8th Century Japan & SF Origins

My History of Science Fiction #6

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The story so far:

  1. The Epic of Gilgamesh
  2. Indian Epic Poetry
  3. Aristophanes
  4. Revelation
  5. Lucian

We continue our journey into the origins of Science Fiction, with a trip to 8th Century Japan.

In modern history, Japan has often represented technology and scientific innovation. However, it seems that much earlier than that, the people of Japan enjoyed tales which involved time travelling, space travels, flying ships and extra-terrestrial life. Specifically, we will be looking at two tales, “Urashima Taro” and “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”.

Urashima Taro

Urashima Taro is the second tale we meet so far in this History of SF series, that deals with a return trip into the future, resulting in the traveller returning much later than their departing time: just like Kakudmi in the Mahabharata, the fisherman Urashima returns to a land that is no longer his own.

The tale of Urashima is told in the Nihon Shoki, also known as The Chronicles of Japan or Nihongi. This is the second oldest book on Japanese History (the oldest being the Kojiki) and it was finished around 720CE.

Urashima Taro, By Kuniyoshi Utagawa 1852
Urashima Taro, By Kuniyoshi Utagawa 1852

In the story, the fisherman Urashima sees a group of kids torturing a tiny turtle. He steps in, sends the kids packing and leaves the animal free to go. The following day he is approached by a talking giant turtle , which tells him that the animal he saved was none other than Emperor Ryujin’s daughter and that he now wants to thank him in person. As Ryujin is ruler of the sea, Urashima is given gills so he can reach the underwater palace. (1SF for a bit of genetic engineering here a la Spiderman). He spends a few days in the company of the emperor and his daughter Otohime, no longer a turtle (1SF point for shape-shifting abilities a la Mystique). When it’s time to leave, the princesses gifts him with a box he must never open, but that would bring him protection from harm.

The return journey bends a few linear time rules and poor Urashima is now 300 years into his own future (1SF). And if that wasn’t bad enough, in a moment of total what-am-I-supposed-to-do-now panic, the fisherman open the box (bad mistake) and is enveloped in a cloud of white smoke which leaves him aged, bent and beardy (ouch). In case he hadn’t figured it out, the princess’ voice echoes in the air with the DUH thought for the day, saying that the box contained his old age. Mmm… funky devices that can keep old age at bay…. go on, you can get a point for that (1SF)!

imageThe story of Urashima has influenced various works of fiction and a number of films, books and games, from Dragon Ball to Captain Harlock, from Okami to Ape Escape 2. Even SF writers Urula K Le Guin retold it and used it as a starting point in one of her short stories, Another Story (here I’m resisting the temptation to give a point just for having inspired Ursula!).

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, also known as Princess Kaguya, is considered to be the oldest Japanese prose tale (10th Century). In typical Japanese style, it tells the story of Taketori no Okina, a bamboo cutter, who finds as a thumb-sized baby inside a bamboo stalk (yes) which is glowing (as only bamboo stalks can) – the thoughts of radioactive plants spawning micro-babies is gorgeously Chernobyl-wild that I’m giving it 1SF point!). He takes her home and raises her with his wife, as their daughter. His good gesture is repaid in gold – literally – as every time he cuts down bamboo he finds a nugget! Thumbelina grows into a gorgeous beauty, while her adopted parents grow rich.

image
17th Century, Author Unknown.

With the passing of time, Kaguya-hime refuses to marry several suitors, including the emperor of Japan, Mikado. She also becomes more melancholic, crying every time she looks at the moon. Eventually, she admits to her parents that she is in fact, an alien (1SF) hailing from the Moon. The tale explains this exile in two ways, according to what version you are reading. One of the reason for this ‘Earth-confinement’ is punishment – a concept that sometime makes perfect sense to us humans too. The second reason is exile for safety, while her people are embroiled in a celestial war (1SF point for interstellar conflict).    Eventually, the day of her return to the Moon arrives. The presents are treated to an apparition of ambassadors, or heavenly beings (1SF en-mass space travel with ‘we come in peace’ intentions), sent to retrieve her. The princess says her goodbyes before they erase her memories with the  touch of a robe (1SF for funky gadgetry). And last but not least, they fly away in a fluffy looking machine (1SF).

Once again, we have an example of a tale influencing modern works, from Sailor Moon, Queen Millennia, to Naruto, to name but a few.

Conclusion: Fisherman 4 – Bamboo Cutter 6 (go figure these were risky jobs). Overall, a healthy 10SF points from the land of the rising sun! C’mon Japan!