The creation of modern Japanese science fiction through utopian fiction and the Second World War


Today, East Asian, and especially Japanese, science fiction and popular culture is immensely popular in the West. As Bolton, Scicery-Ronay Jr., and Tatsumi point out, this wave of science fiction from Japan was reliant on newer forms of communication, like television, video games, etc., while also being prominent in more traditional forms such as books.1 However, the cultural explosion happening in post-war Japan did not happen in isolation. According to Yoriko Moichi, Japanese utopian (and dystopian) literature is heavily influenced by Western utopian literature introduced after the Meiji Restoration and the subsequent opening up of Japan.2 Moreover, the modernisation and industrialisation happening in Japan both after the Meiji Restoration and after the war also impacted the post-war boom of science fiction. Lastly, the horrors of the Pacific War itself also helped to cement more dystopian and moralising science fiction at the forefront of the post-war movement, which then resulted in the initial popularisation of Japanese science fiction in the West.


Yoroki argues that the bleak science fiction created right after the war was dystopian because the war made a utopian society impossible to imagine, and that the futuristic and industrial science fiction literature of this period was ‘a little light weight’.3 This may be so, but the science fiction that was created as a direct result of the war did not only appear in traditional literature but also in the newer ones, thus resulting in a post-war dystopian culture which proved to be immensely influential. The most obvious example of such a post-war work of science fiction is the 1954 film Gojira, or Godzilla, King of Monsters!, which opened the floodgates for the subsequent popularisation of Japanese science fiction in the rest of the world. There is little doubt that Gojira is a representation of the horrors endured by the Japanese towards the end of the war. The monster is even awakened from his sleep by American nuclear testing in the pacific, alluding strongly to wartime America and its nuclear bombs. The film is also a strong critique of U.S.-Japanese post-war relations where Japan is being coerced by, and also collaborating with, the monster from the sea.4


The massive popularity of dystopian science fiction in new mediums in the years after the war thus led more of it, and more of it being exported to other parts of the world. With the technological and economic advancement of Japan in the 1970s and 80s the genre evolved into a more futuristic one, but there was still a strong dystopian element to it, as can be seen in famous an influential works such as Akira (1982/1988) and many others.5 Today, the world of Japanese-inspired science fiction is, of course, not always dark and dystopian, but much of it – and maybe the best of it –have strong dystopian elements. Thus, the utopian literature popularised in Japan after the Meiji restoration in conjunction with the horrors of the war and subsequent introspection in Japan created an initially distinctive, and highly influential genre of science fiction which has subsequently been hugely popular across the world on a plethora of different media.

  1. Bolton, Christopher, Csicery-Ronay Jr., Istvan and Tatsumi, Takayuki, Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (Minneapolis, 2007), p. vii. []
  2. Moichi, Yoriko, ‘Japanese Utopian Literature from the 1870s to the Present and the Influence of Western Utopianism’ Utopian Studies 10, (1999), pp. 90-91. []
  3. Ibid., p. 95. []
  4. Igarashi, Yoshikuni, Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945-1970 (Princeton, 2000), pp. 115-118. []
  5. Bolton, Scicery-Ronay Jr., and Tatsumi, p. ix. []

How Ibsen came to influence the revolutionary movements of China

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen has been hugely influential in the history of theatre and his plays are among the most performed ones in the world. Not only did Ibsen infuse the world of theatre with a more realistic and character-driven style but his plays are also very political – which is indeed the case with his perhaps most famous work, A Doll’s House (1879). The political significance of Ibsen’s plays travelled across Eurasia to Japan and China in the early twentieth century and ended up influencing not only new radical movements such as anarchism and feminism, but its significance also garnered significant critique from far-right movements in China, showing that Ibsen’s writings had a meaningful role in the tumultuous political climate of China in the first half of the twentieth century.


Edward Krebs’ book Shifu, Soul of Chinese Anarchism, shows how the anarchist faction within the New Culture Movement embraced Ibsen’s A Doll’s House not only as a feminist critique of the institution of marriage and a call for women’s liberation, but also as a call for the emancipation of love in Chinese society.1 For anyone familiar with A Doll’s House, the most obvious interpretation of the play is the perhaps more practical side of female emancipation from the structural limitations of life as a woman. That is, the limitations of marriage and family life where the woman has little room for freedom and expression, which, in the play, leads the protagonist, Nora, to reject all of this by the end of it. Interestingly, it seems that the New Culture and May Fourth movements in China not only embraced this but also used the, now perhaps taken for granted, search for love as a concept of both female emancipation and rebellion against the old way of life by a new focus on individuality, as is pointed out by Haiyan Lee. Indeed, Lee claims that ‘[n]o other translated text electrified the May Fourth generation more than Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House’.2 Lee goes on to write that it was not before anarchist takes on the play emerged that the inherent critique of bourgeoise domestic life in particular of A Doll’s House was used politically. Naturally, the combined implications of female emancipation and rejection of bourgeoisie life was then used as a rebellion against the Confucian family ideals. Moreover, the anarchist interpretation developed into a rejection of love as an ‘ideological camouflage’ for the lies of the Confucian family ‘covering up the unnatural and unjustified private ownership of sex’.3


Curiously, the apparent rejection by Nora of bourgeoisie life touted by the anarchists was used against them by the far right and the New Life Movement (NLM). As the illustration titled ‘Nora after Leaving Home’ from the magazine New Life Women’s Monthly implies, Nora’s rejection of family ideals leads to immorality, and in opposition to the leftist interpretation, she continues to embrace the capitalist bourgeoisie or perhaps a sleazier underground life.4 Obviously, the NLM, promoting a fascist and highly conservative ideology, was staunchly against the ideals of the New Culture and May Fourth movements and their rejection of the Confucian family ideal. As Clinton points out, the NLM critique highlights the futility of Nora leaving the traditional family structures given the lack of opportunity for independent women in Chinese society, which would lead her to a life of degeneracy.5 Thus, A Doll’s House did not only act as a critique of the Confucian family in China, but the open ending also allowed for some rather easy refutation of the leftist interpretation.


A Doll’s House was not the only Ibsen play that proved to be influential among leftist revolutionaries in China in this period. In The Birth of Chinese Feminism, Liu, Karl and Ko highlights how The Lady from the Sea, which was first translated into Japanese then into Chinese in 1920, fits perfectly into the anarcho-feminism of a significant figure in anarchism and feminism in China as He-Yin Zhen. The passage they focus on is one where Ibsen is very critical of the whole institution of marriage, which he describes as an arrangement similar to prostitution.6 This passage in itself is perhaps a more direct and radical critique of traditional family structures than most of what is said in A Doll’s House. By being so direct in the description of marriage as a form of prostitution, The Lady From the Sea might even have put off some not so radical leftists at the time, which might explain why A Doll’s House was more popular, and thus more influential.


The curious case of Ibsen’s influence on revolutionary movements in China is another proof of Ibsen’s skill as a playwright and it shows the relevance of his writings across cultures and time, which is furthermore exemplified by his continuous significance today. Ibsen, who may or may not have been an actual feminist himself, did write plays – such as those mentioned above and Hedda Gabler – which presents rebellion against society in the form of female rebellion. This made him a favourite among anarchists and feminists, and also an ‘easy’ target for more conservative voices. However, plays such as A Doll’s House obviously did not only inspire the most extreme leftists at the time since the message can be easily applied to wider society as a whole. It is for that reason Ibsen’s story of Nora’s rebellion became the most ‘electrifying’ foreign piece of writing in the eyes of the May Fourth generation.

  1. Krebs, Edward S., Shifu, Soul of Chinese Anarchism (Lanham, Md, 1998), p. 162. []
  2. Lee, Haiyan, Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2007), p. 109. []
  3. Ibid., pp. 182-183. []
  4. Clinton, Maggie, Revolutionary Nativism: Fascism and Culture in China, 1925-1937 (Durham, 2017), p. 154. []
  5. Ibid., pp. 152-155. []
  6. Karl, Rebecca, Ko, Dorothy and Liu, Lydia, The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Text in Transnational Theory (New York, 2013), p. 93. []

Music and the 1942 symposium: a Kyoto School microcosm

In July 1942, about half a year since the attack on Pearl Harbor and the advent of total war, there was arranged a symposium titled ‘Overcoming Modernity’ where members of the Kyoto School and other Japanese thinkers of various kinds wrote essays on, and discussed, how Japan was to overcome modernity. The symposium largely failed to come up with many concrete answers to the problem since the discussions largely ended up focusing on the semantics of the problem posed and other details. Indeed, the leader of the two-day roundtable discussions, Kawakami Tetsutaro, began the conference by admitting to the ambiguity of the theme of the symposium.1 One sub-theme discussed in the first day of the conference was the role of Japanese music in overcoming modernity. This sub-theme is perhaps the most unique one discussed at the symposium, but it also encapsulates many of the larger themes of the conference and of the Kyoto School in general.

The symposium at large was in agreement that Japan had a particular ‘spirit’ or ‘nature’ which made it stand out from the rest of the world, and that this spirit had been contaminated by outside cultures over many centuries. The way of overcoming what they saw as a Western-dominated modernity was to restore this Japanese spirit, not by going backwards but by going forwards.2 This somewhat paradoxical way of seeing the historical progression of Japan is furthermore mirrored in a fundamental paradox of the Kyoto School thinking as illustrated by the founder, Nishida’s combination of Eastern philosophical traditions and more modern Western methodological philosophy,3 which ended up creating a school which was both fundamentally critical of Japanese and Western philosophy, ideology and culture.

This is where the discussion on the role of music in the overall Japanese spirit comes in. The most prominent talker on this topic was Moroi Saburo, a ‘composer and music theorist’.4 Like most other participants of the symposium Moroi argued that the impure modernity was a thing that had to be overcome by finding the true Japanese spirit, which was to be done by creating something new for the future, inspired by both the traditional Japanese and by the Western. In terms of music, Moroi sought to create a new style of music which maintained the Japanese spirit and at the same time incorporated certain elements from Western music.5 This was because Moroi saw modern Japanese music as corrupted by Western influences, but he thought that certain elements of Western music would be useful if combined in the right way. What he specifically admired about Western music was the spirituality of it.6 Thus, in order to find the true Japanese music to compliment the true Japanese culture and spirit there had to be created a new kind of music, combining traditional Japanese music (which focus on narrative) and Western music (which mas more focused on feeling), which would then assist Japanese society in general to overcome modernity.

Interestingly, this overall criticism, both in the discussion about music and in the discussions in general, came to support a teleological view of history where Japan was seen as destined to be the next great power. Moroi argues that different European countries have, after the Middle Ages, been the leading countries in terms of music, and also art in general, in different decades. Therefore, based upon a nationalist belief in Japanese superiority, it is now Japan’s turn to be a leading country within music and the arts. This belief is also based on a belief in the degradation of Western culture.7 This sentiment of Western deterioration and Japanese progress was matched by other symposium participants. Such a teleological and nationalistic view was exactly what made the Kyoto School, and the 1942 symposium in particular, come under much criticism for being too supportive of the Japanese wartime ideology after the war.8 Then again, the Kyoto School and also the symposium were criticised at the time for not being nationalistic enough.9

Thus, from a symposium which did not deliver many clear answers about how to overcome modernity and the development of the Japanese spirit, the perhaps most niche point of discussion acted as a microcosm for the entire 1942 symposium itself. Japanese music, much like Japan itself, was, in the eyes of the symposium participants, in need of a revival as both had been corrupted by outside – mainly Western – influences. The way of reviving them was, however, not by going back to the originals, but to incorporate specific Western elements. Where the symposium goes beyond the thinking of Nishida, and flirting with a more nationalistic ideology was the teleological conviction held that both Japanese music, culture and empire was due a place in the sun.

  1. Calichman, Richard F., Overcoming Modernity: Cultural Identity in Wartime Japan (New York, 2008), p. 151 []
  2. Ibid., pp. 12-13 []
  3. Davis, Bret W., The Kyoto School, 9 April, 2019, <> [13 November 2020] []
  4. Calichman, p. 212 []
  5. Ibid., pp. 173-175 []
  6. Ibid., p. 172 []
  7. Ibid., p. 173 []
  8. Davis, 2015 []
  9. Goto-Jones, Christopher, Political Philosophy in Japan: Nishida, the Kyoto School, and Co-Prosperity (New York, 2005), p. 117 []

‘Bushido’ anarchists: The irony of rebellious martyrdom in Imperial Japan

Post-Meiji restoration Japan is known for being a highly nationalistic society with limited freedom of expression and little room for other ideologies than the nationalistic ideology promoted by the state. In Mikiso Hane’s Reflections on the Way to the Gallows we meet, among others, Kanno Sugako (1881-1911) and Kaneko Fumiko (1903-1926) – two women who lived in this time of nationalism and who ungrudgingly gave their lives for their beliefs and rebellions against the Japanese state and society. What struck me the most when reading the stories Kanno and Kaneko is their unyielding faith in their ideological cause right up to their deaths and, their honesty and transparent witness statements, and their bravery. Ironically enough, the way in which Kanno and Kaneko met their deaths can be argued to be exemplary of the values propagandised by the Japanese government at the time. Indeed, as Kanno was executed and Kaneko committed suicide in prison they displayed similar characteristics to the modern ‘Bushido’ values1 which had been integrated into Japanese society in this period as they fostered a ‘Japanese spirit’.2


The perhaps most famous anarchist in this period was Kotoku Sushui, who’s idea of anarchism was rooted in various critiques of imperialism, nationalism and militarism – he also had a complicated personal relationship with Kanno Sugako. Kanno’s and Kaneko’s anarchist beliefs were more personally motivated and more shaped by their individual animosity towards the authorities and hierarchies of the Japanese society they lived in, unlike Kotoku who was arguably more ‘intellectually’ motivated. Kanno exemplifies her opposition towards the existing society by writing, during her time as substitute editor of the newspaper Muro Shimpo, that ‘[w]omen in Japan are in a state of slavery. Japan has become an advanced, civilized nation, but we women are still denied our freedom by an iron fence’.3 Her critique is clearly a personal, and radical feminist one, attacking Japan’s modernity for not being thoroughly modern – particularly when it comes to its treatment of women. This feminist anarchism is particularly personal to Kanno since the social pressures and expectations put on women in this Japanese society instilled her with shame and guilt as she was raped at age 15. Kaneko’s beliefs were, likewise, shaped by her difficult upbringing where she was the subject of abuse and neglect from both her parents and grandmother. This led her to reject the contemporary ideals of the family hierarchy and filial piety – which was also supposed to permeate Japanese society as a whole. During her interrogation she explicitly draws the connection between what she sees as the unjust morality expected from the weaker part, both in society and in the family when she says:

From the standpoint of the weak, morality means an agreement that calls for one’s submission to the strong. This moral principle is common through all ages and all societies. The primary aim of those in power is to preserve this moral principle as long as possible. The relationship between parents and children is also based on this principle. It is only coated over with the attractive-sounding term ‘filial piety.’4


For their spreading of radical ideas and their alleged participation in conspiracies to assassinate the emperor, they were both tried and sentenced to death. It is not entirely clear whether these conspiracies were real or not, but they nevertheless both unrepentantly admitted to their involvement. Kanno, in her final statement, articulated that she had no regrets, she likened herself to a martyr giving her life to a higher cause, that she would ‘die without whimpering. This is my destiny’.5 Kaneko also admitted to the accusations levelled at her. In her interrogation she states that, because of her own experiences with ‘oppression by all sources of authority – I decided to deny the rights of all authority’ and ‘[f]or this reason I planned to eventually throw a bomb and accept the termination of my life’.6

Kanno was executed along with 11 other conspirators in 1911. Kaneko was, together with her ‘co-conspirator’ Pak Yeol, initially sentenced to death. However, the emperor pardoned them and they were offered life sentences in prison instead. Pak Yeol accepted the offer but Kaneko tore the pardon to shreds and committed suicide instead. Both of these faithful sacrifices to the cause of anarchism and defiance to Japanese society are, tragically and ironically, very similar to the warrior ethos promulgated by the very same society they were rebelling against.

  1. Christopher Ives, Imperial-Way Xen: Ichikawa Hakugen’s Critique and Lingering Questions for Buddhist Ethics (Honolulu, 2009), p. 32 []
  2. Ibid., p. 13 []
  3. Mikiso Hane, Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Prewar Japan (Berkeley, 1988), p. 53 []
  4. Ibid., p. 119 []
  5. Ibid., pp. 56-57 []
  6. Ibid., p. 122 []