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The Agatha Christie of Japan: An Interview with Shizuko Natsuki

An Interview with Japanese Shizuko Natsuki, who defied Japanese tradition to become an award-winning mystery writer.

shizuko natsuki

FROM THE ARCHIVES: This story was first published in The Armchair Detective Vol. 20 Issue 1, Winter 1987.

When it comes to naming the foremost female writer in Japan, no one else even comes close: Shizuko Natsuki is the acknowledged queen of the genre. Her career as a writer of note began unusually early: While still an English Literature major at Keio University, her story “Watashi dake ga Shiteru” (“Only I Know”) received an unprecedented nomination for the prestigious Edogawa Rampo Mystery Award. She subsequently received the top honor in 1973 for her novel Johatsu (Disappearance).

Often dubbed the “Agatha Christie of Japan,” it is ironic that social attitudes almost prevented Natsuki from taking up her writing career. She married into the family of a major petroleum importer, and her husband initially demanded that she give up writing. At first she complied, but she was, fortunately for her readers, unable to suppress her writing talent. Now, two decades later and the mother of two teenagers, Natsuki frequently reflects on this problem of combining motherhood with a career in Japan’s traditionally minded society. In addition to her many works of fiction, in 1986 she published Tsuma-tachi no Hanran (Rebellion of the Wives).

Responding to an increasing interest in modern Japanese literature, several of her short stories have appeared in English in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and last summer her 1984 novel W no Higeki (also a hit film in Japan) appeared in English soon after publication in Japan under the title Murder at Mt. Fuji. This novel centers, as do many contemporary Japanese works, around family conflicts–jealousy, adultery, divorce, and rivalry over an inheritance. In examining a wealthy family’s attempt to cover up the murder of one of its members, Murder at Mt. Fuji emerges as an exceptionally interesting study in conspiracy by group consent.

A petite, small-boned woman of about average size for her generation (many younger Japanese tower over their parents), the 46-year-old Natsuki wears her straight black hair in a modified bob. Her most distinguishing feature is her large black eyes, which give her an inquisitive appearance. Although not widely recognized by her countrymen, she often wears large tinted glasses when in public. While Natsuki speaks and reads English, the following dialogue was conducted in Japanese, in a limousine en route to Mt. Takao in West Tokyo.

Schreiber: Where are we headed now?

Natsuki: I’m on my way to talk to a famous potter in Mt. Takao. The book I’m working on now has a hero who is a pottery maker, so I have to learn as many details as I can about pottery.

Schreiber: People often refer to you as the “Agatha Christie of Japan.” Are you comfortable with this sort of comparison?

Natsuki: No, not at all. As for my being a female mystery writer, it’s certainly an honor to be compared with such a great author, but most of her books focused on a different era, around the 1920s. Christie’s novels don’t go into social problems the way mine do. These days, mystery stories have to reflect real human problems in a way that readers can relate to, so, if people feel that I resemble Christie, except on the superficial level of being a female mystery author, I must be doing something wrong.

Schreiber: What is your background?

Natsuki: I was born and raised in Tokyo but spent part of the war years in Atami [a seaside resort town]. I finished Keio University at 22 and married two years later. Since then, I lived over ten years in Fukuoka, Kyushu. I’ve been living in Nagoya [a major city about two hours from Tokyo] for the past nine years. My husband is an executive in an oil company.

Schreiber: Did your husband oppose your taking up writing?

Natsuki: In the beginning, he was against it and asked me to give it up. But now he doesn’t complain. I’ve done a good job of taking care of the household, and now the children are almost grown up. Still, it’s the norm today for a “Japanese husband” [she says this phrase in English] to oppose his wife’s working and earning money.

Schreiber: Had you held any other jobs prior to writing your book?

Natsuki: While in college, I worked on scenarios for TV dramas, but I got married soon afterward and didn’t do much writing for a while after that. In Japan, very few women write mystery novels, and many people asked me to write, so I started again.

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Schreiber: From what age did you want to become an author?

Natsuki: From about the sixth grade of elementary school, I started thinking about it in passing, but I more or less passed through that phase. I goofed off all through college. I didn’t have any confidence in becoming a writer.

Schreiber: Are there any mystery stories in particular which you liked when you were younger?

Natsuki: I did read a lot from high school onward. I remember enjoying The Red Redmaynes [1922] by Eden Phillpotts, which led me to Agatha Christie, and from there to Poe, S.S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, and others. But I guess that for me Christie was the most interesting, become her stories seemed so well put together, so plausible.

Schreiber: Do you receive a lot of mail from your readers, and do they write in to suggest ideas for stories?

Natsuki: I get fan mail on occasion, about half from men and half from women, but they don’t suggest anything. They just write that they enjoyed my book, and that I should keep up the good work.

Schreiber: What is your daily schedule like? Do you have a set time for your work?

Natsuki: I get up early, around 6:40, and fix breakfast and obento [a Japanese-style box lunch usually containing rice, grilled fish or meat, and pickles] for my husband and children. Then I go back to sleep. In the old days, I used to start with the housework as soon as everyone left, but now I need more rest. I start writing around 10:30 and work until late afternoon. My office is upstairs, in a six-mat Western-style room [i.e., carpeted, not having straw tatami mats] full of books. I kneel on the floor beside a big writing table that almost fills up the whole room.

Schreiber: In what sort of format do you do your actual writing?

Natsuki: I write by tategaki [in vertical columns] on 400-character genko yoshi [standard manuscript form paper] using a fountain pen. Id say most Japanese authors still do their writing by hand.

Schreiber: Really? I’d say very few Western authors still do their writing in longhand. Haven’t you thought about trying a word processor?

Natsuki: Actually, I have been considering getting one, but now my son is preparing for his high school entrance examinations; I’m afraid if I had one in the house he would start playing with it and get distracted from his studies. (She smiles.) I’ll start looking around for one after this April. But I don’t think I will actually use it for my work – probably just for correspondence.

Schreiber: Are there any characters who appear regularly in your books?

Natsuki: Well, I don’t make it a rule, but I have used on character, Miss Riyako Asabuki, in a number of my novels. She’s a female lawyer, about 26 years old when she started, but I guess now she’s getting along in years. (She smiles.)

Schreiber: Is Miss Asabuki based on an actual female lawyer or someone else you know from real life?

Natsuki: No. She’s completely fictitious.

Schreiber: How do you obtain information or technical material for your stories? If you have questions do you submit your manuscript to a doctor or lawyer, for example?

Natsuki: It depends on the situation. Most of the time, I just call them on the phone and ask them whatever I need to know. I’ve never attended an autopsy, although I did go into a morgue on one occasion to see what it looked like.

Schreiber: A number of interesting recent English-language mysteries set in Asia were based on some actual historical incident, such as the disappearance of the fossils of the Peking Man, and so on. Have you used this method in any of your own books?

Natsuki: In Misshitsu Koro [Locked Room Voyage], the plot is loosely based on the murder of a Japanese girl, which took place on the Soviet passenger liner Baikal several years ago. Another idea I’ve had is to do a book, which covers a much wider scope, about the U.S.S. Indianapolis. This was the Navy cruiser, which transported the atomic bomb from California to Tinian. On its return, the ship was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine, and there was supposed to have been a panic and some sort of racial incident among the black and white members of the crew. Many of the sailors were eaten by sharks. Anyway, I’d thought about doing a fictionalized account, but I haven’t had the time

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Schreiber: What would you say is the most difficult part of writing a mystery novel?

Natsuki: For me, I’ve always thought that it is creating a story with realism, to make it plausible for the reader. The other thing is developing believable motives for the characters’ action.

Schreiber: Why do you think Murder at Mt. Fuji was selected to be the first of your books to be translated and published into English?

Natsuki: At the suggestion of my agent, we had Mt. Fuji and two other novels, Kokubyaku no Tabiji [Journey in Black and White] and Daisan no Onna [The Third Woman] translated and submitted together. It might be that they thought Murder at Mt. Fuji would be the best choice because Mt. Fuji is in the title.

Schreiber: One of the differences between the original Japanese novel and the English version of Mt. Fuji is that you have a young American woman, Jane Prescott, figure prominently in the story.

Natsuki: Yes, I wrote in that part before sending off the manuscript for translation. I thought the change would make the book a bit more appealing to foreign readers, by giving them at least one character they could relate to, so to speak.

Schreiber: You’ve used overseas locations for a number of your novels. Do you do much traveling?

Natsuki I always try to go abroad once a year. I’ve been to the U.S. four times and Europe three, but it’s mostly to get material for stories, not for vacations. A number of my books were based outside Japan. For instance, Daisan no Onna [The Third Woman] was in Paris. Kokkyo no Onna [Woman at the Border] took place in San Diego, and Yasei Jidai [The Wild Era] was mostly in Northern England. In Roma Kyuko Satsujin Jiken [Murder on the Rome Express], the entire action takes place on a train from Paris to Rome. But my next book will be set in Hokkaido [Japan’s northernmost island].