Another long and winding road: Translating Japanese speculative fiction

This illustration was created for Hayawaka’s SF Magazine by Hidenori Watanave.
Here, Takayuki Tatsumi, who wrote the introduction to Chiaki Kawamata’s
Death Sentences, traces Japanese science fiction translation back to this monthly
magazine, which debuted in 1959. Image source: Creative Commons.

Professor of English at Keio University

In the 2010s you might consider Cool Japan to be self-evident as a revival of fin de siècle Japonisme. Certainly, if you like to read the hippest works of Japanese science fiction, you have only to search for charming titles published by Vertical, Haikasoru, Kurodahan Press, and Kodansha International. Nonetheless, to us who came of age absorbing Anglo-American culture in the 1970s, the very boom of Japanese culture seems another science fiction we could not have imagined back in the High Growth Period.

The genesis of translating Japanese science fiction could well be located in the early 1960s. After the inauguration in December 1959 of the first successful science fiction monthly, Hayakawa’s SF Magazine, a number of talented writers flocked together around the magazine and expanded their market beyond the boundary of science fiction, forming the group of the first generation Japanese SF writers with Shinichi Hoshi as the ultra-superstar in this period. It is Hoshi’s black humorous tale “Bokko-chan” featuring a beautiful robot maid that achieved fame as the first Japanese science fiction story translated into English. Originally published in the February 1958 issue of the first science fiction fanzine in Japan Uchujin (“Cosmic Dust”) edited by Takumi Shibano and reprinted in the May 1958 issue of the professional magazine Hoseki (“Jewel”) edited by Rampo Edogawa, the guru of Japanese detective fiction, “Bokko-chan” ended up by being translated into English by Hoshi’s friend Mr. Noriyoshi Saito and published in the June 1963 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), one of the leading SF magazines in the United States then edited by distinguished writer Avram Davidson. Since Hayakawa’s SFM started as the Japanese edition of F&SF, the English version of “Bokko-chan” marked the climax of their transpacific honeymoon. Please note that the year of 1963 saw the organization of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Japan (SFWJ) with Hoshi as the first president, which preceded Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) by two years.

This monumental achievement of Hoshi’s “Bokko-chan,” however, did not easily ignite the boom of Japanese science fiction in English-speaking countries. “Bokko-chan” is exceptionally well-wrought, but its translation itself was exceptional in the golden age of Anglo-American science fiction. Indeed, Japan’s High Growth Period attracted so many international writers that SFWJ succeeded in producing the first-ever International Science Fiction Symposium in the summer of 1970 that coincided with EXPO ’70 held in Osaka, Japan, with Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, Frederik Pohl, Judith Merril and others as invited speakers. In 1972, major anthologist Judith Merril, among others, revisited Japan and started living in Higashi-Koganei, Tokyo, for several months in order to construct a system of translating Japanese science fiction, calling together major English-Japanese translators such as Tetsu Yano, Norio Itoh, and Hisashi Asakura. Merril and her Japanese friends joined forces to complete translating several short stories of Komatsu, Mitsuse and Ishikawa, only to find no markets for publishing an anthology of Japanese science fiction. Nonetheless, their primal work was not wasted but faithfully inherited by a couple geniuses of Japanese-English translation living in Japan: Gene Van Troyer and Edward Lipsett, both of whom made friends with and helped English-Japanese translators in a number of ways. For their achievements in the 21st century, please visit Lipsett’s company, Kurodahan Press, and take a look at their multi-volume project Speculative Japan (2007-), based upon the translation resources of Judith Merril and her splendid fellows.

Merill played a significant role in not only translating but also enlightening Japanese science fiction from the perspective of New Wave Speculative Fiction revolutionizing the whole genre from the 1960s through the 1970s. Without her presence Japan could not have engendered major speculative fictionists like Koichi Yamano and Yoshio Aramaki. In particular, Yamano represented the New Wave movement in Japan and inaugurated a new SF magazine NW-SF in 1970, which discovered a number of post-science fictional talents such as a baby boomer Chiaki Kawamata. A big fan of surrealism and science fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs and William Burroughs, literature and rock’n’roll, Chiaki Kawamata became a new voice of Japanese science fiction capable of easily deconstructing the boundaries between classics and trash.

Therefore, while I was studying American literature and critical theory at Cornell University from 1984 to 1987, I felt ambitious enough to introduce someday the cutting edge of Japanese science fiction, especially Japanese speculative fiction as represented by Yamano, Aramaki and Kawamata. I cannot forget the day my cyberpunk comrade Lewis Shiner proposed to me that he is interested in helping me translate Japanese science fiction at ArmadilloCon in Austin, Texas, in October 1986. Thus, I asked my Cornell friend Kazuko Yoshio Behrens, who was writing her MA thesis in cultural anthropology and whose bilingual ability I believed to be able to accomplish the mission impossible.

This is the way she started translating the stories I selected and joined forces with Lew Shiner to elaborate the prose. This system was so successful that we could publish Aramaki’s story “Soft Clocks” in the January/February 1989 issue of Interzone and Yamano’s essay “Japanese SF, Its Originality and Orientation” in the March 1994 issue of Science-Fiction Studies. For Kawamata’s Death Sentences (originally published in 1984), which Kazuko finished translating in the early 1990s when Haruki Murakami began storming English-speaking countries, we had to wait many years until I first met Thomas Lamarre at a Trent University conference in 1997. His enduring cooperation and intellectual sophistication contributed to the remarkable elaboration of the draft. Chiaki Kawamata and I cannot appreciate too much the efforts made by Tom, our Mechademia colleagues, and the University of Minnesota Press.


On July 4th, 2012, Chiaki Kawamata and Thomas Lamarre will be joined by Kiyoshi Kasai and Yoshio Aramaki for a panel on Death Sentences and Japanese science fiction translation at Josai International University—Kioicho Campus. Takayuki Tatsumi will be the panel moderator.

Find more information about the event here.


Death Sentences is the first novel by Chiaki Kawamata to be published in English. It was a best seller in Japan and was a recipient of the Japan Science Fiction Grand Prize. Sharing its conceit with the major motion picture The Ring, it tells the story of a mysterious surrealist poem, penned in the 1940s, which, through low-tech circulation across time, kills its readers before sparking a wave of suicides after its publication in 1980s Japan. With echoes of such classic sci-fi works as George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip, Death Sentences is a fascinating mind-bender with a style all its own.

“A hard-boiled, sharply surreal fable about the power of the written word.”
—William Gibson

“Deeply rich in atmosphere and idea, (this book) deftly establishes the power of the central poems by showing their effects on the emotions, minds, bodies, and very consciousnesses of their readers; and proceeds to build living characters, central and minor, for their dangerous potential to impact.”
—Publishers Weekly

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