Move over, Akechi

Even Hirohito wanted to meet Columbo

By William Wetherall

First written circa 1976-1977
Last posted 23 September 2006
Last updated 23 September 2006

Masaaki Kishi, in "Images of Americans in Japanese popular Culture" (Journal of Popular Culture, 11(1), Summer 1975, pages 1-13), concludes his article with a question and an answer (pages 8-9).

There is no fixed image of an American in Japanese popular literature equivalent to that of Moto. The world of popular literature is essentially a narrow one. It will be very difficult for a hero who is an American to compete with his Japanese rivals for popularity. Can [Tsuzuki Michio's character] Mr. Sleigh expect to be as popular as Kogoro Akechi as a private eye? As the heroine of Western Style (1968) points out, "a foreigner has something about him that Japanese people cannot understand." There is little chance for Americans to become best seller heroes. With more Americans coming to Japan, the likes of Mr. Sleigh will have more chances to appear in popular fiction. It is unlikely, however, that they will implant their image as a popular hero in the minds of Japanese people in the near future.

Kishi talks about the world of Japanese popular fiction as though it exists in and of itself. But it symbiotically thrives with the world of foreign, especially American popular literature in translation. And not surprisingly, many authors of mystery fiction in Japan like Tsuzuki Michio, who created Quillion Sleigh, are leading translators of American detective and science fiction.

Popular fiction also co-exists with television. And while Kishi was invoking the logic of a fictional character in Ishikawa Tatsuzo's short story "Seiyoshiki" [Western style] to "argue" that since Japanese can't understand foreigners, Americans have little hope of becoming heroes in Japan.

Everything that was going on in Japanese popular culture, at the time Kishi wrote this, proves that, in fact, some American detectives were quite able to upstage Akechi on his home turf.

Edogawa Ranpo

Akechi Kogoro is the creation of Japan's most famous writer of detective fiction, Edogawa Ranpo (1894-1965).

Ranpo was very active in the development of detective fiction in Japan after World War II. In 1947, he founded the Detective Writers Club of Japan [Nihon Tantei Sakka Kurabu] and became its first president. The club was reorganized in 1963 as the Japanese Mystery Writers' Association [Nihon Suiri Sakka Kyokai], and Ranpo became the association's first board chairman.

Ranpo is considered the writer of the first "original" Japanese mystery story, written in 1923, after which he became the center of an "indigenous" popular literature movement. He was not only a very prolific writer, but after World War II he gave his energy to the promotion of detective and fantasy fiction in postwar serial media, and to the encouragement of new writers.

Ranpo's real name was Hirai Taro, a name that few Japanese will recall if ever they learned it. The pen name "Edogawa Ranpo" was modeled on the name of an American writer that Ranpo studied, admired, and emulated -- none other than Edgar Allan Poe, whose name in Japanese is pronounced "Edogaa Aran Poo" -- which Hirai morphed into Edogaaa Ranpo, ergo, Edogawa Ranpo.

Edogawa Ranpo is now classic in Japan. His works have appeared in numerous personal and mixed anthologies, and they are widely available in paperback.

A couple of Ranpo's novels -- serialized originally in Shonen kurabu [Boy's club] when that magazine was helping to set the trends in the youth culture of its day -- have appeared in a recent [as of 1976] Kodansha paperback series reviving the Shonen kurabu stories of all the writers that contributed to the life of the magazine. On the cover of one of the novels is a representation of Ranpo's famous detective Akechi Kogoro.

The Shonen kurabu revival volume appeared in October 1975, and shortly thereafter a series of car ads featuring Akechi was aired on radio and television, and displayed in selected print media. There is no doubt that Akechi is well implanted in Japanese popular culture.

That an "indigenous" hero like Akechi should enjoy longevity in his parent culture should come as no surprise. Were this not the tendency in all cultures, we would have to redefine the word "classical" as used to describe things from the past that survive as archetypes in today's living cultures.

Nor would an "alien" hero be expected to gain a permanent place in the deepest folds of a culture -- for getting that close to the heart of a culture would be tantamount to losing the "alien" stigma.

The question, then, is how do alien heroes manage to penetrate the outer layers of a culture, and establish themselves to whatever extent for whatever period of time they continue to attract attention? And what happens to indigenous heroes vis-a-vis alien rivals, who come as tourists, sojourners, possibly even immigrants? And how do indigenous heroes respond to the alien hero who seeks a resident visa? Or to one who naturalizes?

Lieutenant Columbo and Kojak

Between April and December 1974 -- before the publication of Kishi's JPC article -- seven Japanese translators, working independently but on common assignment, managed to crank out 12 volumes of the William Link and Richard Levinson Columbo series. By the end of 1975, a total of 20 volumes had been published by Futami Shobo [Futami Books] in its paperback series. By late 1976, no less than 26 volumes of the series were in print.

Rivaling Columbo on primetime Japanese television was none other than New York's beloved Kojak. Several volumes of the Victor Miller Kojak series had been translated and issued in paperback by late 1976.

While Telly Savalas is by far the more familiar figure to longtime Japanese television viewers and connoisseurs of American films, Peter Falk as Columbo quickly became better known than Kojak and undoubtedly attracts more attention when the two "alien" detectives manage to fall in the same time slot on the same evening.

Emperor Hirohito even had Peter Falk on his list of people he wanted to meet during his state visit to America in the fall of 1975, about the time I was reading Kishi's JPC article. And Hirohito wanted to see Falk as Columbo, not as the MacKenzie fashion model.

But even as a salesman, Columbo was bigger than Akechi -- you remember Akechi Kogoro. Not only was Falk selling men's clothing on television and radio and in print, but a distant lookalike -- probably shanghaied while trying to clear customs at Tokyo's Haneda International Airport [writing in 1976] -- was seen almost as frequently, investigating the qualities of a Japanese spray starch.


During the thirty years that have passed since I first wrote this article, Columbo has all but become a Son of Japan. Numerous fictional Japanese detectives have borrowed traits from his persona, and his overcoat.

All the Columbo television movies were dubbed into Japanese for telecasting in Japan. There are as many as 28 tapes in a complete set of VHS releases. You can now buy a boxed set of 22 DVDs.

Akechi Kogoro hasn't gone anywhere. He is still around, if you look. But there is more interest in Lieutenant Columbo -- or Keiji Koronbo [Detective Columbo] as he is better known here.