Monday, September 3, 2012

Some Thoughts on "The Future is Japanese"

So here I am, back on this blog, because I feel compelled (really) to write about a book of short stories I just read. Some of this has been keeping me up at night, so I figure getting it out of my head will offer some catharsis.

So let's talk (a lot) about The Future is Japanese. (Warning, this is really quite long.)

Haikasoru Publishing

The book in question is an anthology of Fantastika with some connection to Japan or things Japanese. It sells itself as an anthology of Japanese SF, but there are stories here that are most significantly NOT SF, and stories here with only the most tenuous connection to the country, people or culture of Japan, so I hesitate to recommend it as such. It is, however, well worth a read for people with interests in any of the above. There are some really good SF stories here, and some fascinating representations of Japan and its culture/people. There are also some less fascinating representations, but we'll get into that.

I bought the book because I have enjoyed a few of Haikasoru's other publications, and because Nick Mamatas sells it well on twitter and such. I bought the Kindle edition, and have no regrets about it at all--I enjoyed and admired the majority of the stories in it. I wish there were more stories from Japanese authors here, but I recognize that the numbers just don't allow it The market for short SF in Japan is minuscule; there is only one monthly publication printing short SF and each month they only have one or two stories by Japanese authors. There is sure to be much more underground or independent fiction, but access has got to be a problem; thus, there probably just isn't much to put into the book, and the need to pad the Japanese stories with stuff written by Non-Japanese. Fair enough, though lamentable. 

But how are the stories? Let's see.

The Best
There are some very good stories, here, that are well worth the price of admission and the time. Stories with big ideas, with good prose, and enough fun to satisfy both superior and the inferior readership.

My personal favorites are:

*"The Sea of Trees" by Rachel Swirsky. This is a sad, creepy, honest story about a sad, creepy, honest place. It centers on the Aokigahara forest, at the foot of Mt. Fuji: the Suicide Forest, as it is sometimes known. In addition to the very effective horror and the plot that works on several levels, the thing that works best about this one is it actually captures a particular kind of "Japaneseness." What I mean by that is, the characters and their behavior and their relationship to the world ring true to me. I have met people like this, living outside of Japanese society (though not, perhaps, as far outside as Nao) who think similarly and have the same kinds of scars, and this could be their story. I've already read it twice more and enjoyed it each time.

The prose, too, is good, solid, clear. It is spare but not naked. It is superior, I think, and it respects the truth of the setting, that there is a place in Japan where people go to die, and that is enough to create emotional resonance in anyone. And, particularly pleasingly, it gets the myth of Hone-Onna right, as opposed to another "story" in this collection.

*"The Sound of Breaking Up" by Felicity Savage.  This is, perhaps, the one story in the collection that best evokes the book's title. It starts in a Future Japan that is clear and pure extrapolation of the trends that are shaping the country today. The falling birthrate and the government's desperate attempts to turn it around, the focus on robotics to replace the workers that are no longer being born to keep Japan Inc. running, and the increasing disinterest in other people that seems to be growing daily. (The word "Skinship" is real, folks: There is a word used in Japanese to denote someone that likes to touch their partners, and it is borrowed from English.) However, in the middle, this story takes a very hard right turn and becomes something else--still interesting, still good, but no longer excellent.

*"Golden Bread" by Issui Ogawa. This one actually brought out an "Oh, wow." I've had to reread it three times, to make sure I know where my head is with it. However, I think a lot of people will have a different reaction. The story is, on a superficial level, a "Soldier ends up trapped away from his army and gets his head all mixed up by the charming natives" kind of thing. On a slightly less superficial level, it is an examination of a cultural reversal, an examination of what a Japan back on the Imperial path might look like, when faced with a mirror version of its older self. However, for me, I felt I was reading an author actually examining the nonsense traditionalist jingoism of the "Nihonjinron" from the inside out.

For those who don't know, "Nihonjinron" is a catch-all term used to describe a vast body of texts all focused on the rather odd idea of "explaining Japaneseness." In real terms, it is a codification of the idea that the Japanese are "Uniquely Unique," that their bodies and their ideas and their culture are all special to them. It is not really something people think about, there aren't classes in school teaching kids all about the Nihonjinron, but it is something that permeates thought here, and for those who lack, or refuse to use, critical thinking skills it actually has some influence. Thus, upon talking about Japanese food with a class of adults, you may hear "The Japanese are traditionally vegetarians, that's why we have longer intestines, and thus longer torsos" with no one batting an eyelash...despite the fact that all three of those statements are factually incorrect (unless you count whales, dolphins, fish, grasshoppers, boars, deer and birds as vegetables...). 

In the story, the central character spouts very similar ideas about physiology, national character, and more...but stating ideas directly in opposition to traditionally held Nihonjinron concepts. When Yutaka Kubuki says "We are a people that require calories. We were born to consume meat and flour and sugar, so we can build a powerful military and contribute to Yamato's prosperity," I can't help but sounds like Nihonjinron, but ran through the filter of Western cultural influence. When he went on to explain how his Caucasian hosts are genetically programmed to enjoy the taste of rice, whereas the Japanese Yamato lack the proper enzymes to properly digest it, I actually laughed out loud. I have heard almost the exact same thing, with a simple reversal of races, here in Japan. Awesome.

Of course, the story also works as an examination of the fear of cultural drift. The Yamato that Kubuki remember from his history books is the Japan of today--international, westernized, full of department stores and imported oil. The Kalif colony he is hosted in is an idyllic reimagining of traditional Japanese country life, with rice paddies and manual labor instead of robots and vat-grown meat...but it's populated by blond-haired, blue-eyed white people (and they are explicitly described as such...go Japanese racial politics!).

It's a complex, interesting, and exciting story. It's a translation, though, so don't expect knock-down prose. Comes with the territory, I reckon.

*I also liked some of the other stories, if not as much as those. “Autogenic Dreaming: Interview with the Columns of Clouds” from TOBI Hirotaka, is interesting for its complex and intelligent look at the implications of Google Books (or rather, Goedel's Entangled Library) and the indexing of all of Human Knowledge, as filtered through the ideas of a serial killer. “Chitai Heiki Koronbīn” by David Moles was fun in the way it turns the Japanese Manga stalwart of teens in giant robots fighting evil invaders inside out. The requisite Keikaku Itoh story, "The Indifference Engine" was deep and its big ideas about race, war, hatred, and humanity/inhumanit filled out nicely, but the translation left much to be desired, in my opinion. I'll have to track down the original to find out what the Japanese for "Fuuuuuuuuuuuck that" [sic] is. (I counted, that's 11 "u"s.)

Most of the other stories were kind of OK, except for:

The Bad
*"Mono no Aware" bu Ken Liu. I'm sure the writer is a good guy, someone who cares deeply about what he does. I applaud the dedication to writing that it must have taken to become a published writer. But this story is so very, very bad.

Listen, it takes a lot of things to be a writer. I try to have them, but I assume I don't because I've basically given up submitting stories. So I want very much not to be one of those stone throwing readers; my house is made of very thin glass. However, when I read this story, I felt like a crazy person. How can this be published? How can it be published under the eye of the guy who was so recently talking about "Superior and Inferior Writers?"

The fundamental problems of this story are, it imagines a Japan populated by people who have never lived, anywhere. It uses cliches and stereotypes to describe that nation, and it shows a tin-ear for dialogue and a lack of even the most basic understanding of human relationships.

Within the first few pages, we are shown a world under threat of annihilation, yet the Japanese characters are so "orderly" as they line up for evacuation, and of course they greet each other "politely." Yes, he uses those words. Oh, those Japanese! Always so orderly and polite, even when faced with the destruction of the whole world! Just like after the Tohoku Earthquake, no looting or rioting like you get everywhere else, everyone so calm and so damned Japanese. (The author actually uses that imagery. I wonder what inspired him to write this story? Hmmm...)

The main character is a survivor of that tragedy, perhaps the last living representative of the Japanese people. He reminisces about his father, who is a pure paragon of all that mystical Japaneseness so beloved by geeks of every stripe. Take this passage (it hurts me to type this.)
"Hiroto, I want you to remember this," Dad said. He looked around, overcome by emotion. "It is in the face of disasters that we show our strength as a people. Understand that we are not defined by our individual loneliness, but by the web of relationships in which we're enmeshed. A person must rise above his selfish needs so that all of us can live in harmony. The individual is small and powerless, but bound tightly together, as a whole, the Japanese nation is invincible."
(The Future is Japanese, Kindle edition, Loc 130 of 6486. How does one quote Kindle books, anyway?)

Keep in mind, this is man is speaking to his eight year old son. Who talks like that to children? Not any Japanese father I've ever met. Or any American, German, Russian or French one for that matter. And later, when they see the ship that is to take them off-planet, we read: '"I would like a window seat." I said, imagining the stars streaming by. "You should yield the window seat to those younger than you," Dad said. "Remember, we must all make sacrifices to live together."' [Loc 150] Notice the polite phrasing, "would" and "should", as well as the lack of contractions (a linguistic mark of formality or politeness in English) which is a constant reminder of OH SO POLITE! Japaneseness, despite the fact that Keigo, or actual polite Japanese, is never used for close family members, unless that family member is an asshole. And that answer! Way to tell teach that 8 year old all about sacrifice. Can you smell the Yamato Damashii?

Here's how I imagine that conversation would actually go, after years of teaching kids and their parents here in Japan:

ねね、お父さん、ひろとがね、窓際に座りたい。ね、お父さん!(Trans: Hey, hey dad! Hey, Hiroto [Japanese children esp. tend to refer to themselves in the third person] wants to sit by the window! Hey, dad!)
うるさい、馬鹿門。我侭言いワン!("Hush, moron. Enough with your selfishness!")
Loud crying ensues, until mom gets angry at dad for not indulging the boy, and dad ignores mom for, well, ever, and goes to buy some Happoshu.

After that, it only gets worse. The father starts spouting Haiku and Chinese poetry, and the boy's reaction is: "It is like a gentle kitten licking the inside of my heart." I shit you not. Someone wrote that, and thought it sounded like something a human child would say.

There's a bunch of other nonsense, about Go and Kanji and Samurai swords, stuff that Japan-geeks love. None of it matters, because it's all about how being Japanese means you have to kill yourself for honor. But be polite when you do it, ok?

*“One Breath, One Stroke” by Catherynne M. Valente. Unreadable nonsense, scattered with Japanese myths divorced from their truth like some kind of literary Japonisme throwback. I tried to read it three times, gave up each time. Every last word sounds like a a lie, ignorance wrapped in paper thin ornamental vocabulary. For people who like fake flowers, it is sure to please.

And that's what I thought. God, that felt good to get out of my system. I'm sure there are plenty who will disagree, especially about the "Bad" section, but that's life for you.

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