the Little Red Reviewer

The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories, edited by Apostolou and Greenberg

Posted on: May 6, 2014

the best Japanese science fictionThe Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories, edited by John L. Apostolou and Martin H. Greenberg

published in 1989

where I got it: purchased used












Although this anthology was published in 1989, translation of included works began in the 70s when anthologists Judith Merrill, Grania Davis and Martin Greenburg, and editor and fan of Japanese literature John L Apostolou spent what would end up being nearly a decade of intense work with Japanese authors and translators of science fiction.


The planet is much smaller now, but try to put yourself into the mindset of an American in the 1980s.  What came to their mind when they thought “Japanese Science Fiction”? Godzilla? Astroboy? Remember, manga and anime were barely available if at all, and very few Japanese speculative fiction novels had been translated at the time.   I count myself very lucky to be reading speculative fiction in a day and age when magazines and anthologies and e-zines are printing works from all over the world, where fans clamor for translated works, where I can walk into Barnes and Noble and buy Manga that was published last month in Japan.  E-mail and Skype and Twitter make communicating across the planet as easy as shouting across the room, but that interest had to come from somewhere. I like to believe that some of it came from this anthology.  If you can find a copy of this collection (there are plenty of used copies available on Amazon), I highly recommend it.


I don’t care if this sounds cliche, but I love that science fiction means different things to different people.  Everything is contextual and cultural, and what you grew up with is going to shape your SFnal dreams.  I grew up in a suburban land of plenty.  Many of the authors in this anthology lived through Hiroshima. Quite the difference in experience there.  For the most part, these are not stories of first contact with aliens, they are not stories or space exploration or adventure, there is no futuristic technobabble and little gadgetry to speak of. They are intimate and low stakes, often ominous, everything from laugh out loud funny to horrifically hard to read, more fantastical than SF. But still, all of them are worth the read. Check out Two Dudes in an Attic’s review as well.


Here are a few words on my favorites:


Cardboard Box by Ryo Hanmura (1974) – These self aware cardboard boxes are seeking to fulfill their destinies – to be completely filled up. Because of course, what else would be the purpose of a box? Filled with fruit, and enroute to a grocery store, the boxes on the truck discuss what might happen to them after their fruit is removed. Will they be reused? Will they be thrown into the incinerator? broken down and stomped on and put in the trash? Their yearning to be completely filled up is hilariously sexual, and one box does in fact, become completely filled by taking an unexpected and possibly deadly path. Good luck getting through this story without laughing your head off and not blushing next time you put stuff in a box.


The Road To The Sea, by Takashi Ishikawa (1981) – A little boy runs away from home, insistent on seeing the sea. He’s seen pictures of it in books, how far away could it possibly be?  People he meets on his way try to convince him to go back home, but the child is determined to see the sea. This story put me a bit in mind of Cecil Castellucci’s We Have Always Lived on Mars.


The Savage Mouth, by Sakyo Komatsu (1979) – At first, I thought the protagonist was planning to, or threatening to commit suicide. And then we get a look at the room in which he will undertake his procedure, which includes an automated operating table, a stack of prosthetics, and a restaurant quality kitchen, complete with seasonings and cast iron frying pans.  This is one helluva gag reflex triggering horror story, with extra pressure coming because you can’t believe anyone would actually *do* this to themselves.  First, he amputates his leg, and attaches a prosthetic.  Think about that fully equiped kitchen, and I’ll bet you can guess what happens next.  One of his many justifications is that he’s not using the planet’s diminishing resources, he not eating an animal, he’s not harming other animals to feed himself.  Like some people get addicted to piercings or getting tattoos, our protagonist gets addicted, in a way, to his slow self immolation.  But he is sustaining himself with calories, and planning the next steps in the most scientific way possible. So, is it suicide or science? No one has ever done what he’s doing, no one has ever survived it. he could be the first person to taste his own eyeball, his own lung tissue, his own brain tissue!  By the time the cops find the lab, there isn’t anything left of him to put to questioning, and the cops assume some kind of sick murderer tortured his victim.  Like I said, gag reflex triggering horror story.


Bokko-Chan, by Shinishi Hoshi (1963) –  The bartender’s hobby is building androids. He builds a life like female robot, and isn’t sure what to do with her, so he takes her to work with him. Programmed with very basic language skills, she’s a hit with the lonely men who frequent his bar. She mostly just repeats what people say to her, and the bartender has to rescue her when conversations get more complicated than her programming. There’s no concern at all for the uncanny valley, all the bar patrons think she is a real girl, even though she doesn’t seem smart enough to carry on a conversation. But it’s dark, and they are drunk, so there’s that.  The story starts out very innocent and humorous, but  takes a turn for the dark when she continually refuses the advances of one particular young man and he decides if he can’t have her, no one can.


Standing Woman, by Yasutaka Tsutsui (1974) – A tragic horror story.  In this dystopian future (but don’t call it that outloud, you might get punished), all punishments are public. No need for prisons, or walls, or razor wire.  Those found guilty of crimes are turned into trees. Quite literally planted in the ground, and pumped full of chemicals that will petrify them, the transformation takes a few months. And the person is alive the entire time. The chemicals take away their emotions, slowly turning them into a piece of public greenery.  The protagonist of the story is coming to terms with his wife having been turned into a tree. Should he visit her? Should he hold an umbrella over her while it rains? Should he tell her he loves her? Should he avoid the street on which she’s planted, and try to forget about her?  Sometimes on his way, he pets the local cattree, says hello to the mantree who guards the mailbox. And yes, cats and dogs are turned into cattrees and dogtrees as well. What was their crime? barking too loudly? being feral? peeing on the carpeting?  A painfully emotional story. Read this, and then read Cardboard boxes, because you are going to need a unicorn chaser after this one.


Triceratops by Tensei Kono (1982) – This one will also work as a unicorn chaser. A little boy and his father live in the suburbs, and keep seeing triceratops walking through their neighborhood. No one else can see what they are seeing. There is some discussion of dimensional faults, and overlapping parallel universes, but in the end, the boy and his dad decide to just enjoy the show and keep it their little secret.  And what better secret for a little boy to have? A few triceratops turns into a herd, which attracts predators. Soon their neighborhood is the front lines of mass dinosaur slaughter. The end sounds a little sad, but this is actually a lighthearted and fun tale.



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17 Responses to "The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories, edited by Apostolou and Greenberg"

Sounds interesting, though I admit I would be even more interested to see a collection like this of contemporary authors.


I just tweeted out to some bloggers who read a lot of Japanese SF, hopefully they will come back with some great recommendations.


Right, so, Haikasoru does good work getting a lot of J-SF into translation, though i’d be the first to admit that a lot of it thus far has been towards the more ‘traditional’ end of the spectrum (i.e. robots and spaceships rendered in frankly awful prose). Things seem to be getting a bit better in this regard though.

You might want to try All You Need is Kill (short, violent, and fun time-travel military SF, read it now before the inevitably awful Tom Cruise movie adaptation comes out) or Harmony (near future musings on the nature of self and the collective. Very, much as I hate to say it, Japanese). I think both Two Dudes and myself have put up posts about both these books.

And of course there’s always Haruki Murakami who often blurs the line between magical realism and SF. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is probably his most SFnal book (and for my money probably his best to boot).


I am a big fan of Harmony. Yukikaze might also be a good place to start.


This is a good anthology, I agree, I bought it new and reread it once before passing it along to a friend. By the way, John Apostolou is a really, really nice guy, one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.


Wow! When did you get to meet him? I’m familiar with Greenberg’s anthology work, but this was my first John Apostolou.


He’s also a mystery fiction fan; I met him at a mystery convention in Los Angeles and got to know him some over four days, including a couple of meals together.


I’m going to have to buy this for my nephew for his birthday (I just hope he lets me read it!).


He’d never know if you read it before gifting, you know.


Reblogged this on manbehindthecurtain.


I wonder if Cardboard box is available online somewhere. I must read this one.

Savage mouth scares me just from your description though, i have read enough.


Savage Mouth is part of a different collection as well, the name of which escapes me. It’s hard to read. I don’t know that Cardboard Box is available anywhere else, though maaaaaybe there is an English blog for/by the author somewhere. I’m guessing that the book is in the library system in your parts. There’s enough Japanese there to justify that sort of thing. (Or so I would assume.)


Well crap. There is a copy. Request in. Damn you people, I don’t want to read more short stories but I feel I must now.


These sound really grim. Intriguing but grim. I was going to mention All You Need is Kill which is good but Kamo beat me there.


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