The Allied Occupation of Japan under General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, lasted seven years. From 1945 to 1952, close to a million soldiers were stationed in Occupied Japan. Peace explores this turbulent postwar period via a series of violent (and true) crimes: the search for and apprehension of the serial killer Kodaira Yoshio in 1946, the Teigin bank poisonings of 1948, and the still-unsolved Shimoyama Incident of 1949.
Tokyo Year Zero opens on August 15, 1945, a few hours before Emperor Hirohito’s radio speech announcing Japan’s surrender, with the discovery of a young woman’s decomposing body at the back of a flooded air-raid shelter. A Korean laborer is accused because he is on hand and not Japanese. The two Kempeitai (the Japanese wartime military police) officers who were summoned to the scene by the local police pronounce him guilty and, with the emperor’s voice playing in the background, bury him alive.
That’s a lot to unpack in the span of a few pages. The devastation of Hiroshima had occurred just nine days before. The relationship between the emperor and his people, who viewed him as a living god, is starkly illustrated by the patriotic effusions of a junior detective at the beginning of the chapter, and “the sound of one hundred million weeping, howling, wounded people borne on a wind across a nation” at the end. There’s the hatred and racism against Koreans living and working in Japan. The shock, the sense of an imminent collapse of normalcy, and uncertainty about what happens next. Mostly, though, there is the impotent rage of the people of Japan, particularly the men.
One year later, the bodies of two more women are found in a park. Kodaira Yoshio, who will be dubbed the “Japanese Blue Beard” by the media, admits to the rape and murder of one. The second body, no more than a skeleton, seems impossible to identify. But the causes of death are almost identical. Japanese Police Inspector Minami, one of the detectives we met a year ago, works the case. He sees similarities between the murdered women in the park and the body found in the shelter in 1945. Kodaira Yoshio will eventually confess to raping and murdering 10 women, in large part due to Minami’s police work.
But the case takes its toll, as has the Occupation. Food is scarce. Poverty and unemployment are high. The Black Market thrives. And SCAP is seeking out and punishing former Kempei officers for war crimes, banning them from holding specific jobs, such as on the civilian police force. Many of these men have changed their names, shedding former identities. Minami has fallen in with a gangster turned businessman, Akira Senju, trading information for money which he uses to buy food for his family and pills for his mistress. He has lost the respect of his colleagues. His clothes and hair are infested with lice. We get to watch as Minami’s world collapses and he spirals down into madness.
I have haggled and I have bartered. Just to eat. I have threatened and I have bullied. Just to work. But I itch and I scratch again. Gari-gari. My hand aches and my body stinks. Of defeat. I wipe my face and I wipe my neck. And I curse. I have come to the end of my own street. Ton-ton. I walk down the street to my own house. Ton-Ton. I open the gate to my own house. Ton-ton. I go up the path to my own house —
The writing is akin to a philharmonic orchestra, with Peace as conductor making use of a dizzying array of literary instruments — alliteration and consonance, rhythm, and repetition. He dabbles in the second-person point of view. There are fluid stream-of-consciousness flashbacks to the Second Sino-Japanese War (in which Japan invaded Manchuria) broken up into sections throughout the text to form a kind of parallel narrative. He liberally employs onomatopoeic words. “I itch and I scratch. Gari-gari. I itch and I scratch,” and “Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton…” for the ever-present sound of Tokyo being rebuilt in the background. Minami is tortured by his own thoughts, which appear again and again in italics. The subtext of Tokyo, Year Zero is “No one is who they say they are … […] No one is who they seem.” We come to learn that this applies to everyone, including our protagonist.
The 1948 Teigin Case is the focus of Peace’s next book. A man posing as an epidemiologist knocks on the door of a Tokyo bank after hours. He claims there has been an outbreak of dysentery, and SCAP has sent him to inoculate the employees. He demonstrates to them how to take the medicine in two doses. He gives them the first dose and makes them wait a few minutes before administering the second. The second is poison. Twelve people are killed, but a few survive. One of the victims manages, unbelievably, to drag herself into the street and call for help.
In Occupied City, it is an unnamed writer, working on a book about the Teigin Case, who fills the role of the detective. We follow him as he runs through the rain to the Black Gate, Kuromon, which dates back to the Edo period. A critical Tokyo landmark, it appears in all three books. He climbs to a room at the top of one of the guard towers where a séance is being held. The medium stands in a ring of 12 candles and summons 12 spirits. Their accounts of various aspects of the case form a fragmented narrative in 12 parts. Using the séance as a framing device, Peace reveals details of the case that call into question the official report. A tempura artist, Hirasawa Sadamichi, was arrested and confessed to being the poisoner. He quickly recanted but spent the rest of his life in jail. He died in 1987. Interest in the case, fueled in part by conspiracy theories and the Hirasawa family’s attempts to reopen it, continues into the present day.
Peace uses the Teigin Case as an opportunity to pay homage to the Japanese horror writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s two most famous works. The novel shares the same setting as the short story “Rashomon” — a room in the guard tower of the Black Gate. The multiple points of view and contradictory narratives of Occupied City are taken directly from another Akutagawa short story, “In the Grove.” Probably the author’s best-known work, it is also the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1950 film, which is confusingly titled Rashomon. A dead body is discovered in a bamboo grove, and the reader must reconstruct what happened from multiple and conflicting testimonies. The final account is given by the dead man, speaking through a medium. Even after hearing all the different versions of events, uncertainty remains as to the identity of the murderer.
While all the installments of the Tokyo Trilogy relate to each other — linked together by the period, reoccurring characters, and themes — stylistically, they feel very different. Tokyo Year Zero is densely written. The mood is gritty and ugly. Everything is designed to create a sense of dissonance and to unbalance the reader. The turmoil of the language reflects the turmoil of Minami’s mind and the society as a whole. In Occupied City, the wordplay and linguistic fireworks are subdued. The sentences are more atmospheric and the situation more artificial. Notwithstanding the emotional state of the struggling author attending the séance, there is the sense that Peace has arranged a mannered performance, a carefully choreographed pantomime, for his readers.
In this occult circle of the eleven candles, in this upper chamber of the Black Gate, you cough and you cough-cough, see-fading and hear-failing, you cough and you cough-cough, blood-blots and tear-traces here. Here among the blank tears and the falling papers, you are coughing, cough-cough, and now you are spinning, spinning and spinning, unable to write, unable to see …
It is not until the final volume, Tokyo Redux, which opens three years after the events of Tokyo Year Zero and a year after Occupied City, that we find anything approaching a traditional, conventionally plotted detective novel. There are echoing traces of the complicated patterns and pretensions of the previous books — an occasional italicized passage, another séance — but we have reached the decrescendo of this symphony. It comes as something of a relief. Divided into three parts, and told through three different characters, the case this time is the unsolved murder of Shimoyama Sadanori, the president of the Japanese National Railroad.
Last seen by his driver walking into the Mitsukoshi Department store, Shimoyama failed to arrive at work on the morning of July 5. The police were alerted, and the next day his remains were found on the train tracks of the Joban Line. He was hit by a train, and his body dismembered from the impact. The day before, he’d released a list of 30,000 employees scheduled for dismissal. In the weeks leading up to the announcement, he’d received multiple death threats. According to family and colleagues, he hadn’t been sleeping. After his body was found, witnesses came forward with contradictory statements. To this day, there are competing theories as to whether Shimoyama was murdered or committed suicide.
Harry Sweeney, a Montana detective, is assigned by SCAP to look into the initial disappearance and lead the subsequent murder inquiry. A combination of Philip Marlowe and Gary Cooper, he made his reputation in Japan breaking up Tokyo gangs. Respected and liked by his colleagues, he lacks the arrogance of most of the Americans we’ve met to this point. In contrast, Sweeney is polite to his Japanese driver and colleagues, displaying some self-awareness and even shame: “Ain’t my fault your country got its ass kicked, ain’t my fault you’re working in this elevator here. Ain’t my fault, and it ain’t your fault either, I know that, kid. So let’s lose the smart mouth and bad attitude and just get along. Okay?”
He has a lot in common with Inspector Minami from book one. Both have PTSD, are unfaithful to their wives, self-medicating, and wrestling with demons. Each is self-destructing in his own unique way. Sweeney also has shady dealings with Akira Senju. But we like Harry, whereas it was hard to like Minami, perhaps because Sweeney’s misery is evident from the start while Minami’s deep sadness is obscured by feelings of impotence, rage, and eventually insanity. In many ways, these two novels mirror each other perfectly. (While Occupied City, with its arguably heavy-handed call-outs to Akutagawa and reliance on a fairly contrived framing device, can come off as trying too hard to fit in.)
Not staying for a drink tonight, Harry, said Akira Senju. Of course not, excuse me, you’re a busy man, I know. I was actually surprised you came. I thought you’d have your hands full, trying to find your missing president. Very careless that, I must say, Harry. […] I mean, if you can’t protect the President of the National Railroads, if he can be abducted in broad daylight, then who can you protect, Harry? And if you can’t find him, can’t save him, then who can you save?
Part one of Tokyo Redux, and Harry Sweeney’s story (at least for a time), ends on something of a cliffhanger. Peace jumps 15 years into the future. We take up with Detective Murota Hideki, a disgraced former police officer who we met briefly in Tokyo Year Zero, where he played a small but pivotal role in Minami’s investigation. Now a PI, he too is drawn into investigating the Shimoyama Incident. A publishing house hires Hideki to track down a missing author who they’ve given a significant advance to write a book on the Shimoyama Incident. The author Hideki is sent to look for is Roman Kuroda, who wrote two previous true crime books on Kodaira Yoshio and the Teigin Case. But this seemingly simple case turns into a setup, leading Hideki to revisit events and outcomes from the two previous installments.
Conspiracy is a reoccurring theme in the Tokyo Trilogy. In addition to the crimes, Peace draws our attention to the various aspects and factions of the Allied Occupation. He uses the serial killer Kodaira Yoshio to explore the trauma of the war and its aftermath in Japan, the scramble of former officers in the Japanese Army to hide their identities, as well as the complex US-Japanese relationship after World War II — victor and vanquished, occupied and occupier. The Teigin Case is discussed in conjunction with Ishii Unit, a World War II unit which carried out horrific biological and chemical warfare experiments on Chinese civilians and Allied POWs. These researchers received immunity in the United States in exchange for the data they collected.
As for the Shimoyama Incident, we are led to understand it through the lens of Cold War conspiracy theories. Part three of Tokyo Redux brings us to 1988. Emperor Hirohito is dying. We meet Donald Reichenbach, a former CIA agent who was sent to Tokyo to keep tabs on SCAP during the Occupation and never left. A young woman claiming to be the daughter of a former colleague seeks him out. She has questions about Harry Sweeney and the Shimoyama case. Questions that stir up unpleasant and unsafe memories of a past life.
With Reichenbach, Peace dives deep into John le Carré territory. And not without cause. This final book closes out the series by unexpectedly bringing together all the key players and tying up (more or less) all the loose threads. The entire trilogy is deeply researched, and Peace includes detailed bibliographies at the end of each book. In his introduction to Tokyo Redux’s bibliography, he explains that, while much of the material on
Japanese war criminals, nationalist groups, and secret societies in postwar Japan has been declassified […] weekly intelligence summaries provided by the Office of Reports and Estimates, CIA Far East/Pacific Branch remain redacted for the period around the death of Sadanori Shimoyama. And for only that period.
We like to remember World War II in unequivocal terms. In the United States, we refer to the generation who fought and survived it as the Greatest Generation. In reality, they were just men and women dealing with the times they’d been given. No one walked away unscathed. Not the victors. Not the vanquished. We like to think back on that war as the last good war — but the truth is more complicated and uglier. War is never good. Peace’s characters understand this. They live with it. Until they can’t.
“It’s the way things are,” says Adachi. “The way things are.”
“Well then, I suppose I just don’t like the way things are.”
“And you think I do?” asks Adachi. “You think I do?”
“No,” I say. “But you’re surviving and I’m not.”
And that knife edge of disillusion lingers even after we reach what is, ultimately, a satisfying conclusion to a deeply ambitious and enjoyable series. There is no denying that in his Tokyo Trilogy Peace has built an intricate labyrinth. But it gets better, easier to navigate with each rereading. Rewarding the reader generously in ways other, easier, books cannot.
Tara Cheesman is a freelance book critic.