Pulp Scifi Under Japanese Totalitarianism

This is the third part of a four-part series on the pulps under totalitarianism. Read more: Pulp Scifi Under German Totalitarianism | Pulp Scifi Under Russian and Soviet Totalitarianism

Japan, like Germany and Russia, has a long tradition of science fiction literature. And as in Germany and Russia, pulp science fiction flourished under Japan's totalitarian governments during the early 20th century.

Japan's pulp science fiction must be differentiated from the more serious writing in the same genre. (I'm using "pulp" here in the broadest sense; Japan had no pulp magazines.) Japan's proto-science fiction, such as the "chronicles of the future", was usually written with due seriousness, and the Japanese science fiction which appeared following the 1865 translation of Pieter Hartig's Anno 2065, was, if not literature, than sober, humorless futurological extrapolations.

It wasn't until the 1878 translation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea that pulp science fiction as we now think of it, emphasizing action and adventure over characterization and narrative style, began to appear in Japan. Verne was influential on Japanese science fiction writers, who may well have seen Vernean science fiction as a lighter and more enjoyable option to write and to read than the more mainstream futurological science fiction novels. (A similar choice faced Japanese fiction writers of the era: Art or genre stories, such as detective and samurai adventure?).

Yano Ryūkei's Ukishiro Monogatari (1890) may be the first work of pulp Japanese science fiction. Yano took the basics of 20,000 Leagues and replaced the misanthropic, Romantic Captain Nemo with a stalwart Japanese patriot. Aided a crew of Japanese naval ensigns, the submarine captain fights against and destroys Caucasian pirates of no specific nationality. But the first important work of Japanese pulp sf was Shunro Oshikawa's six "Captain Sakuragi" novels (1900-1907). In the series Captain Sakuragi, a naval officer, grows disgusted with the Japanese government's inability to do anything to resist the imperialism of Western governments in Asia and Japan. Sakuragi builds himself the Denkotei, an "undersea battleship" armed with futuristic weapons, including torpedoes and high explosive shells, and begins fighting for Japan on the high seas, first against white pirates and in later novels against the Russian, British, and French fleets.

Like Yano, Shunro kept the trappings of 20,000 Leagues and remade Captain Nemo into a patriotic Japanese submariner. But Shunro had timing on his side; when he wrote the Sakuragi novels, Japan's rivalry with Russia was hitting its peak, leading to the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 and its aftermath, when Japan was denied the respect it felt was its due from Western countries. Shunro's combination of Vernean concepts, pulp adventure, and xenophobic patriotism struck a chord with the reading public, and made the novels an archetypal form of pulp science fiction for Japanese writers. Japanese pulp writers emulated Shunro throughout the pre-WW2 period, with Nobumasa Ikeda's "Submarine Silver Tiger" (1938), and its Sakuragi-esque pilot and his flying submarine and American foes, being a late example of Shunro-esque pulp fiction.

Evil Surgeons and Mad Scientists

The Japanese drive toward modernization during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), a drive which affected many levels of society, sprang from Japan's desire to become industrial and military equals with the powers of the West. Behind this desire stood a feeling of insecurity toward the West and a belief that to imitate was to master. One of the ways in which this belief manifested itself was in the rush to imitate Western forms of popular culture. Detective stories, especially after 1920, were popular with writers, and science fiction repeatedly appeared in these stories. Sano Shoichi's stories about the Sherlock Holmeisan Homura Soroku (1937-1938) were private detective stories in the American mode, but filled with science fictional concepts: an Evil Surgeon who removes his own limbs and magnetically attaches more powerful synthetic limbs to his torso; an engineer who kills using a form of liquid hydrogen; and a high-tech-wielding mad scientist.

Pulp Scifi Under Japanese Totalitarianism

As a concept the mad scientist did not exist in Japanese popular culture before the Meiji Period. (A related concept, the evil vivisecting surgeon, did, however). But during and after the Meiji Period the mad scientist was taken up by a number of creators and put to use in various stories. In one kamishibai (stories for children told by wandering performers) of the early 1930s, a Japanese doctor transplants the heart of a gorilla into a wounded man, resulting in the transplant recipient transforming into a monster who drinks the blood of animals and humans and goes on a rampage clad only in a peasant's straw winter coat. And in Yumeno Kyusaku's novel Dogura Magura (1935) a mad scientist and his partner decide to prove that their theory of "cell memory," that the feelings and memories of ancestors are physically transmitted to descendants, by impregnating a woman and then triggering a genetically-based rage in the woman's son.

Some Japanese imitation of Western popular fiction was more overt. Murayama Kaita's "Maenden" (1915) is a replay of Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue," this time featuring a super-powered monkey who re-enacts the Rue Morgue murders in contemporary Tokyo. And Daijo Aoyama's 1938 Edo ni Arawareta Kingu Kongu, a remake of King Kong, features King Kong swimming to Edo, the seat of the Japanese government during the 17th, 18th, and 18th centuries, and going on a rampage there, similar to Kong's in New York, but also featuring an enormous ant lion and a giant, deadly bee.

The White Peril and the Yellow Man's Burden

Japanese feelings about the West led to a large amount of political science fiction. During the 1910s and 1920s a pan-Asian sentiment grew in Japan; Japan saw itself as the most advanced Asian nation and therefore the nation best placed to unite all Asian countries, and to become their leader. (This sentiment would later become explicitly stated in the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere). At least initially, many Japanese held this notion idealistically and honestly, as an anti-colonialist belief rather than (as it later became) as a pretext for Japan to dominate Asia for financial and military gain. One example of this pan-Asian sentiment appeared in Shunro Oshikawa's serial "Tessha Okoku" (1910). In the serial a group of Japanese travel to a secluded island somewhere in the South Pacific and create a technologically-advanced nation, the "Iron Car Kingdom." From there the Patriots unite the Asian peoples of the world and fight against their true enemy,"the false civilization of the West."

Pulp Scifi Under Japanese Totalitarianism

But this loyalty to rest of Asia ended in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of the Chinese region of Manchuria. What replaced the loyalty to Asia was the view that other Asians were not oppressed victims of western colonialism but barbarians and criminals deserving of conquest. Shimada Keizo's comic strip "Dankichi" (1933) is about a young Japanese boy who falls asleep while fishing and drifts out to sea. When he wakes up his boat has reached the island of Banjinto ("Savage Island"), whose inhabitants are cannibals. In an overt allegory about Japanese manifest destiny and the Yellow Man's Burden, Dankichi is forced to civilize the natives of Banjinto before he can begin defending them against against greedy, evil, technology-wielding Europeans.

Rising tension with the West, particularly the United States and Great Britain, led to the appearance of a recurring character type, the White Peril. A counterpart to the Yellow Peril of Western popular culture, the White Peril are Westerners whose racist imperialism is not only oppressing Japan and other Asian countries, but is preventing Japan from expanding into Asia in the ways that the Western powers did in China. Unlike the Yellow Peril stories, White Peril stories rarely have memorable individual White Peril characters; there is no Japanese version of Dr. Fu Manchu. White Perils are usually stock characters understood to be representative of the United States, Great Britain, and the West.

The first major White Perils appeared in Shunro's Captain Sakuragi novels and following them commonplace. The 1928 film Chikyu wa Mawaru, set in the near future, describes a Future War between Japan and a White Peril Western country, beginning with a Pearl Harbor-like attack on Osaka. Hirata Shinsaku's 1936 serial "Sin Senkan Takachiho" has a similar sneak attack, when a Japanese naval expedition to the Arctic in search of a secret route into the Atlantic is suddenly attacked and sunk by the forces of the countries "A" and "B," implicitly America and Britain. (The survivors of the attack are saved by a flying battleship). And Yamanaka Minetaro's 1939 film The Invisible Airplane, set in the near future, depicts a White Peril America controlled by an evil Jewish cabal which attempts to colonize Japan before the protagonist inventor creates the titular airplane and defeats them.

Not all Japanese political pulp science fiction was supportive of Japan's militarism and imperialism. Hayashi Takashi's serial "Midori no Nisshoki" (1939-1940) describes how a pair of Japanese boys discover the Land of the Green Rising Sun, a techno-utopia located under the deserts of Central Asia. The Land was founded by a Japanese man who wanted to succeed where Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria, failed, and to embody Japan's morals but live up to the potential that Japan has squandered. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Land still view Japan as their moral compass, and when Japan launches the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 the Land commits suicide in disapproval.

The Japanese insecurity about the West also manifested itself in pulp science fiction stories that were direct responses to current events. The Washington Naval Conference of 1921 led to the Washington Naval Treaty, which limited the number and size of the capital ships, especially battleships, that the major powers (including Japan) could build. The fact that Japan's limit was so much less than the United States' and Great Britain's was a source of great discontent and anger in Japan. Miyazaki Ichiu wrote "Nichibei" (1922-1923) as a response. In the serial Japan flouts the Naval Treaty and launches eight new super-battleships, which leads to a naval war with the United States. The serial's protagonists, retired Admiral Nango and his grandson Takuki, go to a secret Japanese base on a hidden island in the Indian Ocean and lead a fleet of technologically-advanced super-submarines against the American forces.

During the 1920s and 1930s large numbers of Japanese emigrated to South American countries, including Brazil, to become farmers and businessmen. The vast majority of these men and women were law-abiding, but they were often met with local hostility, exacerbated when the Japanese government took actions like trying to form actual Japanese colonies in the host countries or trying to become primary debt-holders for the host countries' merchant marines. This friction between Japanese immigrants and natives played out in the kamishibai Cry of the Andes (1933), in which an honest Japanese farmer moves to the Chilean Andes but becomes the target of the Bat, the masked leader of a ring of horse-riding bandits. Various Western adventures ensue, but a Lost Inca city is also discovered.

Pulp Scifi Under Japanese Totalitarianism

The Japanese invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria and conquered it in 1931, turning it into the puppet state of "Manchukuo." But although war was not formally declared between Japan and China, conflict between Chinese guerrilla forces and the Japanese occupiers continued for years, and by 1934 the Japanese presence in Manchukuo was seen as part of an ongoing conflict with China, rather than a settled war. That year Gajo Sakamoto wrote and drew the comic strip "Tanku Tankuro," about a cannonball-shaped steel robot who can turn into a plane or a tank. He is adopted by the Japanese Army and put to use fighting the Chinese guerrillas.

Traditional Influences and Special Powers

Not all Japanese pulp science fiction was so heavily affected by external influences. Kuze Juran's "Chitei Jukoku" (1939) is about Dr. Yaroslavsky, a Russian scientist who is sent by the Soviet Academy of Sciences to investigate whether a natural tunnel underneath Mt. Lobatka in Siberia reaches to Sakhalin, where it could be used for an attack on Japan. Yaroslavsky and the rest of his group encounter gigantic dinosaurs and other Vernean creatures. And in "Ken-chan Banzai," a kamishibai performed in the late 1930s and early 1940s, a sentient tuberculosis bacillus deliberately targets the internal organs of Ken-chan, a young Japanese boy.

And some Japanese pulp science fiction came out of traditional Japanese popular culture forms. While there were no pre-1945 Japanese plays with science fictional content (that I'm aware of, at least), there was a substantial amount of published fiction combining science fiction with traditional Japanese tropes like the costumed samurai, the man or woman with unusual abilities, and the magic child.

In Japan, period dramas are commonly called "jidaigeki." Modern jidaigeki are commonly set during the Edo period (1603-1868), while 19th century jidaigeki were set in previous eras. A common character type in jidaigeki was the costumed vigilante samurai or ninja. (This character type appeared in Japanese popular culture long before the costumed vigilante appeared in Western popular culture). One typical combination of the jidaigeki with science fiction was in the Sarutobi Sasuke novels of the 1910s. In Japanese folklore Sasuke is one of the "Ten Heroes of Sanada," the ten ninja bodyguards who supposedly asssisted the samurai Sanada Yukimura (1567-1615) during the Sengoku period. In the anonymously-written novels, which ran from 1911 to 1925, Sarutobi Sasuke was raised by a band of monkeys and has monkey-like abilities, from strength to jumping ability. Other characters in the Sasuke novels have similar superhuman abilities.

Pulp Scifi Under Japanese Totalitarianism

Men and women with unusual abilities also appear regularly in Japanese culture. Often these powers derive from Buddhist meditation, but sometimes there are more science fictional causes. Takeo Nagamatsu's Ogon Batto appeared in kamishibai, pulps, film and anime from 1930 to 1969. Batto ("Golden Bat") is a superhuman warrior from Atlantis put into suspended animation in the year 8000 BCE and awakened from his Egyptian pyramid tomb by a Japanese archaeologist. Among others, Batto fights a cyborg crime lord, Batto's evil Atlantean opposite, and Nazo, the "Emperor of the Universe." A similar kamishibai character was the Prince of Gamma, who appeared in street theater throughout the 1930s. The Prince of Gamma is an alien superhero prince who lives in Tokyo in the guise of a street urchin and uses his superhuman powers to fight threats to Tokyo and Japan, from laser-eyed brain-shaped aliens to White Perils who use Nautilus-inspired crab-shaped submarines to sink Japanese shipping.

Though less common than superheroes, the magic child is a somewhat common Japanese character type. In "Madojiden," a 1916 series written by Murayama Kaita, two Japanese boys with a variety of psychic powers fight a prolonged duel in Tokyo, both on the ground and in the air. (Any resemblance to Akira is in all likelihood coincidental).

The advent of the war with the United States put an end to published science fiction, although the kamishibai were still performed Science fiction did continue to appear, but in film, and colored by the usual sorts of wartime preoccupations. In 1942 Tsutomu Kitamura directed the film Daigoretsu no Kyofu, about a young Japanese scientist who discovers the secret to a "soundless airplane engine," only to be targeted by the Chinese spy and femme fatale Agent YZ7 and the White Peril British spy Pastor Scott. Heroic agents of the Kempeitai eventually discover the spies' plans and kill them. Similar films were made throughout the war, even as late as 1945.

A similar phenomenon took place in Germany. In 1944, as Germany was losing the war everywhere, six pulp titles were published, and four were published in 1945. In 1945, even as American bombs were falling on Tokyo, Mikio Naruse directed the film Shori no Hi Made. In the film a patriotic Japanese scientist and inventor discovers a way to shore up morale in the military: he invents an "entertainment bomb" which when dropped on an island in the South Pacific causes various comedy routines to break out among the soldiers and sailors who were caught in the explosion.

Read the first two parts of this series: Pulp Scifi Under German Totalitarianism | Pulp Scifi Under Russian and Soviet Totalitarianism