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Entry updated 5 February 2024. Tagged: International.


For a general note on this encyclopedia's handling of Japanese names, please see Editorial Practices: Chinese and Japanese Names.

Japan persists as a symbol of the alien and the unknowable, and popularly as a signifier of the future, particularly in the "Japanesque" vocabularies and settings of Cyberpunk authors such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. This image has been hybridized in the last two decades by increasing access by Western viewers and readers to some of the sf that the Japanese read themselves. Owing to the early predominance of translations from English, Japanese sf and detective fiction were swift to embrace the blunt, clear prose to be found in English-language genre fiction, often at odds with the elaborate, multi-layered poetic allusions and solipsistic concerns of Japanese literature. Highbrow fiction in Japan often favored the shi-shōsetsu ["I-novel"] form of semi-autobiographical confession in the first person, whereas sf's leaning towards third-person narratives ungrounded in naturalism gave it a distinct and arguably distancing style. The Japanese language can easily convey the meaning of foreign prose, but in doing so, can transform it into language that seems brash, blunt and hard-nosed to Japanese readers, using only a couple of the dozen or so available registers of politesse and respect. Translators of foreign prose, such as Hisashi Asakura and Hisashi Kuroma, have hence played a major role in shaping the styles of later Japanese authors simply with the choices they have made in rendering English into Japanese. The post-World War Two generation as a whole, reared on translations of foreign texts, exposed to foreign media, and hence more Americanized in its attitude, has been characterized in the Japanese media as the shinjinrui ["new breed"]: a race apart, taller, more demanding and more outspoken than its forebears. The discourse of this generation gap seems to have been a major contributor to a Young Adult subgenre of Evolution and Uplift, in which teenagers are reimagined as a Pariah Elite with nascent Psi Powers. The most prominent example of this in the West is Akira (1988), although this, too, draws on a long tradition within 1960s prose, such as the works of Taku Mayumura and Yasutaka Tsutsui.

Among mythologies and legends, combining both local narratives and stories purloined from China, Proto SF in Japan included the mirai-ki ["chronicles of the future"], a sub-genre of Buddhist devotional literature (see Religion) which assumed a reader in the future, and a prophecy on the part of the author. Although first attributed to the Dark Age reformer Shōtoku Taishi (574-622 AD), mirai-ki periodically resurfaced in the centuries that followed, most notably in 1054, when a scroll was reputedly unearthed that not only purported to be the work of Shōtoku Taishi, but to prophesy the date of its own rediscovery. During Japan's prolonged period of self-imposed isolation (circa 1633-1853), in which foreign contact was only permissible in strictly controlled circumstances and prescribed areas, some Shōgun-approved scholars marshalled the information available about foreign lands into the discipline of Rangaku ["Dutch Studies"] – named for the European nation with which the Japanese had the most contact, itself a vestige of the political situation of the seventeenth century. During the nineteenth century in particular, some works of "Dutch Studies" took the form less of reportage of distant lands, and more of Satire or Parallel Worlds, offered as a mirror or aspirational ideal for Japanese readers. "Dutch Studies" faded as a genre in the 1850s, when foreign gunboat diplomacy and domestic reformers overturned the old samurai order. The opening of Japan was a profound and lasting case of culture shock, exposing the West to the cruel Ruritania treatments of The Mikado (1885) and Madame Butterfly (1904), and Japan to the products of a world in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, to which it soon enthusiastically and aggressively aspired.

The history of Japanese sf proper begins in 1868, the year of the Meiji Restoration that heralded the onset of Japanese modernity, with the translation of Anno 2065: een blik in de toekomst (1865 chap; vt Anno 2070: een blik in de toekomst 1870 chap; trans Alex V W Bikkers as Anno Domini 2071 1871 UK) by Pieter Harting. It was translated from Dutch as early as 1868 by Makoto Kondō (1831-1886), but this version remained as a handwritten manuscript and was published only in 1878. Another translation, from English by Shinji Kamijō (1846-1912), was published in 1874. The book swiftly revitalized the mirai-ki mode, leading to numerous popular publications of Futures Studies, accentuating the contemporary sense of Time Abyss. Yasuo Nagayama, a historian of early Japanese SF, has observed in his Nippon SF Seishin-shi: Bakumatsu, Meiji Kara Sengo Made ["A History of Japanese SF Spirit: From the Late Bakufu/Early Meiji Period Until the Post War Era"] (2009) that writings of the period often seemed confused about the difference between "the future" and simple "modernity" – what in Europe might be regarded as a simple Technothriller could often be consumed in Japan as a glimpse of things to come, whereas other readers seemed unaware that, for example, the fanciful imaginings of Albert Robida were fictional.

Translations from Jules Verne were prominent, particularly De la terre à la lune (1865; trans Tsutomu Inoue as Kujūshichiji Nijūppun-kan Gessekai Ryokō 1881), and Deux ans de vacances, ou un pensionnat de Robinsons (1888; trans Shiken Morita as Bōken Kidan: Jūgo Shōnen 1896); the former becoming additionally influential when translated from its Japanese version into Chinese by Lu Xun (see China). After publishing several Verne stories in his own newspaper in the 1880s, Ryūkei Yano wrote Hōchi Ibun: Ukishiro Monogatari ["Hōchi's Strange Rumours: Tales of the Floating Castle"] (January-March 1890 Yūbin Hōchi Shinbun without subtitle; fixup with full title 1890), in which adventurers liberated south-east Asian kingdoms from white colonialists (see Imperialism). Shunrō Oshikawa (1876-1914) imitated elements of Verne's Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (1870; trans Tsutomu Inoue as Kaitei kikō rokuman eiri 1884) for a Japanese audience as Kaitō Bōken Kitan: Kaitei Gunkan ["Bottom of the Sea Warship: A Mysterious Story of Island Adventure"] (1900), with bold Edisonades and patriotic Scientists, dragging Japan into the modern world by carving out a sphere of influence in far-flung colonies (again see Imperialism). Similar subtexts can be discerned in Japan's early Monster Movie Wasei King Kong (1933) and first sf cartoon, Ō-Atari Sora no Entaku ["The Plane Cabby's Lucky Day"] (1932), which, like many other works from the period 1931-1945, was strongly coloured by Japan's rapid imperialist expansion on a constant war footing. Haruo Satō counted himself among the authors who questioned the exuberant propaganda of modernization and expansion, most notably in "Nonchalant Kiroku" ["An Account of Nonchalant"] (1929 Kaizō), which presented a dystopian view of the 29th century.

Other Japanese authors embraced modernity through the detective story in the mode of the perennially popular Sherlock Holmes, particularly after the inauguration of the magazine Shinseinen ["New Youth"] in 1920, which ran Technothrillers masquerading as mysteries by the likes of Ranpo Edogawa. In apparent imitation of Hugo Gernsback's "scientifiction", the journal Kagaku Gahō ["Science Pictorial"] was founded in 1927 and published stories with recognizable genre tropes, such as Tora Kizu's "Hai-iro ni Bokasareta Kekkon" ["The Wedding Shrouded in Grey"] (January 1927 Kagaku Gahō) and Jūza Unno's "Nazo no Tanpa Musen Kyoku" ["The Mysterious Shortwave Broadcasting Station"] (1928 Kagaku Gahō). Authors in the 1930s were increasingly co-opted into the service of state propaganda, leading many pre-war names to fade from view after 1945.

During the Allied (US) Occupation from 1945-1952, enforced reforms also undeified the Emperor and lopped off several branches of Japan's imperial family, inadvertently feeding the doleful nostalgia to be found in the work of Bi'en-Fu and the desolate outlook of Yukio Mishima. Many earlier forms were outlawed, particularly any promotion of "feudal" authority. This amounted to a ban on samurai protagonists in historical fiction, and inadvertently encouraged a new sub-genre of ninja stories in which underclass assassins, previously unmentioned, conducted espionage and skulduggery at numerous Jonbar Points in Japanese history. Largely the creation of children's television and pulp authors such as Futarō Yamada and Sanpei Shirato, the ninja fad was already on the wane and drifting into ever more fantastical Equipoise by the late 1960s, when the inclusion of some of its tropes in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) gave the impression abroad that ninja were real; a fallacy that endures to this day.

The historiography of Japanese sf in the post-war period is characterized by two contending modes of approach. Fujio Ishihara, in his landmark SF Tosho Kaisetsu Sōmokushiroku ["SF Grand Annotated Catalogue"] (1982, 1989-91), parses a traditional form, emphasizing the growth of an archive of sf magazines and publishers, and the slow accretion of a canon of landmark works. In the Ishihara version of history, popular entertainments such as Kamishibai and the picture books of Shigeru Komatsuzaki faded from view, as a few ambitious publishers attempted series of translated sf stories, though most of these experiments failed due to limited sales. Notable among them were a series of seven anthologies from Amazing Stories (all 1950) and 20 volumes of the Gengensha SF Series (1956-1957); these began the process of establishing an sf audience in Japan. This audience was soon catered for by the first successful venture, the Hayakawa SF Series (1957-1974), and its successors to the present day, which seeded Japanese authors among translations of established foreign authors. Other publishers in the field included Sōgensha, which scored an early success with the Barsoom books of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the works of E E "Doc" Smith (see also Hideyuki Furuhashi); the Asahi Sonorama line; Sanrio's SF library and, in more recent years, Kadokawa Shoten, Kōdansha, Shūeusha, and others. Takumi Shibano published the Fanzine Uchūjin ["Cosmic Dust"] in 1957; despite a circulation that struggled to reach four figures, it became the point of entry to the field for many of Japan's modern sf authors. The publisher Hayakawa's SF Magazine began in 1960 as a reprint vehicle for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but soon after began to publish original material, which soon predominated. This traditionalist mode of sf found itself undergoing transformation in the 1980s, in part through the arrival of authors such as Motoko Arai, whose chatty, conversational prose was a harbinger of the Light Novels: initially chapbook novellas, often in multipart serial form and tied to a media franchise, which came to dominate commuter reading on the train, and hence young adult fiction in general at the turn of the twenty-first century. In adult-oriented fiction, Haruki Murakami similarly purloined the modes of foreign sf and hard-boiled detective fiction for the telling of semi-autobiographical confessionals, transforming the "I-novel" with new levels of Fabulation.

Yasuo Nagayama, in Sengo SF Jiken Shi: Nihon-teki Sōzōryoku no 70-nen ["A History of Post-war SF Events: 70 Years of the Japanese Imagination"] (2012), presents an alternate, "occasionalist" view, retelling the history of Japanese sf in terms of conventions, media backlashes and fads, emphasizing not the texts but their readers. In Nagayama's version, Fandom plays a more central role; Tetsu Yano founded the first fanzine in 1954 which, although it lasted for but a single issue, lent its name to the Seiun Awards that have been arbiters of popular taste since 1970. Authors such as Allan Kiodomari hence played a larger part, not through their publications, but through their fan activity. Japan's first sf convention was held in 1962 with only 200 attendees, providing the first environment not only for intensive promotion of local authors, but also for the subsumption of sf literature within other modes of consumption, particularly media fandom. Nagayama points to an "otaku revolution" within Japanese conventions around 1980, when the generation born after Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy began to assert its own interests (see Gainax), revitalizing appraisal of media often disregarded by sf literature fandom, such as the Monster Movies beginning with Gojira (1954; vt Godzilla), Mosura (1961; vt Mothra), Daikaijū Gamera (1965; vt Gamera) and the special-effects serials of Eiji Tsuburaya. However, the most crucial element of this "otaku" takeover lies in its interest in the Anime and Manga that flooded Japanese television since the 1970s, particularly Uchū Senkan Yamato (1974-1975) and Gundam (see Yoshiyuki Tomino; Mecha), films such as Kaze no Tani no Nausicaä (1984) and video productions such as Top o Nerae (1988). Although Nagayama's version of history highlights different strands and events, it dovetails with Ishihara's in the 1980s, as Japanese fiction in general became part of an overall "media mix", with marketing and promotion more likely to favour works with cross-media appeal.

Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove argued in Trillion Year Spree (1986) that "the Japanese have yet to write a science fiction which the world will embrace as an essential part of its vocabulary. That honour is reserved for the Anglophone world. It travels everywhere, on one-way tickets." While such an assertion would have been ungracious but not untrue in terms of the Ishihara approach, it was already inaccurate by Nagayama's standards, with Japanese cartoons and comics, particularly the works of creators such as Leiji Matsumoto and Shōtarō Ishinomori, already exported to dozens of foreign markets, even at the time they wrote. It is the latter, Media Landscape version of Japanese sf that has come to dominate foreign appraisals of the country's science fiction, particularly since the 1980s, when hundreds of Japanese cartoons were made available in English. Among such works, the standard bearers were Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Hayao Miyazaki, although, ironically, neither is typical of the field, and indeed both frame much of their work in reaction to it (compare to Takao Koyama). Manga in particular forms a powerful strain of the Japanese sf "conversation" both at home and abroad, with creators such as Yukinobu Hoshino, Masamune Shirow, Keiko Takemiya and Moto Hagio proving just as, if not more influential than prose authors.

Before the 1990s, Japanese prose sf in English was limited to a couple of works by Shinichi Hoshi and Sakyō Komatsu, as well as The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories (anth 1989 US) edited by John L Apostolou with Martin H Greenberg and a few scattered works by atypical Mainstream Writers of SF, such as Kōbō Abe. Since then, the interest in Japanese popular culture fostered by anime, manga and computer games has led to a rapid, exponential expansion in works available in English, including a renewed interest in the works of Yasutaka Tsutsui (famous in English not for his avant-garde works, but for Toki o Kakeru Shōjo), Chōhei Kanbayashi (better known for Yukikaze in anime form rather than its original novel) and Hiroyuki Morioka (first translated in anime form, with his novels following behind). Often, interest in the juvenile works of such authors also leads to attention directed at their adult books. Their works in translation share foreign bookshelves with many tie-ins and cash-ins by Japanese authors who are much more locked into the modern media landscape, such as Tow Ubukata, Kōshun Takami and Kōji Suzuki, many of whom have similarly reached the attention of many Western readers through adaptations of their works into film or animation.

In modern times, Japanese authors are arguably in a better position than many non-Anglophone creators in the world sf market. Japanese acclaim, or a Seiun Award win, or even mere nomination, is often enough to secure the attention of Anglophone publishers such as Haikasoru or Kurodahan, keen to acquire a piece of the likely anime or movie hit of the future while it still exists solely in prose form. This has been good news for the likes of Issui Ogawa or Hōsuke Nojiri, and indeed for Hiroshi Sakurazaka, whose All You Need Is Kill (2004) was translated in 2009, several years ahead of its adaptation into a Tom Cruise vehicle. According to Casey Brienza in Manga in America (2016), certain modern novels are only translated with great reluctance by Anglophone publishers contractually obliged to release them if they want to gain access to the more lucrative Graphic Novel Tie. However, while many popular works do make it swiftly into translation, the view presented by Japanese sf to the outside world is still skewed by the preconceptions of foreign publishers and by the nature of the accessible material. Works arguably more enduringly "Japanese", particularly those that address issues of more complex Linguistics or experimentation (see Masaki Yamada; Ryu Mitsuse; Hisashi Inoue; Shōzō Numa; Mariko Ōhara), or the long-running sagas of the likes of Yumemakura Baku and Yoshiki Tanaka, remain tantalizingly unavailable. In some senses, despite appearances to the contrary, Japanese culture remains no less closed to outsiders than it was in 1867, with rich veins of material as yet unmined. [JonC/TSh/PN]

see also: Acid Mothers Temple; Editorial Practices: Chinese and Japanese Names.

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