Crime writer racily exposes seamy side of Japan


It’s a bit confusing when an author is called Guy Stanley but his card reads Stan Guy in English and Gai Stanri in katakana on the back.

“I’m really Stanley Guy,” he explains. “But you try using a name like ‘guy,’ particularly here or in the U.S. People simply refuse to believe it, or switch my name around. Now I answer to both.”

Stan’s first book, “A Death in Tokyo,” published in 1986, could not have arrived at a more opportune moment. With Japan’s economy bubbling, the world was eager to know more about this superstate. In his native England especially, the media went wild. “This year’s best crime fiction. . . . Consummately professional. More please Stanley-san,” wrote the Sunday Times. The film rights were quickly sold.

Born into a farming family outside Derby (“I still can’t sleep past 8 a.m.”), he used to play on an aerodrome that is now the site of a Toyota factory. At age 17 he worked as a clerk in the Foreign Office, ending up in a government spy center. “I was completely naive, hadn’t a clue what was going on, even when secret dispatch boxes were flying across the desk.”

In 1964 he moved to Gen. Franco’s Spain, where he met his future wife, Kayako, in a kitchen in Madrid. With reason to move on, he traveled to Japan for 10 days by land, sea and air for the equivalent of 24,000 yen, ending up in a 4 1/2-mat room in Nerima, Tokyo. “Being tall, I had to sleep across it diagonally.”

Encouraged by his wife’s family, Stan attended Sophia University through to graduate school. “We worked hard in those days — U.S. servicemen on the G.I. Bill, lone foreigners like me, the Japanese, all heads down together.” He taught English and Spanish and studied Japanese. Once married, two sons were quickly born.

In 1972, Stan took his family back to England and got into international banking, returning to Tokyo in ’76 to help open Midland Bank’s new branch here. “Working here in business, I began to realize for the first time that there were things they hadn’t taught me about Japan’s economic miracle at Sophia. The ministries for one. I remember delivering some papers one Saturday morning to the Ministry of Finance and being received, after waiting in line, by a Todai graduate in slippers. The arrogance was breathtaking.”

It was at this time, now with three sons, that he began to jot down notes for what became “A Death in Tokyo.” “I was fascinated by the corporate extortionists and other free-range crooks who seemed to have easy and profitable access to boardrooms, ministries and politicians.” To convince the disbelieving his observations were real, he had to show people the office of a yakuza gang, with signboard, just around the corner from one of Tokyo’s largest police stations.

All Stan’s novels in English have had topical themes: “The Ivory Seal” looks at land speculation and fraudulent use of the personal seal; “Yen,” a story of money market manipulation during the bubble, proved very popular at airports, the buyers being businessmen. “Reiko” follows a Lebanon-trained Japanese Red Army terrorist on her return to Japan on a mission of revenge. The hero of all these books is Araki, a run-down journalist on one of the seedy weekly magazines.

Stan’s fifth novel, “Nagasaki Six,” investigates an air crash insurance fraud while also tracing a murder back 50 years to a prisoner-of-war camp (the name in the title), and is based on a true story. Stan tracked down a former POW called Tom Humphrey, to whom the book is dedicated. Tom, from Padstow in Cornwall, kept a diary from the sinking of his ship, the HMS Exeter, in the Java Sea in March 1942, to his witnessing of the atom bomb blast just a few kilometers from his camp, and liberation in August 1945.

“When I went to see Tom to ask permission to use his diaries he asked that when I went to Nagasaki I seek out a guard named Yamamoto who had shown him kindness.”

It transpired that Yamamoto had given Tom his China campaign medal the day Japan surrendered. The story of how Stan found the camp (now a school) and tracked down Yamamoto’s widow (“a beautiful, dignified woman”), with the help of an old aerial photo and an amazing local taxi driver, Komatsu-san, is a thriller in itself. Stan was able to verify from old photographs that he had found the right man. “I found a picture of him from a 1939 photo wearing the very same medal.”

Stan’s most recent thriller was published in Japanese. “I’d looked around a nuclear plant here and kept a file on accidents and the coverups and denials. By coincidence I delivered the manuscript of ‘Itsuwari no Genshiro’ (subtitled ‘Tokio: Nuclear Nightmare’) to my publisher, Mainichi Newspapers, the day after the accident at Tokai.”

Stan is busy right now finishing off a film script with a soccer theme, the reason he is in Tokyo until the end of the month. “It’s tentatively called ‘Touchline Samurai.’ My agent’s idea, not mine. You know the West.” The story line involves a confusion between Irish and Japanese and some double dealing. “Remember how Japan brought in international experience with Troussier? Here we have a reverse situation, with all its comical repercussions. Yes, it’s a comedy, not a thriller.”

He sees the future as partly in London, partly here. “With our three boys grown we’re more flexible and mobile.” He hopes to work more closely with the Mainichi, possibly to include a column or serialized novel in the new year. Now he has to find a new theme, which when you have covered drug dealing, political corruption, high finance, nuclear meltdown, terrorism and the football factor really does leave a writer with a bit of a challenge.

“Indeed,” he agrees. “But there’s always something out there. I’m astonished by how decent, hardworking and unduly tolerant ordinary people are here, and how corrupt and self-serving those making the rules and alleging to look after them. If a writer has any purpose, it is to try and expose the latter for what they really are.”