Science Fiction Studies

#80 = Volume 27, Part 1 = March 2000

Joshua La Bare

The Future: “Wrapped ... in that mysterious Japanese way”

There has never been a better time to write about the presence of the Japanese in science fiction. With the recent economic collapse in Japan—this “apocalypse,” the bursting of the Bubble—we are faced perhaps for the first time with the sheer weight of the hopes and fears we placed in Japan. Japan’s continual presence in science fiction, from the beginning of the 1980s onward, is a mark of its economic prowess: with contemporary science fiction’s focus on the near future, the Japanese became more and more important as the country most likely to dominate the world in the twenty-first century. As this economic prowess is called into question, so might the role of the Japanese in our cultural imagination of the future, our futuristic imaginaire1; what better moment to create a taxonomy of the images of Japan in the science fiction literature of this imaginaire?

“It was wrapped ... in that mysterious Japanese way,” writes William Gibson (Count Zero 26), a good description of the future in recent sf, wrapped in the Japanese. In Japan, as Roland Barthes puts it, “every object, every gesture, even the most free, most mobile one, appears framed” (58)2; and from the Western point of view, the future is apparently no exception to this rule. Every foreign culture comes to represent or symbolize something in our imaginaire. Some seem primitive, symbolizing the past: within the evolutionist perspective, the Native Americans were seen as being in that “natural state” from which the Europeans had presumably come; the whole vocabulary of First- versus Third-world countries plays into this evolutionism. Other cultures—so-called “First-World” ones—seem advanced, able to transcend ordinary limits, and these cultures symbolize the future. The United States has worn the crown of futurity for a long time, but in the last fifth of the twentieth century Japan has come to share it. It is all the more telling that Japan represents the future even in the American imaginaire, the imaginaire of an industrialized society that has, for good or ill, already been considered “the future” as far as the rest of the world is concerned.

The Japanese have somehow wrapped up the future, hemmed it in, taken control of it; or rather, from our perspective, Western sf writers have wrapped it up for them, in words.3 Words are handles for ideas: many scientific or technological advances begin with a writer who coins a phrase or term, and these terms can become very important in the construction of our futuristic imaginaire. “Cyberspace,” invented by William Gibson, is one example; “virtual reality,” coined by Jaron Lanier, is another. Lanier feels now that it was a bad choice, and yet it has passed into our language without asking for his approval. There is no “cyberspace” as Gibson described it, yet it has become a household word. As one critic writes, “a futuristic language of sufficient density can create the illusion of realism—indicating real things and relations that do not exist yet, but whose inevitability feels incontestable and immediate” (Csicsery-Ronay 37); sf writers use Japanese words to do just that, to infuse our imaginaire—that “consensus hallucination”—with the Japanese. The terminology is pervasive; to cite just a few examples: sarariman, bushido, bishonen, ronin, giri (William Gibson); zaibatsu, zen (Bruce Sterling); kakaze, nema-washi, zazen, giri, shikata ga nai, sansei, nansei, issei (Kim Stanley Robinson); samurai, ninja, katana, wakizashi, kendo, sushi (Neal Stephenson). Stephenson’s novel (Snow Crash [1992]) is perhaps the most obvious: in the first 150 pages of this 470-page novel, there are 55 direct references to Japan (“Nipponese,” “Nippon,” “Japanese,” etc), averaging more than one every three pages! There are constant references to Japanese corporations and trademarks in sf; they weave Japan directly into the fabric of the future. In Don DeLillo’s slipstream novel White Noise (1985), the protagonist’s sleeping daughter utters

two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant ... Toyota Celica ... It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform.... Toyota Corolla, Toyota Celica, Toyota Cressida. Supranational names, computer-generated, more or less universally pronounceable. (155)

These magical words, signs of the Japanese presence, go beyond their origins and become a futuristic code: Mitsubishi, Kikuyu, Ono-Sendai, Hosaka.

Japan is omnipresent in contemporary science fiction. Although especially favored by the cyberpunks, Japanese futures recur persistently outside that subgenre, and it seems rare today to find even one near-future sf novel that doesn’t contain at least one reference to Japan as a symbol of high tech or triumphant industrialism. In what follows, I aim to show three ways that sf writers have portrayed the Japanese. Fittingly enough, representations of the Japanese fall into three common science fiction tropes: high technology, the alien, and the apocalypse.

2. The science fiction trope most commonly associated with the Japanese is that of the robot, the machine, the cyborg: in short, the technological. Technology is, of course, at the core of science fiction: it is not only the motor for change, but also the most simple way of representing that, for any given sf future, things have changed. The future will be here when we can easily fly to space, when we have cheap, clean, limitless power, or when we can terraform entire planets; the future will be here when robots will work for us, when we can become cyborgs and extend our lives through technology, when we can “jack in” and live in virtual reality. These are dreams of transcendence, as are all optimistic dreams of technology. Technology gives us the possibility to go beyond the present, beyond our limits, beyond our world itself. And science fiction is always about transcendence—as Samuel R. Delany points out, referring to the infamous “sense of wonder,” “[n]o matter how disciplined its creation, to move into the ‘unreal’ world demands a brush with mysticism” (143-44). Science and technology are the “discipline” in science fiction, the tools by which it transcends. In many science fiction works of the 1980s and 1990s, it is the Japanese who hold the keys to these means of transcendence. First, I will look briefly at how the Japanese have colonized a few high tech futures, then at three ways of representing the Japanese through technology.

The mastery of space technology is among the most transcendental of science fiction dreams: to kick the mud from our boots and leave this world behind; to make the long climb out of a hole 4,000 miles deep, the gravity well; to live in space free from gravity and with abundant solar energy within our reach. This is not to mention the long-standing dream of exploring other planets and other stars, what Marc Guillaume calls “the astronautical dream” (Baudrillard & Guillaume 55), once dominated by America but now, in the imagined futures of the 1980s and 1990s, by Japan. The Japanese hold the keys to the gravity well: JAL—Japan Airlines—and “Japan Air’s orbital terminus” (Gibson, CZ 176), a high-tech doorway to what Gerard K. O’Neill calls “the high frontier.” The Japanese space station is a recurring image in current science fiction. In Alexander Besher’s RIM (1994), “Station Seven” Intercontinental hotel

was a special favorite of Japanese honeymooners, who were prevented from traveling abroad by the New Nippon quarantine.
    Perhaps most noteworthy, Station Seven was a legal gateway to New Nippon. It was the only entrepôt that Japanese citizens were permitted to travel to during the daylight Matrix hours. (Besher 122)

In Besher’s future, the only way to get to Japan is through a space station, as if Japan itself were another planet. In Walter Jon Williams’s Hardwired (1986), Mitsubishi I.G. is among the powerful “orbital” corporations, disseminating this transcendental haiku as part of their quasi-political ad campaign: “From our weightless platform/ We encompass the earth with two hands./ Our minds turn to hope and sorrow” (Williams 268). Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars (1994) reveals how Hiroko managed to sneak the stowaway “Coyote” onto the ship for Mars: she had “some unusual friends in Japan” and the “Japanese were building the space station that the Russians and Americans were using for the construction of the Ares” (312). Richard A. Lupoff’s “Black Mist” pushes this high frontier even further, making it clear that Earth “was crowded and poor. Life there was short and unpleasant. Everyone knew that the future lay on Mars” (25); incidentally, the only settlers on Mars are Japanese. Finally, Patric Helmaan explains the American jealousy focused on the first habitable space station, built and inhabited only by the Japanese:

...the Americans loved Higher Edo... When American eyes gazed at Higher Edo they shone with envy rather than derision, with perhaps a jealous admiration rather than open contempt. Could have been ours, could have been us, their eyes said. (238)

By dominating the high frontier and co-opting “the astronautical dream,” these imagined Japanese have taken over a facet of technology essential to the futuristic imaginaire and, by extension, to our own real future, the future of “spaceship Earth.”

Excellence in space technology is of course only one aspect of this imagined Japanese relationship with technology. In Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain (1993), a Japanese scientist, Keneo Yagai, achieves that holy grail, cold fusion, and solves the world’s energy problems. Yagai decides to develop his super-technology in America because the Japanese lack individualism; he spreads a philosophy that combines survival of the fittest with trickle-down Reaganomics:

Japan thinks Kenzo Yagai was a traitor to his own country.... Yagai patented and licensed Y-energy in the United States because here there were at least the dying embers of individual enterprise. Because of his invention, our entire country has slowly swung back toward an individual meritocracy, and Japan has slowly been forced to follow. (Kress 28-29)

In this case it is one lone Japanese man who pushes America forward with a transcendent technology, pulling his own country along into the future. Robinson’s Hiroko Ai, like Kress’s Yagai, represents another transcendental technology: terraforming. “Hiroko was unmatched in enclosed biological life-support systems design” (RM 32); she is, as one character puts it, “the original green” (BM 4), the one primarily responsible for jump-starting life on Mars. Although it may seem odd that a “green” would represent cutting-edge technology, keep in mind that on Mars, “the red planet,” green is the color of technology:

Biogenesis is in the first place psychogenesis. This truth was never more manifest than on Mars, where noosphere preceded biosphere—the layer of thought first enwrapping the silent planet from afar, inhabiting it with stories and plans and dreams, until the moment when John stepped out and said Here we are—from which point of ignition the green force spread like wildfire, until the whole planet was pulsing with viriditas. (GM 246)

The most important technologies on Mars are green technologies or technologies to bring green; only a specialist in “life-support systems design” can create life on spaceship Mars. But Hiroko is not the only Japanese to take a leading role in terraforming: the Japanese transnational corporation Subarashii takes over the synthesis job, the task of overseeing all the terraforming on Mars (GM 141), gets the contract to build the second space elevator (GM 183), leads the effort to build the soletta to bring more sunlight to Mars (GM 177), and is also behind the aerial lens laser project to make the canals (GM 177): all of this while the clumsy Western transnational “Armscor” just wants to blow up hydrogen bombs under the polar cap (GM 191).

Space technology, cold fusion, and terraforming are three transcendental science fiction dreams and, as we have seen, Japan has colonized them all. Japan’s continued presence in science fiction is largely justified by its association with high technology, a relationship that has its roots in Japan’s real economic and industrial development since the Second World War. But the Japanese link to space, cold fusion, and terraforming is largely imagined, while they have a real relationship with another technology, an old science fiction dream that still seems nowhere near the end of its shelf life: robotics. As Ron Tanner points out, the Japanese were among the first to pursue practical robotics:

[I]n the 1960s, when industrial robotics was deemed a wholly unreasonable investment by Americans, the Japanese were investing all they could in such research. The success of America’s space program proved to the Japanese that they themselves were on the right track, and they determined to do for their industries what America had done for its defense. (Tanner 140)

As early as 1983, Fujitsu Fanuc was running one machining section twenty-four hours a day, with workers on the floor during the day but none at night: the factory produced 250 machines a month, 100 of which were robots (Drexler 54). This industrial success was the culmination of a Japanese investment in robots that had taken several decades to evolve. Tanner traces part of this development by examining Japan’s exportation of toy robots, produced by the Japanese starting in the 1950s and consumed primarily by Americans. Here he points out the link between these toys and the development of science fiction itself:

By the time the transformers ... made their appearance during the 1970s, the first generation of American children to have played with Japanese toy robots had already grown up. Not coincidentally, as these Baby Boomers reached their majority, so did science fiction come of age in America. (Tanner 150)

Indeed, the American consumption of Japanese toy robots may have more to do with the Japanese presence in science fiction than does their success in industrial robotics. In any case, it is no coincidence that Japan should start taking a starring role in science fiction during the 1980s, and that one way of representing them is by merging them with the image of the robot.

The Japanese rarely appear as actual robots, for obvious reasons: the robot is generally considered to be without organic elements, and despite all the high tech the Japanese are still undeniably organic. Science fiction writers usually content themselves with evoking a certain robotic quality; the Japanese remind us of the logical Spock, or even of Spock’s android successor, Data. They are businessmen, single-minded and unexpressive, lacking emotion, robot-like in their inflexibility. “The limousines stop, and Nipponese people start to climb out. Dark-clad, unfunky, they stand around awkwardly in the middle of the party/riot, like a handful of broken nails suspended in a colorful jello mold” (Stephenson 131). Hiroko Ai is at first described in similar terms, although in a less pejorative way: “Hiroko was an enigma.... Aloof and serious, she always seemed absorbed by her work” (RM 65). Later, this is extended to all the Japanese on Mars; they “were hard to read; inscrutable and all that” (RM 239). Only the Japanese would think of actually replacing robots with humans: Subarashii, “the most brutal transnat,” finds that it’s cheaper to replace robots with humans to do nuclear clean-up and processing. The workers “take on forty rem a year ... the top managers of Subarashii are still Japanese, and they believe Japan became great by being tough” (GM 228-29). Speaking of rem, one image in particular brings this robotic nature to the fore, echoing one of the most famous humanoid robots, the “droid” C3PO: the Japanese on Mars wear “clothing with an outer layer of copper-colored foil, the latest in Japanese radproofing. Copper creatures, moving in clear tubes; it looked to Boone like a giant antfarm” (RM 238). The antfarm reference is anything but fortuitous: insects are the most robotic creatures in the natural world, and, like Subarashii, social insects don’t care much if they lose a few of their number. Tanner has already remarked how Japanese toy robot designers worked to include insectoid characteristics in their toys (Tanner 144). Insects carry with them a whole set of associations: communism, blind loyalty to the group, and the developed level of organization and discipline that goes with it: all very robotic.

The Japanese are often linked with real robots in science fiction as well. The only Japanese character in Pat Cadigan’s Synners (1991) is immediately associated with a robot:

the elusive Captain Jasm ... a lanky black Japanese woman of some indeterminate age—twenty? thirty? Older didn’t seem likely—who was always tinkering with exoskeletons.... One of the exos was a twelve-foot monstrosity, vaguely humanoid in shape, burdened with whatever hardware Jasm wasn’t using. Sam found the thing rather spooky looking, like a robot in progress. She could imagine it coming spontaneously to life and crunching through the building all of its own accord like a high-tech Frankenstein’s monster. (Cadigan 263)

Although Jasm’s “monster” is actually an exoskeleton, a waldo requiring remote operation (making Jasm a kind of cyborg), in Sam’s Western mind it immediately takes on a dangerous robotic “spirit,” threatening to reenact the Frankenstein myth. Ian McDonald’s Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone (1994) finishes with another such threatening robot: the final enemy, the daimyo, actually is a robot, a “samurai-machine ... needle feet clicking.... Two of its four arms terminate in short, sharp blades” (120). Having traversed all of Japan, the protagonist finds himself face-to-face with the country’s mechanical heart, a warlike daimyo who has uploaded himself into a computer and who acts in the physical world through a robotic waldo. Another cyborg. In fact, perhaps the only truly Japanese robots aren’t “robots” at all, but “bots,” software agents: “small lithe persons swathed in black, like ninjas, not even their eyes showing. They are quiet and efficient” (Stephenson 103). These are the Graveyard Daemons, programmed by Hiro himself; small ninjas, quiet and efficient and obviously Japanese. Even in Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, where real overlapping of human and robot is rare, one rumor circulates about Hiroko, imaginatively turning her also into a kind of machine: “They say Hiroko stays pregnant all the time these days, just keeps popping them like an incubator, same C section over and over” (RM 254).

All of these images, although “robotic,” already shade into the cyborg, and it is of course the cyborg—a mix of technological and biological in whatever proportions—that supercedes the robot, lending itself most easily to the twinning of the Japanese and the technological. Like Cadigan’s Jasm, whose “deep voice reminded [Sam] of an engine slightly and pleasantly out of tune” (270), the Japanese inevitably end up being mixed with technology, not only in sf metaphor, but in sf reality as well. Take Bruce Sterling’s yarite, the supposed leader of the Geisha Bank, really just a front, a mask: with its “hooded, reptilian eyes” (32) and “withered, waxlike, cyborged body,” it has “passed the limits of the clinically dead; sometimes they had to slam it into operation like push-starting a bulky engine.... ‘The plugs are degrading its brain. It’s very old. Held together with wires and patchwork’” (39-40). Once an old woman, the yarite has wed herself to technology, becoming a thing—an “engine,” like Jasm.

But it is not in one leap that we attain the cyborg, but by slow incremental steps, as three Japanese tourist passages show.

About a third of the crowd in the lobby were Japs she figured for tourists. They all seemed to have recording gear of some kind—video, holo, a few with simstim units on their belts—but otherwise they didn’t look like they had a whole lot of money. She thought they were all supposed to have a lot. Maybe they’re smart, don’t want to show it, she decided. (Gibson, MLO 86)

Gibson’s tourists are fairly innocuous, carrying all their recording equipment, although “simstim” sounds ominous.

Apparently, Sabishii had been visited by a contingent of Terran Japanese tourists, all of them clustered in facing seats at the front of the car, chattering and looking around with their vid spectacles, no doubt recording every minute of their life movies, recordings that no one would ever watch. (Robinson, GM 441)

Robinson’s tourists don’t have “simstim,” but they do have life movies, and they are recording every minute of them.

The bevy of tourists were eight nearly identical (to Molt’s eyes) Japanese with the faddish forehead-strapped cameras, each camera with its remote focuser that snapped down over the right eye, transforming the socket into something reptilian.... They chattered and pointed and flexed jaw muscles to make the headband cams take pictures.... Molt wondered which ones were industrial spies. (Shirley, Eclipse 34)

Japanese tourists are a common sight; in any Western city, they are one of the most visible signs of Japanese economic strength. Like the robots above, these tourists chatter like insects; they all look alike; they are hiding something; they are living in a private world of simstim life movies. These Japanese are halfway to being robots, to being inanimate, as if the flesh were just an excuse to carry recording gear: “To watch is to not move,” as Paul Virilio puts it (118). By watching the “movies” of their lives, the moving pictures, these Japanese tourists are transforming themselves into inanimate objects.

The question of animate and inanimate, of life and death and the confusion between the two, is often central to the image of the cyborg. As Mark Rose comments:

[m]achines are dead matter, people are alive. Machine stories, including the dystopias, tend to be fairly explicit versions of the struggle between life and death, embodiments of the fear that life may become indistinguishable from death. (169)

Donna Haraway’s famous words on the subject hardly need mentioning: “Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert” (152): watching the machines move, watching our life stories, we are immobile. Rooted in a Western perspective, these lively machines are frightening— witness Shirley’s Molt, or Cadigan’s Sam—conditioned as we are to value the natural above the artificial, the living above the dead, the animate above the inanimate. To accept the machine so blithely, the Japanese must have a different perspective. As Chris Marker remarks in his film, Sans Soleil (1982), “The Japanese have an ability to communicate with things, to enter things, objects, to become them.” Marker’s film, which takes place in a contemporary Japan seen through an sf filter, draws attention to this by giving us long scenes of the pachinko halls, where Japanese men are frozen before the machines, the jingling of coins the only noise. “Video games are the first phase of the plan of machine assistance to the human race, the only plan which gives intelligence a future.” This applies not only to video games, of course, but also to any kind of human/machine symbiosis, like karaoke, or the virtual pets, tamagotchi, or, most recently, the dancing machines now in vogue in Japan, allowing you to practice your steps on a dance floor keypad with an on-screen virtual partner.

We have already seen how the Japanese control access to one space: the high frontier. Video games and computers are perhaps the most animate of our artificial things, and in science fiction the Japanese have an even more uncanny ability to enter them, to shape them: this is how they control access to another space, cyberspace and the virtual frontier. Paralleling the JAL orbital terminus, the cyberdeck, “an Ono-Sendai Cyberspace 7” and “next year’s most expensive Hosaka computer” (Gibson, Neuromancer 46) allow access to the virtual frontier. Some have already passed through: in one novel, the only mention of Japan is of an on-screen version: “Richard got up and began pacing in front of the window, back and forth like the target Jap in a video game” (Kessel 100). This “target Jap” may be nothing but a simulation, yet how different is it from the Graveyard Daemons we encountered above, little Japanese bots? The Japanese have co-opted the cyberspace dream as well. In Stephenson’s Snow Crash, the virtual bar “The Black Sun,” center of the Metaverse, has four quadrants: the Movie Star Quadrant, the Rock Star Quadrant, the Hacker Quadrant, and the Nipponese Quadrant, “which looks like the other quadrants except that it’s quieter, the tables are closer to the floor, and it’s full of bowing and fluttering geisha demons” (56). The first three quadrants represent three of the things Americans “do better than anyone else”: music, movies, and microcode (2). And the fourth quadrant represents, of course, the people who do everything else better: the Japanese. even the bar’s name refers us to an inverted Japan: not the rising sun, but the black sun. The Black Sun is the hacker haven, the last temple of microcode, the cyberghost of technological Japan, and yet Japan is ever-present, even in the protocol: since hand-shaking is impractical in the Metaverse, people greet each other by bowing, and kendo-style sword fighting is a major Metaverse pastime.

The most famous individual virtual Japanese is the idoru, from Gibson’s novel of the same name (1996). “She is Rei Toei. She is a personality-construct, a congeries of software agents, the creation of information-designers. She is akin to what I believe they call a ‘synthespian,’ in Hollywood” (121). The American rock star Rez, from the band Lo-Rez, has decided to marry Rei; his disgruntled bodyguard complains that his boss is “going to marry this Jap twist doesn’t fucking exist! And he knows she doesn’t, and says we’ve no fucking imagination!” (98). Later he adds that he has never liked Rez’s women, but “at least they were human” (269). Indeed, this is an exogamous marriage, the wedding of two stereotypes: Rez, from Lo-Rez, “low resolution,” the wild American rocker, and Rei, the state-of-the-art, high resolution, the Japanese corporate rocker, a “hologram. Something generated, animated, projected.... She is not flesh; she is information. She is the tip of an iceberg, no, an Antarctica of information” (231-33). Both names—Rez and Rei—remind us of the word “thing” or “matter” in Latin, res—perhaps a punning reference to the fact that in Japanese there are animate and inanimate pronouns, and that characters in novels use the inanimate ones.4 Similarly, even the name Hiroko Ai makes us think of a thing: AI, artificial intelligence. So, like the tip of the iceberg, Rei as virtual Japanese is only part of a greater whole, one holographic unit of the Japanese presence on the virtual frontier, perhaps the first settler, sign of things to come. “In the very structure of her face, in geometries of underlying bone, lay coded histories of dynastic flight, privation, terrible migrations.... The eyes of the idoru, envoy of some imaginary country, met his” (230).

Like the high frontier, this virtual frontier is a recurring theme in imagined Japanese futures. Ian McDonald attempts to problematize this migration to a virtual place; his “soul-tap technology” has given the Japanese a ticket to an on-screen country where they can go when they die, or instead of dying, depending on your interpretation:

As the Shingon Buddhism of Kobo Daishi … overwhelmed and absorbed primitive ninth-century Shinto, so twelve centuries later a renascent techno-Shinto of persona-simulation and soul-taps has pushed Buddhism into a seemingly terminal decline. What say the attenuated joys of nirvana against the recording and storing of memory, experience, and emotion with the hope of someday breaking through into true personality reconstruction. (2-3)

Here Japan faces a kind of techno-apocalypse, for “Japan’s population has been falling steadily since the advent of soul-tap technology; have the life assurance companies accidentally created a dearth of spirits to be reincarnated?” (3). Both Besher and Cadigan take this immigrant dream further: after its destruction by an earthquake, the Japanese are “putting Japan back together” in Cadigan’s “Artificial Reality” (141); they have found the “method by which Old Japan will be remade—no, awakened—for good. Not the cheap amusement park of post-Apocalyptic Tokyo, but the real Old Japan. Real and for real” (157). Real, but confined to artificial reality. eerie as this might seem, Besher’s vision is even more bizarre: in the wake of this earthquake, Besher’s Neo-Tokyo just flickers back into existence: “they’ve gone and digitized everything! At least, on this side of the planet” (269). As the old Harada explains, the Japanese had been intending to migrate into the digital world even before the earthquake:

“You must understand, the ’Quake was never meant to happen. Not the way it did. It was supposed to be a smooth transition ... [into t]he next stage of mankind’s evolution.... And the end of the old cycle as we know it. Of birth, childhood, maturity, old age, death—and, of course,” he added sadly, “of rebirth.” (298)

Here, too, is another form of techno-Shinto, bypassing the Buddhist cycle of rebirth and, eventually, Nirvana, and replacing it with an artificial Nirvana, a virtual one. Overcoming death and apocalypse in this way is perhaps the final transcendence: more will be said on that issue when I discuss the imagery of apocalypse.

Now that I have noted some ways in which the Japanese are associated with technology and its powers of transcendence, I will proceed to ask, simply, why? We have already seen glimmers of possible answers: real-world success in high technology, or a different take on the animate/inanimate distinction. But a deeper answer, certainly from our Western perspective, involves the issue of discipline. In Western, especially American, media this issue is constantly addressed, contrasting the wild-frontier American mentality with that of the strict businesslike Japanese5; this contrast is a recurring one in science fiction as well. Gibson repeatedly puts it into play, as we have already seen with the rocker Rez and his virtual bride. In Neuromancer (1984) the “vatgrown ninja assassin” (74) points at the black Maelcum’s Western weapon—a sawed-off shotgun—and comments simply: “This is without subtlety” (249); Count Zero (1986) makes a similar contrast between Japanese scalpels, the “tankful of Japs ... Medicals” (44), and the Western guns, “Two men, a woman; cracked, dusty boots out of Texas, denim so shiny with grease that it would probably be waterproof” (42). Snow Crash (1992) swarms with such contrasts, from the totally unfunky Japanese rapper Sushi K (“I wonder if anyone’s told him yet that Americans won’t buy rap music from a Japanese person” [75]) to Hiro Protagonist himself. When engaged in a virtual sword fight with a Japanese businessman, he notes that his opponent has discipline, zanshin, “emotional intensity.” “Hiro doesn’t have any zanshin at all. He just wants this over with” (87-88). After chopping his enemy up into little pieces he asks, “Didn’t anyone tell you I was a hacker?” (88).6 The hacker—Gibson’s “cyberspace cowboy”—is the ultimate wild-card frontiersman in our contemporary imaginations: one more Western hero to bolster our morale against any implacable, robotic (Japanese) threat.

And so the main reason to project robotic images onto the Japanese lies in this perception of them as disciplined creatures, formally working together, following the rules. As the philosopher Alexandre Kojève put it after a visit to Japan in the late 1950s:

despite persistent economic and social inequalities, all the Japanese without exception are currently living by totally formal values, that is to say, emptied of all human content in the historical sense. Thus ... any Japanese is in principle capable of proceeding ... to a perfectly ‘gratuitous’ suicide. (Kojève qtd. in Baudrillard and Guillaume 59).

For a Westerner this formalism is tied to the concept of the machine; Japanese society has succeeded so well with technology because it has been capable of the necessary formalism. As Arnold Pacey writes in his The Culture of Technology, “new patterns of organization had to be invented or evolved before innovations in technique could arise” (25). For Pacey, “technique” is just one part of technology, which consists of “ordered systems that involve people and organizations, living things and machines” (6). Rebecca Ore makes direct reference to such patterns of organization when her human protagonist is sent back to earth and given this directive:

There’s a country there, Japan, which faced high tech challenge.... You can do research on how Japan reorganized itself to deal with machine culture, reacquaint yourself with your own species. Someday there’ll be official contact. (Being Alien 5)

The implication is that the powerful alien federation is partly basing their decision on whether to make “contact” with humanity on the Japanese ability to reorganize, to discipline themselves to the demands of technology. Alexander Jablokov refers to this capacity for discipline when America and Russia find themselves again at war with Japan:

Makarygin had seen the Japanese as both agents of God and self-willed evil idiots. Stasov wasn’t sure if either was right. They were businessmen, middle managers yanked from comfortable desk jobs, first to fight a war, then to guard the men who had invaded their country. They had thrown themselves into the business of torturing prisoners with the same dedication that had made them the earth’s dominant economic power. (146)

As Field Marshal Prince Yamagata Aritomo put it in 1910, “all citizens are soldiers.” Only a few years later General Tanaka Giichi made this prophetic statement: “The outcome of future wars will not be determined by the strongest army but by the strongest populace” (both qtd. in Thomas 99, 110). The Japanese ability to organize, to be disciplined, and to be “tough” has indeed led to economic dominance, sign of the strength of their populace. In science fiction, all of these qualities have been co-opted into the anxiety about and fascination with robots, cyborgs, and artificial intelligences—i.e., with technology.

3. The alien is at least as common an sf trope as the robot. Aliens are another symbol of the “astronautical dream” of transcendence, and they represent an otherness even more distant than the robot. As Marc Guillaume puts it, “otherness is constructed rather than discovered” (Baudrillard and Guillaume 52). But while the robot’s otherness is obvious in its construction—for it is literally made by our own hands—the construction of the alien is a far subtler thing. Aliens in science fiction fill many roles but they almost always fall somewhere along an axis of evolution (primitive vs. civilized) and/or morality (good vs. bad). Humans are, as Rebecca Ore puts it in her Becoming/Being Alien (1989) diptych, “xeno flip-flops”: the aliens on TV, in films, or in books are either evil Bug-eyed Monsters who have come to kill us all and “take our women” or they are saviors, angelic superbeings who have come to set things right.7 Aliens who come to us are almost always more advanced; when we go to them, they are usually more primitive, innocent if not frankly animalistic. While written science fiction has largely passed beyond simplistic depictions of alien races as “evil” or “good,” the evolutionist idea remains strong. As much as the idea of clear morality has fallen out of favor since Nietzsche, so has the idea of evolution gained popularity since Darwin. Because aliens have no real existence, they easily become metaphors for terrestrial groups, and highly advanced aliens are most often associated with the group of humans thought to be the most advanced, at least technologically: the Japanese.

Often, of course, the Japanese as “alien” is purely metaphorical. The Japanese occur as symbols most frequently in cyberpunk fictions, a sub-genre which largely eschews real aliens and so shifts the burden of otherness onto terrestrial groups or things, often robots, artificial intelligences, and by extension, as we have seen, the Japanese. But this metaphor can operate even apart from its purely technological aspects. In Sans Soleil, his camera trained on Japanese teenagers dancing in the streets, dressed in glitter and shiny futuristic outfits, Marker comments, “these are baby Martians.” Gibson uses this metaphor in Idoru as well. After an abduction, one character asks, “Have you called the police?” and another responds “We did, we did, but it’s all fucking Martian, all these forms they tick through on their notebooks, and what blood type was she....” (366). This Japanese metaphorical alien nature bleeds over into dealing with real aliens as well. In John Shirley’s A Splendid Chaos (1989), the Japanese character is most at ease when abducted to an alien planet: “The Japanese said, ‘The ground is below and the sky above. Water runs downhill, plants grow upward. It is not our world, but it is world’” (44). Mightn’t this ability to accept the alien be another good reason that Rebecca Ore’s alien federation contacts the Japanese first? But these examples remain trivial; below, we will explore three more serious sf visions: one where the Japanese substitute for aliens, one where aliens stand in for the Japanese, and one where the Japanese actually are aliens.

We have already seen how the Japanese have come to incarnate the dream of colonizing the high frontier. Mars is science fiction’s dream planet of long date, and “Martian” is often equated with “alien,” since many of the most successful early alien stories focus on Martians: War of the Worlds is the most famous, although edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars novels come in a close second. Robinson’s Mars trilogy takes these earlier visions of Mars and turns them on their heads, continuing in a time-honored science fiction vein but infusing his epic with hard science and in-depth social extrapolation. There are, of course, no Martians living on Mars: for Robinson, this leaves us free to become Martians, to make ourselves into Martians, and Hiroko Ai is at the forefront of this effort. As we have seen, Hiroko is described as “an enigma,” “aloof.” She is, indeed, the only major character in the Mars trilogy whose point of view we never share,8 perhaps because it is a truly alien one. If a thing is “weird, inhumane, inhuman,” we are told, then it is “perfectly within Hiroko’s range of possibilities” (BM 375). early in the first book, we begin hearing tales about Hiroko: “Sasha claimed in a low voice that Hiroko had plans to fertilize several of her own ova with sperm from all the men on the Ares, and store them cryonically for later growth on Mars....” (RM 72). The first time populating Mars is mentioned, it is in connection with Hiroko. This human incubator’s genes are mixed in with all the first-born Martians, hiding in their refuge “Zygote”—the fertilized egg—beneath the Southern polar cap: “Hiroko was mother to everyone in Zygote” (GM 6), “[l]eft-handed giant bird-people, that’s what we’re growing down here” (GM 19). Although she actually incubates them in machines, not in her own womb, she is mother or grandmother to all the ectomorphs, and all bear the traces of her Japanese genes.

But while Hiroko is real mother to only a limited number of Martians, she is symbolic mother to all of them. early on she speaks of “a new Martian way, a way never seen on earth ... we can never go back. We must go forward” (RM 230). Hiroko is at the origin of many—if not all—of the important Martian ideas and rituals. Referring to the “Martian timeslip,” the extra forty or so minutes in the Martian day, we learn that “Hiroko had a chant that she chanted during it when she was up, and she and the farm team, and many of the rest of them, spent every Saturday night partying and chanting that chant through the timeslip—something in Japanese....” (RM 124). This eventually leads to

the areophany, a ceremony they had created together under Hiroko’s guidance and inspiration. It was a kind of landscape religion, a consciousness of Mars as a physical space suffused with kami, which was the spiritual energy or power that rested in the land itself. Kami was manifested most obviously in certain extraordinary objects in the landscape—stone pillars, isolated ejecta, sheer cliffs, oddly smoothed crater interiors.... Kami, viriditas; it was the combination of these sacred powers that would allow humans to exist here in a meaningful way. (RM 228-9)

On one hand there is kami and the areophany, on the other, viriditas, the greening force. Hiroko is the soul of both, the essence of what it is to be Martian. Her association with the “little green men” that were once thought to inhabit Mars is finally made explicit in this image from the Mars-wide meeting on the future of Mars: “There on a staircase ... stood a green woman. She was unclothed, green-skinned.... It was Hiroko” (GM 393-94). Painting herself green, she manifests as “the original green” and, of course, as a green woman, perhaps with green blood as well; in short, as a Martian.

Hiroko is only the most visible of the Japanese on Mars; there are many others. Lupoff’s “Black Mist” has already shown us one vision of a Mars colonized entirely by the Japanese. In Robinson’s trilogy, the Japanese are not the only settlers, but they still maintain a privileged position, and not only by association with Hiroko. In Sabishii we find the “Japanese equivalent of the first hundred.... [They] had become a very tight unit, and had ‘gone native’ in a big way....” These “wizened old Japanese Martian sages” (RM 345):

the first group of Japanese settlers, the 240 who had founded Sabishii just seven years after the First Hundred had arrived ... had invented the demimonde, the most sophisticated and complex society on Mars.... [T]he issei had started a university, the University of Mars, where many of the students ... were young and Martian-born. (GM 297)

While one Japanese, Hiroko, has provided the areophany, Mars’s first native religion, another group of Japanese have provided Mars’s first native education; Sabishii—the town and university—is indeed the ultimate symbol of the “melting pot” that is Mars. The Japanese who are behind it, the Martian Japanese, are, as one of them explains,

the true Japanese. What you see in Tokyo today is transnational. There is another Japan.... what we do here has its roots in that culture. We are trying to find a new way, a way which rediscovers the old one, or reinvents it, for this new place ... Kasei Nippon ... but not just for Mars! For Japan also. As a model for them, you see? An example of what they can become. (GM 353)

In these and other ways are the Japanese assimilated to Martians in Robinson’s trilogy. Even the Japanese name for Mars, Kasei or “fire star” (GM 420), serves to unite them with the Martians, for the “little red men,” Mars’s imaginary native race, are said to call their own planet “Ka” (BM 231).

On Robinson’s Mars the Japanese substitute themselves for Martians. In Gwyneth Jones’s diptych White Queen (1993) and North Wind (1996), it is the aliens who, by an effective sleight of hand, serve as surrogate Japanese. In this future, Japan has been destroyed by an earthquake. When the aliens arrive, they instantly take on the name of Aleutians, where they first land; a Japanese man—or, since there is no more Japan, an “ex-Japanese”—serves as the first ambassador to the aliens: “The old man in the kimono was the visitors’ go-between. He was a Mr. Kaoru.…” (WQ 68). Kaoru is fascinated with the aliens because, as one character explains to them, after the destruction of Japan “a legend grew up that a handful of the people had escaped in a secret spaceship. Mr. Kaoru thinks that you are those people, or rather, paradoxically, their extremely distant descendants” (WQ 104). Many years later—in the time of the second novel, North Wind—the link between aliens and Japanese has been made even more explicit:

Lord Maitri was a “Japanese,” which meant he’d been a member of the original landing parties. The aliens’ first patron on earth had been an ex-Japanese billionaire. That was where the Sanskrit names came from, Sanskrit being ... a sacred language for Japanese Buddhists. (NW 17)

Due to this equation of the Japanese with the Aleutians, there are some moments of possible confusion. When Clavel, perhaps the most important alien, speaks “in his perfect ‘Japanese’ English” (NW 235), we are unsure as to whether he has perfect English with an Aleutian accent, or perfect English with a Japanese accent. His emotional ties to Japan are in any case made clear:

He had called his house Akashi, because it was a name like Uji, with connotations of sadness in the Japanese culture of his old friend Kaoru. The old Japanese had called that riverside manor far from his home Uji, after a place that was gone forever beneath the sea. Akashi was the retreat where Clavel mourned a loss equally irretrievable. (NW 218)

“You know Japan disappeared in an earthquake not long before you people arrived?” (NW 48), asks one character. This is a classic bait and switch, with the high-tech mysterious Aleutians coming to earth to fill the space left by the Japanese. The replacement of real with virtual in Besher’s Rim is a similar move, a virtual Neo-Tokyo materializing out of the rubble of the old one. The clincher is probably the human invention of a high-tech form of instantaneous transportation, a technology that they cannot use:

It is impossible for a human being to take action in the visited world without falling into a psychotic episode. The dream becomes a nightmare, in which the traveler is trapped. I have found no way out of this impasse, and because of the way we construe our consciousness—the mind in the machine—I am not hopeful that a way can be found. We humans may travel only as ghosts, shadows, spectators. (NW 275)

This restriction does not apply to the “Japanese” Aleutians; as Clavel points out, “The instantaneous travel device is not for humans. If you didn’t want it to be ours, you should have taken my offer and walked away from the treasure hunt” (NW 276). Ironically, the Aleutians presumably do not construe their consciousness as “the mind in the machine” or, perhaps, they are simply at ease with that fact, as they, “the Japanese,” should be. As we have already seen, the Japanese are always associated with high technology and the transcendence it implies. In White Queen and North Wind, an alien race substituting for the Japanese bear out this association.

The most direct way of linking the Japanese and the alien is through “panspermia,” the idea that life on earth originated on other planets or around other stars. The explanation of why Kaoru likes the Aleutians refers to a similar idea, suggesting that the Aleutians are, in fact, Japanese. Similarly, the discovery of alien artifacts on Mars helps reinforce a Japanese myth in Lupoff’s “Black Mist”: the Martians “lived in the lush valleys of the ancient riverbeds. When Mars grew dry, they emigrated to Earth. Those great ancestors of ours. Of course they landed first on the islands of Japan, and spread to the rest of the world” (41-2). S. P. Somtow’s Starship & Haiku (1981) is the most extended meditation on the Japanese and panspermia, although it is not true panspermia, since the aliens involved live right here on Earth—in a manner of speaking.

Somtow’s novel begins with an old Japanese abbot explaining to his disciples:

I have the right to sit around and prophesy.... You see, Japan has never been so prosperous. Everyone is brewing war, I mean the Millennial War that everyone talks about in such reverential whispers ... but we are unmoved, almost as if we did not belong to the human race. (3)

Immediately afterwards, the abbot happily leaps to his death in an “inhuman” act of self-destruction. The question of belonging to the human race is soon developed more fully, as when Josh reflects on his grandmother’s behavior, thinking: “This was one of her Japanese habits, brought with her from across the ocean, from another time and almost another universe” (21). Josh’s little brother Didi is possessed by similar habits. Amazed at his own interior landscape, Didi “knew the thoughts to be not the thoughts of humans, but yet somehow his own thoughts”: “He was all Japanese now, alien and full of unfathomable emotions” (26, 57). At last, a whale comes to the shore and speaks to Ryoko, revealing to her the truth: “all of you”—all the Japanese— “are the children of the whales” (67). The whale tells how many aeons before, one of his brethren decided to create offspring psychokinetically: those offspring became the Japanese. To make her believe, the whale points out how different the Japanese are from humans, in their “perception of beauty,” in their “joy in death” (66); the whales possess these qualities. Ryoko, who finds herself in the hospital after the incident, a beneficiary of telepathic cetacean virgin conception, wakes up and sees the nurse, “tired, hard-faced, like many workers a Caucasian. An alien! After all, I am not human” (71). And so the distancing of the Japanese from ordinary human beings is complete. Indeed, the Japanese take on the task of carrying the seeds of cetacean life away from the war-poisoned earth.

This final development in the link between Japan and the alien brings the contours of evolutionism into sharp relief. As Ore’s term “xeno flip-flop” indicates, the evolutionist idea is not a simple one. Primitive and advanced are two sides of the same coin, and can be quickly and easily exchanged. Aliens can be, like robots, highly evolved, or they can be animalistic, simple, and, again like robots, soulless. In the canonical Man in the High Castle (1962), Philip K. Dick portrays the Japanese on one hand as hypercivilized like Jones’s Aleutians or Robinson’s Martians: “They’re so graceful and polite. And I—the white barbarian.... What words mean to me is sharp contrast vis-à-vis them. Their brains are different. Souls likewise” (107, 112). But soon afterwards this image has flip-flopped. “These people are not exactly human. They don the dress but they’re like monkeys dolled up in a circus. They’re clever and can learn, but that is all” (114). The Japanese find themselves thus somewhere between aliens and animals, oscillating wildly from one to the other. We have already seen how animal imagery is used to portray the Japanese as robots and cyborgs: Robinson’s antfarm, Shirley and Sterling’s reptilian eyes. Haraway suggests that “[t]he cyborg appears in myth precisely where the boundary between human and animal is transgressed” (152), and the alien may serve a similar function, representing a quasi-human, an animal that thinks: the future primitive. For all their sophistication, Jones’s Japanese aliens are certainly animalistic—at times they even take to all fours—while Robinson’s Martians originate the idea of going “feral,” wandering the Martian wilderness in packs. Somtow’s Japanese are a people descended from whales, mating—albeit chastely—with whales, with animals.

The alien certainly goes beyond the human: like technology, aliens show, to paraphrase Guillaume, that even though the Earth has limits, it can be escaped, transcended. Turning the Japanese into extraterrestrials— supraterrestrials, we might say—means not only transcending Earth’s limits, but the limits of the present as well; and yet the association with animals calls all this into question, linked as it is to the tendency to see other races as subhuman and animalistic. By turning the Japanese into aliens we can accomplish an act of speciation, similar to the attempts to show that African-Americans were somehow biologically inferior to Caucasians. How much, then, has the race discourse in science fiction changed since the Lovecraftian days, or since Buck Rogers, since the days when America could be said to be “crushed under the cruel tyranny of ... fierce Mongolians, who, as scientists now contend, had in their blood a taint not of this Earth” (qtd. in Kalish et al., 304)? Racism against the Japanese reaches its apotheosis in the image of the alien: only the intensity of affect seems to have changed.

4. We have examined the Japanese in science fiction in light of two sf tropes, technology and the alien, but the last is at the core of the issue: apocalypse. The Japanese have entered our imaginaire as the only group to have been through the “true” apocalypse: the nuclear one:

Japan is nourished by this archetype of apocalypse, simply because Japan, in the end, associates its recent history with what is, to my mind, a new era of civilization, the era when nuclear apocalypse can amount to total destruction: even if this is still a kind of imaginaire, nuclear apocalypse has become possible. (Baudrillar and Guillaume 52)

Ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki the bomb is the symbol of the apocalypse, and through it the Japanese themselves have come to be imagined as an apocalyptic people. Perhaps they, too, as McDonald suggests, have fed on it, been “nourished” by it:

Every nation has a date … a place, a time when everyone remembers exactly what they were doing, because it is the exact moment of cultural synthesis. With you it is the death of Elvis Presley, the destruction of the Challenger. With us it is the early morning light over Hiroshima. I saw that light.… I saw the black rain of the dust and ashes of Empire. And I saw that Empire rebuild herself, proudly shake off American paternalism, take on that Empire, defeat it. (121)

And so the bomb was the moment of Japanese cultural synthesis: this early morning light, this rocket’s red glare is the defining moment, if not of Japan itself, than certainly of the imaginary future Japan. The Rising Sun still recalls the bomb: another extension of the “astronautical dream,” a dream of transcendence. As Elias Canetti contends, the atomic bomb represents the fact that we have succeeded in bringing the sun to the earth, making reference to the sun’s explosion in around four-and-a-half billion years (Baudrillard and Guillaume 53-4). Instead of going to the stars, we have brought the stars to us. The bomb lets us metaphorically time-travel forward to that moment of apocalypse, only to find that the Japanese have beaten us to the finish line. We’ve already seen how they beat us into space and into cyberspace: indeed, Stephenson’s “Black Sun” holds the same relationship to “infocalypse” as the “Rising Sun” does to apocalypse. Everything about Japan and the Japanese seems a sign of this apocalyptic symbolism.

‘It’s called the sun’s corolla....’
‘I thought Corolla was a car!’
‘Everything’s a car.... The thing you have to understand about giant stars is that they have actual nuclear explosions deep inside the core.’ (DeLillo 233)

The title of Chris Marker’s film refers to that same four-and-a-half billion years: Sans Soleil—without the sun, no sun. He “brings the sun to earth” more than one time in his film, once with a volcanic eruption, another with this scene of the desert. Panning over the Sahel, where the desiccated corpses of cows lie in shallow depressions reminiscent of blast craters or meteor strikes, Marker remarks that here we have “the state of survival that rich countries have forgotten, with one exception, you should be able to guess: Japan.” Japan has come to represent, for all of us but especially “the rich countries,” survival of the apocalypse.

Examples of Japanese nuclear apocalypses abound, from Dick’s “Operation Dandelion” to Somtow’s “Millennial War,” but Stephenson’s Snow Crash offers us by far the most interesting treatment of the theme, although the near-ubiquitous threat to destroy Japan is absent in this work. Stephenson performs a complex sleight of hand—similar to Jones in her Aleutian novels—in order to set up Hiro and Raven as surrogates for the Japanese. While Japan, or “Nippon,” is everywhere in this novel, there are no strong Japanese characters (a common trait in cyberpunk: Japan provides only the backdrop, a stage on which Westerners play). Hiro (or “Hiroaki”) is described, not entirely accurately, as “half Japanese” (153). He dresses like a samurai and bears two Japanese swords. Born to an American father and a Korean mother, his life story is intimately tied up with Japan: his father was at Nagasaki, where he got the swords Hiro fights with, and his mother was a slave in Japan before the American victory. When Hiro first sees Raven, he’s convinced that Raven is Asian, although another character asserts that he must be Native American. “Interesting idea. But Hiro still thinks he’s Asian” (158). Raven rides around with a nuclear warhead in his motorcycle sidecar wired to go off if he dies. Raven, like Hiro, fights with a low-tech weapon, although this one is not specifically tied to Japan, but rather to his own people, the Aleuts. He is a kind of neo-primitive with a deep respect for the traditions of his people. Like Hiro, his life history is linked to Japan and to the bomb:

“Fucking Nipponese took away my father in forty-two, put him in a POW camp for the duration.... Then the Americans fucking nuked us.... The Nipponese say that they’re the only people who were ever nuked. But every nuclear power has one aboriginal group whose territory they nuked to test their weapons. In America, they nuked the Aleutians. Amchitka. My father,” Raven says, grinning proudly, “was nuked twice: once at Nagasaki, when he was blinded, and then again in 1972, when the Americans nuked our homeland.” (367)

All of this makes him, as the American teenage girl puts it, “a mutant” (367), which makes Hiro a mutant, too: both Hiro and Raven are surrogate Japanese because they’ve both been “nuked,” in a sense. Like modern Japan, they are products of that moment of cultural synthesis. Raven’s insistence that America has nuked both the Japanese and the Aleutians casts some light on Jones’s aliens as well: it is hardly by chance that these aliens both stand in for the Japanese and take the name of another “nuclear culture.” So both Raven and Hiro are mutant offspring of Japan, of the bomb, and, by extension, of America itself, the entity that did the bombing. For the nuclear apocalypse is one apocalypse that can have a direct agent, a guilty party: that’s why Raven’s dream is to “nuke America” (456).

But despite it all, real nuclear apocalypses are not as common in science fiction dealing with Japan as one might think; since the end of the Cold War, nuclear war has taken the back seat in our futuristic imaginaire. While the Japanese are often intertwined with the nuclear, it is really apocalypse itself that haunts them most persistently, and there are, after all, many ways of being wiped out. The most common Japanese apocalypse in contemporary science fiction is not one that can have guilty parties: the earthquake. The Japanese are, as Marker puts it, “used to living on a carpet that might be pulled out from under them.” Earthquakes, tsunamis, and the like just happen, unless we want to “go to Hawaii ... and wait for these tidal waves to come from Japan. They’re called origamis” (DeLillo 80). The frequency with which earthquakes destroy Japan in contemporary science fiction is astonishing. It’s like watching a dozen Godzilla movies back-to-back, where Godzilla repeatedly stomps through one model Tokyo after another.9 In Pat Cadigan’s “Tea from an Empty Cup,” one Japanese character wonders “if, indeed, it was possible to still be Japanese at all when the country of your forebears had been all but obliterated. Grandma Naoko had been among the last to visit the islands before the earthquakes had shaken them all to bits too small or too ravaged to continue to support even one small city” (110). Early in Gibson’s Idoru one character asks another, “You ever been to Tokyo? ... Must be an interesting place, after that quake and all” (2). Besher’s Rim soon makes it clear that the same has happened to this Tokyo: “Neo-Tokyo is missing” (19), Besher writes, having disappeared “in a series of sudden crunching snaps and jolts” (20-21). For Jones it’s simply called “the ’04”: they watch “a new Korean animation feature about ’04…. a sequence of astonishing technical bravura, the red chrysanthemums: terrible litany of fire. Asamayama, Asosan, Sakurajima, Mikhara, Fujiyama” (WQ 30-31).

But while a nuclear attack is a technological apocalypse in its own right, earthquakes only make way for technological apocalypses, or for technological fixes. Gibson’s Tokyo “is so strange. You know? Since the quake” (59). The city is now full of buildings that “seemed to ripple, to crawl slightly ... a movement like osmosis or the sequential contraction of some sea creature’s palps” (110). They’ve rebuilt Tokyo with nanotechnology, turning it into a fantastic landscape presumably impervious to further quakes. Jones’s quake seems to have done the same thing, but this time to the Japanese people themselves: “they” have been replaced by aliens. Not only that, but these new “Japanese” are impervious to radiation as well, and they travel around performing mumbo-jumbo for the natives to magically “clean up” sites of radiation leakage. The earthquakes in both Cadigan and Besher leave open the possibility of a new Japan, a virtual reconstruction. In Cadigan, the earthquake just means that the Japanese have “left the geographic coordinates that were once the country of Japan. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a Japan. Somewhere” (114); that somewhere is in Artificial Reality where they are “putting Japan back together” (141). McDonald’s techno-apocalypse is similar, with soul-tap technology causing the population to slowly decrease. Besher’s future Tokyo is even more bizarre than Gibson’s: when the quake wipes out Tokyo, “the history of the world was changed forever.... Especially when Neo-Tokyo reappeared three weeks later without showing any visible signs of damage” (20-21). Tokyo itself has become mostly a digital simulation—”Urban dematerialization, my boy, that’s the defining phenomenon of our times” (26) —where “[i]ncredible energies have been unleashed” (84) and where people wear “air bags” all the time—inflatable suits to protect them from the recurrent earthquakes (182). This is, indeed, a strange form of apocalypse.

Apocalypse in science fiction is never total; the whole point of it is that some people survive. In its capacity to survive apocalypses, Japan marks our futuristic imaginaire. Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, by extension, Japan represent the nuclear apocalypse, certainly; but Japan really signifies

after the catastrophe ... the possibility of surviving the nuclear menace, and of surviving in its perpetual presence.... Thus Japan symbolizes the possibility of transgressing the limits of this finitude, of living beyond and with this menace. (Baudrillard and Guillaume 52-53)

As David Ketterer puts it, “the word [apocalypse] has both a negative and a positive charge: there is a necessary correlation between the destruction of the world and the establishment of the New Jerusalem” (7). Each apocalypse that we have seen bears this out. Whether the Japanese New Jerusalem is here on Earth (as with Gibson), in space (as with Somtow and, after a fashion, Jones), or in cyberspace (as with Besher and Cadigan), it is still a shining place full of wonders. Even Somtow’s Japanese—overcome by pessimism, eager for death, and unaware that some humans will escape in a starship—establish a strange sort of aesthetic New Jerusalem as they extinguish themselves:

We are all responsible for making the Ending as beautiful as possible. These are the last days, and all of us must play a little role in the final work of art. Each of us must die, so that the Ending is a perfect one. (118)

In a passage describing his experience with survivors of Hiroshima, Robert Jay Lifton cites Freud, saying that he “thought that death itself was unimaginable, psychically unavailable” (12). If this is true, how much more psychically unavailable, then, is apocalypse? Isn’t it normal that each science fiction apocalypse would really serve to deny it, undermine it? So it is with what Lifton calls the “sense of immortality”:

I found in talking to these survivors that after this experience of extraordinary devastation they sought ... to recover something else they had lost—something on the order of trust or faith in human existence.… That quest for a sense of immortality … was rendered especially palpable, almost visible, among them and to me by the sea of death and the sense of a human end to which they had been exposed in that city. (12)

Lifton concludes with the assertion that “rather than denial of death, the concept of immortality, at least in this symbolized form, is our best avenue toward acceptance of death and the confronting of our own finiteness” (16). The same must hold true for the apocalypse. It is not a sense of immortality per se, but a grander thing, a kind of race consciousness. By confronting the apocalypse in science fiction, the Japanese symbolize both the end of the world and its transcendence—as they symbolize the edges of the world with their space stations and the edges of humanity with their robots and their alien ancestors. “Japan shows that the world is finite and that it could be infinite. Apocalypse is the presence of the end, but we can survive it” (Baudrillard and Guillaume 56).

The Japanese transcend again, but this time they cross the very limits between life and death, between survival and apocalypse. For them, as Marker puts it, “the division between life and death doesn’t appear as thick as for a Westerner.” Able to enter things, to become cyborgs, even to become Aleutians in Jones’s novels—aliens who do not know permanent death—the Japanese skirt this division, pass from one side to the other. “‘Live’, said the Japanese helpfully, ‘as if you were already dead’ ... But the Japanese were aliens” (Robinson, RM 409). Indeed, they seem not dead but immortal: Somtow’s Didi, “all Japanese,” alien and unfathomable, “is a strangely ageless creature.... He was a man now, but had kept the shape of a boy” (24-25). Hiroko, too, is ageless: at 33, she is the youngest of the First Hundred on Mars, and in the beginning of Green Mars (1994) we understand that she “was old, of course, impossibly ancient ... but with something in her manner which made her seem younger ... just a little older than the kids, in fact, with everything in the world new before her” (9). Gibson’s Julius Deane “was one hundred and thirty-five years old.... His primary hedge against aging was a yearly pilgrimage to Tokyo” (N 12). Rudy Rucker and Lucius Shepard give us visions of the Japanese as linked to the technology of longevity as well. In Rucker’s Wetware (1994), the genius scientist Yukawa, once named “Gibson” (“too tall and pale” to be Japanese—Rucker’s teasing reference to the dean of cyberpunk and his obsession with Japan), saves himself from cancer by the process of “gene-invasion”:

I found a way to replace some of my genes with those of a ninety-eight-year-old Japanese man. The cancer went into remission, and as my cells replaced themselves, I took on more and more of the Japanese man’s somatotype. A body geared for long life. (179)

Here a genius becomes Japanese to stave off death and to win longevity. Shepard’s Dr. Ezawa, “an elderly Japanese man” (66) and devotee of “corporate Shintoism” (79), goes one better: he develops a strain of bacteria capable of bringing the dead back to life.

All of these themes—apocalypse, longevity, life after death—are central to the appearance of the Japanese in science fiction because they deal directly with the issue of time, what the future is all about. We see the Japanese as extratemporal beings. Besher calls it an “apparent softening of the time membrane” (251), another result of the earthquake: things and creatures from the past surge forward into the present. In Tokyo, “the past, all that remained of it, was nurtured with nervous care. History there had become a quantity, a rare thing, parceled out by government and preserved by law and corporate funding” (Gibson, MLO 5). Even trash—gomi—is kept, built on. “Thirty-five percent of the landmass of Tokyo was built on gomi, on level tracts reclaimed from the Bay through a century’s systematic dumping. Gomi, there, was a resource to be managed, to be collected, sorted, carefully plowed under” (161). In Idoru, we read of “the smallest freestanding commercial structure Laney had ever seen, and it seemed to have been there forever, like a survival from ancient Edo, a city of shadows and minute dark lanes” (90). In radical contrast to the crazy nanotech futurism surrounding it, this ancient building persists. The Japanese, although they embody our future, seem at every turn to be obsessed with the past. Facing a scientist and the starship that will save them, Somtow’s Ryoko confesses that she is thinking not of the future, but of the past. And Jones’s Aleutians have long memories: constantly reincarnated, each one has been the same person from the dawn of time. They are like Shirley’s tourists:

“Japanese tourists,” Samson Molt said, “never change. The Japanese keep their traditions. Their tea rituals. Their sushi schools and their chopsticks and that Japanese packaging. And the way they act in foreign places is always the same. Since I was a boy, they never changed. Could almost be the same tour group I saw in New York as a lad.” (Shirley 34)

And they seem to value us, these cyborg traditionalists, for our past. In The Man in the High Castle, the Japanese love for everything old, old Europe or old Americana, is stressed constantly. “No contemporary American art; only the past could be represented here” (3), Childan tells us from the beginning. McDonald’s vision is similar: the robotic futuristic daimyo’s mansion is surrounded by

an expanse of beautifully striped lawn punctuated with twice-life-size busts of Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochrane, Chuck Berry, Patsy Kline [sic], Little Richard, Bill Haley. Elvis. Rock’n’roll heaven.… Beyond the lawn, a swath of yellow gravel, beyond the yellow gravel, an antebellum Scarlett O’Hara mansion. The only indication that I am still in Japan and not wet-dream Amerika is the ToSec thunder-eagle riding the portico. (116-17)

How could a group that has been, as we have seen, constantly projected into the future, be so associated with the past? More importantly, why would this be stressed in science fiction, where they are clearly meant to symbolize futurity?

The answer is really quite simple: the Japanese reverence for the past may, in fact, be one of our main psychological reasons for projecting their “futurity.” As we have seen, the Japanese represent not only the apocalypse, but the fact of its transcendence: the finite and, through it, the infinite. Similarly, by entering the future present intact, by carrying with them “the past” in the form of our present and our past, we, too, as Westerners, are assured of survival. The Japanese are certainly not the worst group to take over the future, if such is the case. I’m reminded of Hans Moravec’s “Pigs in Cyberspace” scenario: the future will be an entirely “informatic” space where artificial intelligences will quickly outwork and outthink humans, tied as we are to the idea of our bodies, to the “real” space of high entropy interactions. But don’t worry, he tells us. Given nearly infinite capacity for simulation, at any one time it’s quite probable that any given past—for example, our present, right now—will be simulated as a kind of zoo for humans. Mightn’t the West exist in a similar kind of future zoo run by cyborg, alien, post-apocalyptic Japanese?

5. I have attempted to show how recent science fiction constructs future worlds populated by Japanese characters and imagined Japanese characteristics. Three tropes have emerged: technology, the alien, and apocalypse. I have also shown some reasons why the Japanese are so important in our futuristic imaginaire, from their real-world success with technological industrialization to their consequent place in an evolutionist paradigm and, finally, their historical association with the atomic bomb. In conclusion, I would like to discuss the issues of otherness and identity that are also a motivating force behind these Japanese futures.

Despite all the links between the U.S. and Japan—the historical American imperialism (both cultural and “real”) so important to Japan’s recent history— Japan confronts us with what we might call, following Jean Baudrillard, radical otherness. “Radical Otherness resists everything: conquest, racism, extermination, the virus of difference, the psychodrama of alienation. On one hand, the Other is always already dead, on the other, it is indestructible” (Baudrillard 151). Indeed, we have seen that the Japanese are conceived as robotic, already dead and thus indestructible, that for them there is little distinction between life and death, that they are living in a perpetual state of apocalypse. I would like to link radical Otherness to what Lifton calls the “protean style,” a transcendent way of dealing with identity:

Now by protean style I mean a series of explorations of the self in which one tries out various involvements and commitments toward people, ideas, and actions; and shifts from them, leaves them for new ones at relatively minimal psychological cost. Another dimension of the protean style is simultaneous multiplicity of images so that one can hold in one’s head, and does frequently in a great variety of ways, images that are contradictory and seem to take one in opposite directions simultaneously. (17)

The protean style seems to be a fitting way of describing the entire Japanese culture, or, rather, of describing our own construction of it, since, as Guillaume insists, all otherness is constructed. It is a style of identity admitting both terms of Ruth Benedict’s famous contradiction, The Sword and the Chrysanthemum (1946). The protean style is immanent in radical otherness: inherently contradictory, it reflects back indifferently all that is projected on to it, becoming the other with unsettling ease. In short, radical Otherness is a mirror—an apparent intermixing of self and other, and, thus, a complete resistance to definition.

For the West, then, the Japanese are wrapped in a mirror:

In the West, the mirror is an essentially narcissistic object: man only thinks of the mirror to look at himself; but in the East, it seems, the mirror is empty; it is the symbol of emptiness and even empty of symbols (“The mind of the perfect man, says a Tao master, is like a mirror. It grasps nothing but rejects nothing. It receives, but does not conserve”). (Barthes 106)

Like the protean style, the mirror takes on many contradictory images but keeps none of them: sword and chrysanthemum. Like radical Otherness, it resists everything, and yet its resistance is accomplished by reflecting, by becoming, if only briefly, what it resists. Takayuki Tatsumi refers to the same process in his article “The Japanese Reflection of Mirrorshades”:

Gibson’s Chiba City may have sprung from his misperception of Japan, but it was this misperception that encouraged Japanese readers to correctly perceive the nature of postmodernist Japan. In short, the moment we perceive cyberpunk stories which misperceive Japan, we are already perceived correctly by cyberpunk. (372)

This is, of course, simply another way of stating science fiction’s power not to “predict” the future, but to create it. In Gibson’s own words: “Anyone who thinks science fiction is about the future is being naive. Science fiction doesn’t predict the future; it determines it, colonizes it, preprograms it in the image of the present” (Wired 104). By projecting the image of the future onto this Japanese mirror wrapping, we are projecting ourselves, mixing ourselves up into that otherness. By extension, we are making that otherness indestructable, for in destroying it, we would destroy ourselves. As McDonald’s robot daimyo declares, “It is written … that the way of victory lies in becoming your enemy” (122). By so doing, the battle is indeed over: but the question of victory becomes, it seems, moot.

The question of otherness and Japan is embedded in a larger question, the “Asia” question. Due to their industrial and technological strength, in the last twenty or so years the Japanese economic takeover of the West has become a new form of “the yellow peril.” But Japan is and has always been heavily implicated in the affairs of the rest of Asia, especially its neighbors Korea and China. Japan’s status as “Asian” certainly adds to its construction as a dangerous other, or at least as an other likely to dominate the future. As, or if, this Japanese futuristic imaginaire fades, will it be replaced by some other Asian culture? Or simply by “Asia” itself? Perhaps. But the way of victory lies in becoming your enemy: the waning of the Japanese science fiction future and the waxing of, say, a Chinese one, may come at the cost of China’s slipping on, as Japan has done, a fashionable Western pair of mirrorshades.

1. Imaginaire is a word borrowed from the French, meaning “product or domain of the imagination.” As an adjective, imaginaire means simply “imaginary,” and this is the way it is usually translated. However, I prefer not to use “imaginary” as a noun, as is often done in translations of Lacan or Baudrillard. Let me instead simply borrow the French word, so as not to confuse it with the adjective “imaginary.” One can speak of the imaginaire of an author, genre, or culture; for example, to talk about William S. Burroughs’s “imaginaire” is clearly different from talking about his “imagination.”

2. All translations are my own.

3. Yes, words: I am limiting this study to written science fiction. Although this may seem artificial, especially given the popularity of all things Japanese in many other areas of popular culture, I feel that the study of the cinematic and visual aspects of this question—from TV, movies, and Japanimation to manga, video games, and other interactive Japanese “smartifacts”—would make this project unwieldy, not to mention going beyond my field of expertise. Please note that, while I do use Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil, it is primarily as a theoretical text, not as a visual one.

4. See Barthes 15-16. At times Idoru seems to have been written with L’empire des signes in one hand and Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1984) in the other.

5. Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989) is one good example, pairing the wild-card cop Nick with the serious Masu. The seed idea of this article came from an attempt to compare Black Rain, ostensibly not sf, with Scott’s two science fiction films, Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982/92).

6. Hiro Protagonist is half Japanese, half black, like the elusive hacker Jasm in Synners. Is this not the perfect symbolic combination for a hacker? As one psychoanalytic breakdown of racial stereotypes might have it, if white is the ego and black is the id, then the Asian is the superego. What better way to represent the hacker than as a mix of the two, wild id with disciplined ego, cyberspace infused with rebellion, the essence of cyberpunk?

7. This tendency is now much more common on TV and in film than in fiction; written science fiction has largely outgrown it. Star Trek is often filled with either evil (i.e., ugly) aliens or good (i.e., noble human-like) aliens, but the Star Wars films are ten times worse, with their fuzzy (=nice) aliens and their snake-like (=mean) ones. Indeed, the greedy Trade Federation in the most recent Star Wars movie, The Phantom Menace, is run by a race of aliens clearly meant to represent the Japanese, with their flat faces, kimonos, and Japanese accents, although nowhere in the film is the word “Japanese” used, nor, to my knowledge, are there any real Japanese people in it. Incidentally, the Federation’s interests are defended almost entirely by robots. However, the brazen form this association takes—as with Jar-Jar Binks, the goofy alien clearly meant to represent a black man, as if digital FX were just a high budget 1990s version of blackface—distances the movie from the more subtle links used in written science fiction. This constitutes a good example of why this study is limited to written sf; popular on-screen science fiction is frankly an entirely different ballgame.

8. This is not strictly true, for we never share Jackie’s point of view, either. Jackie is, however, on several occasions equated with Hiroko, so her inclusion as “alien” is only natural. Especially important is their twinning in the green woman scene at Dorsa Brevia.

9. On the fascinating topic of Godzilla and other kaiju eiga monster movies, see Hollings.

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