Ask a friend to name a detective, and legendary sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot or Kosuke Kindaichi will probably figure in their reply. Regardless of nationalities, detectives seem to be familiar to many — provided they are fictional characters.

In real life, however, private detectives are a notably anonymous and unfamiliar bunch. At most, we only know that there are those who investigate the conduct of almost anyone a client pays them to gather information about. The average person will never encounter one, unless of course they have a pressing need to become a client themselves — perhaps because of a troubled relationship.

But whether you are seeking a detective’s assistance, or are simply curious to explore their mysterious world, a trip to the Detective Bar Answer in Tokyo’s Roppongi district will answer your questions either way.

While the dimly lit bar seems like any other in this bustling nightlife neighborhood, you’ll soon see it’s not when you take a seat at the counter. The counter, in fact, is glass-topped, and through it you’ll see taping devices, mini-cameras or samples of investigation reports that immediately draw your attention.

Thought-provoking nibbles

Of course you can order any drinks you like, but they also serve original cocktails with names such as Love-Hate Relationship, Blue Time and Lonely Man that effectively start to steer your imagination. For those who feel hungry, the bar’s nibbles are thought-provoking, too, with names including Capricious Nuts and Fried Rice That Will Warm Up Your Chilly Heart.

After such an intriguing introduction to the world of private investigation, naturally you’ll start wanting to hear some of the nitty-gritty about the job. Well, there’s no need to feel frustrated — just start talking to the friendly bartenders. They know more than you think.

Although they’re dressed like any other bartenders, and wield their cocktail shakers like seasoned pros, these men and women are, in fact, all private detectives themselves.

“Most customers want to know if we do a lot of investigation on whether people are cheating on their spouses,” said one who goes by the name Sawada, as he shaved a big ice cube for a cocktail. “Well, it’s actually true.”

But it isn’t just inquisitive customers who engage the staff in conversation. Some actually reveal personal issues they want the bartenders to hear — but in their detectives’ capacity.

“A very typical pattern is that a customer starts talking about the situation of a friend. After talking for some time to us, they feel comfortable revealing that it’s actually about themselves,” Sawada said. “I usually listen knowing that it’s his or her own story from the beginning, though.”

Indeed, this bar not only offers drinks, food and nuts-and-bolts anecdotes about the lives of detectives — but also consultations that may lead to an investigation. In fact, as well as being a regular bar open to all, this one also functions as a unique shop window for a detective agency based in central Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward.

Spouses acting suspiciously

According to Kenta Nagasaka, who runs both the agency and the bar, about 70 percent of the consultations they engage in through Answer are marriage problems. Among these, many are from both male and female customers who want to find out if their spouses, who they say have been acting suspiciously, are actually cheating on them.

Generally, after the initial free consultation in the bar, if a customer wants to push things forward, they and detectives will have a further discussion at the small private room made in the bar for that purpose, and sign a contract if the project is considered feasible. From there, the bartenders will put on their metaphoric detectives’ hats and carry out the investigation, which often involves following a target to monitor their conduct. Then, when the investigation is completed, they’ll file a report for their clients just like detectives are supposed to do.

Nagasaka, 42, who started the detective agency in 2001 and the bar in 2002, said he thought a bar would allow people to become familiar with their work, as well as provide a comfortable setting in which to approach his staff one-to-one.

“A lot of clients have told us that detectives and their agencies were scary to access,” Nagasaka said. Part of the reason for the negative image, he explained, was that some detectives are ex-police officers who are often arrogant. In addition, as anyone could enter the unregulated business until a new law took effect on June 1 this year, the industry included some shady operators.

As a way to differentiate his agency from such competitors, Nagasaka said he hit on the idea of a bar in which all the bartenders were detectives.

“Detectives and bartenders share two things in common, which are being good listeners and respecting people’s privacy. The two are sort of linked together,” Nagasaka said. In accordance with the new law, both the bar and agency are registered with authorities as private investigation entities.

Prior to the agency and the bar, however, Nagasaka had personal experience of other work that shares many similarities with detective work — reporting for a gossip magazine. In fact, for more than a decade before Nagasaka and his partners launched the detective agency, they were chasing scoops about idols and politicians for the now-defunct Shukan Hoseki magazine.

“With a magazine article, the editor asks us to do a story and we’ll talk angles, the number of reporters, budget and deadline. That’s like consulting with the agency’s clients. Then as journalists we’d do our reporting — which was often like following our agency’s target. Then finally we used to file a story. Now, after we’ve gathered facts and pictures, we write a final report for the client,” he said. “So, it really is like making a magazine tailored for a single reader.”

Compared with celebrities, whom he said he got tired of dealing with, Nagasaka pointed out that ordinary people are normally much easier to follow because of their lower “alert level.”

Nowadays, he added, the bar brings in about 40 percent of his agency’s investigation work, with the 16 detectives taking turns to work there. But occasionally, he said, the bar has to close when all the detectives are busy on the trail of targets. Nonetheless, the bar is not in the red — though the detective agency brings in more revenue.

“I don’t rely on making money from this bar; we’re just trying to make it easier for people (to access us). The agency is really a service industry, so we have to continue making the effort to be known,” he said.

Finally, when asked why Detective Bar Answer has a rather strange name, Nagasaka explained: “Most of the time, it is unlikely that there is a clear answer for people to solve their problems, but we wanted to be a place where customers can find a solution to deal with their situations.

“It’s also a name to remind ourselves of our mission.”

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