There’s an old Tumblr post that’s been screenshotted and shared to death online. If my memory serves me right, it would have been posted sometime between the late 2000s and early 2010s. You’ll have to excuse this failure of memory — when you grow up in digital space, everything blurs together and nothing seems to belong to any specific person. Least of all their random Tumblr posts.
But it’s stuck with me through the years and it goes something like this: “We were born too late to explore the world and too early to explore the stars.” It’s these reminders of longing for adventure that make it easy to understand why genres like fantasy and sci-fi have endured despite an ever distant past and ever-changing future.
While stories like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings comfort us with tales of a hero (or heroes) that eventually vanquishes their evil, authoritarian foes, there’s one sci-fi genre that’s rarely as cheery.
Cyberpunk, with all its bright neon lights and flying cars, presents us with an ominous future where dictatorial governments aren’t necessary because class inequality is enough to keep the populace underfoot. The genre’s most obvious themes are evil mega-corporations — but have you ever noticed how Japanese it is?
A History of the Future: The Origins of the Cyberpunk Genre
You know sci-fi when you see it. If there’s advanced tech that isn’t currently produced as a mass-market product, you can always bet on an IP having sci-fi elements. Blade Runner, The Matrix, the 2021 Dune, and even Big Hero 6 are all sci-fi movies.
Here’s the thing, though: they’re different types of sci-fi. In Blade Runner‘s case, it’s cyberpunk. The term “cyberpunk” comes from a short story written by Bruce Bethke in the 1980s about teenage hackers with mohawks.
“I was actively trying to invent a new term that grokked the juxtaposition of punk attitudes and high technology,” Bethke shares on his site. “Had I had even the slightest least inkling of a clue that I would still be answering questions about this word nearly 18 years later, I would have bloody well trademarked the damned thing!”
Cyberpunk is often summed up in the phrase “high tech, low life.” Where Star Trek shows us a utopian future where money is obsolete, cyberpunk reminds us that no amount of technological advancement can relieve the evils of economic inequality.
In a cyberpunk world, capitalist overlords can live for centuries using life-extending technologies while poorer citizens don’t make it to their 50s. The visuals of cyberpunk cities make this clear too. Often, they’re divided into upper and lower halves, or core and rim areas.
The richer parts of the city have every imaginable comfort and a wealth of scantily dressed, body-modded sex workers available. Meanwhile, the poorer parts of the city struggle with basic survival even though technological advancement has gotten to the point where, objectively, you know the rich people in their skyscrapers already have the solutions to these problems.
Much like how it is in our own present-day world. While you’re probably reading this online in a place with easy access to a toilet, there are places in the world where basic sanitation is still a luxury.
As author William Gibson puts it, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” This idea permeates all of cyberpunk, carrying with it all our anxieties of the future while reflecting the fears of the present.
Given how central “fighting against the Man (in the Mega Corporation)” is in cyberpunk, it’s hardly surprising that cyberpunk is, well, cyberpunk. Initially conceived in the early 1980s, cyberpunk grappled with the societal implications of the digital revolution, all while trying to make it loud and clear that it was time to dismantle old systems to give rise to new ones that didn’t suffer from the oppressive mechanisms that early cyberpunks could already see around them.
Among the many fears and anxieties from the 80s that cyberpunk preserved was fear and admiration of Japan’s growing economic and cultural influence.
How 80’s Japan Shaped Modern Cyberpunk
Japan was the cool kid of the 1980s.
Back in the 80s, the Japanese yen flooded neighboring countries in Asia during peak tourism months, fueling the establishment of restaurants, nightclubs, and travel agencies up and down the continent.
In true cyberpunk fashion, the growing power of the yen also brought young women from Southeast Asia into Japan, each of them hoping to build a better future, whether as domestic help or sex workers. But these women typically didn’t have to leave home since the yakuza had taken to organizing sex tours in collaboration with local crime lords who would often buy poor women directly from their families.
Later on, the cyberpunk genre would adopt Japanese elements into their narratives. The yakuza, or some re-skinned version of it, would feature as a threatening “other” with a strict honor code and anachronistic love of curved swords. Cyberpunk 2077 is an example of this.
When Japanese men aren’t in cyberpunk media as yakuza, they’re often depicted as “street samurai” types who help the protagonist navigate a futuristic city’s criminal underbelly.
Meanwhile, Japanese women (and Asian women in general) are primarily portrayed as sexual objects or sex workers with little agency or screentime aside from when the protagonist uses or discards them.
In Love, Death, and Robots, we see this happen twice in its episodes “The Witness” and “Good Hunting.” In “The Witness”, the protagonist is desperately trying to escape from a murderer while the “camera,” as Andrew McGee puts it, “takes an extremely indulgent and violating view of her body, aligning us more with the male pursuer” and is “relentlessly aggressive in its voyeuristic camera angles.”
Along with a fascination with Japanese women, building on the existing sexualization of them following World War II, came the golden age of “Made in Japan.”
The 1980s saw the Land of the Rising Sun outpace the U.S in terms of technological advancement. The Japanese were increasing memory capacities, producing the then top-performing microprocessors, introducing kids around the world to console gaming.
Not only was Japan making a name for itself as the country that made tech, but it was also exoticized for its meticulous traditional practices and strict corporate culture. Together, these elements cast a large cultural shadow that, even for years after the Japanese “economic miracle” popped, cemented Japan as the creator of advanced, durable tech. Remember the robot dogs? Sci-fi.
But Japan’s influence on cyberpunk isn’t just out of admiration. The U.S. has always been paranoid about not being the great superpower of the world and, at the time, it looked like Japan was going to buy out America.
The Anxieties of the Cyberpunk Genre
1980s Japan was the definition of an economic powerhouse. At its peak in the 1970s and 1980s, the Japanese economy was growing at a rate of 5% a year. Numbers like that don’t quite hit home the way illustrations do so imagine this: the economy of Japan was so strong that, at one point, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo was more valuable than the entire state of California, and every square foot of land in the Japanese capital worth almost 350 times more than its Manhattan counterpart.
With that in mind, it’s a bit easier to see how cyberpunk, both back then and today, became a reflection of the largely American anxiety of a Japanese takeover. During the age of Aqua Net hairspray, Japanese automakers began to buy out American parts makers in Detroit.
After that, they purchased a Ford steel company. Soon enough, the Japanese yen made itself known outside the realms of industry to the average American. People began seeing real estate get snapped up by Japanese investors and museums, even ones outside major urban hubs, began to feature Japanese exhibits.
In a deliciously punny article titled “Japan buys US with our money” published in 1988, Paul Harvey sounds the alarm bell for a Japanese invasion by declaring, “The Japanese are buying our country with our money!”
Harvey goes on to tell readers about how Japan has been making more money selling finished goods to American consumers than she’s spent on buying raw materials from the U.S. He then warns that Japan could “create an economic Pear Harbor” by turning all their dollars into yen.
In what would later be known as the U.S.-Japan Trade War, the U.S. reacted by imposing tariffs of as much as 100% on Japanese tech products — the lifeblood of the Japanese economy in the 1980s. The zaibatsus, massive Japanese conglomerates, had scared America into attempting to stamp out the Japanese economy.
Then, the Reagan administration began to accuse Japan of stealing American intellectual property and imposed penalties that ultimately forced Japan into “sharing agreements” that involved telling the U.S. how they were making their tech and importing American-made semiconductor products.
So when you see a neon sign in hiragana, katakana, or kanji in a piece of cyberpunk media, consider that you’re looking at a future initially conceived in the 80s.
But similar to how the cyberpunk genre reflects the post-Cold War anxieties of America, Japanese cyberpunk is shaken by traumatic flashbacks of its nuclear past.
If you’ve played Cyberpunk 2077, you’re no stranger to references to nuclear weapons in a cyberpunk work. The game’s lore includes a nuclear explosion dubbed as the Night City Holocaust that kills thousands of Night City citizens, Arasaka employees, and leaves much of Night City awash in radiation. The event is framed as one of the historic turning points of Night City and it leads to the nationalization of Militech and the banishment of the Arasaka from the U.S.
Akira, an animated cyberpunk action film released in 1988, is a little subtler. Where U.S. cyberpunk concerns itself with nightmarish, hyper-capitalist futures, Japanese cyberpunk is fixated on the dangers of a relentless march towards an advanced future. “Echoes on Celluloid: The Historical Memory of WWII as seen through Japanese Anime” muses on the obvious references that Akira makes to Japan’s atomic bomb-marred history.
The opening scene of Akira shows an aerial shot of Tokyo on July 16, 1988, the same date as the Trinity Test explosion of 1945. Incidentally, the shots are strikingly similar to photos of Hiroshima after an American B-29 bomber dropped a payload that wiped out roughly 80,000 people.
As if it couldn’t make its point clearer, the film and the bomb share a name: akira, meaning bright. “Akira” swallows Tokyo in blazing white light, reminding us, as cyberpunk often does, that a “bright” future isn’t always a good thing. Further, the “big bad” of Akira isn’t an organized crime group or a company, it’s a government with a ton of secrets.
Searching for the Next Influence on Cyberpunk
As Japan’s neighbors become as culturally impactful and technologically advanced as it was in their heyday, they become inspirations for a new wave of cyberpunk. Street photographers in South Korea have been popularizing cyberpunk photos of cities like Seoul, capitalizing on the Asian-ness of previous Hollywood cyberpunk films.
But while South Korea might lend its hangul neon signs to the next wave of cyberpunk, it’s likely that China will be the next threatening other in cyberpunk media. Chinese investors are already buying up California and it looks like the Chinese government is wary of meeting the same fate as their next-door neighbors with many state news sites describing the trade war between the U.S. and China as an attempt to blame Beijing for America’s problems.