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Denki Jidai (A brief history of Japanese SF – Part 2 of 3) –

Denki Jidai (A brief history of Japanese SF – Part 2 of 3)

Thursday , 2, February 2017 6 Comments

shinseinen cover: issue 6-6 (May 1925) featuring Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of Three Garridebs (originally published 1924)

As we saw in part one, Japan’s rich literary history had prepared Japanese writers for the influx of European style speculative fiction in the mid-1800s, and by the end of the century the flow of imported work had reached firehose rates as the literate public scrambled to learn as much as they could about the outside world from which they’d been separated for so long.

But Japan’s speculative fiction history isn’t just about imports, nor is it about imitation: As with many things adopted and adapted by the Japanese during the Meiji Era they combined the new with the old and made something unique and compelling.

A blog post is really far too short to do the subject justice, but I hope you’ll join me for a wild ride from the beginning of the 20th Century, and into the “Denki Jidai” (the electric era)!


Through the 1880s[1] and into the 1890s Japan saw a succession of authors emerge who realised the potential of combining the best of the imports with Japan’s own literary traditions to produce powerful stories. As we saw with Sugiyama, Tetcho, and Yano, however, the work was often very “academic” and literary, with the main aim being satire and political comment. While the serious tone of Japanese speculative fiction continued into the 20th Century, as literacy rates rose and the cost of printing dropped urban middle classes started snapping up print entertainment in ways they hadn’t previously, particularly in the form of newspapers and the new concept of magazines which had been introduced to Japan by Mori Arinori on his return from the United States in 1873[2], drove the development of an ever wider range of offerings.[3]

One major author at the dawn of the 20th Century who has had enormous influence on later generations was the prolific Izumi Kyoka. While Izumi is often remembered today as the author of a number of kabuki plays and as a representative of Japan’s Romantic period authors (and by high school students as being a terrifyingly difficult author to read), he also wrote a number of stories and novels that can best be described as gothic. But these were by no means merely copies of the gothic style popular in the West – the eerie tales, ripe with supernatural elements, are similar in some respects to the work of Poe and Lovecraft, but draw so heavily on traditional Japanese themes and motifs that they are very definitely a thing in themselves.[4]

Now, Izumi’s writing was very different from the standard of the time – which was more concrete and realist – and while his almost surreal, fantastic style has earned him respect over the years it may not have been particularly penetrable to the average reader. Nevertheless, he opened the door to “modern fairytales” being taken more seriously, which included imports of major adventure fiction from the West along with the writing of Japan’s own greats.

The first two decades of the 20th Century saw the launch of many new periodicals, not only newspapers (which even today run serialized fiction by well-respected authors) but magazines – many heavily illustrated – aimed at nearly every segment of society that might be sufficiently literate to represent a market.

In the 1900s and 1910s Oshikawa Shunro, who rocketed to popularity with his riff on Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – his debut work the Kaitei Gunkan (Undersea Warship)[5] series marked a shift from Japan’s more philosophical SF from the previous century toward the adventure and exploration oriented work of a new age. Over the course of Oshikawa’s short 14 year career, he produced a stunning number of stories however, including an second stab at the ideas of Kaitei Gunkan called Gunsha Okoku (Kingdom of Tanks), Kaijo no Himitsu (The Secret of the Sea), and Shinarabiyan-naito (New Arabian Night) to name just a few. He was also an active translator and journalist, but there can really be no question that his most important influence was to start pushing domestic speculative and science fiction in the direction of adventure and exploration – indeed, many of his works deal with exploration of the new frontiers emerging technologies were making accessible (air, sea, space), expanding on the ideas of his early futurist speculation Sennengo no Sekai (The World in a Thousand Years) to see, in a nearer future, what the technologies emerging might bring.

Oshikawa’s work in pushing both the literary form and the content in this direction truly makes him one of the founding fathers of Japanese science fiction.

But it wasn’t just Oshikawa writing science fiction in this era: the fact of the matter is that this was a time of popularity for both Verne and Wells in translation, and the explosion of translations and domestic SF stories had such an impact that late Meiji Era authors were growing increasingly “modern” even if they weren’t exactly modernist, and even “mainstream literary” writers of great repute were adopting SFnal ideas and themes into their work.

One example is the well-known Natsume Soseki, whose Wagahai wa Neko de Aru (I am a Cat) contains a humanized feline that doesn’t quite echo the beasts of Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau from a decade earlier. Likewise, Natsume Soseki’s series of stories entitled Yume Yuya (Ten Nights’ Dream) has a firm place among Japan’s early “weird tales” style of speculative fiction.

Titles like Shinseinen (New Youth), Shonen Sekai (Youth World), and Shinshojo (New Miss) had emerged among the more staid literary offerings by 1920 as primarily literary magazines, publishing translations of course – authors like R. Austin Freeman’s The Eye of Osiris, Jack London’s Minions of Midas, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and even older work like Poe’s A Tale of the Ragged Mountains – but also a variety of domestic work.

As you can guess from the English titles[6] I’ve listed, detective and adventure stories were of particular interest – and a favourite of the Japanese public were works that riffed on classics. Just as Oshikawa Shunro’s Kaitei Guntan (undersea warship) stories, inspired by Jules Verne, continued to be popular there was a whole stable of native sleuths jostling for position as the latest “scientific detective”. In part, this was driven by the dizzying array of gadgets and new ideas that were flowing into the country in the teens and twenties with the country’s increasing wealth: the radio and electric innovations that were slowly being rolled out in the West were of enormous interest, and the Japanese could see that their late start modernising could be an advantage as they were in a position to adopt the very latest without worrying about legacy technologies.

In the 20s and 30s this was driving a whole crop of techno-detective writers who were using stories to present the new technologies – and speculation about the future of those technologies – to a hungry public. In this era, we see stories like Inugami (The Dog God), Medusa no kubi (Medusa’s Neck), and Jinko Shinzo (The Man-made Heart, 1926) by Kosakai Fuboku  in which Kosakai – a physician and translator of Western scientific texts – predicted the artificial heart a decade before its real-world invention by Vladimir Denikhov in 1937.

But one of the most influential writers to emerge at the end of this period was surely Unno Juza.

Unno began his career writing under his real name Sano Shoichi[7] as a writer of popular science articles, and under a handful of other pen-names when he began working in the testing labs for the Ministry of Communications[8] – like many other SF authors of the period he was a highly educated engineer/scientist from an elite family. Before long though, he took on his Unno Juza persona with a series of innovative murder mystery stories, starting with one of his most famous stories Denkifuro no Kaishi Jiken(The Case of the Mysterious Death in the Electric Bath), which was published in 1928[9] followed by a number of detective stories, several featuring his signature detective Soruku Homura[10] who solved intricate scientific/engineering murders that inevitably involved the latest electrical and radio technologies: a tip of the hat to Sano’s real-life inspiration, Nikola Tesla.

The first flush of his work as Unno Juza revolved around detective fiction, but it was obvious his first love was technology, and many of his mysteries deal with very hard scientific concepts; where Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was a genius detective because he applied scientific principles to his investigation, Unno Juza’s heroes were often genius scientists who applied their brilliance to solving crimes.

He didn’t stop there, though, and in 1928 he published his first story moving into the direction of science fiction proper: Kurogane Tengu (The Iron Tengu). This story features a detective as well, but interestingly Unno chooses to set it in the past (the Edo Period) and the detective is really just a device to provide us with eyes to see the action: it’s a missing persons case with a homicidal twist, as the missing man has returned with his telepathically controlled fighting robot (the eponymal Iron Tengu) to exact revenge on the dashing samurai who stole his girl.

There’s an interesting feature here that shows the new direction in which Japanese science fiction was moving during the 20s and 30s: Unno Juza’s “iron tengu” is a robot explicitly modelled as a Western machine rather than being derived from the native karakuri devices that had developed when clockwork was introduced in the 18th Century. [11] Many of Unno Juza’s subsequent – and more firmly science fictional – stories evoked this image of alien technologies or technologies that pose a risk to society (the tengu is a challenge to the samurai elites and their fighting skill – the maker is bookish and intellectual, and lacks not just the martial prowess of his rival but also the moral strength. His creation allows him to terrorize Tokyo night after night, but in the end he doesn’t have full control, and in the end corruption, madness, and hubris destroys him.

This theme of the dangers of carelessly adopting technology just because it’s new, and the moral danger of throwing away the past wholesale is a continuous thread through his major works in the 1930s and even after the war.

The 1930s is a complex time for Japanese fiction: as the Japanese government pushed forward with its dreams of empire many authors were dragooned into propaganda production – and since so many active science fiction writers were engineers and scientists themselves quite a few were directly employed by the Ministries or the military.[12] But lest we worry that adventure fiction was entirely politicised during this period, have no fear! As it happens, there were other arts in which science fiction was taking root, and the feedback loop between these media and print is a big part of what makes Japanese SF what it is today.

Join me next time when we take a headlong rush into the present!


[1] If you remember, the years leading up to the parliamentary Diet established in 1890.

[2] Which he introduced mainly as a vehicle for political and social change by importing Western thought such as political theory and philosophy – his Meiroku Magazine only published 43 issues between 1873 and 1881, and sold about 3000 copies at its peak, but the idea of magazines and of course the intellectual payload had significant influence for decades after.

[3] It was in this period – from about 1890 to 1910 – that newspapers really took off. Moveable type had presented something of a challenge for Japanese as a result of the complexity of Chinese characters, so many previous waves of consumer print had leaned heavily on illustration: for example the kusazoshi mentioned in Part 1 were typically printed with illustration plates onto which the text was engraved. With the introduction of lithography, Japanese printers were able to join the West’s publishing explosion.

[4] Sadly, very little classic Japanese literature has been translated, but Izumi’s work can be sampled in English in a 4 story volume by translator Charles Shiro Inouye Japanese Gothic Tales published by the University of Hawaii Press in 1996.

[5] Which is interesting, since Verne had actually lost some of his lustre in Japan by the 1880s.

[6] There were also many French titles, and a handful of German and Russian.

[7] Nearly all Japanese authors take a pen-name, and in most cases the pen-name is obviously fictional and often has some kind of meaning to the author, though it might be obscure to everyone else. In Unno Juza’s case, he was a Mahjong fanatic, and took his name from a saying: majon wa un ga ju meaning roughly “in Mahjong, there are 10 lucks/ways to win” which was often colloquially reduced to un ga ju, sa (“10 lucks, yeah?”)

[8] Eventually privatized to become Japan’s national telephone network NTT

[9] Submitted at the urging of fellow mystery writer Yokomizo Seiji

[10] A deliberate bastardization of Sherlock Holmes: at the time, the rate at which Doyle and similar European writers were being translated was insane.

[11] Specifically, Han-no-jo (the maker of the Tengu) disappears and it’s hinted that he travelled far and wide to learn the secret of making the Tengu. The Tengu itself is described in terms of the Japanese words for Western-style plate armor and steam engines. Han-no-jo is also described as riding on the thing, which is perhaps a reference to the 1001 Nights story The Ebon Horse…or perhaps not. I’m just guessing from the fact many of these tales were being translated and printed at the time.

[12] As a key engineer at the Ministry of Communications, Unno Juza was one of those drafted. Interestingly, he continued to pen works that were critical of the changes he was seeing during this period, but his experiences during the war affected him deeply and after Japan’s surrender the character of his work changed, becoming much darker and more pessimistic until his death in 1949.

  • VD says:

    I’m a moderate Soseki fan; he’s really quite good. It’s a pity so little of it is translated into English.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      It is a pity – I think there’s a lot of goodness there for us to enjoy. There have been a few translation projects over the years, but it doesn’t seem like anyone but the academic publishers are much interested.

  • m.tin says:

    Dunno If it is just me, but I found Izumi Kyoka to be pretty easy, even pleasant read. “One Day in Spring” is positively tranquil, even with the nightmarish intrusion of the supernatural at one point. Same goes for the story of a young monk and horny witch. His fiction reminded me of Arthur Machen at times, out of all things.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      No, he’s not really that hard – particularly for us with the benefit of a tradition of writers like Poe and Lovecraft and Merritt to give it context. (actually, I think he’s very much like a Japanese Poe). But it was such a difference from a lot of what was standard in Japan at the time, and actually to be honest even now JHS students roll their eyes and groan when they learn they have to read him. But then, JHS students roll their eyes and groan any time they get challenged to read something amazing – and they roll harder when it’s in a dusty old book that was written in the dark ages. (ie before they were born)

  • icewater says:

    No mentions of Rampo, I guess that he never wrote anything that could be classifies as SF?

    I’m asking because he is seemingly always mentioned in the context of Japanese genre fiction produced in this time period. I’ve only read few of his horror tales and I wasn’t a big fan of them, mostly because they were going into body horror/gross out territory.

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