The Future Perfect

4 minute read

Why is it that Japan seems, perpetually, the most inherently futuristic of all nations? When I was a child, the future lived in America, and Japan’s role in that lay in the production of wind-up tin robots and injection-molded plastic spacemen. Forty years later, America’s special relationship with the future has been broken.

In the ’80s, when I became known for a species of science fiction that journalists called cyberpunk, Japan was already, somehow, the de facto spiritual home of that influence, that particular flavor of popular culture. It was not that there was a cyberpunk move-ment in Japan or a native literature akin to cyberpunk, but that modern Japan simply was cyberpunk. And the Japanese themselves knew it and delighted in it. I remember my first glimpse of Shibuya, when one of the young Tokyo journalists who had taken me there, his face drenched with the light of a thousand media-suns — all that towering, animated crawl of commercial information — said, “You see? You see? It is Blade Runner town.” And it was. It so evidently was.

Many in the West were under the impression that Japan had won the future as a sort of door prize, something that automatically came along with economic preeminence, but that is clearly not the case. The bubble economy is long since burst, but Japan seems somehow more futuristic than ever. Why?

The answer lies, as do the answers to many if not most things, in the past.

The Japanese, after centuries of isolation, opened themselves convulsively in the Meiji to “civilization and enlightenment,” to technologies as alien to their previous way of being and knowing as, say, reverse-engineered Roswell crash artifacts would be to us. A great deal of it they bought from the British — the Industrial Revolution train-set complete. It is perhaps not so much that England transmitted something to Japan as that London transmitted something to Tokyo, London having become the unprecedented locus of information and capital required for the phase-shift into the Industrial. The Japanese saw what was going on in England and infected themselves. Overdosed. Went mad. Were torn apart. Survived.

That which survived was the first industrialized Asian nation, but at the price of extraordinary trauma and dislocation. The British had already experienced what we later called future shock, but by and large it had not been introduced from the outside. The cognitive dissonance of the Victorian English was homegrown and, in that regard at least, familiar. The Japanese of the Meiji deliberately ingested fully formed alien technologies. Japan might as well have been temporally dislocated, hurled violently forward down the time line. A near-lethal dose of futurity.

From which they would emerge, some few decades later, as a military-industrial entity (another Asian first) bent on territorial conquest. Which in turn would lead them into conflict with the United States, where the future had gone to live in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Very shortly Japan would see two of its cities vaporized by unthinkable weapons from the future, weapons deployed by an enemy situated that much further down the time-track. An enemy possessed of technologies more alien than anything that had entranced and maddened dandies of Meiji. The Allies at war’s end possessed the first electronic computers, called into being to defeat the clockwork encryption machines of the Axis. War as technology, technology as war.

Japan lost. And was occupied by a foreign power intent upon a program of social reengineering quite unseen in history. America, determined that Japan should never again pose the sort of difficulties so recently and painfully worked through, set about restructuring the national psyche. America did not, however, follow through. The full-on demolition of existing power structures and their replacement with alien, egalitarian equivalents was suspended in the face of a perceived threat from communism.

Japan entered the postwar world as though it were two creatures constrained within the same skin. The sheer cumulative trauma, these ongoing, unimaginable and violent time shifts, had produced a mutant culture. The Japan that emerged in the latter half of the century to out-manufacture, out-market and out-sell the Americans was in large part the inadvertent creation of America.

The Americans, still thinking themselves the victors, had unknowingly generated a cargo cult that knew how to win.

Is it any wonder, then, that we continue to feel that the future somehow resides in Japan? But we have it backward, really: Japan lives in the future; it has lived there for a century. Hot-wired by repeated onslaughts of technologically driven change, temporally dislocated, deeply traditional yet subject to permutation without notice, we all, today, must to some extent feel ourselves to be warped, alien, disfigured.

The Japanese have simply had a head start.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at