Thursday, 4 February 2010

Japanese Scientific Romances

Japan has a long history of Science Fiction, going far beyond the dystopian epics of Cyberpunk anime. It even goes back further than the immediate post-war period that gave rise to such things as the Kaiju monster movies and pulp comics that introduced Osamu Tezuka and the manga artform. It goes all the way back to the worldwide scope of the Scientific Romances and stands uniquely in the canon of the genre.

With the exception of these stories, Science Fiction and its antecedents are a predominately Western phenomenon. In fact, it may be argued that no society outside of Europe, America and their colonies has taken to it quite as well as the Japanese. Through this work, we see a lens focused back on ourselves. Whereas Scientific Romances began in the Enlightenment satires of Swift and Voltaire, they have never drifted far from being the West's internal monologue about industrialization. Because of cultural familiarity we may be able to compartmentalize the messages of a Sir H. Rider Haggard or Edward S. Ellis, divorcing the messages from the ripping yarns they spin. Even the criticisms, by the likes of an H.G. Wells or Mark Twain, are spoken from well within the imperial citadel.

Not so for the Japanese tradition. By using this Western genre as a medium, the monologue of Euro-American conquest becomes a dialogue. It's post-war permutations are already well-known: no American cautionary tale about the abstract dangers of atomic power carries the force of Gojira, better known as Godzilla. The monster B-movie of American drive-ins becomes the medium for an aching meditation on nuclear holocaust by the only nation to have ever suffered it. Though the immediacy of victimhood is absent from Japanese Scientific Romances in favour of prophetic warnings, the dialogue is not.

The roots of the genre come with the advent of the Meiji Era. In response to Commodore Perry's forceful opening of the Japanese border in 1853, the Meiji Restoration sought to equalize relations by meeting the West on its own grounds. Western ideas, industry, education and commerce were introduced and revolutionized by the island nation. Two consequences of substance hereby occured: that Japan felt firsthand the power of Euro-American expansionism, and that Japan was provoked to stand in tension with it.

This encounter was articulated by Yukichi Fukuzawa in his 1885 editorial Leaving Asia, which argued for the Westernization of Japan against the perceived backwardsness of the rest of Asia. He writes,
The recent movement of Westerner's rapid global expansion is remarkable. However, this is only a result of the Industrial Revolution and subsequent steam engines, and does not mean there was some kind of progress in terms of the human spirit. Therefore, in order to stand up against them and to prevent the invasions of the Orient by the Western great powers, first of all, we only need to get ready in our mind. Westerners are the same human being. But, that does not mean we can disregard the reality of Industrial Revolution. In order to keep the independence of a country, it is necessary to just jump into the wave of the Industrial Revolution and accept not only it's benefits but also its disadvantages as well. This is now required to survive in this modern civilized society...

The Japanese learned about the Industrial Revolution of the West when Perry’s Black Ships appeared in Edo Bay. Since then the Japanese have gradually begun to recognize the need to accept modern civilization. However, the Tokugawa shogunate was the obstacle. As long as the Tokugawa shogunate existed, we could not accept modern civilization. We had only two choices: modern civilization or sticking to the old regime. If we had chosen the the old regime, the independence of Japan would have been in danger. It's because Westerners, who went out to the world while taking advantage of technologies and competing with each other, would have had no mercy and left this Oriental island country asleep.

Hereby, the faithful retainers, faithful to the country and the Emperor, destroyed the Tokugawa Shogunate and built a new government. This way, Japan as a country and the whole nation decided to accept technologies and modern civilization born in the West. This was the first amongst the all Asian countries and, for Japan, this meant leaving Asia.

Along with these new ideas and industries came the literature of the West, including such stories as those by the most-translated French author, Jules Verne. Through these, the Victorian world communicated its own anxieties, particularly those pertaining to dehumanizing industry, territorial expansion and the impending horror of global mechanized warfare. Owen Griffiths observes, in his excellent paper Militarizing Japan: Patriotism, Profit, and Children’s Print Media, 1894-1925 which forms the foundation of this article, that "Between 1871 and 1914 some 300 stories of future war were published, first in England and then France, Germany and the United States, with the most popular quickly translated into virtually every European language." The West was steeling itself for war, and from the Japanese perspective already acquainted with Western military power, it would have been foolish not to prepare themselves as well.

An English political cartoon on the Sino-Japanese War.

The first of their own stories was Ryukei Yano's 1890 novel The Floating Battleship, originally an adult's novel that quickly became popular with children. Of it, Griffiths says:
Considered by some to be the first work of science fiction in modern Japan, [The Floating Battleship] became a standard for later war and future war fiction: Young, male uber-patriots embark on a South Sea adventure to "open up a giant territory tens of times the size of Japan and offer it to the Emperor..."... Yano’s adventurers are motivated by a deep dissatisfaction with Japanese passivity in the face of overwhelming foreign power.

He cites the captain of said vessel, who states as much: "The Western race carries out its exploits throughout the entire earth while the Japanese people carry out their exploits within their own country. We shouldn’t put up with such a lamentable predicament... Indeed, we should take this entire earth as our stage and carry out a great enterprise of singular proportions. Why does Japan alone need to cower in fear and move stealthily about." Where this novel moves beyond a patriotic tome into a Scientific Romance is the devistating futuristic weaponry the titular ship carries. Ironically disturbing, one of these weapons is a terrible explosive that enables the crew to level whole islands.

After The Floating Battleship, the power of Scientific Romances in shaping the minds of Japanese youth became apparent. The venue switched to what may easily be recognized as the boy's own adventure journal, the Japanese equivalent of the dime novel and penny dreadful. The foremost among them was Shonen Sekai, or Boy's World, which ran continuously from 1895 to 1914 and intermittently until 1933. Simultaneous with the beginning of Shonen Sekai was the Sino-Japanese War, and the magazine lent itself to many patriotic and often fanciful stories of military heroism. Another such magazine was Tanken Sekai, or World of Exploration, with a greater emphasis on "tales of Japanese adventure and exploration abroad and fantasies of imperialistic superiority and Japanese valor" (as described by Jeffery Angles).

Perhaps the most reknowned of these boys adventure stories is The Submarine Battleship, written in 1900 by Shunro Oshikawa. Besides being popular in its own right, this eerie foretelling of the Russo-Japanese War a mere four years later spawned five more sequels, a 1963 Toho film known in English as Atragon and a 1995 anime OVA entitled Super Atragon. The image of the flying submarine with a violent-looking screw device on its nose is famous with fans of Godzilla and Kaiju fans the world over.

Griffiths summarizes Oshikawa's novel (known variously as "The Undersea Battleship," "The Undersea Warship," "Warships on the Bottom of the Sea," etc.):
Kaitei gunkan [the Japanese title] was actually part of a six-novel series published between 1900 and 1907, all of which took as their point of departure Japanese passivity in the face of predatory foreign imperialism. Kaitei gunkan traces the exploits of a disgruntled former naval officer Captain Sakuragi and his hardy band of patriots who build a new submarine battleship on a secret island. The ship, the denkopan is submersible, capable of flight and is armed with futuristic torpedoes and a new ramming technology. Throughout the series, Sakuragi and his men battle the Russians, the French and the English, destroying them all. They even fight on the side of Filipino "freedom fighters" against American imperialists. Written before, during and after the Russo-Japanese War, Oshikawa’s novels rode the rollercoaster of war fever and then disgruntlement over the treaty that followed. In the process, he introduced thousands of Japanese boys to adult concerns about Japan’s weakness vis-a-vis the great powers and apprehension over an increasingly enervated youth. In the process, Oshikawa ignored Japan’s own predatory impulses and re-channeled them into patriotic sacrifice for a people fighting to secure their destiny.

This summary is echoed in Thomas Schnelbacher in his paper Has the Empire Sunk Yet? The Pacific in Japanese Science Fiction for the scholarly book Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime:
... Captain Sakuragi of the Imperial Navy Reserve retires secretly with his crew to an island in the Indian Ocean to develop a new type of submarine, to be based on an array of innovative Japanese technologies. His charisma and inventive genius mark him as a Japanese Nemo-type character. In the first story... the submarine is deployed against pirates, but its declared purpose is to force the respect of the Western powers and ultimately to enable Japan to unite the Asian countries against Western imperialism. In other words, the weapon is devised to serve a highly idealized Japanese counterimperialism. Nationalism at this time was a mainstream movement - not only in Japan - and the Japanese victories over China and Russia did indeed win the country international respect. The special significance of the Oshikawa stories is that they constituted a milestone for scientific romance written in Japanese. Not only did this author introduce Verne-type technological speculation, he also pioneered the use of a lively but stylized colloquial Japanese, combained with vivid descriptions and effective use of narrative tension, so that he is almost invariably named in the genealogy of Japanese science fiction.

Later novels in the series are Heroic Japan (1902), The New Warship (1904), The Heroic Armada (1904), New Japan (1906), and The Orient Heroic Force (1907). The Russo-Japanese war also spawned Masaemon Harada's The Bitter Future Ten-Year War between Japan and Russia and Tetsuzo Kitahara's The Next War which, according to Robert Matthew in Japanese Science Fiction: A view of a changing society, "were concerned with what might happen if the Japanese navy were annhilated and the Empire overwhelmed."

The imperial/counterimperial strain of Oshikawa's work is massaged out in its later adaptations, which were influenced by the outcome of World War II. Atragon, by Gojira's Ishiro Honda, takes place in the year of release, 1963, and ultimately repudiates Japanese militarism. In this version, the titular ship was built by a reclusive captain in the final days of the war, only to have been thought lost. It resurfaces 20 years later and saves the world from the invading armies of the lost continent of Mu, but only after the hardened captain can be convinced that it is a new world and one cannot apply one's genius only for Japan alone. The anime Super Atragon takes place in 1995, long after the Atragon was lost along with its American counterpart at the close of WWII. It would be at least aesthetically interesting to see a version of the story set in the era of the novel, with a submarine to rival Harper Goff's Nautilus.

While Oshikawa's work was nested within the struggles of the Russo-Japanese War, Ichiu Miyazaki's 1922 novel Future War Between Japan and America foretold what would become fact some 20 years later. Griffiths introduces his own paper with a chilling description of it:
The January 1922 issue of Shonen kurabu (Boy’s Club) carried the first episode of an exciting new "hot-blooded novel" (nekketsu shosetsu) drawn from the fertile imagination of noted children’s writer Miyazaki Ichiu. For fourteen consecutive issues Miyazaki enthralled Japanese children with depictions of Japanese valour and the Yamato spirit (Yamato damashii) locked in a titanic struggle against a duplicitous and rapacious foreign enemy. The fate of the navy and of the nation itself hung in the balance. The Imperial navy fought valiantly against a technologically superior foe but was ultimately destroyed. Then, in Japan’s darkest hour, the nation was saved by a group of true patriots, led by a child warrior commanding a powerful new technology. All Japan wept. This was the Future War Between Japan and America, "the greatest naval battle in history."

Following Miyazaki's novel, Science Fiction in the proper sense supplanted Scientific Romances about Japan's encounter with the West. 1927 saw the publication of Kagaku Gaho (Science Pictorial), the first Japanese pulp fiction magazine in the spirit of Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories. Authors published in its pages included Tora Kizu, Akinosuke Shima, Shinji Kitai, and the "Father of Japanese Science Fiction", Juza Unno.

Despite their potentially discomforting militarism, "Japanese Edisonades" ought not to be faulted more than others of their ken. Though myopic about Japan's own motivations and activities, Oshikawa, Miyazaki and Yano were nonetheless prudent in concerns about Euro-American expansion. One is hard-pressed to find a dissimilar attitude towards imperial conquest in Western works. The first difference is how and how recently the chickens came home to roost, resulting in a 1940's attack on an American military base that in turn provoked an atomic bombing of two Japanese cities. The second is that it is a repetition of those Western themes by an Oriental power, an "other" in whose gaze Westerners are the aliens.


Cavan Scott said...

Are Shunro Oshikawa's books available in English translations? I've had no luck on either Ebay or Amazon.

Cory Gross said...

I think at least The Submarine Battleship has been translated once, but evidently it's hard to find. I wouldn't mind a copy myself.

Jim Lerman said...

Where does the image of the submarine battleship come from? Is there a link to a collection? I absolutely love it. Who is the artist? I'd very much like to find out more about this.

Cory Gross said...

Hi Jim,

That picture of the Gotengo comes from the vast collections of Google Image Search ^_^ I imagine that it's a piece of concept art for the film.

August Ragone said...

I must congratulate you on a great piece! Indeed, the proper translation of Oshikawa's "Kaitei Gunkan" would be "Undersea Warship", since "Gunkan" (Warship) and "Senkan" (Battleship) are two different animals.

The artwork from the Ishiro Honda film ATRAGON (Kaitei Gunkan, 1963) is indeed the original production design for the titular superweapon from the brush and pen of 20th Century illustrator, Shigeru Komatsuzaki.


Cory Gross said...

Thank you very much, August! And thank you for the added information!