Japan has been an integral setting within the cyberpunk aesthetic since the rise of the genre in the early 1980s. The country is the setting of a number of famous stories – like Akira, or the more recent Alita: Battle Angel; even American-Canadian author William Gibson’s Neuromancer was set in Chiba, Tokyo, and featured a pair of expatriates tired of everything being so very Japanese. Consider another western example in Shadowrun, in which Neuromancer’s “new yen” was upgraded from a local to a global currency in the expectation that while Imperial Japan may have failed, technological and economic Japan would nevertheless metaphorically conquer the world in its place.
Ubiquitous Japanese influence in semi-dystopian future literature has largely been fueled by real world American fears of the “unstoppable” Japanese behemoth of industry, and has manifested itself in many ways even outside of the cyberpunk genre. Consider the 1986 Michael Keaton film, Gung Ho, about a Japanese car manufacturer taking over a Pennsylvania town. The film is largely about the clash between incompatible worldviews, and ends with the message that maybe American and Japanese culture can merge together in mutual compromise. Despite not being a cyberpunk film at all, its premise is nevertheless rooted in the same western fear of being culturally and economically overwhelmed by a rising Japan.
However, apart from an ever-steady stream of dependable but boring cars, Japan’s greatest cultural contributions over the past few decades seem to be anime waifu and a growing trend of indifference to romance with real-life humans, leading to declining birth rates.
So, what exactly happened to Japan?
Tempting as it may be to blame the current state of affairs on the increased availability of quality dakimakura, the more likely answer is disappointingly simple:
From 1995 to 2007, Japan endured Ushinawareta Jūnen, or The Lost Decade, a recession that resulted in the loss of roughly 20% of their GDP. The Japanese industrial miracle, it seemed, had stalled. In comparison, despite enduring the infamous Dot Com Bubble, US GDP nearly doubled over those same twelve years.
Meanwhile, disappointed by the general failure of Maoist economy policy and hoping to replicate the success of Hong Kong, communist China decided in the 1980s to experiment with a free market economy in designated Special Economic Zones. The first of these being the now world-renowned Shenzhen, China. Known as the “Silicon Valley of Hardware,” Shenzhen has roughly the population of Los Angeles and New York combined, of whom nearly half are employed in manufacturing, working for multi-billion dollar international software and electronics companies like Huawei and Tencent.
And while it might be a bit premature to start learning Chinese, it’s certainly worth noting that some of Shenzhen’s residents have fully embraced the cyberpunk potential of their growing technological megacity.
Add a little mist on the ground and that scene would be completely suitable spliced into Blade Runner. But will its growing combination of technology and culture cause China rather than Japan be the country that leads us to our inevitable cyberpunk future? It’s hard to say. True, China’s burgeoning social credit system with its mass surveillance and punitive denial of public services for those who fail to live up to the state’s standards for “good citizens” does certainly give off a credible air of mild tech dystopia. Naomi Wu (pictured above) was infamously reluctant to have her personal details shared by western media for fear of being arrested by Chinese authorities, and there have been various reports of low Chinese social credit scores resulting in people being denied access to public transportation and schooling. But this isn’t the sort of “high tech, low life” future that anybody’s really looking for, and seems to tread closer to 1984 territory. It also seems like the sort of unwanted interference that an increasingly tech-savvy population will find ways to overcome. For now, China can’t even keep its people off of twitter.
With Japan out, and China an uncertain maybe, that would seem to leave our future largely in the hands of Americans and American companies. No surprise; when looking around today it seems that all of the “megacorp” candidate tech companies, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, etc. are almost exclusively American.
The first true “cyberpunk city” will probably speak mostly English.