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Virtual Japan Complete Description


Virtual Japan: Media, Architecture, and Contemporary Fiction

Research proposal by William O. Gardner
Swarthmore College, September 2006

In my book-length study, I will examine how Japanese authors from around 1960 through the present have explored the virtualization of contemporary life, while positioning their own writing within a network of media that help to constitute this virtual environment. My study will be divided into two interrelated sections: the first, tentatively entitled “The Dematerialization of the City” will examine simulations of the future city within the imagination of both architectural theorists and literary authors. It will observe the tendency for the city to be conceived not in terms of its solid structures but in terms of simulation, generation, and flows of energy and information. The second section, “Summoning the Avatar,” will investigate the virtualization of narrative subjects and literary texts, as authors explore an expanding range of subjectivities outside of the physical body opened by new media and information technologies (such as computer networks and video games), as well as new modes of literary expression beyond the printed book.

Although this study will encompass sweeping utopian and dystopian visions of the future and the futuristic present, I will strive to remain attuned not only to the theoretical and the visionary but also to the fine-grained viewpoints that literature offers of individual (if fictional) human experiences: the desires, antagonisms, foibles, and ironies of daily life. In this tension between the visionary and the granular level of human imagination and experience, I hope to show not only how modern Japanese fiction has envisioned our common future, but how it has captured the contradictions of our lives in the present.

Outline of the study:

Part 1 “The Dematerialization of the City.”
Chapter 1: The Osaka Expo and virtual Japan

The Osaka Expo of 1970 was the first world’s fair held in an Asian country, and attracted a record 64 million visitors. Organized around the idealistic theme of the “Progress and Harmony of Mankind,” it extended the work of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in presenting an image of a peaceful, prosperous, and forward-looking Japan definitively recovered from the devastation of World War II. The Expo also promoted its host country as a site for present and future technological achievement, in line with the techno-utopian rhetoric of International Expositions since London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. The Osaka Expo arguably surpassed its predecessors, however, in creating a virtual environment of the future, a true science fiction city. This visionary effect was achieved by such techniques as the extensive use of video projection, the employment of robots for public entertainment, and the foregrounding of innovative architectural projects. The Expo’s “city of the future” was realized through the involvement of many of Japan’s leading creative artists, including the architects Tange Kenzo, Arata Isozaki, and Kurokawa Kishô; the painter and sculptor Okamoto Tarô; and the science fiction author Komatsu Sakyô.

In my introductory chapter, I will examine the Osaka Expo as a pivotal event in establishing the blueprint for a “virtual Japan” that still resonates in today’s cultural landscape. Through its integration of technology and architecture, the Expo successfully projected Japan as a simulation-site for a future society. At the same time, it enacted an elaborate staging of Japan’s relationship with the outside world, with massive “international” events such as the opening ceremony attended by the Shôwa Emperor, as well as simulated national environments in individual countries’ pavilions, together effecting a bubble of “progress and harmony” within a nation still torn by virulent protests against the Vietnam War. As part of my analysis of the Expo as a paradigmatic virtual site, I will investigate how this event was formulated and critiqued by writers, artists, and architects, both those involved with the Expo planning and those outside of it.

Chapter 2: The Metabolism of the City

This chapter takes its theme from the writings of the Metabolist architects, who appeared on the international stage around 1960 with visionary new ideas on urban development. Metabolist architects imagined buildings and cities not as a permanent structures but as constantly changing organisms, and attempted to create designs that will include both long-term structural features and short-term growth modules that could regenerate over time. The ideas of Metabolism emerged in response to the devastation of Japanese cities in World War II and the chaotic conditions of postwar urban rebuilding; as summarized by architectural historian Cherie Wendelken, “Metabolism combined the language of nuclear physics, biological regeneration, and Buddhist reincarnation and linked these with a rejection of nostalgia” (287). In this chapter, I will probe the ideas of Metabolist architects and theorists Kikutake Kiyonori, Kurokawa Kishô, and Kawazoe Noboru, as well as their mentor Tange Kenzô and their sometime associate Isozaki Arata, who extended Metabolist ideas into the realm of cybernetics with such works as Electric Labyrinth (1968). In addition, I will explore the relationship between Metabolist ideas and the work of contemporary fiction writers, observing how architects and fiction authors jointly elaborate the themes of apocalypse, regeneration, and biological or electronic energy flows.

Fiction writers I will discuss include: A) Komatsu Sakyo. Komatsu had a personal connection with the Metabolists, collaborating, for example, on the volume Shinpojiumu: Mirai keikaku (Symposium: Future Planning, 1967) with Kawazoe Noboru and others. His bestselling techno-thriller works feature realistic narratives of future apocalypse, such as the outbreak of a deadly pandemic in Fukkatsu no hi (Day of Resurrection, or Virus, 1964) or the submersion of Japan in a massive seismic event in Nihon chinbotsu (Japan Sinks, 1973). I will explore the connection between Metabolism and Komatsu’s work, and discuss how his simulations of immense natural disasters address contemporary issues of national identity and social organization.

B) Abe Kôbô. Abe Kôbô’s novel Daiyon kanpyôki (Inter Ice Age 4, 1959) considered by some to be the first modern science fiction work in Japan, introduces several important themes that resonate with the nascent Metabolist movement, including the development of an underwater city and the evolution of human societies through biological manipulation. Nevertheless, this novel and others of Abe’s highly idiosyncratic oeuvre also offer viewpoints potentially critical of the utopian dimensions of Metabolism. I will discuss how the individual inhabits and imaginatively comprehends the city in such Abe works as Moetsukita chizu (The Ruined Map, 1967) Hako otoko (The Box Man, 1973), and Hakobune Sakuramaru (The Ark Sakura, 1984).

C) Murakami Haruki. International phenomenon Murakami Haruki belongs to a later generation than Komatsu or Abe, and his works have effectively captured the mood of subsequent decades, from 1970’s apathy, to 1980’s cool, to 1990’s anxiety. However, despite the postmodern sensibility that separates his work from that of writers of the immediate postwar period, I will argue that in such works as Sekai no owari to haado boirudo wandaarando (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1984) and Nejimakidori kuronikuru (The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, 1994), he extends a discourse on Japanese society opened by Abe, Komatsu, and the Metabolists, revising the themes of urban apocalypse, regeneration, and energy flow to address a 21st Century horizon of cybernetics, hyper-consumerism, transnationality, and terrorist violence.

Part 2: Summoning the Avatar.
Chapter 3. Tsutsui Yasutaka

Over the past four decades, author Tsutsui Yasutaka has explored the expanding role of media in contemporary life and the effects of media on human subjectivity, through works that combine science fiction and meta-fictional elements with social satire, black humor, and slapstick comedy. From his earliest novels and short stories in the 1960’s and 70’s, Tsutsui satirized the social effects of television and sensationalist print media, as each member of society becomes a performer acting out a role for real or imagined media coverage, and the utopia of “authentic” or “real” experience becomes steadily more distant under a media regime recognizable today as our own world of “reality television.” In his more recent works such as Papurika (1993), Tsutsui has extended this vision further into the information age as electronics become ever more finely intermeshed with human psychology, and his characters become “avatars” in multi-user role-playing computer games. In this chapter I will explore Tsutsui’s vision of the hypermediation of daily life, and trace the development of the avatar as a theme in Tsutsui’s work.

Chapter 4. The avatar’s discontent

In this chapter, I will further pursue the issues raised in Tsutsui’s prescient novels through a look at the work of younger generations of contemporary writers. In particular, I am interested in examining the work of Shôno Yoriko and D [di:], two writers whose works offer a feminist critique of virtualized daily life. Shôno’s unique body of work, exemplified in such novels as Resutoresu doriimu (Restless Dream, 1994) and Haha no hattatsu (Mother’s Development, 1996), explores the points of collusion and resistance between the private, individual imagination and the media-disseminated idioms and narratives that dominate public life. D [di:] ’s breakthrough Kigurumi (2002), written in a hybrid form of prose novel and manga graphic novel, explores the tribulations of identity formation in contemporary Japan through the story of young people who every day dress in cuddly animal-character costumes to survive in a parallel “amusement park” world.

Chapter 5. After the author/after the book

In my final chapter, I will examine three case studies of interactive fictions that raise intriguing questions about the future of authorship and narrative. Tsutsui Yasutaka’s pioneering interactive fiction Asa no Gasupâru (Gaspard of the Morning), serialized in the Asahi Newspaper in 1991-1992, incorporated reader feedback in the form of letters and an internet salon, and explored the concept of interactive narrative within its science-fiction story. Film director Iwai Shunji’s narrative Rirî shushu no subete (All About Lily Chou Chou) was generated through on-line interaction with his fans, and culminated in a film (2001) that juxtaposes the “real” life of a class of troubled high school students and their “virtual” lives as regular contributors to an online fan-site dedicated to pop singer Lily Chou Chou. Finally, the multi-media sensation Densha otoko (Train Man) emerged in 2004 as a purportedly “real” thread on the popular ni-channeru internet forum, where an “otaku” or “computer geek” sought help from fellow forum users in pursuing his first dating experience. The love story that developed was adapted into a bestselling novel, as well as manga, a hit television series, and a feature film.

Relation to Previous Research and Research Plan

In my book Advertising Tower: Japanese Modernism and Modernity in the 1920s (2006), I explored how modernist and avant-garde writers of the 1920s responded to the urban transformations of prewar Japan, including the reconstruction of Tokyo after the 1923 Great Kantô Earthquake, the rapid growth of the print and advertising industries, and the rise of new media such as film and radio. Through the research and writing of this book, I developed a strong interest in several issues, including the relationship of writers to the urban environment, and the place of literary writing within an fast-evolving ecology of media, which I would like to explore further with regard to writers of our own time.

While also completing my previous project, I began research on contemporary fiction in the summer of 2001, when I attended an NEH seminar entitled “Literature in Transition: The Impact of Information Technologies” at UCLA, directed by N. Katherine Hayles. My research into Tsutsui Yasutaka’s interactive novel Asa no Gasupâru culminated in an article entitled “Tsutsui Yasutaka and the Multimedia Performance of Authorship,” which is included in the book manuscript Japanese Science Fiction: Origins to Anime, forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press.

View Preliminary Bibliography

Website contents © William O. Gardner, 2006. Site updated October 2011.

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