Friday, April 15, 2016

Hoshi Shinichi in Short Shorts

This strange bird character was created by Hoshi and is
often used on work relating to him - here I shamelessly
steal a scan of the orignal
Hoshi Shinichi [1] died just a few months after I arrived in Japan, and was one of the first Japanese authors I ever read (in Japanese) – as a result, his work is the standard against which I have measured Japanese science fiction ever since. 

This has caused me some frustration: Hoshi is regarded in possibly the most influential writer of science fiction in Japanese, with a body of work including more than 1000 stories – so many in fact that it’s essentially impossible to find a complete list of even his collections.  My own first purchase “The Man From Earth” [2] doesn’t appear on any of the lists I’ve seen, for example – including a few Japanese ones!

Hoshi perhaps comes by his talent honestly as the great-grandson of famous Meiji Era writer, Mori Ohgai [3] but his early life leaned more in the direction of his ancestor’s academic achievements: although Hoshi was the right age for military service during the Second World War, his academic potential (and presumably his family’s connections [4]) kept him away from the front as far as I can tell, and he eventually got a degree in agricultural science from Tokyo University (another sign of his family’s elite status at the time) and was working on a PhD in agricultural chemistry in 1951 when his father’s sudden death forced him to drop out to manage the family’s failing pharmaceutical company.

The company collapsed soon afterwards, being in too rough condition to save, and ultimately the company was rescued by its acquisition by Kohkichi Otani [5] which released Hoshi to pursue his own interests.  Hoshi’s own condition was poor at this time, and following the sale of the family business, he spent some time recovering – and it was at this time he encountered Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles which sparked an intense interest in science fiction.

Over the next few years he became involved in a variety of science-fictional societies ranging from technological futurism to flying saucer clubs, culminating in his contribution to the inaugural issue of Japan’s first major science fiction magazine, Uchujin in 1957.  From there, he produced constantly, becoming a fixture in the Japanese science fiction community.

Overall, his influence on Japanese SF – and fiction in general – has been amazing, inspiring dozens of manga, films, TV, and of course other writers’ work.  He specialized particularly in what are sometimes called “short shorts” – short, intense stories less than 5 pages in length, and is considered the master of the form.[6]  There’s little you can really say in such a short space of course, but Hoshi invariably paints a situation in rough, vivid strokes – not so much world-building as tone-building to create the scaffold from which he’ll make his comment on society.

Hoshi not only wrote constantly, but was also responsible for introducing the Japanese SF scene to Western writers such as Frederick Brown and Isaac Asimov – and in fact I have read that he was responsible for some of the translations of his own work into English.

Bizarrely, though, despite the massive volume of his work, the enthusiasm with which he was received in the Japanese market, and the interest he attracted in other markets (translations into English, German, Russian, French, Italian, and Hungarian!) he seems to have received little recognition in the form of awards – at least not directly: many of the efforts to transform his works into films or manga have won awards.

Early in his career, Hoshi’s collection Six Short Shorts was nominated for the Naoki Sanjugo prize in 1961 (beaten, unsurprisingly, by Minakami’s Temple of the Wild Geese).  Another collection of stories was nominated for the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1962, and a novel in 1965, but it wasn’t until 1968 that he won the MWJ with his short Delusion Bank – though that award was presented for both the story and “for past achievement”. [7]  Strangely, despite his popularity and reputation, Hoshi was never awarded the coveted Seiun Prize by Japanese SF fandom, and it wasn’t until after his death that he was awarded the Nihon SF Taisho Award [8] for life achievement.

A fair bit of Hoshi’s work has been translated into English, including possibly his best known story Bokko-chan which was printed in the June 1963 issue of SF&F and seems to have been Western fandom’s first encounter with this remarkable author. 

Like a lot of Japanese SF, Hoshi’s writing has a very different flavour from what we’re used to in the type of English SF from the era in which he was writing – but I think its charm is that it retains the style of the older pulps that was lost during the shifts that occurred in American genre publishing in the 50s and early 60s.  

For anyone looking for a “gateway” to Japanese SF, his short, sharp stories are definitely a good place to start.


1. Hoshi is the family name of course, but it has always felt strange to me to anglicize the order – it just sounds better this way around.

2. 地球から来た男(chikyuu kara kita otoko) – oddly I can’t find any online reference to this collection from before the 2007 Kadokawa Bunko imprint, though I bought mine years before that, in about 1999 or 2000.

3. Author of Wild Geese and other works, also known for his poetry and his translations of contemporary Western authors such as Hans Christian Andersen, Ibsen and others.  In his later career, he produced a number of biographies of Edo Period academics.

4. Hoshi’s great-grandfather was a famous writer and physician to royalty, his grandfather was an anatomist, his father was the founder of both a pharmaceutical university and a pharmaceutical manufacturer.

5. The founder of the luxurious New Otani hotel chain.

6. This is considered something of a new thing in English – think flash fiction – but has been a mainstay of Japanese literature, not only in fiction but for essays and the like, more or less since the beginning of their commercial printing industry.

7. Interestingly, some of the best American SF authors of the 30s and 40s – surely a major influence on Hoshi, given his translation of Frederick Brown and his interest in Ray Bradbury – were also known for their mysteries and crime stories.  I’ve often wondered if working in this genre helps to discipline the fantasies of SF to create superior stories.

8. The Japanese industry’s equivalent of the Nebula, awarded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Japan.

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