Sophians Talk about Japan and the World

A Pioneer in Japanese Police Procedural Novels with a New Spin on the ‘Whodunit’

Bin Konno

Opportunity to Become a Writer Presented Itself as I Was Making the Most of Student Life

Bin Konno Novelist

I applied for Sophia University because I had a thing for pop singer Agnes Chan, who was a student at the International Division (now the Faculty of Liberal Arts) at the time. I failed the first time around–possibly something to do with my less-than-admirable motivation for applying. While I was studying to retake the entrance exam the following year, I started to think about what I really wanted to do. I changed my choice of major, and applied for the Department of Journalism, which seemed better suited to my interests.

As a student at Sophia, I found it the ideal university. The campus is compact and there aren't too many students; even though it is in central Tokyo it doesn't feel uncomfortably crowded as you might expect.

Just like today, there were a lot of female students at Sophia when I studied there. But in those days they were all from particularly well-to-do families, so we were careful to be gentlemen–when we saw them coming, we were quick to get out of the way and give them plenty of space to pass [laughs]!

I was inspired by the lectures at Sophia, because unlike preparing for entrance exams, I was finally able to choose the subjects I wanted to study and pursue them in depth. For my general education classes, I took lectures by Japanese linguistics scholar Professor Haruhiko Kindaichi and also a number of science courses, and they were all interesting.

Outside of class, I was a member of the tea ceremony club and the karate club. I had started to learn the tea ceremony when I was in high school, and it just happened that the club at Sophia practiced the same school of tea ceremony. We would practice in a Japanese-style room in a building at the edge of the sports ground, and I remember wiping dust off the vinyl tatami matting before each practice. I took up karate because I had been a fan of Bruce Lee since I was a child. I still practice karate now, and I use this experience a lot in my work.

In the fall of my first year I also started a part-time job at a marketing research company. The job kept me pretty busy; in my third year I started working at their office, and went to campus from there when I had lectures. I gradually started to get opportunities to write articles for magazines, which was great training.

I really had my hands full with my commitment to my lectures, clubs, and my part-time job. Apart from that, I guess a memory of student life that stands out for me is getting my heart broken–the pain of rejection that comes back to me when I remember the beautiful fall leaves on campus [laughs]!

Just as I was making the most of my busy student life, an unexpected opportunity encouraged me to try writing a novel, and I was awarded a prize for new writers by a magazine. Such chances are so rare, I decided then and there that I wanted to–no, had to–become an author.

The Good Fortune of Starting Out with the Pocket-edition Novel Boom

Bin Konno Novelist

When I first started out, the real world was tougher than expected. The magazine's straight-talking editor broke it to me that I wouldn't be able to make a living with just a rookie writers' award, so I got a job with a record label. But after three years working there, I quit and finally began to focus on writing novels.

For one or two years I didn't get much work and it was tough going, but then Japan saw the start of the economic boom that would become known as the bubble economy. The publishing industry began to do rather well in its own way, and pocket-edition paperback novels became hugely popular. The amount of offers of writing work increased exponentially–suddenly I had double the amount of jobs, and then double that again.

It was around this time that I told my publisher that I wanted to try writing police procedural novels, which are now the core of my work. Just after I had quit my job with the record label, when I had more free time than I knew what to do with, I had started reading adventure novels by Jack Higgins and other writers, which got me into the world of mystery, and before long had found my way to the works of writers like Ed McBain. I wondered why such police procedural novels didn't exist in Japan. Of course there were plenty of Japanese detective novels, but they were mainly whodunits. Recently someone suggested to me that this was because the demand had already been met by detective's casebook-style stories like Shotaro Ikenami's Onihei Hankacho (Onihei's Detective Records ), and when I read them, I had to agree. Onihei Hankacho is just like McBain's 87th Precinct series.

To my surprise, my publisher accepted my wish to try my hand at a new style of novels just like that. So I bought some books about Japan's police system and started to do my research. All organizations tend to have their similarities, so I'm glad that I have the experience of working in a company, because it has helped me a lot when portraying how the characters interact with one another.

This is how I got to writing the Inspector Azumi series, which was a turning point in my career as an author and has become my life's work. Incidentally, I made the protagonist, Inspector Azumi, 45 years old, so as I was in my mid-thirties at the time, I was imagining a character far more mature than I was. But even though I'm now older than Azumi myself, I'm not grown up at all [laughs]! This is why I think his character is now changing quite a lot.

The Very Appeal of Novels Lies in the Fact that You Can't See the Characters' Faces

Bin Konno Novelist

I write many of my novels in the American style, with only numbered sections rather than chapters. One section is about 20 sheets of Japanese manuscript paper, and two sections–about 40 sheets–is one installment of a serialized novel. I normally write five installments for different serialized novels each month–in other words, about 200 sheets–which becomes five books per year. That's the usual pace.

It would be easy if the ideas came to me just like that, but in reality I sit in front of the computer filling pieces of scrap paper with notes, and somehow narrow those down into an idea. I start writing as soon as I have the broad outline of the plot, and it's not uncommon for me to change who did it midway if I come up with a more interesting twist while I'm writing.

I'm also pleased that a considerable amount of my work has been developed for the screen, such as TV drama series. When I watch the actors portraying the characters I created, there are some who–from my point of view as the writer–do a great job in the role, while there are others who seem to be incredibly out of place. Either way, I completely erase the image of the actor from my mind the next time I start writing that character.

Actually, I don't give many details about a character's appearance, such as their stature or facial features. I leave readers to imagine for themselves what the character looks like from the way the character converses with other characters or other mannerisms. In fact I don't even have an image of the characters' features in my head as I write. The characters go from scene to scene in a curious state; they have expressions even though they don't have physical features.

I think that for a novel to be interesting, the author has to be skilled in depicting each character's state of mind, but that doesn't mean it's enough to just provide lots of detail. One technique is to write enough to give readers an opening, and then leave the rest up to them. I think this helps readers to empathize with the characters more.

Television and film directly appeal to viewers' eyes and ears, and in some ways novels can't compete with that. But if we do a good job of engaging readers in a way that is only possible because they can't see a picture, novels will always have their place in peoples' hearts.

When I took media studies as part of my journalism lectures at university, I learned that in the history of mankind there has never been a form of media that has become extinct. Just as the AM radio has survived and has a role to fulfill despite how far advances have been made in television, I'm sure that there will always be a demand for printed novels and our job of creating their content.

In my current role as chair of the Mystery Writers of Japan, Inc., I'm reminded how amazing Japan's mystery novels are at the moment. They're even better than American novels, and may even be the most interesting in the world.

Bin Konno Novelist
Bin Konno

Bin Konno was born in Hokkaido in 1955. While a student at Sophia University, he won the Mondai Shosetsu Prize for New Writers for the short story Kaibutsu ga machi ni yatte kuru (The monsters are coming to town) in 1978. After graduating from the Faculty of Humanities (Department of Journalism) of Sophia University in 1979, he worked for a record label for three years before turning to writing full time. His book Inpei sosa (Cover-up investigation) was awarded the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for New Writers in 2006, and the second book in the series, Kadan: Inpei sosa 2 (Decision: Cover-up investigation 2), was awarded the Yamamoto Shugoro Prize and the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 2008. His wide-ranging hobbies include shooting, darts, scuba diving, and model making. He has turned his hand to various types of entertainment, and is highly acclaimed as a writer of police procedural fiction. He has penned a great number of works, including Ikon (Icon), Rio: Keishicho kyokohan-gakari Higuchi Akira (Rio: MPD Violent Crime Department Inspector Akira Higuchi), Hanamizuki (Flowering dogwood), TOKAGE, Shinrei tokuso (Psychic special investigation ), Shodan (Judgment ), Gishin: Inpei sosa 3 (Suspicion: Cover-up investigation 3), Doki (The contemporary ), and Todo no mitsuyaku (The secret agreement of frozen ground).

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