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Dystopia and the mainstreaming of anti-Asian racism, part 3
Paranoid tales about a Japanese fifth column contributed to an atmosphere of racial fear and hate that culminated in a national tragedy
While American literature of the Eastern threat focused heavily on China, a parallel body of work contemplated a Japanese invasion of the United States and beyond.
Some of these were proper dystopias—such as The Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1905), a future history framed as a textbook for Japanese schoolchildren in the year 2005. But many early texts like John Henry Palmer’s The Invasion of New York, or How Hawaii Was Annexed (1897), Homer Lea’s The Valor of Ignorance (1909) and Hector Bywater’s The Great Pacific War of 1931 (1925) skewed toward the “future war” genre in the style of Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking—more concerned with tactics and naval engagements than racial diatribes, although the latter were by no means absent.
“As to the social questions touched upon with a light hand,” Palmer wrote in his introduction, “abler pens than mine may follow up on these momentous subjects.” His “light touch” included an outbreak of cannibalism in an anarchic post-conflict Hawaii.
While these books were somewhat less prominent than their Chinese-focused counterparts in the United States, they had a huge impact in Japan, where audiences were quickly enamored of the narratives in a very different way than the authors intended. Lea’s The Valor of Ignorance, which sold only 18,000 copies in the U.S., was translated into Japanese and flew off the shelves as quickly as it could be produced, selling 100,000 copies in just the first month and continuing like a powerhouse through two dozen printings.[i]
Valor’s wild success soon led Japanese authors to follow suit with their own future war tales. One of the best-known examples was Nichibei Miraisen (The Future War between Japan and America) by Miyazaki Ichiu, a story serialized in the best-selling Japanese equivalent to Boy’s Life magazine, starting in 1922. Ichiu credited Lea for inspiring the story. Promotions for the nationalistic story, which featured an American invasion of Japan, trumpeted “Those who love the homeland must buy this!! The great struggle of hot-blooded youth!”[ii] The generation raised on these stories would go on to serve as soldiers in World War II.[iii]
Some authors, such as Yano Ryukei in Ukishiro monogatari (The Floating Battleship) (1890), showed Japan deploying superior technology to save the day in the face of American hostility. Others, such as retired general Sato Kojiro in his book Nichi-bei senso yume monogatari (Fantasy of Japanese-American War) (1921), imagined an imperialist expansion across the Pacific, culminating with Japanese paratroopers descending on New York City from airships.
Perhaps the most dramatic development to come from the Japanese genre came in 1933, when the novella Nichibei-sen Miraik (Account of the Future US-Japan War) was published as a supplement to Hinode magazine, which circulated among Japanese diaspora living in Hawaii. Written by retired naval commander Fukunaga Kyosuke, the story featured two introductions, one by a member of Japan’s war council and another by a vice admiral. The story was fairly standard future-war fare, with lots of naval engagements and dystopian standard-issue airships. But the story also featured the Japanese inciting racial unrest in the United States, exploiting tensions caused by American racism to create an African-American fifth-column.[iv]
While fairly tame compared to the White supremacist apocalypses published in droves throughout the 20th century, the novella created a massive outcry when Japanese-Americans reported it to the authorities, fearing it would reflect badly on them.
Customs officials seized the magazine, claiming it encouraged treason, and the story soon inspired sensational headlines nationwide, such as “Jap Magazine With Story Jap-American War Seized Honolulu,” “Magazine Story Tells of Japs Taking Hawaii” and “Seize Magazines in Hawaii; “‘Future War Between America and Japan’ Title of Pictured Pamphlets; U.S. Navy Strength is Described in Detail.”[v] The controversy raged for months until the Japanese government took the unusual step of “advising” the author to cease further distribution of the book, in an effort to cool the furor.[vii]
But it was too late. The story circulated among intelligence agencies, eventually making its way to the desk of the Army Chief of Staff, even as the U.S. government began making lists of Japanese-Americans considered to be subversives.[vi] Racial paranoia and fears of a Japanese-American fifth column ran rampant.
Less then 10 years after the publication of Account of the Future US-Japan War, one of the darkest episodes in America’s 20th century history took place—the internment of 125,000 Japanese Americans.[viii] It’s too much to say that Account of the Future drove the racial politics that led to internment, but dueling visions of a clash of civilizations helped fuel and frame extremist politics in both the United States and Japan.
One reason I became fascinated with the dystopian genre was its two-edged nature. While works like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale serve as pro-social warnings, many other dystopian works are anti-social to the extreme, often linked to some of humanity’s worst impulses.
Racist dystopias are by far the most common form of dystopia in my bibliography, and while that may be partly attributable to selection bias, I think it’s also a reflection of how dystopian narratives buttress extremist arguments. Racist dystopias reflect and frame real world problems, steering them toward violence in ways that may not always be obvious, and in ways that don’t always make it into the history books.
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[i] Yamamura, Tim. Science Fiction Futures and the Ocean as History: Literature, Diaspora, and the Pacific War. Diss. UC Santa Cruz, 2014.
[v] News-Record (Neenah, Wisconsin), 14 Dec 1933; The Columbus Telegram (Columbus, Nebraska), 14 Dec 1933.
[vi] Argus-Leader (Sioux Falls, South Dakota), 04 Feb 1934.