Was Hirata Atsutane Japan’s first Science Fiction writer?

Maybe. Well, sort of. It kind of depends on how you define things.

Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843) was one of the key thinkers and popularizers of Japanese Nativism. He was a prolific writer, and most of what he wrote was aimed at proving that Japan was the center of the universe. In particular, he argued against Chinese learning, which was pointless, and to the extent it was any good, the Japanese had done it first. He argued against Indian (Buddhist) learning, which was pointless, and to the extent it was any good, the Japanese had done it first. He argued against European (Dutch) learning, which was pointless, and to the extent it was any good, the Japanese had done it first. As you may guess, he was a bit polemical. He was also pretty important in the creation and popularization of a specifically Japanese identity.

One of his important works is Senkyo Ibun (Strange tidings from the realm of the Immortals), 1822. This is an account of his interviews with the teenage tengu Kozo Torakichi. Tengu (天狗)are the trickster/mountain goblin figures of Japanese folklore. Torakichi claimed to have been raised by them, and to have learned all the secrets of true Japanese-ness in the process. It is not clear if Kozo was conning Hirata or if they were both conning everyone else, but there are a lot of conversations between the two in Wilburn Hanson’s When Tengu Talk: Hirata Atsutane’s Ethnography of the Other World

One of the things lots of Japanese people were interested in at this point was Western knowledge about astronomy. But why bother reading books by foreigners when Japanese people had actually been to the stars and could tell you about it?

Atsutane asked, “When you flew up to the stars, what did the moon look like?”

Torakichi said, “As you approach the moon it gets  bigger  and  big­ger, and the cold air starts to really cut into you, so I thought it would be impossible to land there,  but finally we were able  to get a good look from a place about two cha square, where we landed, and it was unexpectedly warm. Anyway , in the places where the moon appears to be shining, there is something like the oceans we have on our land, and they appear to have mud mixed in  with them. In  the place where  there is commonly  thought  to be a rabbit pounding mochi,1 there are two or three open holes. But then we left right away, so I don’t know their shapes exactly.“

Atsutane said, “You said that the shiny part of  the  moon  is like the  sea we have here. I recall that Westerners have speculated  that  that was the case. However I do not quite see how there could be holes in the place where the rabbit pounds mochi. I have heard that in that area, there are mountains like we have here .“

Torakichi laughed and said, “Your theory is flawed because it’s based on information you found in a book. I don’t know about books; I speak from seeing it up close. Even my master had said there were mountains there, but when we got close and looked, there really were two or three holes, and through those holes we could see the stars behind the moon.”

Elsewhere we learn that both planets and stars are made of mud and that both of them did not generate light but reflected it from the sun.

So is this Science Fiction? Not really, in that Hirata did not claim that it was fiction, and it was not part of a self-identified genre who’s purpose was to win a Hugo award. Wikipedia says that Japanese SF began with the translation of Verne in the Meiji period. Well, what is Verne? He was a writer of fiction which popularized “modern” science. Lots of cultures have stories of “fantasy” trips to the moon or stars, but I suppose you could define Science Fiction as writing that popularized modern science. In that case, Hirata would fit. For teaching purposes this is a nice example of how connected Japan was to the outside world. Students will usually come in with the idea that Japan was totally isolated before 1853. Showing them that Japanese Science Fiction sort of existed in 1822 helps in getting around that.

  1. Westerners think there is a Man in the Moon. In East Asia there is a rabbit, who in China is mixing up the exilir of immortality and in Japan is making rice cakes –Mochi  

1 Comment

Leave a Reply