothing [to his son]. Try as he might, he couldn’t think of anything suitable to say to the weak-looking reflection of himself.” This passage too suggests Yokoyama’s criticism.
Any Cop?: Maybe somewhere a market exists for plodding bureaucratic procedurals where middle-managers delegate investigations to their subordinates. But I’d rather feed my noir jones with hard-boiled novels and bend an elbow with crusty, hard-drinking, iconoclastic rule-bending private eyes. Hey, look, Jim Thompson is beckoning from the bar, I better grab the last stool before Charley Willeford’s plops his big ass on it. . .