Mirai-ki: The Forgotten History of Japan’s Early Science FictionS

The history of Japanese science fiction usually begins with the 1880 translations of Jules Verne's From The Earth to the Moon and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Most Japanese science fiction of this era bears Verne's influence, most notably Shunro Oshikawa (1877-1914) and his six book "Undersea Warship" series. But this is not the entire story of 19th century Japanese science fiction. Japan has a separate tradition of science fiction which has nothing to do with Verne.

Illustration by James Ng.

As noted in Kyoko Kurita's "Meiji Japan's Y23 Crisis and the Discovery of the Future: Suehiro Tetcho's Nijusan-nnen mirai-ki" (Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, June 2000), "in Japanese literary history, the classical genre dealing directly with the coordination of the past, the present, and (at least nominally) the future is that of the mirai-ki (records of the future)." The original mirai-ki were set in the far past and discussed the narrator's future and the reader's past, so that a typical mirai-ki might be written and read in the year 1000 but purportedly written in the year 800 and discussing the events of 900.

As Kyoko says:

These accounts had little to do explicitly with what we consider "the future." What is presented...is already the past for the actual author and reader: such a work explains, in a way that supports the author's view of the current situation, how and why history developed as it did...the goal of such an activity of course, was also to re-orient the readership so as to set a new course for the future.

The first mirai-ki were attributed to Shotoku Taishi (574-622), beginning in the Heian period (794-1185). Shotoku was considered for centuries to be the "Buddha of Japan" and to have superhuman abilities, including the power to foretell the future, and mirai-ki supposedly written by him were little different from the prophecies he had supposedly uttered during his lifetime.

A revival of the practice of writing mirai-ki began in 1054 after a stone box was dug up at a construction site at Horyuji Temple. Per Kyoko, "the text predicts its own discovery 430 years after...Shotoku's death (i.e., approximately at the time it was unearthed) and further predicts that a king and his ministers will build a temple tower to pursue Buddhist teachings." During the Edo Period (1603-1868) the mirai-ki became a tool for farce and social satire by kibyoshi (picture books) and kabuki authors, a practice that continued into the early Meiji period (1868-1912).

However, in 1874, a Japanese translation of Dutch scientist Pieter Harting's The Year 2065; A Glimpse Into the Future (1865) was published, and this sparked a vogue for a type of mirai-ki which not only explain the past but describe the future. In The Year 2065 the narrator dreams that he is in "Londinia" (London) in the year 2065. He takes a dirigible trip from Londinia to Melbourne, accompanied by Roger Bacon, the 13th century philosopher, and by Phantasia, a young woman from this future, and Phantasia tells both Bacon and the narrator about life in the future.

Harting's concept of a dream encounter was widely adopted by Japanese romance writers. But more importantly as far as science fiction is concerned it was taken up by political writers and adopted for use in mirai-ki. As Kyoko says, "Early to mid-Meiji Japan was an age of radical disjuncture, when it became clear that the nation had to be liberated from its past to survive. Japanese realized that — no matter how vaguely or simplistically — the future had to be imagined and created."

The popular vehicle for imagining and creating the future was in futurological novels: future history mirai-ki. Over 100 future history mirai-ki were published, with 20 appearing in 1887 alone. However, following a very public 1888 denunciation of the future history mirai-ki by the influential novelist and critic Tsubouchi Shoyo, who had himself written a popular future history mirai-ki in 1887, the popularity of the future history mirai-ki rapidly declined, although it never entirely died off and in fact underwent a brief revival in the early 1900s.

As Kyoko describes them, the future history mirai-ki were not explicit descriptions of the future, and did not spend time describing possible changes in technology or society, but instead were focused on describing the political future of Meiji Japan and how the country's future government should be run. Set in the near future, their concern is to justify the co-existence of a Diet system alongside the Emperor and to describe the ideal Japanese constitution and Diet.

The most popular of the future history mirai-ki was in fact a dystopia. Journalist Suehiro Tetcho's The Year 23: A Record of the Future (1885), set in 1890, became a national phenomenon for its description of the way the Diet, which was much discussed and anticipated in 1885 but which did not become a reality until 1889, was a dysfunctional, chaotic mess. The Year 23 is pessimistic: "it is painful to think of how little progress we made in that time, in cultivating our knowledge and skills." But Tetcho's concern is purely political, focusing on the need for governmental reform and for the public to abandon its political apathy and become involved in crafting Japan's future. Tetcho is unconcerned with describing a future, although he does predict the spread of newspapers and their integration into people's daily lives.

Most of the future history mirai-ki are science fictional only with regard to setting and the forecast of the government's development. But two novels strike overtly science fictional notes. Suehiro Tetcho's Setchubai (1887), set in the year 2040, briefly describes the city of the future, although Tetcho can only envision it as full of working electricity, trains connecting all the cities of Japan, and Japanese battleships covering the ocean. More intriguingly, Ryuso Gaishi's The Year 23: A Record of the Future (1883) begins with an introduction that voices an approach similar to Asimovian psychohistory. The introduction claims that all phenomena work according to logical principles, and that therefore humans could predict the future:

Everything in the world, whether organic or inorganic, changes according to a certain principle. If the proper computations are conducted, based on a study of such principles, is there anything in the world that cannot be predicted?

Despite being mostly forgotten today — a Google search for Ryuso Gaishi, for example, yields only one hit — the future history mirai-ki were popular in their day and presented the Japanese reading public with an example of native science fiction different from what was being translated from the West.