Iron Tengu, Bamboo Girl (A brief history of Japanese SF – Part 1 of 3)

Thursday , 19, January 2017 9 Comments

These days, no-one really questions Japanese influence on modern science fiction – from the dark Orientalist fantasies of Japanese corporatism as a symbol of oppression in cyberpunk near futures, through Japanese industry’s place as a signal for “high tech”[1], and on through the ongoing anime and manga boom Japan seems almost omnipresent in modern science fiction.

Strangely though, despite Japan’s place as almost symbolic of near-future technological wonders[2] Japan’s own rich SF history is very little known in the English-speaking world. Oh, most people who grew up with TV in the 80s and 90s have some inkling of what was going on, but apart from kids’ cartoons and some thinly veiled adaptations of Western classics[3] the view from the West would largely make it seem as though the history of Japanese SF is short and reactive.

This is a shame, as Japan’s unique domestic SF culture has deep roots of its own.

Arguably, Japan’s first contact with SFnal concepts comes with the introduction of Daoism from China in the 7th or 8th Century[4] – when Daoism came to Japan among the texts imported was the Book of Liezi, which contains a brief account of the tale of Yenshi and his automaton. [5] Of course, this is an import – but then the English tradition claims its own roots in Persian, Arabic, and Indian tales so perhaps it’s fair to look for the roots here. Coming back home to the Islands of Japan proper, we still see some interesting hints of what is to come: among the many speculative tales that emerge as Japan begins to develop its own literary tradition[6] we have such works Urashima Taro, an interesting take on time travel and the Pandora’s box tale[7] first recorded in the 8th Century, and of course Kaguya-hime The Bamboo Princess in the 10th provides us with a prototype tale of interplanetary war.  There are more of course, but most are only fragments now and in many cases there are questions as to whether the stories were meant as entertainment literature, or are adapted “mythology” more similar to the fairy tales of Europe.

Still, there’s no doubt Japanese writers were quick to see the pleasure of writing fiction for entertainment, and we can see strong evidence of conscious literary production from at least the 11th Century on, not only in text but preserved in performing arts.

For our purposes though, it’s hard to call most of what was produced in the early period science fiction per se: there is certainly speculative fiction being produced (as opposed to what normally gets dismissed as “folktales”[8]), but a lot of it deals with supernatural forces – Japan has been in love with ghost stories, for example, for centuries, and adventure stories dealing with some hero’s encounter with forces such as fox women, oni, yuki-onna and related spirits, or personified nature spirits such as transformed cranes are common.  While some stories have fragments of SFnal motifs (Urashima Taro’s time travel,  the interplanetary politics of some versions of Bamboo Princess) they don’t really get developed until the late Edo Era and of course the post-War adaptations.

Nevertheless, arms-length engagement with the West during Japan’s isolationist period led to some interesting literary innovations: the discipline of “Rangaku” (literally, study of the Dutch – where the Dutch, through their trading outpost in Nagasaki, provided a window into European knowledge) provided translations and native developments of Western technologies, but toward the end of the isolationist period it was also starting to produce semi-fictional works of satire and “parallel world” stories reminiscent of the political satire being produced in Europe and even fictional travelogues like Lucian’s True Histories. Some of these tales contain the same kinds of fantastic ideas as in the proto-science fiction “fantastic voyage” stories of the West[9], and I think it can fairly be said that in this climate – where the Japanese were being exposed to the cream of new technologies and speculating as to what such things might bring – the core of modern Japanese SF was born.

With the opening of Japan in 1853 things go into high gear with the translation of anything and everything to do with the West’s knowledge in the scramble to catch up. This included all sorts of innovative technologies of course, but also literature. One early item is Pieter Harting’s Anno2070[10], and it seems as though Harting’s speculations about the wonders and innovations coming in the next 200 years resonated with a Japanese public hungry for the new world. In fact, the publication of Harting’s future history even sparked renewed interest in a native Japanese genre mirai-ki  (lit. “records of the future”) – a form in which the author writes an interpretation of the present or the past (often fairly recent past) from the perspective of a “prophet” in the distant past.[11]

This is a little hard to wrap one’s mind around in the abstract, so let me give an example: were I to write a mirai-ki today, I might take on the voice of a narrator living in the 15th Century, recording his visions of World War 2. Get it? Good: because now you can see why Harting’s novelette revived the form, and how interesting it would be to the Japanese literati, who were very interested in brave new ways to satirize their political foes.

In its original incarnation in the Heian Period[12] the function of the mirai-ki is unclear[13] but the form was still being used by Japanese entertainers during the Edo Period (particularly by kabuki authors and in the popular kibyoshi[14] illustrated books – forerunners of manga) as a vehicle for satire, farce, and political gossip. Harting’s Anno 2070 offered an interesting variation on the mirai-ki that Japanese writers were quick to pounce on – again for the purpose of social and political commentary.

While some like to point to the translation of seminal SF works of 19th Century Europe such as Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1880 and subsequent imitation by Oshikawa Shunro in his Katei Guntan (“Undersea Warship”), the truth is that Japanese authors had already been hard at work for more than a decade producing new mirai-ki works that both predicted the future in full SFnal style and satirized the missteps of the current government.

One major example is Tetcho Suehiro’s Nijusan-nen Mirai-ki (Future History of Year 23)[15] published in 1885 in which the noted author looks forward to 1890 (Meiji 23 in the Japanese calendar), when the proposed Parliamentary Diet was to be established.  In this work, Tetcho paints a dystopian future in which the outcome is painfully dysfunctional, largely as a result of the meddling of the aristocratic elites in the development of a much-needed democratic reform.[16]

This story, like many other Mirai-ki of the period, is science fictional only in terms of being set in the future – the main thrust is the political commentary, but many others also tried to look further forward. The aim was still largely socio-political comment of course – but then that has long been a component of science fiction in the West as well, as we see from the satirical works of the 18th and 19th Centuries in the UK and United States.

Going back to Tetcho again, he penned another Mirai-ki a few years later that was much closer to what we would today consider science fiction. His 1886 novel Setchubai (Plum Blossoms in the Snow) is still very political – and in fact is often held up as a quintessential example of Meiji Era political novels – but this time it is set in 2040, and we are treated to Tetcho’s description of a Japan encrusted with electric cities connected by comprehensive and incomprehensibly fast rail networks.

Amid the turmoil of political reform in the 1880s was also technological turmoil as the Japanese struggled to adopt Western innovations at a break-neck pace while at the same time trying to make their own mark on the world. The rate of advancement was incredible, and speculation was rife – no wonder then, that the appetite for fiction drawing on the potential of these new technologies led to a term for the harder types of science fiction being coined in 1886: kagaku shosetsu.

While there was a huge market for translations of big-name imports like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Shelley, and others the material simply couldn’t come fast enough – and the aesthetics of the imported work wasn’t always to the taste of the educated middle and upper classes who were the main consumers. As a result, the 1880s, 1890s, and the first decade of the 1900s saw a boom in native speculative hard science fiction that more or less corresponded with the explosion of commercial print media in Japan.

During this period, newspapers, pamphlets, short novels, magazines, manga, and all manner of  print media were hugely popular at all levels, even prompting acrimonious debate: As an example, Yano Ryukei’s novel Fujo Monogatari  (The Tale of the Floating Castle) published in 1890 was trotted out by the academic elites as an example of the decline of literature, criticising its wooden characters and failure to delve into the inner, formless nature of humanity (as the traditionally philosophical literature of the period did) while confusing large-scale plot with actual art.

Other works such as Sugiyama Tojiro’s  Ogonsekai (Golden World) published in 1884 seem to have been more acceptable however, and ultimately even the literati embraced the new wave of entertainment literature, seeing it as a positive development toward the development of a literate society capable of standing on the same stage as the empires of the West. This is perhaps no more evident than in the enthusiasm among the social and academic elites (those most closely involved in the scientific and engineering blossoming of the Meiji Era) who drove the Japanese SF revolution into the first years of the 20th Century.

Join me next time when we look at the development of Japan’s “Denki Jidai” SF through to the beginning of the modern periods!


[1] Sometimes it almost seems like a rule that if you want to tell the reader that something is especially high tech, just have it manufactured by a company with at least one Japanese-sounding word in its hyphenated name.

[2] Which seems a bit odd to me sometimes, as someone who was born at a time when “made in Japan” still held some of the stigma that “made in China” has today: a land of cheap, inferior knock-offs.

[3] And some not really veiled at all.

[4] Japan doesn’t really come to mind when thinking of Daoism, but in fact there remains a vein of Daoist thought both in Shinto and in Japanese schools of Buddhism as a result of Daoist and Confucian texts brought at this time by Tang Dynasty scholars. Certain festivals popular today, such as Tanabata, trace their roots to the introduction of Daoist texts as well.

[5] In this story (which is really very brief, and hard to define as science fiction, though it is sometimes trotted out as an example of an early automaton tale) King Mu visits the land of Yen and is introduced to the artificer Yenshi. Yenshi demonstrates his automaton, which is so realistic that King Mu is on the verge of executing Yenshi for witchcraft; Yenshi disassembles the automaton to demonstrate that it’s a mechanism made of leather and bamboo, and King Mu’s mood is reversed: now he’s so impressed he arranges to take Yenshi home with him to make more marvels.

[6] Narrative literature, as opposed to folktales, is considered to have started more or less with the Tale of Genji in the 11th Century.

[7]Aside: one of the things that makes Japanese fiction (not just SF) so interesting to me is that very few of the root stories fit under the Aarne-Thompson folktale classification system, which often results in surprising – sometimes confusing – divergence from what we might expect, coming from an Indo-European story tradition.

[8] Though, frankly, the division seems artificial to me – common folk aren’t allowed to compose “literature”?

[9] As an example, the tale The Island of Women by Hiraga Gennai, which provides an account of an island populated only by women, who reproduced by exposing themselves to the wind blowing from Japan. Lest you mistake the message here, bear in mind Hiraga also penned the “treatise” A Theory of Farting.

[10] No relation to the computer game as far as I can tell. Note that the Japanese translation – printed in 1868 precedes the English one which didn’t arrive until 1871! The English text (published under the title Anno Domini 2071) is available on the Internet Archive:

[11] Trust the Japanese to come up with such a mind-bending genre.

[12] Not coincidentally the same period as the “birth” of Japanese literature with the Tale of Genji

[13] Though early works were attributed to Shotoku Taishi – a significant Buddhist teacher who was considered to have the power of prophesy, and a particularly famous example is a text that was “dug up” (supposedly) at Horyuji Temple in 1054, purportedly by Shotoku – who died in 622 – and predicting its own discovery.

[14] Kibyoshi are amazing. Most pages are richly illustrated with scenes from whatever historical or fictional adventure is being related, with often as little as half to a third of the page being filled with text – the advantage of kanji as a high-density medium for writing. This was a very rich medium and very popular in the pleasure-houses of the late 18th Century right through to the end of the Edo Period. The audience was explicitly adult (mostly male, obviously), and the subjects usually satirical or humorous. Kibyoshi – “yellow books” – were a subgenre of the kusazoshi picture books, which as a whole had a much wider audience. Think in terms of the difference between Punch and Weird Tales I guess.

[15] Not to be confused with an earlier mirai-ki written by Gaishi Ryuso in 1883, which is even less science fictional in content, but has a very Asimovesque assertion in the “forward” (really more of a literary device explaining how the narrator can know the future) that all things are mechanistic, allowing humanity to mathematically predict anything that might come – shades of psychohistory!

[16] Tetcho was a major proponent of liberalization and adoption of Western democratic ideals, and a critic of the proposal to establish an Emperor-centric Diet that retained the aristocracy. He was also one of the founders of an early iteration of the Liberal Party of Japan in 1881 (the first political party), and was imprisoned twice and forced to leave Japan briefly following his in-print attacks on law that threatened freedom of the press. He later was elected to office in Japan’s first democratic elections in 1890.

  • Scott Cole says:


    I can see mirai-ki being easily incorporated into any style of SF and Fantasy.

    What was so amazing about rangaku ( was the Dutch were restricted to a very small island (Dejima). Today the island is gone, covered by asphalt, though a red painted line may still mark the island’s boundary. Fascinating how much knowledge the Japanese siphoned out of that small island with only a limited number of people interacting with the Dutch on site.

    The Infogalactic article mentions “a small group of hereditary Japanese–Dutch translators” who “labored in Nagasaki to smooth communication with the foreigners and transmit bits of Western novelties”. Wish I could remember the reference but came across an account of one of these translator’s memoirs. Daily he would work to exhaustion in transcribing as much knowledge as possible for Japan and it was more than “Western novelties”. Seem to remember he took a particular interest in transcribing anything to do with firearms and other technological wonders…

    The mention of the Dutch not only sheds insight into the Japanese but also the Europeans. The earlier contact with the Portuguese isn’t mentioned but can guess their main cultural focus was religious and not as conductive to speculative fiction.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      That memoir sounds like something by Sugita Genpaku – you’re right, it’s absolutely amazing how much the Japanese were able to get out of such a small surface of contact. I think a big part of that was that the previous Portuguese (and Spanish) contacts were deliberately keeping them in the dark, meaning to keep a captive market – while the Dutch approach was to feed as much as possible to make the new market hungry for more. The fact the Dutch at that time were busy trying to break the back of the Spanish-Portuguese Empire surely plays into the decision as well.

      An yes, I think mirai-ki could be adapted very easily. In fact, in some senses it’s just the reverse of an approach that we’ve been using for ages – things like the narrator in War of the Worlds writing his memoirs of events that happen in the reader’s future. Flipping it seems obvious, but I can’t think of any English language examples of it off hand.

      • Nathan says:

        Poe played with a reverse form of it, the future man looking back at the past through a glass darkly, usually misinterpreting artifacts and creating a false historical account that satirizes the present. Mellonta Tauta?

        • Kevyn Winkless says:

          Hmm. I can see elements of the mirai-ki in Mellonta Tauta – but that one is in the form of a letter supposedly discovered by Poe and originating in the future. I’m trying to think which Poe story you’re referring to but can’t put my finger on it. Mellonta Tauta is rather like mirai-ki though, in that the letter recounts events in the narrator’s past as a means of commenting on the author’s present and near future. Curiously, the story also refers to the narrator’s visit to see the inscription on the George Washington Monument…which was opened 2 years after the story’s publication. So kind of a double mirai-ki?

          • Kevyn Winkless says:

            (I lie: double checked and it appears the story was published in 1850 rather than 1845 as I’d thought)

  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    Great article — can’t wait for the rest!

  • Nathan says:

    Hmm… mirai-ki, at least in legend, is attributed to Prince Shotoku? Interesting. There’s a ton here to digest. Can’t wait for the next part.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      Yes, in the sense that the people writing the original ones were claiming to have discovered the prophesies of Shotoku. There really is a lot here – I almost balked at calling anything in 3 parts a “brief” history, but there are whole books devoted to the subject so I almost feel like I’m not doing the subject justice.

  • icewater says:

    Kaguya-hime was actually referenced in something I’ve read few years ago, that is in accompanying text found in Tales of Moonlight and Rain. Enjoyable stuff (Tales that is), I discovered it after I went trough a short period of obsession with Japanese ghostly tales (Lafcadio Hearn is to blame for that).

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