On Japanese SF
By Nick Mamatas
In Issui Ogawa’s The Next Continent, the “war on terror” is a political afterthought thanks to an American retreat from the Middle East; Japanese businesspeople see themselves as a counterweight to Western globalization; and engineers can do anything from building undersea vacation spots to constructing a wedding chapel on the moon. Environmental problems have been solved or mitigated, capitalists aren’t all ruthless, and the state is neither utterly incompetent nor a single piece of legislation away from tyranny. Societies that work are a radical vision in today’s Western science fiction, but they’re refreshingly common in Japan.
Japanese science fiction has any number of futures to choose from. In the world of Mardock Scramble by Tow Ubukata, private property is so valued that a vending machine in a hotel hallway is given precedence over a human life. In Chōhei Kambayashi’s Yukikaze series, the fighter pilot hero is out solely for himself in his war against the alien JAM. His motto isn’t “Death before dishonor,” it’s “Not my problem.” In Jyouji Hayashi’s The Ouroboros Wave both individualism and strict hierarchies have been supplanted by a kind of corporate mutualism. Though we can talk about the typical themes and plots of Japanese SF, it’s important to keep in mind that there is no single Japanese future, no ubiquitous theme.
I am often asked what differentiates Japanese SF from its Western parent. Frankly, with a few name changes, in many cases there is no difference at all. Japanese SF authors grew up reading US and UK SF and have fully embraced the idiom. But some traits stand out.
Japanese SF often builds scenes in ways that are reminiscent of the manga panel as opposed to the motion picture. So flashbacks operate a bit differently, comical characters appear in otherwise serious scenes, and conversations don’t necessarily happen in what a Western reader would perceive as “real time.” Backgrounds are often sketched out in the boldest of strokes—the famous professor, the dying sun! On the other hand, scenes will always be given as many pages as they need to complete the story, which is suggestive of the serial nature of both manga and the Japanese bunkoban paperback.
Japanese SF is far more likely to feature a teenage girl as a protagonist than Western SF.
Japanese hard SF doesn’t foreground the “hard SF attitude” described by Kathryn Cramer as “a love of hardware for its own sake—and the hard-nosed Ayn Rand voice that we now identify as libertarian.” Though this isn’t to say that stories with a libertarian theme are unknown; Project Itoh’s Harmony, a Utopian satire about universal healthcare, certainly qualifies.
Japanese SF tends to be short. Most of the longer books we’ve published via Haikasoru were available as two, or even three, volumes in Japan. These volumes are released serially—sometimes a month apart, and occasionally even a week apart. (I think this compares favorably to the Western method of waiting for initial sales figures. How many trilogies are missing a final concluding volume?) An exception is Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s existentialist epic Loups-Garous, which was an oddity for being quite long and published in a single volume in Japan.
And most importantly at of all, in Japanese SF, the future is Japanese. I remember a conversation I had with someone when I first starting working for Haikasoru. “Isn’t it funny,” he said, “that all these future alien invasions and catastrophes and discoveries are supposed to happen on a little archipelago?”
“As opposed to happening on a continent largely empty of anything save corn fields and SUVs?” I asked him. “And not even the whole continent—just the middle bit!” Science fiction has many futures; it’s about time Western readers were exposed to a few of those visions of which they may not otherwise conceive. At Haikasoru, we’re just trying to do our part in creating a truly international future.