Steampanku – Steampunk with a Japanese Setting

Steampunk, in its most general definition, is a genre of speculative fiction that takes place within a heavily industrialized society, involving the usage of retrofuturistic steam technology.  First penned by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, the historical period in which such stories takes place have been mostly associated with alternate Victorian or Edwardian eras, where steam technology was first invented and turned widespread.

As a result of Wells and Verne, the aesthetic and social climate of steampunk settings have been popularly that of Victoran England, potentially to the point of being the primary visual cue of the genre.  Even in fantasy settings that do not necessarily take place in an actual historical setting, there is a good chance that the society will be modeled off of nineteenth century England.

Even with Japanese contributions to the genre, anime’s most prominent stories that feature steampunk settings are not done in a Japanese style.  Steamboy takes place in England, and its setting has very little Japanese aesthetic, which is a shame.  Last Exile takes place in its own setting, but the nomenclature of characters, factions, and places sound more Western than Eastern.  Miyazaki’s movies, whose steampunk elements do not take any visual cue from European settings, take place in its own unique settings, and don’t feature visuals from an alternate historical Japan.  Even Nadia is a direct homage to Verne’s 20,000 Leagues, and is initially set in France.

It’s a bit of a shame, because my two favourite things to read and watch are steampunk fiction and anime, respectively.  Outside of Sakura Wars, Steam Detectives, and Clockwork Fighters, Steampunk that actually takes place in a alternate historical Japan is few and far in between.

I’ve even gone so far as to make it my goal to publish a novel that takes place in such a setting.  Already in the editing stages, my fictionalized serial side-project takes place in a universe that I dub as Steampanku.  In a few posts from that blog, I outlined a few features of my vision of a steampunked Edo Japan:

What is Steampanku? Part I

“It is particularly interesting that the arrival of Perry during the late Takugawa Shogunate (1853-1867) and the resulting Meiji Restoration that resulted from it (1868-1912) intersected nicely with the Victorian era (1837-1901).  This parallel between two contrasted histories that both experienced industrial revolutions during a reasonably overlapped period allows room for great discussion in the field of speculative fiction, namely Steampunk.

But what if we reversed the roles?  What if we set the industrial revolution as originating in Japan, or more logically, reaching and taking off in Japan long before the Black Ships?  Realistically, this is a plausible train of thought, considering that the Japanese were not isolated in the most literal sense of the word.  Rangaku, or literally Western Learning, had its roots in Dejima, the sole foreign outpost in Japan during the isolated years of the Edo Period.”

What is Steampanku? Part II

“The earliest works in [steampunk] sought to send a message about sociopolitical issues.  Verne and Wells brought up topics of imperialism and technology, and their effects on both society and the environment.  Joshua Pfeiffer suggests that this aspect of the steampunk story, while much stronger at its roots, are starting to become lost with time, and perhaps with the growth of its popularity.

…If I wanted to write for this genre, I wanted write for the entirety of it, fitting both aspects of steam and panku.  If anything, the state of Japanese culture throughout history is unique in itself; throwing a literal monkey wrench into the equation can open people’s eyes regarding exactly how different Japan was from the rest of the world.”

Japanese steampunk could tackle issues relating to its own social issues, such as isolationism, individualism, sexism, and classism.

What is Steampanku? Part III

“In Part 3, I put all my ideas together, and form the universe that is Steampanku, a manifesto of the alternate history of Japan, leading to the proliferation of an industrially revolutionized Edo, and the world in which my fiction is set.

…From 1640 onwards, the Edo period experienced the full effect of the industrial revolution.  Due to the fascination of steam technology by the Tokugawa household, the nation’s chief engineers invented the steam engine.

The rapid pace of industrialization in Japan changed society as well.  Samurai, who no longer had control over their own lands, were forced to give up their swords and remain as peasants, or move to the cities and become retainers of the daimyo.  The majority of Samurai were left without their duties, and many found work with the up and coming japanese mafia, the Yakuza.

The Yakuza quickly took advantage of the growing capitalism in Japan, often grabbing power and money for their own personal gain.  With the help of corrupted daimyo, the different clans proliferated across Japan with their own corruptive use of steam technology.  Difference engines were used for gambling.  Automata were developed for the purposes of prostitution, and most important of all, the guardian was invented.
The guardian was the first tool of land-based warfare constructed for the Japanese army.  These proto-mecha ran on steam, and stood multiple times as high as the pilots that would control them.  Under the guise of military development, the Yakuza secretly funded its development for their own agenda, for use of sport and recreation.  Thus, the guardian games were born.  Bright minds from across the country competed regionally in guardian sumo, where civilian-class machines were piloted to engage in sumo.

Guardian Sumo proliferated as the spectator sport of choice for Japanese citizens, replacing regular sumo.  And with that proliferation, illegal gambling circles organized by the now rivalling Yakuza clans were organized to maximize profit from the vice of its citizens.”

Part III was essentially a manifesto for the creation of an original fictional world that greatly resembles that of Samurai Seven, but without the supersized, superpowered mecha; I’d even argue that the advanced technology of the mecha in Samura Seven disqualifies it from being a steampunk work at all.

Steaming up the Blog

Steampunk is still a very young and undeveloped genre, especially in relation to its cyberpunk brother.  I would certainly love to see more contributions from anime and manga in the genre, but not in a way that reinforces that Victorian image that steampunk is associated with.

Expect to see a series of posts on the various steampunk works in anime, and how it relates to my view on the genre, particularly from the perspective of one who wishes to be published in it.

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8 thoughts on “Steampanku – Steampunk with a Japanese Setting”

    1. I look forward to writing more posts about the topic. I see that you’re visiting from outside the anime circle. There is great opportunity for overlap between the two (I even like to lurk in steampunk forums a lot, brass goggles especially). I have an alternate twitter account, Steampanku, that’s mostly inactive and lurky, but I do use it to tweet post updates should the topic in question involves steampunk.

  1. Steampunk, as you mentioned, always seems to be a Victorian England thing – it’s only when you see steampunk in a “non-traditional” setting that you realize how many possibilities there really are for the genre, and that’s when it takes your breath away. I’m a huge fan of the genre, but even for me it’s often very mediocre and overdone. It needs a step away from the normal interpretation to really grab my attention and take my imagination away.

    1. One of my favourite examples of steampunk in non-traditional settings is with Cherie Priest’s stuff. Boneshaker was a fantastic read, and just pure fun. Her Clockwork Century universe is very immersive and I can’t wait to read more from it.

  2. I adore steampunk, and have seen most of the titles you named, though not the ones you connected to Japan. Are “Sakura Wars, Steam Detectives, and Clockwork Fighters” any good, or do you enjoy them mainly for their Japanese-steampunk theme?
    I also applaud your self-work in the genre, and look forward to reading more steampunk-anime related posts.

    1. I’ve been on and off with Sakura Wars, and I’ll eventually blog about it as I said. It’s pretty old, but it has its narmy charm. The setting feels steampunky, but it’s hard to make an absolute categorization of the show, because there’s a lot of post-industrial technology such as automobiles and electricity. The mech units themselves seem to be the only steam-powered technology shown, and the only justification for using them over advanced technology is that of the spirit power that these units happen to have.

      I watched the first few episodeds of Clockwork Fighters, and the show is definitely aimed at kids. I can’t peg for sure if it’s a kids-only show, or has adult appeal as well. If only I could find the rest of the episodes!

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