The Bronze Devil


MacArthur and HirohitoPublished in 1949, The Bronze Devil was Ranpo Edogawa's first Boy Detectives Club novel since 1939 (note Detective Akechi's sly reference to this decade-long leave of absence in chapter six), when press censorship and wartime sumptuary laws ("Extravagance is the Enemy") put the series—inspired in no small part by British author Arthur Conan Doyle—on hold.

Over that ten-year span, Edogawa published only a single novel, a standalone mystery, in 1943.

During the war, Edogawa wrote short stories more in line with the war effort (similar to how Hollywood Sherlock Holmes movies of the era had Holmes fighting the Nazis). However, he did so under various pseudonyms in order to disassociate these stories from his well-established and popular Detective Akechi and Boy Detectives Club mysteries.

The end of the war in 1945 brought General Douglas MacArthur and the Occupation to Japan. Accompanying the conservative MacArthur (who briefly ran in the 1948 Republican Party presidential primary) was a small army of New Deal idealists determined to reform Japanese society along democratic lines. New press freedoms soon followed.

The enthusiastic embrace of those press freedoms produced a tidal change in the Japanese mass media. Driven by a "hunger to speak," the number of publishers increased six-fold over the next six years. Film production prospered as well.

Akira Kurosawa made nine movies during the Occupation, beginning with No Regrets for Our Youth in 1946 and One Wonderful Sunday in 1947.

In 1946, Ranpo Edogawa co-founded Jewels, a journal dedicated to mystery fiction, and went on to publish four novels between 1949 and 1952.

Sazae-san, Machiko Hasegawa's family-centered newspaper comic, debuted in 1946. An anime series based on the comic has been in production since 1969, making it the world's longest running animated television series.

Shizuko Ohashi co-founded Notebook for Living in 1948, a home improvement magazine for women still in print.

In 1949 alone, 45,000 manuscripts were submitted to Occupation censors for approval. Ah, and there was a rich irony. As Supreme Commander Allied Powers (SCAP), MacArthur was in a very real sense Japan's last shogun. The idealistic goals promulgated by the Occupation planners notwithstanding, the reputation of his office took precedence.

When it came to what freedoms the press enjoyed, SCAP had the final word. In 1948, Lindesay Parrott, Tokyo bureau chief for the New York Times, observed that "all major policy still is made by the Occupation authorities and even the most minor detail is checked and counterchecked on local levels by military government teams."

Perhaps an even richer irony was that MacArthur's "super-government" running Japan relied heavily on the existing Japanese bureaucracy, meaning that for the most part, Japan's wartime censors simply changed the nameplates on their offices and went to work for the new boss. And in Japan, the first rule of the Occupation was: "You do not talk about the Occupation."

As a result, The Bronze Devil contains not a single mention of the Occupation or the approximately 200,000 soldiers and civilians deployed throughout Japan under the command of SCAP and the British Commonwealth Occupation Force.

For a writer like Edogawa, discretion proved the better part of valor. Not that censorship is a good thing, but by skirting the obvious topical references, Edogawa imbued The Bronze Devil with a timeless quality, such that it could have taken place practically anytime between the end of the war and the early 1960s.

There is one important exception that does pin down the time frame for those familiar with the social conditions of the period—the war orphans that Yoshio Kobayashi recruits to form the Street Gang Irregulars.

A 1948 Ministry of Health and Welfare report put the number of orphaned and homeless children in Japan at 123,510. The majority were placed with relatives or sent to orphanages. But thousands still fell through the holes in Japan's shattered social safety net. Yoshio's recruitment pitch sums up the hard lives the war orphans were living.

All right, gentlemen—by which I mean all of you here—the gang bosses have you picking up cigarette butts. I don't have a problem with that. But some of you are stealing as well. Don't think you can fool me. I know what you're up to. I also know that it's not like you gentlemen want to become pickpockets and thieves. You don't have a choice, right? You lost your fathers and your mothers. There aren't any adults around to take care of you. But I'm telling you, if you keep going down that road, it's not going to end well. So I've got an offer for you. I'd like you to join my Boy Detectives Club.

In Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, historian John Dower provides a few more details in a short description that is remarkably congruent with Edogawa's.

Many of these children lived in railroad stations, under trestles and railway overpasses, in abandoned ruins. They survived by their wits—shining shoes, selling newspapers, stealing, recycling cigarette butts, illegally selling food coupons, and begging.

Having found a home in the black market, more than a few of the war orphans went on to become foot soldiers and lieutenants in the burgeoning yakuza.

But at least in The Bronze Devil, thanks to Detective Kogoro Akechi and Yoshio Kobayashi, the Street Gang Irregulars could look forward to something other than a life of crime. For Edogawa's readers (the same age as the Irregulars), they could even be said to symbolize the hopeful future Japan would be racing toward less than a decade hence.

previous Copyright by Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved. next