io9.com, edited by my pals Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz, is one of my daily stops for science fiction news, and for keep closing tabs on whether or not Dollhouse is canceled yet. Yesterday’s feature essay When Did Japan Stop Being the Future? was especially interesting because, well, Japan is too the future, and we’ve got the novels to prove it.
It’s an interesting essay, even if Charlie should have to eat one of these
for every time she typed “Japanophile” when she meant Nipponophile. Geez, Louise!
Charlie is right, of course, that your basic speculative impulse in the 1980s was a future dominated by Japan. However, the Japan of American futures has about as little to do with Japan as-it-is as the color-coded velour blouses of Starfleet have to do with naval uniforms. Japan’s long recession did ease some of the anxiety many Americans experienced about the possibility of being outcompeted by the burgeoning Japanese economy and its ever-so-efficient workforce; today anxiety is about being outcompeted not on quality but on sheer price. TV and automotive production are long gone; today even “brain worker” jobs in US—coding, support desk, even some *gulp* publishing jobs—are being globalized to India, China, and elsewhere where wages are low and the labor movement weak. That a lot of these brain workers scoffed at the “stupid” and “uneducated” auto plant and steel mill workers who were displaced a generation prior is just a bit of delicious irony.
But I don’t think that Japan was eclipsed as the setting for science fictional futures because of stagflation and the rise of developing economies, but rather because Japan has simply been able to successfully compete in the cultural sphere. Japanese futures are coming from Japan. Pokemon was a cultural sensation in the US and internationally, and manga went from a small cult consumption item to a major sales center of the bookstore chains. Imagine twenty years ago walking into one of the giant bookstores and saying, “Hey, we want to sell these comics. No superheroes, and they’re in black and white and in a paperback format you’re not used to. Plus, a lot of them are for girls, who don’t read comics. Oh, and we’re gonna print them backwards so you have to read right-to-left.” That would have been sufficient cause for a seventy-two hour stay in a mental hospital. Now, you walk into a bookstore and you’ll see kids and teens in the manga section, coats and bookbags littering the floor, reading volume after volume. (That’s what the SF/Fantasy section looked like when I was a kid. Today, the SF section of the bookstores I patronize rarely have anyone under the age of thirty checking out the selections…)
That’s where the Japanese futures (and presents, and pasts) are. Outside of SF, it’s easy enough to point to programs like Iron Chef that have been imported to the US and that helped spark the recent interest in TV programs that combine formal dining and game show antics. And there’s Pocky and those photo booths that take those tiny pictures and US automakers on the verge of melting into air and and and…
and if Japan isn’t the look of America’s future anymore, it’s because we’re already living in that future. Japanese futures, well, they’re a lot like American futures. Check out our launch titles next month, and you’ll see what I mean.