A Science Fiction Rejuvenation in the New Era: Looking Back at 60 Years of Japanese Sci-Fi

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The Japanese science fiction scene made great strides in the postwar decades, thanks in no small part to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Japan and this group’s illustrious members. In the waning years of the twentieth century, though, the genre seemed to lose steam before a resurgence in more recent years. Part two of a SFWJ member’s look at the group to mark its sixtieth anniversary.

Continued from part 1, “Sixty Years of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Japan.”

Following its launch in 1963, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Japan, or SFWJ, made great strides under its 11 founding fathers, in particular the “Three Masters” of the Japanese sci-fi scene: Komatsu Sakyō and Hoshi Shin’ichi, along with Tsutsui Yasutaka, who joined the group soon after its founding. In the closing decades of the twentieth century, though, Japanese SF publishing fell on hard times in what was called the “Winter of Japanese SF.”

The Winter of Japanese SF: Decline in the 1990s

In 1997, an interview with the incendiary title “All SF of the Past Decade is Garbage” appeared in the March edition of book magazine Hon no zasshi. Advertised on the cover as if to intentionally provoke controversy, the feature consisted of a conversation between two author/editor/translators, Kagami Akira and SFWJ member Takahashi Ryōhei, discussing the alleged decline of SF literature.

A response article in major newspaper Nikkei titled “State of the Japanese SF Ice Age” claimed that the genre was in such decline the word winter didn’t do it justice. Soon the SFWJ and the rest of the speculative fiction world were embroiled in an argument that spanned blogs, newspapers, and six issues of SF Magazine. This furor is commonly known as the “Winter of Japanese SF Debate” or alternatively as the “Japanese SF is Garbage Debate.”

Opinions concerning the decline—or whether there was indeed a decline at all—vary widely. What is clear is that sales of publications marketed as SF had fallen off sharply since peaking in 1985. Sci-fi magazines folded one after the next throughout the 1980s, but the onset of winter is sometimes dated to the closure of SF Adventure in 1993, after which only SF Magazine survived.

“The way I see it, the Winter of Japanese SF was due to a shortage of new writers,” says Kusaka. “There was a period of nearly a decade without any new writers’ award, which meant no fresh talent. This made the genre appear as though it had lost its spark.”

 Other causes proposed in this period include the excessive influence of visual media such as Star Wars, the increasingly esoteric preferences of fandom, and the tendency of science fiction to masquerade as other genres, such as mystery.

Reform Efforts at the Turn of the Millennium

This industry chill left many authors less financially stable than in halcyon days and forced the SFWJ to reconsider its purpose. As Keiō University Professor Emeritus Tatsumi Takayuki notes in his fiftieth-anniversary history of the SFWJ, published in the January 2013 issue of SF Magazine, while the Japan Writers Association provided everything from health insurance and copyright management to the tending of authors’ graves, and the Mystery Writers of Japan offered a safety net for its members, the SFWJ continued to function primarily as a social club. Aside from administering the Japan SF Grand Prix and organizing membership assemblies, the only SFWJ activities to speak of were parties and occasional trips to hot-spring spas. The main perquisite of membership was proximity to revered authors of yore.

In response to the publishing market woes, some members began to see the need for change. One of these was feminist cyberpunk author Ōhara Mariko, who in 1999 became the SFWJ’s first female chair, alongside the feminist critic Kotani Mari as deputy chair. According to Kotani, Ōhara was a vocal proponent of transforming the SFWJ into a corporation with a board of directors and systems of palpable support for its members, but it would be nearly 20 years before this vision was realized.

In the meantime, Ōhara’s tenure as chair spurred various efforts to reinvigorate the association and the SF community at large. To generate revenue, the SFWJ began to curate books for publication, starting with an introduction to speculative fiction and an anthology in 2001. To overcome the paucity of neophyte talent, it established the Japan SF New Writers Award (1999–2009) and the Japan SF Critic Award (2006–14), which it began to administer in addition to the Grand Prix. In 2012, it also established the web magazine SF Prologue Wave.

Nippon 2007 and International Recognition

The efforts of the Canadian author Judith Merril and others to champion Japan’s SF works abroad notwithstanding, Japanese sci-fi literature entered the new millennium still largely untranslated into English and other European languages. This would begin to change in 2007, when Japan became the first region in Asia to host the World Science Fiction Convention. Held in the city of Yokohama, Kanagawa, Nippon 2007 saw sci-fi heavyweights from both sides of the Pacific meet for the first time.

The SFWJ would play a central role in organizing the convention, Kotani recalls, after fandom experienced internal difficulties and requested the association’s help. Initially, members expressed reservations, preferring to hold a pro convention nearby rather than work alongside SF amateurs. But in the end, the opinion that the SFWJ had a duty to global SF prevailed.

“It was a miracle how everyone worked together as a team to make the event happen,” says Kotani, who considers Nippon 2007 one of the happiest times of her life.

“With many prominent creators visiting Japan and numerous vibrant events and parties, it was a very fulfilling experience,” says the award-winning author Tobi Hirotaka. “The convention was held immediately after the debuts of Toh Enjoe [Enjō Tō] and Project Itoh [Itō Satoshi], authors who would revolutionize the genre in the 2010s. Their work would soon be translated into English and both would win major awards. Particularly memorable was a chat among these two, Sakurazaka Hiroshi, author of the novel that would be adapted into the film Edge of Tomorrow, the eminent philosopher Azuma Hiroki, and the American author Ted Chiang.”

Released at Nippon 2007 was the first edition of Speculative Japan, a series of short story anthologies published by the Kyūshū-based small press Kurodahan. This first wave of new English translations was followed in 2011 by the founding of Haikasoru, an imprint of the multimedia corporation Viz dedicated to the publication of Japanese SF. Two of Haikasoru’s titles, Harmony by Itoh and Self-Reference Engine by Enjoe, would go on to win Philip K. Dick Award special citations, in 2010 and 2013, respectively. Other works published in the same period, including Tobi’s novella Autogenic Dreaming, would garner both scholarly and critical attention.

Upheaval in the 2010s

In 2012, while the nation still reeled from the 3/11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, publisher Tokuma Shoten decided to withdraw its support for the SF Grand Prix after 33 years as the main sponsor.

“There was a critical point where it didn’t look like the SF Grand Prix would survive,” says the SF editor Kusaka Sanzō. Inside the SFWJ, he notes, “we had vigorous debate about what to do because it wasn’t realistic to cover the award ceremony, prize money, and other expenses with membership fees alone. Some people were saying we should give up the award.”

Into this crisis stepped author Fujii Taiyō, who had recently been inducted into the association on the basis of his debut novel Gene Mapper. He contacted a number of companies and found new sponsors, ensuring that the SF Grand Prix could be administered without interruption in 2013.

The editor Kusaka Sanzō. (© Eli K. P. William)
The editor Kusaka Sanzō. (© Eli K. P. William)

That same year, the SFWJ celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a series of special magazine issues and events. The most significant of these was the second International SF Symposium, held on July 19–29.

Although not as groundbreaking, perhaps, as its Cold War predecessor in 1970, it did achieve similar symbolic poignancy, beginning in Hiroshima, where the first atomic bomb fell, and ending in Fukushima, where the Fukushima Daiichi reactors had melted down just two years earlier, with stops along the way in Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, and Tokyo. Participants included many big names of Japanese SF and the American authors Pat Murphy and Paolo Bacigalupi.

In a single year, the SFWJ had preserved continuity of its flagship award and successfully concluded its semicentennial celebrations. However, the relief and jubilation would not last.

Membership Policy Scandal

In the May 21, 2014, edition of the Asahi Shimbun, an article titled “Japanese SF in Dire Straits: Books Flopping at Home Despite Foreign Praise” criticized the SFWJ for its insularity. The complaint centered around the refusal to induct the prolific editor, anthologist, and translator Ōmori Nozomi. This rejection came in spite of an SFWJ jury awarding Ōmori the 2013 Grand Prix for the tenth edition of his Nova short story anthology series.

Many members resigned from the SFWJ in protest, includingAzuma Hiroki, main shareholder of the Genron SF writing school (Japan’s answer to the Clarion Workshop), which employs Ōmori as a teacher.

“If you don’t want to contribute to the club’s insularity,” Azuma tweeted, “I think the only rational conclusion is to leave or decline to join.”

Although this was the most publicized case of rejection in spite of impressive SF credentials, it was not the first. The tendency seemed to stem from membership policy.

“In the period before I was accepted, new members required the unanimous agreement of the entire assembly, and in fact I was rejected several times,” says Takano Fumio, a multiple-award-winning and genre-bending author whose novel Swan Knight will be published in English in 2024 by Luna Press. “Apparently someone disliked me for very mildly critiquing the work of SFWJ members and the operation of the Grand Prix.”

Club rules were revised in 2005 so that anyone who had received three member recommendations or the Grand Prix could be put to a membership vote, with two-thirds support required for entry. However, Ōmori’s admission was nevertheless declined.

“The SFWJ was an organization that represented the genre while at the same time being a smaller group created within the genre, and this character was tolerated insofar as it was nominally a social club,” says Tobi. “However, as the central entity behind projects that carry public significance such as the Japan SF Grand Prix, the association needs to be operated according to a robust system that ensures the trust and recognition of regular people with no connection to the genre, or even those who are hostile to it.”

Incorporation and Diversification

Once again, it was Fujii who came to the rescue. During his tenure as SFWJ chair in 2015 and 2016, he served as the driving force behind the push to finally incorporate on August 24, 2017. According to Fujii, who is also a member of the US-based Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, or SFWA, he took hints during the reform process from several SFWA business meetings that he attended.

Fujii Taiyō. (© Eli K. P. WIlliam)
Fujii Taiyō. (© Eli K. P. WIlliam)

“The SFWA had just moved to the West Coast of America and incorporated as an NPO, so there was lots of discussion about creating new functions for the organization,” Fujii recalls. “I could see that many of their efforts would be for the benefit of writers and thought that we should imitate.”

Now admission of prospective members who receive three recommendations or a Grand Prix is decided by an elected board after consultation with membership.

Membership diversity has since increased. My application after publication of my first novel, Cash Crash Jubilee, in 2015 was rejected (although to be fair, I had zero recommendations), but I was inducted in 2020 and am now the only member who writes fiction in English. Another member, Lu Qiucha, writes in Chinese. The SFWJ has also forged ties with the newly formed Science Fiction Writers Union of the Republic of Korea (SFWUK). It has also admitted an employee of the Future Affairs Administration, a brand of the Shanghai Guoyue Culture and Creative Corporation that works to expand the global reach of Chinese science fiction.

Ōmori himself was inducted in January 2021. Azuma and others have yet to rejoin.

“Some people may have fought when we were a social club, but now everyone can pursue their own objectives under the umbrella of the association,” says Takano. “What I’d like to see going forward is everyone striking out in their own direction, without interfering with those they don’t like. This is the meaning of diversity.”

The Future and Beyond

Many authors who made important contributions to Japanese SF have had little or nothing to do with the SFWJ. For some, this is because their work was classified as literary rather than as science fiction. These include Murakami Ryū, Murakami Haruki, Ogawa Yōko, Murata Sayaka, and Hirano Keiichirō. Another group of authors won the Grand Prix but never joined the association, including Furukawa Hideo, Toh Enjoe, and Morimi Tomihiko.

However, the SFWJ remains a key locus for Japanese SF talent. With over 400 members and counting, it is poised to expand its reach and importance through the twenty-first century.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo © Pixta.)

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