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COLUMN: Japan is Unreal

Before I came to Japan, I was so freaking excited; as a fan of science fiction, Japan had taken on a sort of mythical aura. Japan, the land of Blade Runner-esque urban vistas and robots wandering the streets…Japan, the land of hot, sword-wielding, miniskirted ninja-ladies…Japan, the epicenter of coolness, land of the future.

When I got here, of course, my hopes were dashed on the rocks of our dreaded common enemy, reality. Nothing met my expectations–I wasn’t in some futuristic society freed from the fetters of inefficiency and broken tech like my Kansas homeland. Things were pretty much the same as all the other places I’d lived, with none of the really exciting bits. Except for the robots.

And, of course, the miniskirts.

Japan is confusingly situated in the 21st century. On one hand, things here can be unbelievably advanced when compared to the rest of the world. When I arrived 6 years ago, my first cellphone–a free one that they gave away with a new contract, mind you–had a 1.2 megapixel digital camera, a TV receiver and unlimited internet access. 6 years ago! FOR FREE! As for what they can do these days, don’t even ask. All the iPhone had on Japanese phones was style…

Then there are the robots–I wasn’t joking about them. Japan is far to the front of the field of robotic design. It seems like nearly every tech company here is working on their own. Honda, Toyota, Sony…they’ve all got their take, which not only offer insights into the future of life here, with robots to care for the elderly and replace the waning workforce, but also play havoc with the uncanny valley (itself a term coined by a Japanese roboticist). Creepy? Oh yeah…

But behind all of the glittery technological mascotery that Japan shows the world, there is a country that remains firmly planted in the past. Go to a bank in Japan and be astounded by the paper-and-aged-testosterone fueled system that takes 35 minutes to make a withdrawal; go to a towering department store and marvel at the unheated and un-airconditioned bathroom with toilets that are, essentially, ceramic lined holes in the ground (next to “western style” thrones with automatically raising lids, remote control bidets and background sounds to hide “unpleasantness”). Go to a train station off the shinkansen lines and drop your jaw at the amazing take on “accessibility”: two station attendants who pick up wheelchair bound travelers and carry them bodily up any stairs (and there are often a lot of stairs…). Japan is riddled with such inconsistent applications of the technology that spurred it to such economic power in the 80’s.

So while Tokyo and its zaibatsu stride steadily into the future, the smaller cities and the rice-field dotted countryside preserve systems and lifestyles that  remain largely unchanged from pre-industrial Japan. What does this have to do with speculative fiction, you ask?

Just this: when we look at Japan, with it’s confused real relationship to the future and to the present, it seems only natural that the fictions which have traditionally examined just those relationships should also display that confusion. Science fiction and fantasy as we in the English speaking world know them, even influenced as deeply as they are by our fascination with Japan, differ fundamentally in their perception and presentation. They are different, as they should be, and over the next few months I’d like to take a look at some of those differences. So, if the idea of that floats your boat, then read on!


Jim Rion grew up in small town Kansas, with the incredible good luck of a well-stocked local library.  He learned to love words of all kinds, and he eventually acquired a BA in German and Philosophy, and an MA in Germanic Linguistics. He also came down with a terrible case of wanderlust, leading him from the fields of home to Japan via Oklahoma, Germany and Russia.

Now, he lives in a small Japanese city on the Seto Inland Sea with his amazing wife and manga-obsessed mother-in-law.  He teaches ESP (English for Special Purposes, not that other thing), plays inexcusable amounts of PS3, reads (and tries to write) Science Fiction and Fantasy, and collects straight razors and inordinately expensive Japanese whetstones.  You can read more on his SF/F centered blog A Loss For Words , or check out his alter ego’s straight razor and traditional wetshaving blog at Eastern Smooth.  You can also follow him on twitter @EasternSmooth.

He also insists there are four lights.