If you have ever inquired about someone’s health and instead of hearing “fine thanks” or “not bad, the medication is keeping things under control thanks for asking” have been treated to a long and unnecessarily intimate description of the difficulties the subject experienced with their haemorrhoids then you have some idea of the experience of reading SIX FOUR. If in such a scenario your subject went on to detail each visit (including a street-by-street description of the route) to each doctor involved in their treatment and what was said at each consultation then you know exactly what reading SIX FOUR feels like. There’s a story that you care about in there somewhere but at a point long before the end you conclude that gouging your own eyes out with a rusty spoon will be more fulfilling than continuing on.
But I’ll put aside the eye-gouging and rusty spoons for the moment.
Fourteen years ago a Japanese primary school girl was kidnapped. A ransom was asked for and paid but despite this the girl was killed and the case has never been solved. Known as Six Four the case still has a team of police working on it, though numbers have been reduced, and with the statute of limitations due to run out in a year the Chief of police wants to make a publicity splash: one last effort to solve the case while it is still possible to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The story unfolds from the perspective of Yoshinobu Mikami, currently Director of Media Relations for the police district in which the Six Four case occurred. He is meant to secure the cooperation of the dead girl’s family in the Chief’s visit and ensure that the press covers the matter appropriately. As a successful police detective of many years experience Mikami is an unwilling holder of his current job – because it is more administrative than operational – but he can’t step away due to his own personal circumstances. His teenage daughter has disappeared. Runaway. And Mikami’s only real hope of finding her is that one of his fellow police officers across the country will spot her and notify him. This need for the force’s cooperation is held over his head by his superior so that he will continue with the media relations job.
This sounds like the basis for a good story. Indeed it is the basis for a good story. But I don’t think Yokoyama was terribly interested in telling that story. I think he was more interested in the bigger political picture. My evidence for this is that he spends far more time detailing (and I do mean detailing) the problematic internal politics of the police as an organisation and their troubled relationship with the media. I’m all for books which explore such themes but not when they forget they’re supposed to be telling me a story first and foremost. Here there is just too much exposition and detail. Several times it is stated that there are 260,000 police officers in Japan and it felt like the book mentions at least a quarter of them by name and rank. I started keeping a list but lost the will after I covered the front and back of an A4 page. And that’s without listing all the journalists and newspapers that play a role, however fleeting, in proceedings. The reader is literally swimming in a sea of names and it is impossible to keep track of their relative importance to the book’s core events.
I will admit though to being fascinated by some aspects of the small-p politics, especially with regard to the differences and similarities between Japan and Australia. Some things, it seems, are universal . Such as the tension between the operational and administrative arms of large organisations. The conflicts SIX FOUR depicts between the criminal investigators and administrative workers in the Japanese police force are eerily similar to those that regularly occur in my own organisation (a large government health department) between clinicians and administrative staff. On the other hand the relationship between police and the media that the book depicts is very different to what would typically exist in Australia. The issues explored in SIX FOUR – such as whether or not the police should ever be able to keep certain information like the names of victims or perpetrators of some crimes to themselves and the way in which information is provided to the media – are clearly hot topics in the Japanese context.
Despite there being so many of them there really is only one character in this tome that readers can really get to get to know. Mikami’s development takes an interesting path as he has to come to terms with some awkward truths about his personality and parenting. I found his journey a bit more interesting than the destination as in the final stages of the book he – and to a lesser extent his wife – achieve the kind of acceptance with various aspects of their lives that seems a bit contrived. But perhaps I am being too harsh here (due to the eye-gouging sensibility). So to counterbalance this criticism I will say that the final hundred or so pages of the book really rip along in the narrative sense and there is a satisfying (if preposterously implausible) resolution to the central story. So there is at least a reward for making it that far. Perhaps that was the point? Like the cup of tea and biscuit that used to follow the lengthy Sunday religious services of my childhood: you had to earn that reward.
I read this book for my face to face book club and probably wouldn’t have persevered if it weren’t for that. Life being too short for eye gouging and all. I don’t know that I can recommend it to you given the amount of commitment and stubborn refusal not to self-harm it demands from the reader. But now that it is behind me I am quite glad to have read it. I liked learning so many things about Japanese society – it’s definitely not one of those ‘could have been set anywhere’ books – and Mikami is a character I won’t forget in a hurry. But you’ll have to decide for yourself if the pain is likely to be worth the reward.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Jonathan Lloyd-Davies
Publisher This edition Quercus Publishing 2016, original edition 2012
Length 644 pages
Format eBook (iBooks)
Book Series standalone