When Did Japan Stop Being The Future?

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

U.S. science fiction used to be fascinated with Japan, from Blade Runner to Neuromancer. Everything Japanese was cooler, sleeker and shinier than our grubby American aesthetic, and Japan was destined to dominate. And then, Japan's futuristic status waned. What happened?

There's a pervasive urban legend online that William Gibson went to see Blade Runner when he was working on his seminal Japanophile cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. And Gibson ran out of the theater a few minutes into the movie (or in some versions, just walked out) because he was so shocked by the similarites between that movie's vision of the future and the one depicted in his novel. (In some versions, Gibson is scared that Ridley Scott and co. are actually in his head.)

Gibson is quoted as saying:

Modern Japan simply was cyberpunk. The Japanese themselves knew it and delighted in it. I remember my first glimpse of Shibuya, when one of the young Tokyo journalists who had taken me there, his face drenched with the light of a thousand media-suns - all that towering, animated crawl of commercial information - said, ‘You see? You see? It is Blade Runner town.' And it was. It so evidently was.


Back in the early 1980s, Japan's ascendance seemed assured — there were a host of business books claiming that Japan had lost World War II, but won the peace through superior economic policies. Books like The Enigma Of Japanese Power by Karel Van Wolferen became unlikely bestsellers. Meanwhile, Japanese politicians like Ishihara Shintaro started flexing their muscles — Ishihara made waves with a book called No To Ieru Nihon, or The Japan That Can Say No (to the United States.)


But also, Japanese technology was clearly better, and Japanese pop culture looked cool. In the early 1980s, U.S. television started being flooded with anime programs like Robotech and Star Blazers0, and U.S. comics fans started discovering Manga. But the one-two punch of Blade Runner and Neuromancer was what settled it: for the next decade or so, Japan was how we viewed the future.

And given that the 1980s was a very neon-happy time in general, and the U.S. viewed Japanese cities as being splashy and full of neon lights, it made sense that Japanese influences crept into everything. Total Recall, for example, features Arnold Schwarzenegger running around a neon-drenched future cityscape, especially once he goes to Mars. It's not specifically Japanese, but it feels Japan-influenced.


In Back To The Future 2, Future Biff works for a mysterious Japanese businessman known as Mr. Fujitsu, and it's hinted that by 2015, Japan dominates the world's economy. (The film-makers pretty much come out and say this on the DVD commentary.)

In the Max Headroom TV series, the world is dominated by the ZikZak Corporation, which despite its non-Japanese-sounding name, is actually a Japanese company. And the dystopian cityscape (around a minute in) looks very Blade Runner inspired:

In the early 1990s, Marvel launched its futuristic "2099" titles, with Rampage 2099 and Spider-Man 2099 among others. And one of the things that was futuristic and different about the world of 2099 was the fact that Tony Stark's company, Stark Industries, had turned Japanese, and was now known as Stark-Fujikawa.


And the U.S. got its own home-grown anime program with 1991's Aeon Flux, airing on MTV:

Around that same time, we started to see a lot more Asian influences in animation, including shows like Batman: The Animated Series.


To some extent, any movie with "virtual reality" or "cyberpunk" influences kept bringing back a Japanophile vibe, like 1995's Virtuosity, which had one of its crucial scenes between Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe's virtual killer take place in a sushi bar:

And the politically correct, scrubbed San Angeles of 1995's Demolition Man was a blend of L.A. and Tokyo, in both its buildings and its fashions:

Famously, the cyberpunk trainwreck Johnny Mnemonic featured a whole slew of scenes and subplots that took place in Japan, revolving around the character of Mr. Takahashi, played by popular actor Takeshi Kitano. These scenes are still only available on the Japanese DVD:

Sadly, Japan's economic hegemony ran out of juice in the early 1990s, when their real-estate bubble burst (sound familiar?) and the country spent an entire "lost decade" mired in stagnation. The vision of Japan as future economic uberpower was replaced by a creeping irrelevance — but Japanese pop culture remained as influential as ever, maybe even more than during the powerhouse days.


And because nothing in science fiction ever really goes away, there are still plenty of examples of Japanophile influences in recent SF. Take Steven Spielberg's A.I., whose future city looks a lot like Tokyo. (Skip to 4:45 in this video):

The shiny metropolis of Coruscant has a very Neo Tokyo vibe, in Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones (go to around 2:40 in this video):

When we visit a future Batman, who's trained by an aging Bruce Wayne to wear a Bat-exoskeleton, in Batman Beyond, the future Gotham is covered with Japanese kanji:

Joss Whedon made waves with his show Firefly and the sequel movie Serenity, which take place in a sort of vaguely pan-Asian future where everybody peppers his/her speech with a kind of pidgin Chinese. (Although there are no actual Asian people around.) And this Fruity Oaty Bars commercial has a pronounced anime vibe:

And of course, Aeon Flux got its own live-action movie a few years ago:

Top image: Amazing Neon vista from Osaka, by PFC on Flickr.

Additional reporting by Alexis Brown.