Ornamentalism and the Japanese Crime Novel

In her 1992 book African Novels and the Question of Orality, Eileen Julien coined the term ‘ornamentalism’ to define the tendency of anglophone African novelists to exaggerate aspects of their cultural identity, as a means of establishing a prominent cultural divide from their Western readers. Brenda Cooper helpfully elaborates that ornamentalism “results from the pressure on African novelists to ‘authenticate’ their writing as genuinely African by dressing up their European structures of thought in the garb of African oral traditions, national languages, and folklore” (12). While Julien and Cooper theorize in the context of postcolonial African fiction, I do believe that they raise an interesting point – one that might affect our understanding of all foreign fiction.

Of course, Natsuo Kirino is a Japanese crime novelist, and her 1997 novel Out is undeniably Japanese in timbre. Written in Japanese (translated into English only in 2004) Out is Kirino’s first novel to be translated into the English language, and its gory plot unfolds in the heart of Tokyo. I am concerned, however, with the extent to which Kirino belabours the ‘Japanese-ness’ of her novel. Anticipating the international success of her novel, is it possible that Kirino emphasised (over-emphasised?) aspects of Japanese life and culture that would have otherwise been left unsaid if aimed at a solely Japanese readership?

An initial reading of Out suggests that, yes, there is a blatantly obvious sense of ‘Japanese-ness’. To Western readers, there seems to be an abundance of untranslated Japanese names; from the first page alone, Masaka Katori arriving off the Shin-Oume Expressway to a boxed-lunch factory in the Masashi-Murayama district leaves little doubt about the novel’s situation.Indeed, the nucleus of the novel, around which the entire plotline orbits, is a boxed-lunch factory. As Nakanishi has identified, the “bento or boxed lunch is a staple of Japanese life”, while the fact that the novel’s principle characters are factory workers ensure that “Out is saturated with the atmosphere of Japanese factory life” (von Hurter).  As the plot unravels and readers are plunged into a world of yen, yakuza, and rice for breakfast, Western readers are left feeling vaguely distanced and disorientated by the foreignness of their reading experience.

And yet, I am unconvinced that this was Kirino’s intention. By scrutinising universal issues such as female subordination, capitalism, violence, human psychology and crime, Kirino broadens her thematic focus away from just Japan, far across international borders. “While capturing the essence of contemporary life in Japan,” Davis argues, “she captures the essence of life in the contemporary industrial world, particularly for women”. While Out is firmly rooted in Tokyo, couldn’t this exact plotline have been executed just as effectively in New York, London, even Belfast? In fact, is the Tokyo represented by Kirino even the Tokyo a Western readership would immediately identify anyway? Seaman has suggested that Kirino’s city does not resemble “the standard landscape of gleaming postmodern architecture, teeming with banks and department stores and decorated with neon signs advertising world famous brand names” (201). Rather, the novel predominantly occupies the workspace and the domestic space – universally recognisable situations. In this, coupled with the fact that “Out presents a land and a people far removed from popular imaginings of a mysterious East of geishas and cherry trees” (Nakanishi), Kirino is breaking down cultural stereotypes of Japan through her novel.

I am led to believe, then, that Kirino did not fall victim to Julien’s ‘ornamentalism’ when composing “Out”. And yet, there appears to be a thread of ‘ornamentalism’ woven into Western criticism of this novel that begs attention; it seems that Western reviewers and critics are obsessed with reading a ‘Japaneseness’ into “Out” that simply isn’t there. We need only look at the titles of such writing to expose this: Stephen Poole’s review in The Guardian is (somewhat inappropriately) titled “Murder sushi wrote”, while Joan Smith’s in The Independent is named “What’s in a Japanese lunch box? Revolt and revenge”. Shockingly, von Hurter asserts in his review that “[f]amiliarity with sushi knives is useful when dismembering a body to be disposed of”. Even if we ignore his error (Masako’s tools of choice being saws and scalpels), von Hurter’s review unveils a deep-seated insistence on over-emphasising cultural significance in the analysis of a text. It seems that this spills over into the practical realm of marketing, also. The Japanese edition of “Out” features an ominous, coffin-like object, suitably foretelling Kirino’s murderous plotline. Meanwhile, various Western editions consistently exhibit nothing more than a close-up image of a Japanese woman’s face.



What we see here, then, is a Western fascination with the foreign other. It is the ‘foreignness’ of a text like “Out” that captures the attention of a Western audience, regardless of whether the writer intends it to be or not. Indeed, I think this is something Kirino addresses in “Out” through the strange relationship between Satake and Anna. Satake’s feelings for Anna fail to progress beyond mere infatuation; he calls her a “beautiful dreamy toy” (50), and consistently recounts superficial details of how she looks. In the scene at the swimming pool, for example, “he studied her body as she ran toward him” (226), and fixatedly details his findings. However, he does not want to pursue physical relations with her, nor does he enjoy her company on a platonic level. He is simply obsessed with observing her. This is of particular significance when we remember that Anna herself is not Japanese; she is from Shanghai. And thus, Satake is guilty of fetishising the exotic other – of detachedly engaging with her for the sake of superficial scrutiny. There is something in this infatuation that is reflective of Western obsession with the foreign. Our fascination with the novel’s ‘Japaneseness’ mimics Satake’s infatuation with the Chinese Anna, and by extension “almost thirty Chinese hostesses” he also employs as prostitutes (42).


Works Cited:

Cooper, Brenda. A New Generation of African Writers: Migration, Material Culture & Language. Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2008.

Davis, J. Madison. “Unimaginable Things: The Feminist Noir of Natsuo Kirino.” World Literature Today 84.1 (2010): 9-11.

Julien, Eileen. African Novels and the Question of Orality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Kirino, Natsuo. Out. Translated by Stephen Snyder. London: Vintage Books, 2006.

Nakanishi, Wendy. “Representations of the Politics of Sexual Violence in Japan” Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies 13.4 (2013).

Poole, Stephen. “Murder sushi wrote”. The Guardian. 27 November 2004. Web. Accessed 23 October 2018.

Seaman, Amanda C. “Inside OUT: Space, Gender, and Power in Kirino Natsuo.” Japanese Language and Literature 40.2 (2006):197–217.

Smith, Joan. “What’s in a Japanese lunchbox? Revolt and revenge.” The Independent. 22 October 2014. Web. Accessed 23 October 2018.

Von Hurter, François. “Reading for Pleasure: Francois von, Hurter: Bitter Lemon Press Publisher Takes a Japanese Odyssey with Natsuo Kirino’s Out.” The Bookseller. 5272 (2007): 22.

11 thoughts on “Ornamentalism and the Japanese Crime Novel

  1. Hi Amy,

    I greatly enjoyed reading your blog post, and found the exoticisation of the characters in the novel and also to international audiences most interesting. I was quite shocked upon reading the controversial reviews of Out in The Guardian and The Independent, and how the the Japanese context of Kirino’s novel was used to make crude titles for the reviews.

    When comparing the book covers for the Japanese edition and the English edition for Out, I was immediately struck by the associations I made between the book covers and my limited knowledge of Japanese culture. When I saw the coffin on the Japanese version, the cartoon-like colouring and simplicity of the cover reminded me of the style of internationally popular Japanese anime and manga. The English edition of the novel however, immediately drew my attention to Fukusaku’s famous Japanese film Battle Royale which premiered only a few years before the release of the English translation for Kirino’s novel.
    My perspective of the covers are based upon stereotypes no doubt but I wonder how many readers made similar assumptions, especially on the English book cover of the close-up of a Japanese girl and with the knife? Do you think the publishers exploited the popularity of the violent Battle Royale in deciding on this cover, or whether these connections are purely based on the outsider view of Japanese visual art as extremely violent and melodramatic?

    – Pelin

    1. Hi Pelin,

      Thanks for your comment. The associations between the Japanese coffin cover with anime and manga hadn’t crossed my mind, but now that you’ve mentioned it, I do see the similarity. I can’t say I’ve ever seen Battle Royale or know much about it, but it does seem plausible that Western publishers could have followed in the footsteps of Fukusaku, especially in light of the film’s success. I stand by my original contention, however, that rather than a mere mimicking of Fukusaku, the cover of the Japanese girl with the knife is symptomatic of a Western fascination with the exotic Other. Even the fact that the knife in this cover is pointing at a Japanese eye, while the girl’s other facial features (lips, half of her nose…) are cropped out of frame, suggests a problematic – and potentially even racist – emphasis of the novel’s ‘Japaneseness’. I do like the point you conclude on, regarding the outsider view of Japanese visual art as extremely violent. I think it makes sense as to why an English-speaking publisher would put a knife in the cover’s central frame.

  2. Hi Amy,

    I thought this was a really well structured and thought out post, and the topic wasn’t something I hadn’t necessarily considered when first reading the text.

    What I found particularly interesting is how you concluded your discussion on ornamentalism and the gaze placed on the foreign ‘other’ with a reading of the relationship between Satake and Anna. Whilst I had considered Anna’s experience as a girl from Shanghai in Japan, and whilst this is explored somewhat in the novel, I had not considered how this could have been used consciously by Kirino to expose the mindset of ‘othering’ in Western readers. As you suggest, I do not believe that Kirino explicitly asks us to focus on the novel’s ‘Japanese-ness’, but there is something about Kirino’s writing of Anna that asks us to focus on her ‘lack’ of ‘Japanese-ness’.

    The term ‘superficial scrutiny’ is a good one for this subject I think. I would be interested in following up this analysis of ornamentalism in Kirino’s first translated novel in relation to her later translated work to see if she continues to, as you say, ‘belabour’ the novel’s ‘Japanese-ness’. This could ask us to reconsider what we have claimed here about her purposes and intentions with ‘Out’.

    – Amy

    1. Hi Amy,

      Thank you for your comment. Anna’s lack of ‘Japanese-ness’ stuck out to me throughout the novel, particularly when considered in conjunction with Satake’s strange infatuation with her. You make a good point, too, about the importance of consulting Kirino’s translated oeuvre in its entirety before jumping to any premature conclusions about ‘Out’. It may even be interesting to consult other translated Japanese crime fiction, to assess whether Kirino’s contemporaries are engaged in a similar discourse.

  3. Hi Amy

    I really enjoyed reading your blog! Your discussion of ‘fetishising the exotic’ is really interesting, and not a point I picked up when I was reading the book.

    I’m interested in your claim that ‘while Out is firmly rooted in Tokyo, couldn’t this exact plotline have been executed just as effectively in New York, London, even Belfast?’. Although I agree that, perhaps, Kirino is using her novel to breakdown Japanese stereotypes, is it too broad a claim to say that, because of her avoidance of stereotypes, the novel is less rooted in Japan? I don’t think that Kirino is necessarily trying to make Out more universal, but is attempting to show an aspect of Japanese life which, although not stereotypical, is still inherently Japanese. However, I do agree with your comment that issues such as ‘female subordination, capitalism, violence, human psychology and crime’ are universal, and this certainly allows a world-wide readership to find common ground in the novel. I wonder if the choice to retain Japanese names and phrases was an authorial choice, or one made by the translator, as it definitely helps to root the novel in Japan.

    Can’t wait to hear what you have to say!


    1. Hi Sophie,

      Thanks for taking the time to reply. I see where you’re coming from, but I think you’ve maybe caught the wrong end of the stick with what I was trying to say. When I made this point – “while Out is firmly rooted in Tokyo, couldn’t this exact plotline have been executed just as effectively in New York, London, even Belfast?” – I simply wanted to suggest that the plot in itself does not require a Japanese setting. Kirino does address universal issues through this plotline, and I was drawing attention to the fact that such universal issues could be replicated in any cityscape. However, I didn’t intend to suggest that, just because Kirino addresses universal issues, the novel is any less rooted in Japan. In fact, I hoped that my blog post would show that the novel is very much rooted in Tokyo, particularly by Kirino’s inclusion of the boxed lunch factory.

      I do appreciate the point you have made, however, about the fact that Kirino’s inclusion of these universal issues works to reveal an aspect of Japanese life that, although not stereotypically ‘Japanese’, is still crucial to typical Japanese life. I hadn’t really thought about it in that light.

  4. Hi Amy,

    I enjoyed your blog post, and found your argument to be compelling, and I feel I agree that Kirino’s Out could transcend the culture in which it was written, acting as a representative for labourers everywhere.

    This may be a bit voyeuristic of ‘the other’ in itself, but it was refreshing to read about Japan’s darker side. Japan is usually depicted, and stereotypically I’ll add, as a homogeneous nation of tranquility and tradition, where people will identify themselves as an employee first (e.g. Toyota no Murakami-san | I am Toyota’s Mr Murakami), working under one goal. In the last couple of decades this has changed drastically. Young people of Japan are finding they are no longer promised a job for life, and their talents are put to learning English to leave home for the prospects of Europe or the USA. I enjoyed Kirino’s portrayal of working-class Japan in all its trauma, while in the background we’re reminded of the problems facing Japanese trade/workers.

    As an after note, if there’s one thing all cultures can agree on, it’s the fetishisation of women. All three English language covers are textbook media examples of sexualising women, and they don’t really seem to have anything to do with the book itself. So I totally agree!

    This is good opinion piece on appropriating/fetishising cultures from a Japanese person, if anyone has an interest.

    1. Hi Kayleigh,

      Thanks for the comment! I’m in the same boat as you, I definitely wasn’t expecting such a dark depiction of Tokyo from this novel. But I agree, it was refreshing to get a story that was a bit different from the traditional narrative we normally associate with Japan.

      The article you posted is also very interesting! It exposes the intersection between fetishisation of the other and fetishisation of women that you alluded to very vividly. This could actually make for a very interesting essay if anyone was feeling up to it!

  5. Hi Amy,

    I found this a really interesting post to read and well thought out. I agree with you that I don’t believe it was Kirino’s intention to over exaggerate the Japaneseness of the novel as some have suggested – it just is Japanese, as is the author. And I think as a class predominantly from Northern Ireland we have no way of knowing if it is exaggerated and no business in saying so. The book is written about where it is based and I don’t think it should have to cater to a western audience by translating the names (probably impossible) or by making the daily lives of the women any less Japanese. So I agree with you that it is not a problem inherent in the novel but rather with the perception of those western reviewers.

  6. Hi Amy,

    Your post brought up some very interesting points, and I really enjoyed reading it. I agree with your final conclusion that it wasn’t Kirino’s intention to over-emphasis the “japanese-ness” of her novel.

    I am, however, interested in what caused reviewers to focus on this because, admittedly, it wasn’t something I picked up on when reading the novel. Perhaps, it is a sign of a larger problem? To title a review “murder sushi wrote” suggests, to me, that the reviewer hasn’t read much translated fiction from Japan (or anywhere). I would, perhaps controversially, suggest that this lack of exposure is manifested in the title of the article. Insofar as the reviewer draws a comparison to Agatha Christie, he is, in a manner, bleaching away the foreignness of the novel. Could it be that the focus on the novel’s Japanese elements is not derived from any emphasis on Kirino’s part, but by a clash of cultures which the reviewer is unable to get around? I wonder if any followers of Japanese media would have picked up on this point. Or, if this would have been an issue if the novel were set in a western country?


  7. Hi Amy,

    I found this piece very interesting, and along with the other comments, agree with your conclusion that Kirino doesn’t over emphasise the ‘Japanese-ness’.

    Whilst when reading I did feel slightly separated from the characters’ experiences due to A the ‘world of yen, yakuza, and rice for breakfast’ as you put it, I quickly got used to this aspect and began getting absorbed into the plot.

    I also agree with your comment that this text could exist outside of its Japanese context, as the larger themes of capitalism, alienation, and the patriarchy transcend geographical boundaries and are seen in our own Western concept. In particular, when reading the text I focussed upon the female experience, with Anna and the other female characters being objectified, a theme that certainly exists in our own Western society.

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