Interview with a Translator: Edogawa, The Boys' Adventure Part

Kate: Like Robinson Crusoe and the middle of Moby Dick, Edogawa spends a great deal of time explaining the workings of a stakeout or a piece of machinery. Although assumptions are always fraught with complications, boys’ adventure stories seem to contain many more such passages than do literature aimed at girls. Why do such detailed “how to” passages fascinate boys?  
Eugene: Not just boys but men of all ages. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. The male mind is dominated by left-brained, how-the-world-works thinking probably because a successful caveman had to have a theory of how the world worked and put that theory into practice by tinkering with it until he came up with something useful. The Tim Taylor model of social evolution.

Science fiction emerged in the mid-19th century with Jules Verne when a growing middle class had the time and resources to make a hobby of tinkering. As would Jobs and Wozniak, guys like Edison and the Wright brothers turned tinkering into careers.

A big driver of the computer revolution during the 1970s and 1980s was that the personal computer sated the tinkering impulse in a big way—without getting your hands literally dirty. Those early computers were like old car engines, demanding geeky how-to knowledge and using tools and taking things apart and sitting around the newsletter and magazine campfires and discussing the problem with other similarly-minded guys.

Now the metaphorical campfires are on the Internet. Computers have become appliances and the enthusiastic tinkerers have moved on to high-end gaming machines. And robots. And code.

Immediately after WWII, the black market in Akihabara became a magnet for electrical equipment startups. It grew into a Mecca for electronics wholesalers and hobbyists and today is the center of the otaku universe. Even in 1953, Edogawa was plugged into the state of the art. The same way guys devour magazines about cars they can’t afford and computers they don’t need, I’m sure his audience was eager for more.

After all, they would be the ones building modern Japan.
Kate: I remember you building go-carts in the garage when I was growing up. (Basically, my childhood was living with Sid, the kid next door in Toy Story.)  What are the Tim Taylor parts of your personality?
Eugene: I’m not a "more power" kind of guy, and have no desire to own a home or pick up a tool heavier than a hammer, but I’m a fan of This Old House and similar DIY shows and love wandering around hardware stores. I once owned all of Asimov’s science essay collections (see the connection to sci-fi below).
Kate: The Japanese enjoy lots of How-To shows. How does how-to show up in Japanese fiction? Is there an equivalent to Tim Allen's Home Improvement?
Eugene: The Japanese fascination with "how-to" is fully on display in what I call the "Cute girls doing interesting things in a cute way" genre. The typical approach is to have the protagonist get interested in a relatively unique activity, discover that her friends are interested in it too (or enthusiastically recruit them), and plunge in.

Plots are slice-of-life, often with little actual drama and only the rudimentary scaffolding of a plot, but with considerable attention given to the specifics of the activity, very much as a how-to guide. Recent examples include Encouragement of Climb (hiking), Laid-Back Camp (camping), and Long Riders (bicycle touring).

A related (and more plot-driven) genre has the protagonist mastering a sport or activity that most people know about but don't know a lot about. Enough expository material has to be integrated into the story so the audience can follow the drama. Recent examples include Chihayafuru (karuta), March Comes in Like a Lion (shogi), and Tsurune (Japanese archery).

I can't think of a series specifically like Home Improvement, though the movie All About Our House is basically an extended Home Improvement episode. There are plenty of programs similar to those you find on PBS Create.
Kate: And the connection to sci-fi? 
Eugene: Remember that long sequence from Star Trek: The Motion Picture? Like coverage from an auto show or an air show only in the future. The geek-out mentality is what produced it, and they thought it was so cool they didn’t edit it. It’s what Kyle Hill does on Because Science and Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman do on Mythbusters—come up with empirical and how-to explanations for improbable things.

Hard science fiction is figuring out the how-to for the future. Caper flicks, from Kelly’s Heroes to the whole Mission Impossible genre, are the same—as much about the how-to as the derring-do.

I think even conspiracy theories are driven by the desire to understand the world in a Newtonian and clockwork manner. As Archimedes said, “Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the whole world.” Of course, the problem with conspiracy theories is that one should never attribute to brilliant malice that which is adequately explained by mundane stupidity.

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