At this moment, my university (KU Leuven in Belgium) and other institutions are commemorating Thomas More’s Utopia. This work, written in Latin and edited by Erasmus, was published by Dirk Martens in Leuven, the city where I study, exactly 500 years ago. (Okay, I started working on this post in 2016, so it’s 501 years ago now.) Utopia is a frame story about a fictitious island. The title, a neologism invented by More’s good friend Erasmus but derived from the Greek language, means “no place”, not to be confused with eutopia, “good place”. Nevertheless, More gives the impression that Utopia really existed, providing the reader not only with a detailed description of the island, but also inserting several letters to his own friends such as Peter Giles, town clerk of Antwerp, who plays a role in the story too. Additionally, the book was furnished with a map of the island, the Utopian alphabet (designed by Peter Giles) and two poems in the Utopian language with translation.
The work itself consists out of two books: the first book covers discussions and criticism on the “real” society while the second book goes into details about the unknown island of Utopia. A character called More (a surrogate for the author) is introduced by his friend Peter Giles to Raphael Hythloday, the Portuguese explorer that discovered Utopia. They discuss the current political situation in Europe, ethical issues in serving at court, social abuse that leads to theft and other topics. In the second book, Hythloday recounts his journey to Utopia. During his stay of 5 years, he familiarized himself with the remarkable Utopian customs. A description of these customs would take more than one post, so check out this summary if you are interested.
Utopia paved the way for a whole new genre of literature. The ideas the humanist and statesman More (1478-1535) put forward in his book, are still relevant and inspiring today (for example the 6-hour working day Sweden has been experimenting with), and some ideas have even come true. However, not all of the Utopian customs would be considered OK nowadays. Slavery, for example, was still a thing. Moreover, it is wrong to think that Utopia represents the perfect society because this was not More’s intention at all – the difference between “eutopia” and “utopia” is really important here. On the contrary, the author distances himself from some of the Utopian ideals and principles. Therefore, Utopia should be read as a criticism of the society More lived in. Not an easy task, by the way: the danger of critiquing society directly is illustrated by the fact that More was later beheaded because he did not go along with Henry VIII’s plan for the establishment of a Church of England.
You are probably wondering what this has to do with Japan. Well, I was curious whether, traditionally speaking, Japanese literature also covers a genre of utopian writings. This has been a question often addressed by scholars, and the usual answer is: no, not in the Western sense of the word (not so strange because the genre was named after More’s Utopia), but yes, Japanese literature includes utopian-ish texts, especially works written during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Apparently, utopian works in the West are characterized by a constant shift in position between reality and the imaginary world. The difficulties the reader is faced with in trying to distinguish between what is fictional and what is real, is precisely the level of ambiguity utopian literature aims for.
It is argued that in Japanese works, this ambiguity is not very present. However, the differences between Western utopias and Japanese literature on a similar topic do not indicate that Japanese works are ‘underdeveloped’ or lacking what their western counterpart have: this would be measuring with a Western yardstick. Imagine if a pasta dish was critically evaluated based on its similarity to ramen, Japanese noodle soup (both are tasty in their own way, right?). Moreover, in the manga, anime and Japanese drama of today, a utopian setting is often used. This has certainly been influenced by the popularity of western science fiction from the postwar period on, but apparently utopian-ish genres date back to the Edo period or even earlier. The length of this post will convince you that comparing both literary traditions is more complex than is often assumed.
Burton (2007) points out that in mid-Edo times, a genre of fantastic travel narratives existed that was also used to critique contemporary society: kibyōshi 黄表紙 “yellow cover books”, the first comic books for adults. Because Japan was isolated from the rest of the world due to a policy of seclusion (sakoku 鎖国) at that time, the Japanese became fascinated by these booklets with their yellow covers that illustrated in words and (lots of) pictures the (imaginative) travels to far, exotic countries and their curious inhabitants. Burton further argues that the Japanese travel narratives were highly influenced by much older Chinese sources, often rooted in Taoist and Buddhist iconography. Such fantastic tales were regularly set in a different time period, to completely mask the fact that they were actually criticism on contemporary society. By doing so, authors could address political or other “forbidden” themes in a satirical way that would be censored otherwise. Although kibyōshi did not stand the test of time and popular authors soon disappeared into oblivion, the idea of a hypothetical world inspired Japanese writers in the centuries afterwards.
More highbrow alternatives for kibyōshi are Ihara Saikaku’s “Island of Women” (女護島 nyogonoshima) in which the author criticizes gender inequality, and Yoshitsune’s trip to fantastic islands with half-human, half-animals creatures in the classic The Tale of the Heike (平家物語 Heike monogatari). Once Japan’s borders opened up for foreign literature in the second half of the 19th century, the Japanese public became fascinated by Western utopias. For example, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was translated and published in 1880, More’s Utopia the year after that. Moichi (1999) argues that the Japanese imported Western novels as a type of Western technology that had a political purpose. As a result, Japanese utopian-style texts inspired by this Western literature mainly promoted a modern ideology, which they hoped would result in political change in Japan’s near future. Coincidently, the Japanese public gained an enormous interest in writings on the future – eutopian or dystopian (the latter was slightly favored because it could shock the readers more).
I could devote an entire post to the well-established tradition of futurological literature in Japan, but at least an introduction is in order since both genres are often interlinked (stories about other, unfamiliar worlds regularly take place in the future). Drawing on the contents of an interesting class I took last year, I was able to trace the origins of futuristic narratives back to early Japanese history. The genre of miraiki (未来記 “record of the future”) is a literary tradition in Japanese history that has its roots in Chinese dynastic writings. At the start of every new dynasty in China (often established by means of a massacre), the new royal family had to justify why they deserved the “heavenly mandate” (tenmei 天命) by discrediting the previous dynasty. Hence, they referred to a text that had “predicted” the rightful establishment of a new dynasty (the massacre part of the old dynasty was also slightly downplayed).
It is not difficult to guess that this text was written by the new dynasty and not by someone in the past. As a result, we can regard traditional “futuristic texts” more as writings about the past than about the future. Since Japan does not have a dynastic system, their take on futuristic texts was different: most miraiki were attributed to Prince Shōtoku (Shōtoku Taishi 聖徳太子, 574-622) who is said to be capable of predicting the future. Those texts emerged throughout the Heian period and the Japanese Middle Ages. Similar to the Chinese original, miraiki were used in political discourse for refiguring the past. So here as well, miraiki are part of a literary tradition that claims to be futurological in spirit but is actually historical. The reliance on Prince Shōtoku’s authority to introduce certain standpoints clearly indicates the political character of miraiki.
Miraiki underwent a drastic transformation from the Edo period (1603-1868) on: they were trivialized and appeared in the form of satiric kibyōshi for the general public (this should ring a bell for attentive readers!). In other words, the genre of kibyōshi is believed to emerge from the tradition of miraiki. Yet, these “new” miraiki differed considerably. Kibyōshi stories are not necessarily set in the future, but those that are, are seen as equally impossible as utopian-ish stories, which results in absurd and comical narratives. This changed, again, with the arrival of Western futuristic works at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912). The future became more approachable, and speculation about it less absurd. According to Kurita (2000: 6), “Japanese during the formative years of Meiji, like the founders of the United States (…) had an unusually keen interest in proactively creating their own future.” Reminiscent of miraiki literature, it is remarkable that, once again, Japan wanted nothing more than to glorify and at the same time rewrite its past: the Meiji Restoration is characterized by a desire to go back to imperial rule and make an end to the power of the shogunate that had been overshadowing the emperor’s leadership from 1185 on. Hence, the future of Japan was envisioned with the past in mind.
Kurita further argues that the reception of the Dutch novel Anno 2065; Een Blik in de Toekomst (“A Glimpse into the Future”, 1865) by Dr. Dioscorides aka Pieter Harting in Japan acted as the stimulus to another change in literary perception of the future. Anno 2065 appealed to the Japanese because of its “dream device”. The narrator falls asleep and wakes up in the future. According to Kurita, this inspired many Japanese authors to use the same dream device in their miraiki. However, it should be noted that the “dream”, or rather, “the magical dream pillow” is a traditional element in Chinese, Korean and Japanese storytelling, and we should be careful to interpret the presence of it in Meiji period miraiki as a mere imitation of Western works that use a similar device. From the 1880s on, the refashioned miraiki integrated a Western notion of utopianism and futurology by not only focusing on the past, but also taking present understandings into consideration. Between 1885 and 1890, more than 100 miraiki were published.
One work in particular, Nijūsannen miraiki 二十三年未来記 (The Year 23: A Record of the Future, 1886) by Suehiro Tecchō 末広鉄腸 (writer’s name Suehiro Shigeyasu 末廣重恭), helped the miraiki genre gain a nation-wide but short-lived popularity (previously published texts, sometimes with the same title, were also influential but Suehiro’s novel was the first one able to break through successfully). The year 23 refers to Meiji 23, or 1890. Not really that far away in the future to count as futurological literature, you would think. Nevertheless, life in 1890 was imagined very differently due to a drastic change: the introduction of a Diet system. In 1881, an edict called into existence a constitution and a National Diet. Since the public was not familiar with these concepts, journalists such as Suehiro wanted to educate people about this new political system and promote it through means of the popular genre of miraiki.
The story in The Year 23 depicts a parliamentary debate in 1890. Again, miraiki mainly played a political role. Yet, they were innovative in combining a Japanese traditional genre with a futurological perspective as introduced through Western literature. They are set in the (near) future, but do also reflect contemporary society mixed with expectations and desires about how Japan should look like (hopefully to be fulfilled in the future). In that sense, these kind of miraiki have a flavor of eutopian utopias, albeit a different one than More’s work evoked in the West. After the second World War, Japanese readers became interested in American science fiction (often in a dystopian setting) which also resulted in SF novels flooding the market. Today, utopianism is a recurring theme in modern Japanese literature. Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, for example (check one of my first posts on this book here!), or manga such as Akira and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Enough reading material to feel like you are living in a different world…