A Life in Mystery: The Literary World of Japanese Author Yuzuki Yūko

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Japanese author Yuzuki Yūko is known for penning hardboiled mystery novels, but her latest book explores the complexity of family bonds. In our interview, she discusses the book, and how she became a writer.

Yuzuki Yūko

Novelist. Born in Iwate Prefecture in 1968. She won publisher Takarajimasha’s top mystery award for her 2008 debut novel Rinshō shinri (Clinical Truth) and has claimed such literary prizes as the Ōyabu Haruhiko Award and Mystery Writers of Japan Award. Several of her works, including Korō no chi (Blood of Wolves) and Banjō no himawari (The Sunflower on the Shōgi Board), have been adapted for television and film. She lives in Yamagata Prefecture.

Award-winning author Yuzuki Yūko has built her reputation penning hardboiled stories that depict the criminal underworld in all its barbarous details. Works like Korō no chi (Blood of Wolves) unfold in the violent realm of the yakuza, and Banjō no himawari (The Sunflower on the Shōgi Board) weaves a captivating tale that starts with a grisly find. Several of her novels have been made into successful films and television dramas, illustrating the broad appeal of her storytelling style.

Her most recent book, Kaze ni tatsu (Against the Wind), is a departure from the rough-and-tumble genres she is known for. In it she weaves a moving story that explores the complexity of family relations. We recently sat down with Yuzuki to talk about her approach to writing and what inspired her latest work.

Family and Tradition

Yuzuki chose her native Iwate Prefecture for the setting of Against the Wind, which centers on a traditional Nanbu ironware foundry in Morioka run by a father-son pair. The relationship begins to teeter when the elder Obara Takao takes in a ward of the state, a high schooler who developed a shoplifting habit to cope with his own troubled relationship with his elite father. The complex dynamics of the different families play out as the story unfolds, but through all the difficulties and turmoil, the novel ends on a bright note that leaves readers with a warm afterglow—not something fans typically expect from Yuzuki.

The cover of Kaze ni tatsu (Against the Wind), published in Japanese by Chūōkōron Shinsha in January 2024. (© Hanai Tomoko)
The cover of Kaze ni tatsu (Against the Wind), published in Japanese by Chūōkōron Shinsha in January 2024. (© Hanai Tomoko)

The book represents a new approach to storytelling for the author. “The idea of writing a family novel came from an editor at the evening edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun, which serialized the story,” Yuzuki explains. The thinking was that the genre would appeal to newspaper readers more than her characteristic hard-nosed detective stories. “The world of cops and bad guys is far removed from that of most readers, but family is something that everyone can relate to.” From there, the discussion turned to setting the work in her home prefecture of Iwate, something she had never done before.

Yuzuki admits that she struggled at first to come up with a storyline readers would find compelling. She eventually found inspiration in an earlier novel she wrote featuring an investigator for the family courts. While researching the book, she learned about a legal arrangement for juvenile offenders called hodō itaku. “Under the system, a judge entrusts the rehabilitation of a juvenile to a volunteer citizen who looks after the youth, including providing employment or ensuring they attend school,” she says. “I was fascinated by the idea and knew I wanted to write about it.”

With hodō itaku youths are typically placed in households that run small family businesses—often construction firms, restaurants, and farms—or in foster care facilities. For a story based in Iwate, Yuzuki says that it made sense that the family was involved in manufacturing traditional Nanbu tekki. “I felt it was a tale I could tell.”

Expressing the Heart

In focusing on the theme of family, Yuzuki avoided making a traumatic event the driving force of the story, instead choosing to explore the subtle emotional bumps and bruises relationships inflict. “Everyone can relate to family friction,” she says. “It often arises from small differences in perception.” She depicts this in the novel through the strained bonds between Takao and his son Satoru and the relationship the family’s foster child Haruto has with his father. She insists that “parents generally act with the best interest of their children at heart, but a child might not see things in the same light.”

Yuzuki wanted to show how these small misunderstandings can build up, creating deep emotional rifts in what outwardly appears to be a stable living environment. “There is more to children’s wellbeing than providing for their physical needs,” she declares. She expresses this in the story in Haruto’s feelings of being suffocated even though his father’s successful legal career gives the impression of a happy homelife.

The situation with Takao and son Satoru is similarly fraught, with the loss of Satoru’s mother at an early age and Takao’s reticent nature and dedication to his craft muting the pair’s relationship. When Haruto appears on the scene, tensions build until something has to give.

Author Yuzuki Yūko. (© Hanai Tomoko)
Author Yuzuki Yūko. (© Hanai Tomoko)

Yuzuki says she was apprehensive about how fans would respond to a novel set in the mundane environments of home and workshop rather than the vibrant, unforgiving city streets. “There is next to no action,” she confesses. “This meant I had to be especially mindful in my storytelling to portray the slow, subtle changes that take place within the characters.”

Yuzuki’s skills as a mystery writer are on full display in this task. She engages and intrigues readers, revealing plot points in a way that keeps them guessing about the motivation of the characters while inch by inch moving the story toward its climax. She answers in turn such burning questions as why Takao takes Haruto in, the direction of his relationship with his son Satoru, and Haruto’s fate. However, she says that bringing Takao’s past to light at the end of the story presented a unique challenge. “Takao is tight-lipped, so it didn’t feel right to have him suddenly spill his guts,” she explains. Turning to the works of Miyazawa Kenji for inspiration, she eventually hit on an approach that does justice to the character.

Part of the appeal of Yuzuki’s storytelling is her ability to infuse the worlds she creates with a tangible reality. In Against the Wind, she describes the process of forging Nanbu ironware and the natural beauty of Iwate in wonderful detail, relying on first-hand research and remembrances from her youth. “I visited the iron casting workshop I used as a model in the book over and over,” she declares. “I’d also lived in Morioka for three years while a schoolgirl and the memories from that time came flooding back.” In the book she describes for readers the sights and sounds of Morioka, including the Chagu-Chagu Umakko festival and local cuisine, illustrating why the city has risen in the rankings of top Japanese travel destinations.

Lessons in Writing

Yuzuki came to writing later in life. Born in Kamaishi on Iwate’s coast, she enjoyed reading from a young age, but never aspired to be a writer. She led a typical life: she married at 21, moved to Yamagata, and devoted herself to caring for her young family. When she was in her mid-thirties, she came across an article in a newspaper describing a writing class taught by several well-known authors and editors. “I recognized the author’s name from browsing at the bookstore,” she recounts. Curious to know what they were like in real life, she signed up for the course.

She ended up attending the monthly class for four years, during which time she began working part-time transcribing interviews and doing research for authors. “Listening to people tell their stories was moving,” she describes. “I found myself looking for an outlet for the different emotions they stirred in me, and as I enjoyed reading novels, I figured I’d try my hand at writing one.”

Her first work won the praise of Shimizu Tatsuo and Ōsaka Gō, two writers she had become acquainted with. “They encouraged me to pursue my writing further. I had my doubts, but it motivated me to keep going.”

A selection of Yuzuki’s books. (© Hanai Tomoko)
A selection of Yuzuki’s books. (© Hanai Tomoko)

From there, her career as a writer moved rapidly forward. With encouragement from others in her writing class, she entered her story in a competition of short fiction sponsored by the Yamagata Shimbun, where it won high marks. Buoyed by the success, she submitted it to a mystery fiction guidebook put out by major publisher Takarajimasha. “My primary motivation for entering was to get feedback, which I desperately wanted so as to improve my writing,” she says. “I hoped that the judges would offer their comments as long as I made it past the first round of selection.”

Building a Career

To Yuzuki’s surprise, Takarajimasha named her novel the best mystery of the year, launching her into the limelight. “I didn’t have the slightest idea what it meant to be a writer,” admits Yuzuki. “There was talk of a second novel, but I just remember being plagued by uncertainty.” She had been drawn to mysteries from a young age through her appreciation of works by Yokomizo Seishi and the Sherlock Holmes series as well as a natural affinity for solving complex puzzles. However, the prospect of building a career around the genre was a very different matter. “Even after writing several books, I’m still clueless about how to carve out a living as an author.”

Yuzuki fills her stories with compelling details, leaving readers to wonder if she has a relative in the police force, a suggestion she rebuffs outright. “I don’t have any connection to law or law enforcement,” she chuckles. “In fact, my family doesn’t have any interest in my writing, unless there’s a film adaptation. Then they want to know who’s going to be in it.” Looking back, she says that making her debut at 40, while somewhat late, worked out for the best. “People’s priorities change as they go through life. When I was younger, I was busy being a wife and a mother. Now that my two kids are married, though, I’m free to focus on myself.”

Experiencing Disaster

A native of the Tōhoku region, Yuzuki was deeply impacted by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. She lost her father and stepmother—her biological mother had died when she was younger—in the massive tsunami that devastated communities in Iwate and other prefectures along the Sanriku coast. Her parents’ home, which stood near the scenic Jōdogahama beach in Miyako, was washed away. “A week passed before I was able to get there from my home in Yamagata,” she recounts. “Nothing remained of the house or surroundings, and I had heard nothing from my parents.” She visited one temporary morgue after another but returned home without learning the fate of her loved ones. “Two weeks later they found my stepmother, and then my father the following week.”

Asked about the impact the experience has had on her writing, Yuzuki says that the scale of the destruction meant that she had to process her loss without traditional objects of grief. “I had precious few keepsakes to remember my parents by as everything they owned had been washed away. When I make a decision in life, though, I think what my father and stepmother might say, which has helped clarify for me the direction I want to take.”

The town where Yuzuki’s parents lived was completely washed away in the tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake. (© Hanai Tomoko)
The town where Yuzuki’s parents lived was completely washed away in the tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake. (© Hanai Tomoko)

Rather than lamenting the loss of personal effects, Yuzuki searched for solace in the emotional legacy of her parents. “It was the intangible, not physical items, that came to have the most meaning.” She suggests her experience influenced her to depict in Blood of Wolves and Against the Wind the passing of emotional legacies from one character to another. “In the end, the characters I create are extensions of my thoughts and feelings. In fact, fiction provides a wonderful platform to freely express my mind.”

Although Yuzuki has not written specifically about 3/11, a new serialized work features characters dealing with the aftermath of a disaster. “The main character is in police custody when an earthquake hits, and the story follows the person’s attempts to travel north to the site of the disaster. I wasn’t trying to recreate my own experience, but my thoughts and emotions on the tragedy are certainly woven into the fabric of the story.”

A professional writer takes pride in using the medium of the novel to share ideas and sentiments with readers, and Yuzuki gives fans of her work ample to contemplate in her latest book—and plenty to look forward to in the years to come.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Japanese author Yuzuki Yūko at Nippon.com’s Tokyo office on February 19, 2024. © Hanai Tomoko.)

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