Chinese Science Fiction Studies in Japan

Chinese Science Fiction Studies in Japan

Noriko Yamamoto
Translated by Jin Zhao


In Japan, the study of Chinese science fiction started quite late, and only one outstanding academic book, Chinese Science and Fantasy Literature Museum (2001), written by Takeda Masaya and Hayashi Hisayuki, has previously been published. Since then, no book has been published, including translations, that surpasses this masterpiece. This means that if a Japanese person wants to learn about Chinese science fiction, they would have no other options but to read this book. It is fair to say that for a long time, Japan’s understanding of Chinese science fiction has been extremely limited and outdated. Admittedly, the Chinese Science Fiction Research Association, with Hayashi Hisayuki as its president, has persistently introduced and translated Chinese science fiction works into Japanese over the years, but the fact is that as it is only a doujinshi [1] (同人誌), its influence is inevitably modest. Its activities are well known to a small group of fans and enthusiasts, yet remain completely unknown to most.


In 2007, the situation began to change. At the World Science Fiction Convention in Yokohama, a number of guests from the Chinese science fiction community came to Japan and had a series of discussions with Japanese science fiction writers and editors. It was this meeting that prompted Hayakawa Publishing’s S-F Magazine to publish a special issue of Chinese science fiction the year following (S-F Magazine September 2008 Issue), in which works by major writers such as Liu Cixin, Han Song, and Jiang Bo were published, along with a column by Yao Haijun. This was the first time that an entire issue was exclusively dedicated to Chinese science fiction, which was a huge step forward. However, although this special issue successfully introduced Chinese science fiction to the Japanese science fiction community, the reality is that to most Japanese people, Chinese science fiction is still little known and inaccessible, and as a result, hardly attractive.

The situation suddenly changed with the appearance of Chinese-American science fiction writer and translator, Ken Liu, whose The Paper Menagerie (2015) became a huge success as soon as it was released in April 2015. This book was so well-received in Japan that even people who don’t normally read science fiction started to read it. As a result, Chinese science fiction came under the spotlight for the first time since its brief popularity in 2007. Readers eagerly looked forward to reading Ken Liu’s translations, firmly believing that as long as they were translated by Ken Liu, they would be interesting. Since then, a series of works such as Chen Qiufan’s The Year of The Rat and Han Song’s Security Check have been translated into Japanese through Ken Liu’s initial English translations and subsequently introduced in S-F Magazine. The point, however, is that these works were not translated from Chinese into Japanese, but from their English versions into Japanese. Admittedly, Ken Liu’s English translations are excellent, but the question that inevitably sprang up in the reader’s mind was, “Why not just translate these works directly from Chinese into Japanese?” However, the sad fact is that at the time Chinese science fiction was not yet acknowledged by the Japanese market, and it was still a product that had to be tagged with Ken Liu’s name before it could be approved.

It was not until 2019, when Hayakawa Publishing published Liu Cixin’sThe Three-Body Problem, that we could be rescued from this embarrassing situation in any real sense. Upon its release, the book immediately became a bestseller, with sales of over 100,000 copies, an unprecedented figure for foreign science fiction publications in Japan. The book has a huge readership, and many businessmen in particular are keen to read The Three-Body Problem. It is safe to say that The Three-Body Problem fever has already evolved into a social phenomenon in Japan.

It was also thanks to The Three-Body Problem that Chinese science fiction began to be translated directly from Chinese into Japanese, changing the old tradition wherein Chinese science fiction had to be translated into Japanese via English. A new model of translation has gradually taken shape. With this model, editors will read the English translations to get a good understanding of the stories, but in the meantime people who are proficient in Chinese will preview the relevant works. They will then recommend those works that are suitable for translation, offering suggestions and consulting with editors over details. In the subsequent years, a series of Chinese science fiction works have been translated and published, including The Ladder of Time: Selected Works of Modern Chinese Science Fiction (2020 ); the second book in Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem trilogy, The Dark Forest (2020); Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide (2020) (translated from its English version into Japanese); and Hao Jinfang’s The Other Shore of Man (2021). In May 2021, the third book in The Three-Body Problem trilogy, Death’s End, will be released as well. With many more works scheduled to be published in the coming years, it is expected that there will be many more opportunities for Japanese readers to read Chinese science fiction in Japanese.


Thus, under such a situation, how should we study Chinese science fiction in Japan? First, there are virtually no universities or institutions in Japan that specialize in the study of science fiction in general, let alone Chinese science fiction. Certainly, we do have distinguished scholars such as Professor Tatsumi Takayuki at Keio University, who enjoys a high reputation not only in science fiction, but also in American literature. Arguably, his accomplishment in science fiction studies is entirely outside of his high professional competence. However, when we look at the current situation of science fiction studies in Japanese universities as a whole, we find that science fiction studies are not yet well-organized, and there is not even a professional academic group devoted to their study. The truth is that, in Japan, science fiction studies can only be done through the efforts of some individual professors. As a result, the first thing to do when you try to study science fiction is to look for a competent teacher. Moreover, since American and English science fiction is the predominant genre of science fiction nowadays, we are thus faced with the dilemma that we find neither teachers nor majors when we try to study Chinese science fiction in a symposium or a university graduate school. Actually, until very recently, it was practically impossible to study science fiction on a professional level other than to study under the tutelage of Professor Takeda Masaya at Hokkaido University. Fortunately, thanks to the translation boom of Chinese science fiction, many Japanese scholars of Chinese literature have finally begun to draw attention to Chinese science fiction, among whom are professors specializing in pure literature [2] (純文学). Some of them have begun to read science fiction, and many others project to write theses on science fiction as their subject. Hence, it is our expectation that in the forthcoming years, we will see a field dedicated to the study of Chinese science fiction taking shape and taking root in Japan.


[1] Doujinshi (同人誌) is a Japanese term for self-published print works, such as magazines, manga, and novels. Being part of a wider category of doujin (self-published) works, doujinshi are usually derivative of existing works, and are often created by amateurs, although some professional artists are also involved in order to publish material outside the regular industry.

[2] Pure literature (純文学) is a term in Japanese literature that refers to novels that place more emphasis on artistry than entertainment, as opposed to popular novels.

Noriko Yamamoto, known by her pen name Tōya Tachihara, is a Japanese scholar, translator, novelist, and associate professor of literature at Hokusei Gakuen University. She is the translator and editor of the Japanese edition of The Three-Body Problem series. In 2020, she was awarded the Nihon SF Taisho Award for her contribution to translation and introduction of Chinese science fiction works.

Jin Zhao is a science fiction enthusiast, science fiction scholar, science fiction translator, and science fiction writer. For many years, she has devoted herself to the comparative study of Chinese and Japanese literature and culture and the study of science fiction literature. Currently, she is working on a dissertation devoted to the study of Japanese science fiction culture.

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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