If you were reading a story about a young man with the power to twist human flesh to his will, destroy entire cities and create replacement limbs from scrap metal, all with the power of his mind…who then goes on to collect a small army of followers bent on creating an empire based on his will, what words would you use to describe him?
“God-like,” perhaps? Or even “Messianic”? In American fiction, these would be inevitable. The Western narrative is so deeply, inevitably rooted in the Judeo-Christian story that even a genre like SF, which would seem to be utterly disconnected from spirituality, can’t help touching on it even if only as a source of tension.
In Japanese fiction, however, this tension largely does not exist… I assume because it does not exist in Japanese culture. Religion plays an important role, of course, but not in nearly the same way as in the West, particularly the United States. The primary vectors for spiritual expression here, Shinto and Buddhism, are quite low key when compared to the faiths familiar to most Americans, and any real tension between science and religion is unheard of. Science has won in Japan, and so the idea that there is some kind of question about the validity of scientific thought or fundamental theories like evolution or the creation of the universe would be totally alien. Thus it really doesn’t work to look to spirituality as a foil or source of conflict for science.
So returning to my first paragraph, a rather unsubtly veiled reference to Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, in the entire story I didn’t find a single reference to God or Gods. (On an interesting side note, the Wikipedia entry for Akira includes religious language, i.e. “worship as a god” and “Akira’s rapture”, which does not exist in the Japanese…it seems that the interpretation is unavoidable for some). When the military is experimenting with creating super-human children, no one says anything about “playing God”; when a character, for all intents and purposes comes back from the dead, no one talks about it as anything other than an amazing manifestation of his own incredible powers. I imagine it would be almost impossible for a writer born in the Western tradition, no matter how strongly his or her personal Atheism might be, to write this story without recalling that old one of the man from Bethlehem; it is entirely possible for Otomo, however, as that story is only vaguely known to most Japanese. But not only is the Christian narrative absent, there is no real reference to traditional Japanese religions; the story is firmly rooted in humanist/technological terms.
This is true of every Japanese SF story I have read so far. While not at all a wide enough base to make a valid generalization, I do think it makes sense based on the general social role of religion in Japan. Indeed, if you consider the fact that Japanese fantasy is almost completely saturated with religion and spirituality of all kinds, you might almost be able to conclude that religion of all stripes have basically become mythology in Japan. I think it’s certainly safe to say that the Christian story has been relegated to that position…interestingly, while hardly anyone I know here in Japan is aware that Easter even exists, all kinds of people know the names of many of the Archangels. I think this is due largely to the fact that the Archangels are often portrayed as awesome warriors with huge swords, and Japanese fans love awesome warriors with huge swords. (Why yes, Supernatural is really popular in Japan. Why do you ask?)
So in exploring Japanese fiction, I have been growing more and more aware of my own biases–not in preference, but in how I actually understand what I read and see. I grew up in the bible belt, and although my own spirituality has strayed far from my Baptist upbringing I still find that the narrative structure of the Christian tradition lies deeply embedded in how I see the world. When faced by something from far outside that tradition, deeper understanding requires a real shift in perspective, whether that be a complete absence of spirituality or a spirituality outside of my personal experience. Japanese fiction, thus, has helped me expand my own abilities to approach text and see outside my own horizons, which I can only see as a good thing.
(Totally off the topic at hand but, while I don’t really count myself as an Anime/Manga fan, Akira is probably among the top 5 works of science fiction of the 20th century. It’s simply amazing…you really ought to read it, if you haven’t. The movie is ok, but the books are truly incredible.)