Lady First by Lea O’Harra
Lea O’Harra on her new novel, the third in the Inspector Inoue mystery series, published by Endeavour Press, and the themes and concerns that underpin it.
Fujikawa, a small town in rural, western Japan in the second decade of the twenty-first century, is finally getting over the shock of having two murders committed in its peaceful environs in the past five years. It is a place where the most excitement the locals usually could look forward to was the occasional house fire or minor traffic accident. But all that changed when the head of the local university was found in his office on campus, his throat slit, and, three years later, the body of a little girl who had gone missing at the shopping mall was discovered in a sports bag discarded in a river, strangled.
Just as Fujikawa’s residents are beginning to think life is getting back to normal, another corpse is found. It’s a local girl, Mayumi Ikeuchi, whose body is discovered under rhododendron bushes in Ogawa Woods, one of the town’s parks.
It’s established she was killed on her way home from her job at a nightclub in a neighboring city, and there isn’t a shortage of suspects. These include Mr Tani, Mayumi’s boss at the club, who likes to leer at and flirt with the girls he employs, and Atsushi Taniguchi, a neighbor of Mayumi’s, a seemingly innocuous businessman but free with his fists around his wife. There is also a sinister loner who lives near Ogawa Woods with his aged, incontinent mother and is rumored to beat her, and even Mayumi’s sister is reported to have been overly, almost unnaturally, possessive of Mayumi.
As a long-term resident of Japan, I naturally choose Japan as the backdrop for my crime fiction. Lady First, like its predecessors Imperfect Strangers (2015) and Progeny (2016) is not only a murder mystery but also an attempt to expose the dark underbelly of Japanese society. While my two earlier novels had addressed such current problems as death from overwork, the hikikomori phenomenon (Japan’s ‘lost generation’ of young shut-ins) as well as Japan’s high suicide rate and the challenges of its aging population coupled with an increase in international marriage in what has traditionally been a homogeneous society, Lady First focuses on the gender imbalance persisting in this ancient civilization which has traditionally treated its female inhabitants as second-class citizens.
In writing Lady First, I have observed an important precedent. 1990s Japan witnessed a boom in Japanese women writers publishing crime fiction that was both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. It was also sociological in its focus. Authors such as Miyuki Miyabe and Natsuo Kirino produced works that can be seen as scathing allegories of the position of women in Japanese society as much as they represent murder mysteries. Like many Asian countries, Japan is a traditionally patriarchal, authoritarian, and conservative society. Its bureaucratic nature and emphasis on maintaining social harmony mean that some writers, constricted by its rules and formality, might feel that it is only by writing ‘fiction’ that they can express the ‘truth’. It has been suggested that there is a common theme in Japanese crime narratives: they reflect a country whose inhabitants can feel trapped in a strictly conformist society.
The female characters in Lady First reflect the realities of a country in which sexism is ingrained. Married women in Japan are not allowed to keep their maiden name (unless they are married to ‘foreigners’). They tend to be offered less attractive employment opportunities than men and earn, on average, 60% as much as their male counterparts. A lowly 1.2% of senior executives in listed companies are female. Only about 10% of Japanese legislators are women. Japan comes in at an abysmal 98th place in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. And so on.
I have lived on Shikoku – the smallest and most rural of Japan’s four main islands – for thirty-three years. My husband is a Japanese farmer and we have three grown-up sons. I have worked full-time, as an English professor at a Japanese university, since my arrival in the spring of 1984. There were so few ‘foreigners’ in this corner of Japan in my first years here that I used to be stared at whenever I left my home, with a gang of children in my neighborhood sometimes following me when I went shopping. They were just so curious at what this blue-eyed, pale western woman in their midst might be up to. I feel these experiences have privileged me; my circumstances have lent me the change to arrive at a particularly intimate understanding of Japan and of the Japanese that I hope is reflected in my crime fiction novels. I love Japan. I admire the Japanese immensely for their dignity and integrity, their self-discipline and humanity. I just wish Japanese women could be accorded the same privileges as Japanese men, in the workplace and at home.
Read more about the author and her novels.