Is this really how it looks to you?

Is a topic I don’t know much about, but James at Grognardia has been pondering how Japanese interpret Traveller and similar science fiction. To reproduce my comment to him there, the concept of the “Frontier,” which is important to Traveller, is not so relevant to Japanese literary history. Aside from a very brief and unfortunate period of recent history that didn’t work out for them, they don’t have a history of imperialism or colonialism. Even their brief foray into imperialism – which ended tragically for them by 1945 – was at least partly geopolitical (to keep up with the West) and also occurred at a very unusual aberrant political period, when they were living under essentially a military dictatorship. Japan also never had a strong history of exploration – in place of an “age of exploration” they have an “age of isolation” and no long naval history, even though their navy now seems integral to their identity. In fact Japan’s most famous naval victory was due to a typhoon, not their own navy, and for many years they had no ships bigger than fishing boats. So the main themes of traveller – exploration, imperium, colonies, etc – don’t have a strong place in japanese literary tradition.

The sci-fi I’ve seen here seems to be largely near- to medium-future inward-looking dystopias or post-apocalyptic stories, often cyberpunk without the punk. Maybe this is more consistent with their cultural history. There are some catastrophic-war types of stories, in which there are no clear good or bad guys, also consistent with recent history; but expansive imperial stories are not really the stuff of Japanese legend. I have a private theory that the Japanese have a history of conquest and exploration within Japan but it is so old that it is only reflected in myth – I think the momo taro story may be an allegory for the driving out of the Ainu from Honshu, but I have no proof of this of course.

So this means that stories like Traveller would have no place in or resonance with contemporary Japanese literature, and would simultaneously be exotic and interesting to a subgroup of nerds. The same, I suspect, applies to Star Trek, Star Wars and other similar western imports, so they have less relevance here than they do in the West.

As an example of Japanese interpretation of Western sci-fi, here is a picture I found on Amazon of the cover of a Japanese interpretation of Iain Banks’s Player of Games. It seems jarring and not serious enough to me, though the grid at the bottom is kind of perfect. But I’m not sure what illustration would suit that novel, so maybe my sense of its strangeness is overdone.