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The Future is Japanese. Really.

by nickmamatas

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

squid snack!

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.

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5 Responses to “The Future is Japanese. Really.”

  1. Julia S. says:

    Wait, isn’t “Japanophile” correct? The Greek for “Japan” is Ιαπωνία, yes?

  2. nickmamatas says:

    I didn’t say it was incorrect, just that she should have to eat those squid cookies. That squid cookie photo was gonna end up on this blog sooner or later!

  3. Teighlor says:

    Nice retort, and I agree. The best example is the manga section at the major book stores. I realized I was becoming out of touch with teenagers when I finally noticed the expansion of those sections. From fashion to television to technology to deviant sexual proclivities (perhaps their most treasured export), they look like the future to me.

  4. Nora says:

    I like squid, and cookies, but I’m not sure these are Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together.

    And ditto on Japan losing its exoticism in SF because duh, it’s not exotic when it starts outselling SF on SF’s home turf. What’s surprising me is that nothing seems to be replacing it; I thought Chinese Futures would be next, but I’m not seeing nearly as much of that as I thought. Maybe globalization has short-circuited SFs exoticization tendencies? (I hope so.)

  5. Tulsa says:

    Japan has been a sponge when it comes to culture. We have been greatly influenced by the arts and literature from overseas and literally soaked it all up. I think that is why a lot of what Japan portrays in SF is so appealing to a lot of people around the world, it is kind of like jazz… Of course, it still would not have been capable without great publishers who were willing to give it all a try!


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