The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Warship at the Bottom of the Sea (1903)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Warship at the Bottom of the Sea (original: Kaitei Gunkan) was written by “Oshikawa Shunrō” and appeared in Kaitei Gunkan (Warship at the Bottom of the Sea, 1903) and five sequels (1902, 1904, 1904, 1906, 1907). “Oshikawa Shunrō” was the pseudonym of Masa’ari Oshikawa (1876-1914), who has been called “the father of Japanese science fiction,” although what he wrote was intended for children rather than adults.
Captain Sakuragi is a naval officer who grows disgusted with the Japanese government's inability to do anything to resist the imperialism of Western governments in Asia and Japan. Whites are carrying out various unnamed incivilities in Japan itself and are bullying other Asian countries. Worse, from Sakuragi’s perspective, is that the Western countries are preventing Japan from expanding in Asia in the way that the Western countries did in China. Sakuragi also sees that the Japanese government is not willing or able to do anything about the coming, inevitable war with the Western powers. So Sakuragi quits the Navy and goes to an isolated island off the coast of Shikoku. There he builds himself the Denkōtei, an “undersea battleship” armed with futuristic weapons, including torpedoes and high explosive shells, and capable of operating beneath the ocean’s waves, on the surface of the ocean, and even in flight. Sakuragi staffs the Denkōtei with a small crew of faithful and patriotic sailors and begins fighting for Japan on the high seas. In Warship at the Bottom of the Sea the Denkōtei demolishes a group of white pirates who have been harrying Japanese shipping. In later novels the Denkōtei takes on the Russian, British, and French fleets and destroys them.
As with China, Japan has a tradition of novels with fantastic elements which goes back centuries. Tales of Chinese wüxia, such as Shi Nai’an’s Outlaws of the Water Margin (original: Shuihu Zhuàn, late fourteenth century C.E.), were popular in Japan in the latter half of the Edo Period (1600-1868). Wasobei Ikoku Monogatari, a Gulliver’s Travels-like novel, was published in Japan in 1774. Following the First Opium War (1839-1842), the Japanese scholar Mineta Fūkū published New Stories From Overseas (original: Kaigai Shinwa, 1849), a recounting of the Opium War which stressed the evil intentions of the British toward China. New Stories From Overseas inspired a genre of fictionalized and semi-fictionalized retellings of the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion, one of which, Iwagaki Kesshū’s Saisei Kaishin Hen (c. 1855), features a Future War in which the daimyo Tokugawa Nariaki leads a Japanese army to China to defeat British imperial schemes in China.
But modern science fiction began in Japan with the 1878 translation of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. Verne’s work influenced Japanese writers, and imitations of Verne and Twenty Thousand Leagues began appearing within a few years. In 1890 Yano Ryūkei published Tale of the Floating Fortress (original: Ukishiro Monogatari), which took the basics of Twenty Thousand Leagues and replaced the misanthropic, Romantic Captain Nemo with a stalwart Japanese patriot who, aided by a crew of Japanese naval ensigns, fought against and destroyed Caucasian pirates of no specific nationality.
Oshikawa went far beyond Yano. Oshikawa not only included flying machines and other Verne-style science fiction vehicles and devices, but injected a political subtext. Oshikawa’s novels describe the evil designs of the Western powers and of Russia toward Asia and Japan and urge the Japanese to join the empire-building games of the Western powers. Oshikawa’s work, with its Vernean techno-fetishism, strident patriotism, and racist portrayals of the Western nations, became popular, especially when the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 confirmed Oshikawa’s years-earlier prediction of that conflict. Oshikawa became influential on his contemporaries, and it was not until the 1930s that Japanese writers of science fiction emerged from Oshikawa’s influence.
The myth of the Japanese secret weapon dealt with here is one attempt to surmount the contradiction between the Eastern and the modern, by speculating about a technology that is a uniquely Japanese invention and hence embodies an Oriental counter-modernity.1
Oshikawa was also translated in China, with the A Mysterious Electronic Submarine (original: Mimi Dianguangting), based on The Warship at the Bottom of the Sea, appearing in 1906.
It is interesting to note that Oshikawa Shunrō’s works were introduced into China at the same time as battles in the Russo-Japanese War were being fought on Chinese territory. Chinese translators appear to have focused their interest on the author’s scientific observations and his descriptions of superior technology, while neglecting the militarist ambitions for overseas expansion that are also clearly manifest in the novels. This clearly reveals the mixed feelings of Chinese intellectuals for Japan during this period: they were infuriated by Japan’s expansion into Chinese territory at the same time as they appreciated Meiji Japan’s military and technological accomplishments, seeing in Japan a model for social and political reform.2
Too, Japanese literature, from the Heian period (794-1185), had a form of science fiction called the “mirai-ki” (“records of the future”), or fiction “dealing with the directly with the coordination of the past, the present, and (at least nominally) the future.”3
Print: Oshikawa Shunrō, Meiji Tantei Bōken Shōsetsu Shū 3: Oshikawa Shunrō Shū. Tokyo: Tsukuma Shobō, 2005.
1 Thomas Schnellbacher, “Globalization in Japanese Science Fiction, 1900 and 1963: The Seabed Warship and Its Re-Interpretation,” in Wong Kin Yuen, Gary Westfahl, and Amy Kit-sze Chan, eds., World Weavers: Globalization, Science Fiction, and the Cybernetic Revolution (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005), 136.
2 Qian Jiang, “Translation and the Development of Science Fiction in Twentieth-Century China,” Science Fiction Studies 40, no. 1 (Mar. 2013): 128n7.
3 Kyoko Kurita, “Meiji Japan's Y23 Crisis and the Discovery of the Future: Suehiro Tetchō's Nijūsan-nen mirai-ki,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 60, no. 1 (June 2000): 6.