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Sakyo Komatsu: Leading Japanese SF for Half a Century

by Edward Lipsett

One of the true pioneers of SF in Japan for over half a century, Komatsu continues to explore new avenues a wide range of genres. 

Born in 1931 in Osaka, Sakyo Komatsu is recognized as one of the three masters of Japanese SF, joining Shin'ichi Hoshi and Yasutaka Tsutsui.  Were a fourth to be named, it would probably have to be manga illustrator Osamu Tezuka. 
photo of article author Edward Lipsett
Edward Lipsett
The corresponding "Big Three" in the US would probably be Clarke, Heinlein and Asimov, but there is a discrepancy in their dates: while the American Big Three began to carve their niches in the late 40s and 50s from fertile ground already tilled by pioneers in prior decades, science fiction in Japan wasn't acceptable until the late 50s or 60s.  Komatsu's real debut work, "Peace" (Chi niwa Heiwa o), was published in 1961, in fact, neatly positioning him at the start of this evolution.  In this parallel world story, a young man preparing to defend Japan against the Allied invasion after the War did not end in August 1945 asks why a world of unconditional surrender should be any more real or any better than dying under American bayonets.  For the post-War generation, this was - and still is - a serious question, but thankfully a theoretical one.

He was rather more than conveniently positioned, however...  he was a driving force behind the development of SF in Japan, and its acceptance as a vehicle for more than sheer entertainment.  Komatsu was in his teens during World War II, and his experiences unquestionably shaped his view of the world.  While many SF works were translated prior to the war, including Huxley, Verne and Wells, to name a few, they languished largely ignored until Japan began to bootstrap herself up from the ashes in the mid-50s.  All of a sudden the American ethic began to dominate the Japanese consciousness, and people began to examine their beliefs in new ways.  Komatsu was an important part of this process in the SF realm, joining many other creators in diverse fields who mapped out uncharted realms of Japanese thought.

In addition to Japan's rich tradition of literature and his own imagination and creativity, Komatsu was also able to draw on an increasing number of translations from English.  In many cases, these sparked new ideas or introduced new opportunities, such as his "The Japanese Apache" (Nihon Apache-zoku), which was entirely original but can be traced thematically to Robert Sheckley's "The Prize of Peril," which appeared in the premiere issue of Hayakawa's SF Magazine in 1960.  While "The Japanese Apache" is clearly SF, it is also an examination of the tension existing between individuals and the organization, an ever-popular theme in Japanese literature of all types, and examined in closer detail by authors such as Taku Mayumura.

In many cases, naturally, he reworked English ideas into his own stories, such as a stellar prison holding an eloquent and perhaps unjustly persecuted Satan in "Crystalline Stars" (Kessho Seidan).  Reworking and reinterpreting ideas is a constant process in literature, and crucial in that it allows eternal themes to be examined through the local cultural milieu.  The Japanese authors were able to draw on decades on English SF to accelerate the development of the genre in Japan, and succeeded splendidly.  Komatsu himself, no doubt due to his experiences during the war, has returned again and again to studies of destruction and desolation, whether caused by natural disaster ("Japan Sinks" or Nihon Chinbotsu), aliens ("Bye-Bye Jupiter" or Sayonara Jupiter) or humanity itself ("Day of Resurrection" or Fukkatsu no Hi).  While early works probed the question of whether or not humanity is worthy of surviving, in recent years he has begun to examine how humanity might survive by becoming something else ("Nihilistic Corridor" or Kyomu Kairo). 

While most English SF presents a problem, rises to a climax and resolves the problem, a great deal of Japanese SF ends after only the first two elements, leaving the reader with a chewy nugget rather than a marshmallow to melt away as passing fun.  In "Japan Sinks," for example, there is no resolution...  the title of the book reveals the climax, and the story is in the interpersonal relations and descriptions of how Japan tries to cope with the end of its world.  And we never do find out if Japan was successful in its efforts, as the story ends with boat people watching the steaming waves that have swallowed their homeland.  Science fiction is a vehicle for Komatsu, a means of illuminating different and often hidden aspects of the Japanese worldview or culture and stimulating us to think. 

There is a reason that Komatsu has been one of the guiding lights in the Japanese SF world for decades...  now, as then, he not only illuminates his footsteps for other authors to follow and develop through, but also maps out new galleries for a newer generation of thinkers to explore, whether authors or readers. 

Official website  (Japanese language only)
Locus short stories

Sakyo Komatsu is a well-known science fiction writer in Japan, who wrote "Nihon Chinbotsu" (Japan Sinks) with sales topping four million copies a year, "Fukkatsu-no-hi" (The Day of Resurrection), "Sayonara Jupiter" (Bye-bye, Jupiter), "Shuto Shositsu" (Disappearance of the capital city), and numerous other bestsellers.  With human civilization as his overriding theme, his works have issued a warning about the future of the earth, which he claims attaches too much importance to science.  Komatsu has offered another perspective on the meaning of life, and he has created a world of magnificent human achievements, beyond the framework of science fiction.  Moreover, besides writing, he has also played other active roles, such as engaging in the planning and production of the Japan World Exposition (1970) and the International Garden and Greenery Exposition (1990).  Recently, on the anniversary of his seventieth birthday, he published his own magazine, "Sakyo Komatsu Magazine."  It seems as though his passion for creativity will never cease.

Japan Sinks NY: Harper & Row (1976).  First American edition.  Translated by Michael Gallagher.

Bye-Bye Jupiter site from Toho

American-born Edward Lipsett has lived in Japan for over half his life.  He runs a translation/production company, Intercom, Ltd.  In 2003 his firm began publishing selected works of Japanese literature in English as Kurodahan Press, including a number of outstanding science fiction and horror authors.

Kurodahan Press announces its newest anthology, Speculative Japan: Outstanding Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy to be introduced at Worldcon.  The book is US$20, and may have a Worldcon discount.