Sunday, January 28, 2007

Seicho Matsumoto's "Points And Lines": The Shortest Distance Is The Truth

An earlier draft of this academic article was published in the Fall/Winter 1997 issue of Clues, America’s premier academic journal devoted to mystery fiction, then published by Bowling Green State University Press. It was the first scholarly article by a non-Japanese on leading Japanese mystery writer Seicho Matsumoto.

Who was Seicho Matsumoto? Imagine a writer who is one part Raymond Chandler, one part John Steinbeck, and one part Gore Vidal. The closest thing we’ve ever had to him in America was the great Richard Condon, author of The Manchurian Candidate and Winter Kills—but unlike Matsumoto, Condon never cracked the JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King assassinations in best-selling serious investigative nonfiction books—with the mysterious shootings of George Wallace and Ronald Reagan thrown in as well. All this, Matsumoto did in a Japanese context.

Like Condon, he was obsessed with conspiracies, like Steinbeck, he was a radical, like Vidal, he was a keen left-wing observer of his society who knew where the levers of power were located, and like Chandler, he was a riveting mystery writer with serious literary qualities.

I’ve been interested in him ever since Japanese friends began telling me about him after I moved to New York in 1987. I began hearing about a best-selling nonfiction exposé he’d published in 1961, Nihon no kuroi kiri (Black Fog Over Japan), about a sinister, mysterious, violent string of events that plagued Occupied Japan, and he traced them persuasively to the Occupation authorities—MacArthur’s GHQ and his higher-ups in Washington.

These events included the October 1945 Bank of Tokyo diamond and gold heist (see Gold Warriors by Sterling and Peggy Seagrave, Verso Press, 2003); the terrible Teigin Bank poisoning of January 1948 (see The Flowering of the Bamboo by William Triplett); the mysterious and violent death of Japan Railways chief Sadamori Shimoyama in June 1949, run over by a train; the runaway train caused by sabotage in Mitaka in July 1949; and the notorious Matsukawa train wreck of August 1949, an act of sabotage that was blamed on the Japanese Communist Party (resulting in the banning of the party), for which the Communists were completely exonerated by the Tokyo Supreme Court in 1961. (For these last three events, see Conspiracy at Matsukawa by Chalmers Johnson, University of California, 1972.)

Fascinated by this information, I began writing a screenplay entitled Black Mist inspired by Matsumoto’s research, about an exiled American reporter who comes to Occupied Japan and who ends up chasing after the real perpetrators of these crimes. While I was a graduate student in Queens College in 1993-5, acclaimed experimentalist writer Joseph McElroy gave me invaluable feedback on the editing and rewriting of the script, which in 1995 was read by Oliver Stone and the great Japanese film director Nagisa Oshima (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Cruel Story of Youth, In the Realm of the Senses), but they deemed an historical film like this whose events were unfamiliar to American audiences to be too commercially risky.

Matsumoto’s classic novel Points and Lines undoubtedly had a huge influence on Akira Kurosawa’s 1960 film The Bad Sleep Well, as I mention in this essay, and I use stills from that film, as well as photos of Seicho Matsumoto himself, to illustrate this posting.

Lastly, I'd like to thank Prof. Barbara Fass Leavy of the Queens College English Department, in whose class on mystery fiction I wrote this paper, and who encouraged me to publish it in an academic journal. Because, unfortunately, Blogger does not allow text indentation, all extended quotations that normally would be indented in an academic paper are bolded. Endnote numbers are shown in parenthesis beside the text.

Seicho Matsumoto's Points And Lines: The Shortest Distance Is The Truth

Seicho Matsumoto (1909-1992) is considered the greatest mystery writer to come out of Japan since the end of the Second World War. According to Gonda Manji, a leading critic of Japanese crime fiction: "Matsumoto's crime fiction with a social consciousness made him the most popularly read mystery author in modern Japan." (1) As the father of social realism in Japanese detective fiction, he resembles Dashiell Hammett, whom Raymond Chandler said “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley” and "gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse." (2)

Matsumoto's most famous novel, Points and Lines (1957), is regarded as the best crime novel written by a Japanese. Consonant with his reputation as an exponent of social realism, it is a vivid social and moral portrait of a Japan in transition in 1957, and it reveals a great deal about Japanese social attitudes in general, as well as Japanese attitudes toward crime and punishment.

The plot centers on a double murder disguised as a lovers' suicide, committed to cover up a government kickback scandal. The victims are a young government bureaucrat, Sayama, and a Tokyo waitress, Otaki, whose bodies are discovered on a beach in Kyushu. The murder is investigated by two detectives; Jutaro Torigai of the Fukuoka police represents rural values, and Kiichi Mihara of the Tokyo Metropolitan police is entirely city-bred. They solve the case with hard-headed logic and by religiously studying railroad timetables, which become crucial in placing suspects.

A key clue is a dining-car receipt for only one person found on the body of Sayama, which puzzles the detectives; if the lovers were traveling together by train on their way to their death, why didn't they dine together? The murderer is revealed to be Yasuda, a contractor who has been bribing government officials to receive favorable treatment; his accomplice is Ishida, a bureaucratic division chief.

Points and Lines can only be understood in the light of postwar Japanese society. Such a story would have been inconceivable five years earlier, in 1952. Not only was the American Occupation still in effect, but in 1952 prosperity had not yet returned to the Japanese economy; not enough discretionary income existed to allow a widespread system of bribery and kickbacks.

When Matsumoto wrote Points and Lines in 1957, Japan's postwar economic recovery had stabilized and people were getting used to their improved standard of living; but inevitably married to this return to economic health was political and corporate corruption, two problems that continue to infest Japanese society to this day. If anything, the moral situation described in Points and Lines has grown much worse and the corruption has become much more thoroughgoing.

In terms of functioning as a social barometer, Points and Lines bears a striking resemblance to one of Akira Kurosawa's greatest films, The Bad Sleep Well, which the director released in 1960, only three years after Matsumoto published Points and Lines. The Bad Sleep Well is concerned with a corrupt construction firm that has been caught making massive payoffs to government officials in exchange for contracts. In time-honored Japanese fashion, the higher-ups in the corporation protect themselves by pressuring their subordinates to commit suicide rather than testify against their superiors.

The hero (brilliantly played by Toshiro Mifune as a tough guy in hornrims) spends the film avenging his father, who was manipulated into jumping out a window years before when the corporation suffered its last round of scandals. In a plot that owes at least as much to Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest as to Hamlet, the hero infiltrates the corporation by changing his identity and marrying the boss' clubfooted daughter, and then sets about ruining the men responsible for his father's death by pitting them against each other.

Points and Lines' phenomenal success as a bestseller may well have emboldened Kurosawa into making such a controversial anti-capitalist film as The Bad Sleep Well, with its shocking depiction of an evil corporation that kills people. The fact that these two works with such parallel themes came out within a few years of each other certainly is an indication of how this subject of political and corporate corruption was impressing itself on the Japanese public mind. (3)

In the muckraking tradition of proletarian literature, Matsumoto uses the conventions of the detective story to strip away social illusion and to reveal the true nature of political and economic power. When their bodies are at first discovered on the beach, it is assumed that the waitress Otaki and the young government bureaucrat Sayama died in a lovers' pact; the motivation for the crime is seen to be personal, an act of passion. It is only through the diligence of two common-man detectives (notable for their ordinariness) that the true nature of the crime is revealed—the murder is an economic and political crime rigged to bolster the existing order (the Establishment, if you will).

The detectives also learn to penetrate some of the masks of Japanese society. The killer Yasuda hopes to conceal his crime by cloaking it in a Japanese social convention; he arranges the murder scene so it resembles that of a love suicide (not unusual in Japanese society), hoping that it will cause the deaths not to be questioned. As the younger urban detective Mihara says in the letter that closes the novel:

Love suicides are not uncommon; this is the way the bodies are always found. No one would think of doubting it. And when termed a love suicide, the inquest is never as strict as in the case of murder. The investigation is generally perfunctory. Tatsuo Yasuda knew this. (4)

In the case of a simple suicide, there is always the suspicion of murder, but when a double suicide occurs and there is a woman involved, there is far less cause to be suspicious. Yasuda was very clever. (5)

At the risk of sounding extremely reductionistic, here is a possible explanation for the prevalence (or social acceptability) of suicide in Japan: in Japan the group is more important than the individual, where in the West the individual takes precedence over the group. In the West, when a person's internal pressures become unbearable, the individual explodes and projects his or her aggression outward; this can be termed a sadistic response, where in Japan the individual is encouraged to be masochistic and repress his or her rage or frustration. This makes for group harmony (or so it is seen). But when psychological stress becomes too much, one is encouraged to take oneself out of the picture. For disappointed or tragically mismatched lovers, it is the height of romanticism to die in each other's arms.

Yasuda cynically plays on this cultural conceit when he murders Otaki and Sayama. By masking his crime as a love suicide, Yasuda here is committing a radical act of cultural corruption. At the deepest level he is tampering with Japanese social perceptions. To the Japanese mind it is outrageous for anyone to distort this beautiful, near-sacred social trope—two lovers dying romantically in each others' arms—and twist it by using it as a vehicle for homicide. Yasuda's cynicism in using love suicide as a smokescreen for murder is near-foolproof and shows how easy it is in Japan for authority figures to manipulate and distort the great spiritual idealism of the Japanese people.

But by carefully scrutinizing aspects of the case that don't fit (the dining car receipt for only one person, for instance), the detectives are able to see through Yasuda's carefully-constructed mask of social artifice and to illuminate aspects of Japanese power that have hitherto been kept in the dark. For example, they learn that in the government bureaucracy,

Division chiefs and section chiefs seem to leave all routine matters to these experienced assistants.... They [the assistants] have to stand by and watch the younger men, the university graduates, with the proper qualifications, get promoted and go past them. . . . . . .if a senior official so much as takes notices of one of them, the man is overjoyed. . . . That's why they'll do anything to please the boss. (6)

In a chilling parallel to The Bad Sleeps Well, we learn what is expected of subordinates when a scandal explodes:

Generally, the assistant chief is the conscientious type who takes the responsibility for the entire ministry and will give his life for it. Whenever there is a big scandal, it is always the man in the subordinate position who commits suicide to cover up for the others. (7)

This writer calls this "the Tojo syndrome," whereby unscrupulous leaders exploit the honest, innocent trust of the people below them and force the common people to pay for their mistakes, rather than taking personal responsibility. According to Japan expert Chalmers Johnson, Matsumoto has an insider's knowledge of the inner workings of Japanese government bureaucracy:

Particularly noteworthy is Matsumoto's knowledge of Japanese bureaucratic organization and style, including the bureaucracy's occasional corruption, and political appointees' exploitation of almost feudally loyal lower officials. He has even published a long series of purportedly nonfiction articles, similar to his kuroi kiri stories (8), under the general title Gendai kanryo ron (On contemporary bureaucracy). One of his great best sellers, Ten to sen (Points and Lines), which has sold over a million and quarter copies since its publication in 1957, concerns the murder of a bureaucrat and an innocent waitress—faked by an industrialist, his wife, and their bureaucratic allies to make it look like a "love suicide." It immediately caught the imagination of thousands of Tokyoites who were working in precisely the kinds of ministries that Matsumoto described. (9)

The main way in which Matsumoto's heroes penetrate the veil of social obfuscation concocted by Yasuda and his associates is by exhaustively studying railroad (and airplane) timetables to determine where those involved in the case could have been at crucial times. "As I look back on it, I see the case built around train and plane schedules, from start to finish," Mihara states in the book's final, epistolary chapter. "It is buried in timetables." (10) This fact about the novel, which is often commented on by Western readers, has both cultural and metaphysical implications.

On a purely practical level, Mihara and his rural counterpart, Torigai, are able to deduce truth from falsehood in this case through the analysis of timetables because Japanese trains are never late. Japan's tradition of clockwork efficiency makes it possible for the two detectives to pinpoint characters' movements with mathematical precision. This kind of tracking would be unthinkable in most other societies, which lack Japan's efficiency (or anal-retentive rigidity, if one prefers to see it that way).

In fact, on an episode of the PBS-TV series Locomotion aired in February 1994, a black-and-white clip from Japanese crime film (showing police studying a map of a train line) was screened to illustrate the point that the Japanese train system is so efficient that Japanese crime writers can regularly use its clockwork efficiency to establish when and where a crime could have been committed.

From a historical perspective, railroads are the premier symbol of Japan's modernization and Westernization. It is a remarkable historical fact that only twenty years after Commodore Perry presented the Japanese with a miniature-scale railroad, the Japanese had constructed their own full-blown railway line. Japan is also a nation that wholly depends on trains for public transportation; trains are to Japan what automobiles are to the United States. Just as cars represent personal freedom to Americans, railways represent to the Japanese a shared, communal existence based on mutual cooperation.

In terms of the dichotomy between nature and culture (or civilization), railroads are a nonpareil symbol of man's conquest over time and space. Great distances can be traversed in a relatively short period of time. The fact that Japanese efficiency can pinpoint the arrival and departure of trains with such mathematical logic is a triumph of the human will over the environment; nature can be calibrated, assessed, interpreted.

The title of the book itself, Points and Lines, refers to this method of railroad ratiocination, station stops being the designated points and time intervals (recorded on the timetables) being the lines. "Lines" can also represent physical direction, in terms of the detectives trying to deduce where various characters traveled at different times in order for them to have ended up at certain places at known times.

"Points and lines" possibly also refers to the abstract process of reasoning (namely, deduction and ratiocination) by which the detectives are able to infer motives and reasons behind mysterious acts; by using logic and the process of elimination, the detectives are able to connect the fixed points of known physical events with the lines of economic and psychological motivation, in order to create a diagram that explains human behavior.

The detectives pursue clues with a tenacity and a passion for the process of elimination that owes at least as much to the Japanese passion for thoroughness as to Sherlock Holmes and deductive procedures common to police forces the world over. Matsumoto employs a striking device in the book by having his detectives write out logical lists (11) and diagrams(12) that set forth and clarify the circumstances of the case; this device also serves to illuminate the reader and help him or her keep with up with the detectives, so that the reader can see if he or she can solve the crime before the detectives.

The detectives also learn to see through deceptive appearances. "Sometimes a preconceived opinion will make us overlook the obvious. This is frightening." (13) This point is underscored by Torigai's telling of how an old woman’s killer went free because she died wearing a heavy winter jacket in April and the chief suspect was in prison during the winter, letting him off the hook. Then Torigai realizes, "I still believe there are cold days even in April. . . . Just because she was wearing a heavy jacket need not mean that it was winter; it could have been April [when the suspect was free]." (14)

By not taking such assumptions for granted, the detectives are able to see through the conspirators' ruse and recognize that Otoki and Sayama were not lovers and they did not die together. For example, Mihara is initially stumped in one instance when he realizes Yasuda could have flown from Kyushu to Hokkaido (instead of traveling by rail) and still fit into the murder timeframe; but when Mihara checks airline passenger lists for the day in question, he is crestfallen to learn Yasuda's name appears on none of them. Later it hits him: "Yasuda didn't have to use just one name. He could have made the plane reservations under different names." (15)

The detectives also realize there is a time to examine the emotional truth of a situation. When the question comes up of a dining car receipt for only one person, Torigai asks his daughter if she wouldn't accompany her boyfriend to the dining car if the couple were traveling together; her reply is, "Well, I think it's a question of love rather than of appetite." (16) Based on this consideration, Torigai feels it highly unlikely that Sayama and Otoki were truly traveling together; this is the first chink in the facade of the murder coverup.

"Yes, the case had spread out and now extended from one end of Japan to the other." (17) In this and other instances, Matsumoto hints that his story is deeply emblematic of Japan. His narrative revolves around the terrifying fact of Japanese life that bureaucratic subordinates are expected to take their own lives rather than implicate their superiors, a practice that continues to this day, as evidenced by the suicide three years ago of then-Prime Minister Miyazawa's personal secretary when the scandal broke that forced Miyazawa's eventual resignation.

There are also echoes of an older, darker Japan in the triangle of Yasuda the murderer, Ryoko, his scheming, tubercular wife, and Otoki, Yasuda's mistress. "In other words, Otoki was Yasuda's official mistress, with Ryoko's approval. It was a curious triangle. We may find it hard to accept but these situations do exist in modern society. Of course, it was common practice in feudal times." (18) However, when one thinks of how Yoko Ono selected the pretty young Mai Ling to serve as her husband John Lennon's mistress during their estrangement in the early Seventies, it does not seem so impossible. (19)

The dishonesty of their social arrangement is a reflection of the twisted natures of Yasuda and his Lady Macbeth-like wife, a literary vampire if there ever was one. Possibly Matsumoto is also implying that this feudal holdover of a relationship is a symbol of the unwholesome nature of the Old Japan that went down in flames in the Second World War.

Matsumoto makes it very clear that the evil Old Japan has not died. Occupation-era democratic reforms have not abolished the feudal hierarchy of privilege that protects wrongdoers in high places. Rather than having to face punishment for his collusion in the twin murders, Division Chief Ishida is promoted and has a bright future ahead of him:

He will probably become a bureau chief or a vice-minister, and may even run for a seat in the Diet. I feel sorry for those poor subordinates whom he uses as stepping stones. However, even if they know they are being abused, they will try to stay in his good graces by showing their loyalty. (20)

"The whole case has left a bad taste in my mouth," (21) Mihara writes Torigai at the end of the book. Clearly he fears that this system of injustice will perpetuate itself and grow unchallenged. The only reason this social evil was checked in this case was because of the tireless efforts of two ordinary, down-at-the-heels police detectives. "I need not tell you that a detective should never give up a case; he must pursue it all the way," (22) Torigai advises Mihara.

Seicho Matsumoto wrote Points and Lines to expose these social evils, in the hopes of rousing the public. The unprecedented success that greeted his book proves that the Japanese public was concerned about these issues and found them of great interest. It also reveals the degree to which the democratization of Japan instituted during the Occupation succeeded; an informed, concerned citizenry had been created that cared about abuses of democracy and wanted them stopped.

Unfortunately, Mihara's pessimism has been borne out over the years. The Yasudas and Ishidas still hold sway in Japan. "Today, Japan is awash in one major scandal after another.... There seems to be no end in sight to political and financial corruption. Each scandal affirms Matsumoto's contribution and leaves mystery fans lamenting the void caused by his death." (23) But lest we here in the United States become too self-righteous, we should remind ourselves of our own heritage of scandal and corruption, from Richard Nixon's Watergate to Ronald Reagan's Iran-contra scandal to the massive S&L looting of the Eighties.

Any American crime writer who published a book as anti-Establishment and muckraking as Points and Lines in 1957 would have been attacked as a subversive, and to this day no American filmmaker has had the courage to make a film as radical and anti-corporate as The Bad Sleep Well.

In 1961, in the wake of the stupendous General Electric price-fixing scandal (now largely forgotten) (24) that is considered one of the greatest examples of economic rapine in 20th-century America, it would have been unthinkable for anyone in Hollywood to make a film dealing with the officers of a corporation, trapped in a government scandal, who engineer the deaths of anyone who stands in their way; it would be extremely difficult even today. It makes you wonder which society is freer.

  1. Gonda Manji, "Crime Fiction with a Social Consciousness," Japan Quarterly, April-June 1993, page 157.
  2. Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder," The Simple Art of Murder (New York: 1968), p. 530. Matsumoto, like Hammett, was a Marxist. See David Madden, Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties (Carbondale, Ill.: 1968), for an exploration of the connection between the proletarian writers of the New Masses school and the explosion of hardboiled detective fiction in Black Mask and associated pulps. Hemingway certainly was a bridge.
  3. Kurosawa, like Matsumoto, was a Tokyo newspaperman in the Thirties and Forties. With their shared journalistic backgrounds, both men clearly kept their ears to the ground and were exceptionally sensitive to the Japanese postwar Zeitgeist.
  4. Seicho Matsumoto, Points and Lines (New York: 1970), p. 149. All references are to the Kodansha paperback edition.
  5. Ibid., p. 157.
  6. Ibid., p. 124.
  7. Ibid, p. 125.
  8. "Black mist" or "black fog," meaning official smokescreen or coverup. In 1960 Matsumoto published his notorious nonfiction exposé, Nihon no kuroi kiri (Black Fog Over Japan), which accused American Occupation forces of having manipulated Japanese politics through political murder and clandestine sabotage for which the Japanese Communist Party was blamed, in order to discredit the Japanese Left.
  9. Chalmers Johnson, Conspiracy at Matsukawa (Berkeley: 1972), pp. 335-6.
  10. Matsumoto, p. 124.
  11. Ibid., pp. 45, 74, and 114.
  12. Ibid., pp. 57 and 120.
  13. Ibid., p. 149.
  14. Ibid., p. 129.
  15. Ibid., p. 122.
  16. Ibid., p. 32.
  17. Ibid., p. 83.
  18. Ibid., p. 155.
  19. Yoko Ono also happens to be a premier member of Japanese aristocracy, one of the heiresses of the great Yasuda zaibatsu fortune.
  20. Ibid., p. 158.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., p. 1128.
  23. Manji, p. 164.
  24. See John Fuller's The Gentleman Conspirators (New York: 1962) and John Herling’s The Great Price Conspiracy (Washington, D.C.: 1962) for a complete account of this amazing story.


Chandler, Raymond. "The Simple Art of Murder," The Simple Art of Murder. New York: W.W. Norton, 1968.

Chapman, William C. Inventing Japan. New York: Prentice Hall, 1991.

Fuller, John. The Gentlemen Conspirators. New York: Grove Press, 1962.

Herling, John. The Great Price Conspiracy. Washington, D.C.: R.B. Luce, 1962.

Johnson, Chalmers. Conspiracy at Matsukawa. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1972.

Madden, David. Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968.

Manji, Gonda. "Crime Fiction with a Social Consciousness," Japan Quarterly, April-June 1993, pp. 157-164.

Matsumoto, Seicho. Points and Lines. New York: Kodansha, 1970.

Tsurumi, Shunsuke. A Cultural History of Postwar Japan 1945-1980. London and New York: KPI International, 1987.


Lyn said...

Nice commentary! Interesting and readable! I was once fascinated with the Japenese, enjoy many of their life enrichments. Will be back to read...

Peter said...

Hello. I found your article last night, and I have not yet read all of it. But what I did read shed light on aspects of Seicho Matsumoto I had not known about. I had no idea about his non-ficition investigations, and I had less than a full idea of the significance of trains in his crime stories.

I posted a comment, along with a link to your article, on my blog at


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