Saturday, April 16, 2016

Electric baths and Imperialism - Unno Juza, Japan's Hidden Master

A man in a galvanic bath, a (frankly terrifyin) concept from the
19th century that was considered cutting edge in Unno's time, and
despite having featured in his first murder mystery is
occasionally faddish even today.
Ever wonder what a cross between Arthur Conan Doyle and Nikola Tesla would be like?

Meet the godfather of Japanese SF, Unno Juza! [1]

Unno is a fascinating character, and a writer whose impact on Japanese fiction was enormous, so let's explore a bit.

Unno Juza is actually one pen-name of a man by the name of Sano Shoichi [2], but the one by which he was best known, and the one under which he wrote some of his most interesting work.

Born in 1897 Sano Shoichi came into the world at a time of enormous change in Japan: Matthew Perry's famous "opening of Japan" had occurred only a bit more than a generation previously, triggering not only Japan's full entry into international politics, but also a wave of rapid modernization - technological, of course, but also social, with the disruption cresting in the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, which Tom Cruise's film so poorly documents. [3] Likewise, Japan was starting to feel its oats in the outside world, having debated the value of invading Korea in 1873 [4], won a war against Imperial China, invaded Taiwan, and at the time Sano Shoichi was born tensions were rising between Japan and Russia over control of the North Pacific coast of Asia.

Socially and technologically, Japan was racing to catch up with the European powers by aggressively adopting new technologies such as steam engines, railways, modern firearms, electricity, medical advances - in fact, attempting, essentially, to graft the entire post-Enlightenment academic achievements of the West in one huge gulp. At the same time, enormous social and political reforms were occurring, with the abolition of the Shogunate in 1868 being just the first step in a long process of internal government reforms. [5]  Suffice to say, times were turbulent!

By the time Sano Shoichi published his first story, Denkifuro no kaishijiken (The case of the mysterious death in the electric bath) in 1928, Japan was well on the way to full industrialization and was already the dominant power in the Pacific arena.  But what of the man himself?

Born to a wealthy, educated family [6] in Tokushima City on the island of Shikoku in Western Japan, the boy Sano Shoichi entered primary school and spent his first three years of education in this quiet castle town [7] but moved to the cultural and economic center of Kobe for the remainder of his preparatory schooling.  As a major center, Kobe was a city where young Shoichi could be exposed to the new world that was emerging, and so it was that somewhere between 1913 and 1916 he moved on to Tokyo, where he was to study electrical engineering at Waseda University, and on graduation the Ministry of Communications [8] as a official in their electrical testing and certification laboratories.

It was while working at the Ministry that Sano Shoichi began writing for science and youth magazines, publishing short pop science and educational articles aimed at young people under a variety of pen names to obscure his identity.  Like many educated young men of 1920s Tokyo, Sano was very interested in the outside world.  In his work, he was greatly influenced by the work of Nikola Tesla - a fact that emerges in his writing, reflected in the kinds of electrical technologies he imagines for the future - but of course in order to even do his work, he needed to be fluent in English (to have access to the latest developments and correspond with colleagues in various countries - principally the United States and Britain) and in his readings he seems to have at some point developed an interest in the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - in particular the Sherlock Holmes stories: and so he came to pen his first "scientifiction" [9]story, Denkifuro no kaishijiken, a murder mystery revolving around technological ideas in the same way that Holmes uses his penetrating reason to link together human observations.  It was with this story that Sano established his most enduring pseudonym, and the one under which he wrote the majority of his corpus of fiction.[10]

Over the next decade, Sano wrote mostly as Unno, producing a number of scientifiction stories - mainly mysteries of various kinds that featured a prominent scientist hero, including his most frequently used hero, the rather obviously named Soroku Homura. [11]

Many of his stories involved the use of emerging technologies in innovative ways either as a murder weapon or as a means to defend the intended victim - in his biographical writing, Sano said that at the time there was a great enthusiasm for new discoveries and new technologies, but also fear.  This was part of what spurred him to write popular science articles, believing that education would help balance enthusiasm with prudence, and fear with familiarity.  From this perspective, it seems natural that he would move into fiction as a vehicle to achieve the same end.

Interestingly, as Unno in particular from among his pseudonyms, Sano's work often also serves the purpose of gently - and sometimes not so gently - satirizing the government in which he worked. [12] While it can probably be said that he approved of the rush to industrialization and the advance to join the Western world in modernity, he often made comments on Japan's increasing militarism and expansion, and of course the increasingly firm hand with which the government held the people.  In addition, a number of his works between his initial publication in 1928 and the beginning of World War 2 are clearly intended as social commentary on the incursions into Manchuria, and the increasingly strident tone of nationalist propaganda (and the blank acceptance with which the people accept it)

In a Kafkaesque twist of fate, Sano was one of a number of writers of the era who were drafted in 1941 by the military arm of the Japanese government to write propaganda copy - and in addition to writing leaflets and other materials for the "education" of troops and factory workers, 1942 Sano was posted as a propaganda officer to the Japanese occupation forces at the recently captured Rabaul on East New Britain Island (Papua New Guinea).  He expressed the deep impact of the experience in a letter home to his wife, and although the ship he had been assigned to (the Aoba heavy cruiser) remained until the bombing of Rabaul in November 1943, Sano's deteriorating health and mental condition led him to be recalled to Japan after only two months.

Sano's impression of the government of Imperial Japan at the time was already not the best, as reflected in his satirical Tokkyo Tawan Ningen Hohshiki (Patent for a Multi-armed Man, 1941) in which an inventor is repeatedly thwarted by bureaucrats and their nonsense, until at last he realizes that they're only interested in the use of his idea as a military tool.  After this experience he seems to have become even more negative, though in the war era his published work was of course limited in its ability to reflect this due to censorship regimes (not to mention personal danger).

The era leading up to the war was surely a time of elation for Sano - this was science fiction made real! The transformation of his country as he watched, the amazing discoveries and new technologies, the bubbling innovation he must have seen in industry and the universities of the era must have been inspiring, perhaps even more so than it was to writers in the West, who had grown up embedded in societies far further along in industrialization than Japan. Imagine, then, the impact of seeing this shining future turned into a tool for war, culminating in the ultimate science fictional weapon being levelled at Japan itself at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After the war, Sano's scientifiction shifted - where he had previously explored the dangers and uses of technology in murder mysteries, he was reluctant to portray technology as a potential weapon and so he focused on stories of space exploration and futurist specuation in the style of Wells.  In this period he produced a fair bit of work, publishing not only science fiction and futurism but biographical works and commentary on the state of things - moreover, in the recovering economy of post-war Japan many of the industries that had been subverted by war were being retooled in ways that must have already shown the direction that Japanese technology was going to go.  He could see the light coming, but sadly he never really recovered from the crushing defeat of the war, and passed away in 1949 at the age of 51.

In his persona as Unno Juza, Sano was really a remarkable writer, and without a doubt his work had an impact on an entire generation of writers including such greats as Hoshi Shinichi, Komatsu Sakyo and others.  His influence can continue to be seen today, echoing in several well-known space opera series of the 80s and 90s, from where it reverberates again in modern Japanese science fiction.  Despite the age of the work, he is also one of a handful of Japanese science fiction writers whose writing continues to get re-printed in collections and anthologies today.

Remarkably, it doesn't appear that his work was ever translated into English in any significant way - in fact I challenge you to find professional translations on the internet.  In part, this is probably a problem of format - a large portion of his work was published as shorts and serializations in a wide variety of relatively ephemeral venues, such as long-extinct newspapers.  This has proved a challenge to anthologists in the Japanese market as well, but of course in the era in which he wrote it would have been very uncommon for "yellow" publications like the daily newspapers and weekly or monthly entertainment pulps to ever get enough attention to be translated, and as a result Unno's work is nearly completely unknown in English fan circles.

This is a crying shame - here we have a man who wrote brilliant futurist predictions in the style of H. G. Wells (and ironically, was born in the very year Wells first wrote about the dangers of future weapons in War of the Worlds), who wrote scientific mysteries and puzzles with the skill of Arthur Conan Doyle, and who was writing as sophisticated a social and political commentary as any of his peers in the West.

Sadly, Sano seems never to have been honoured during his lifetime - though he has been given the nod by many of those who followed after him, with tribute references such as in naming the captain of Battleship Yamato "Okita Juzo."

Perhaps its time for a translation project.


1. Once again, I am giving the surname first, because westernizing the order just feels strange.

2. Japanese order again.

3. I'm being unfair - such things rarely lend themselves to entertaining films, so I suppose we should forgive its failings to some extent. But seriously...

4. They decided not to - probably wise considering the string of rebellions between the Meiji Restoration (1868) and the Satsuma Rebellion.  It seems doubtful the emerging parliamentary monarchy could have survived the pressure of a serious land war with that level of internal unrest.

5. The plight of the newly unseated samurai class is what usually gets the spotlight, but in fact the changes were disruptive at all levels, particularly the "domino effect" caused by removing the feudal system of land management, which left peasant farmers in the novel position of having to pay rents or taxes on their lands.  The disruption in the economy, including a serious depression in the price of rice, led to critical debt loads (up to 2 trillion yen total in modern terms - $20 BILLION!) and serious hardship.  There was a more or less constant brushfire of local "debt rebellions" around the country, the most famous of which is surely the Chichibu Incident in which possibly as many as 10,000 farmers rose up to attack government buildings and lenders' offices to obliterate their debts, and in the process loosely organized into a democratic revolution.  Due to the government's vicious crack-down and the destruction of whatever literature there might have been (these people were largely illiterate, so probably not much was in text other than among the ringleaders, who appear to have had some education in Western ideas) it's hard to say, but this might well have been essentially a marxist revolt against the increasingly harsh conditions of the rapid transformation of Japanese society.

6. The two were of course synonymous - and the family were doctors, a profession that even now tends to run in families in Japan.

7. As a key agricultural center, Tokushima was large and significant enough to attract the attention of US forces during the war, and the city was nearly completely destroyed by more than 1,050 tons of incendiary bombs.

8. This was an Imperial Ministry, and a the time it was also responsible for things like electrical infrastructure - after the war the functions were divided between the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (who handle regulatory matters), Japan Post, and NTT.

9. Like many of his contemporaries, Sano/Unno didn't write strictly what we would call science fiction - in Japan the science fiction genre was largely considered a branch of detective fiction, and the influence is evident in the types of stories that were written in the early magazines.  As Sano/Unno wrote not only real SF and real detective mysteries but curious blends of the two I'm going to refer to his style as scientifiction - this also divides it from the emerging science fiction genre that was crystallizing in the US and UK toward the end of his career.

10. Amusingly, Sano himself wrote in a biographical work that he took the name from his love of Mahjong: in Japanese Mahjong circles there's a turn of phrase un ga juu meanting "luck is 10" (a reference to the way in which different pieces combine to create winning hands) - he converted this to un no juu (luck's 10) and added a casual post-fix on the end to get un no juu, sa  "luck's ten, eh!"then just slotted in kanji characters to come up with a name that more or less read that way. (this, incidentally, is a common approach among Japanese authors, and a lot of Japanese pseudonyms are a pun of some kind, often a personal joke)

11. Perhaps a bit warped from the perspective of an English speaker, but an obvious play on the Japanese rendition of Sherlock Holmes - Shaaroku Hohmuzu

12. Another reason to obscure his identity for sure!

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