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Reviewed by:
  • Apocalypse in Contemporary Japanese Science Fiction by Motoko Tanaka
  • Michael McCaskey (bio)
Apocalypse in Contemporary Japanese Science Fiction. By Motoko Tanaka. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2014. xvi, 189 pages. $90.00, cloth.

Though the focus of this study, true to its title, is on contemporary Japanese science fiction, Motoko Tanaka begins the book with a valuable diachronic analysis of apocalyptic interpretations of historical events and natural disasters in art and literature in Japan. She considers the influence of the Buddhist concept of mappō, the Last or Latter Dharma Age, which in turn led to the development of the millenarianist view of life prevalent in much of the literature and art of the Heian period. Tanaka traces the origins of this attitude back as far as the Mappō tōmyōki (Candle of the Latter Dharma), a work written by Saichō (767–822), the founder of Japanese Tendai Buddhism, which predicted that the mappō era would begin in 1052. Although this treatise was not widely read by the commoners of the time, it became a foundational work for broader-based doctrines of eschatology in Kamakura Buddhism (ca. 1183–1333). On the other hand, Heian court poetry and works of secular aristocratic fiction, such as Genji monogatari, were strongly influenced by Buddhist concepts of mujō, the transience of human existence resulting in an inevitable sense of loss, but were not overtly apocalyptic.

Tanaka regards Kamakura Buddhism as a religion of greater social inclusion than its Heian precursor; it widened its scope to appeal to society as a whole. Though mainstream Kamakura Buddhism aimed at mass salvation, it also spread the apocalyptic mappō doctrine to the general populace. For Tanaka, the salvationist teachings of Nichiren (1222–82) were millenarian, even postapocalyptic, and looked forward to a new world order that would bring about a longed-for national salvationist end to Kamakura turbulence. In contrast, the former Kyoto imperial courtier Kamo no Chōmei (ca. 1155–1216), in the Hōjōki, his classic treatise on the pursuit of enlightenment [End Page 465] in a chaotic world, depicted Kyoto as an apocalyptic city plagued by violence and natural disasters. Chōmei left his privileged life in the capital to become a Buddhist recluse and achieve personal enlightenment and salvation.

As Tanaka’s analysis moves ahead to the Edo period, she regards the diachronic development of apocalyptic worldviews in Japan as concomitant with the increasing influence of commoners in the arena of public discourse on religious worldviews in Japan:

During the Edo period, apocalyptic discourse was revived in the areas of new religion, social movements, and fiction. It is notable that these apocalyptic trends in the Edo period were shaped by commoners, while in the earlier Kamakura period the leaders of apocalyptic movements had been monks. . . . the ruling class usually does not seek apocalyptic ideologies. Consequently, apocalypticism in the Edo period can be found in the cultures of the lower strata, among townspeople and farmers.

(p. 33)

Viewed from such a historical perspective, it becomes possible, and perhaps even pertinent, to compare the ee ja nai ka fatalistic religious mass movement in the early Meiji era with the apocalyptic trends in popular literature, anime, and manga in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, appealing to mass audiences no longer inspired by or interested in grand narratives, as analyzed in Tanaka’s book. In the first half of the twentieth century, much of Tokyo was destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Tokyo was destroyed again in 1945, this time by aerial bombing, which also devastated most other major cities in Japan and culminated in the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Komatsu Sakyō later used devastated postwar urban landscapes like these as the setting for his 1964 dystopic urban novel Nihon Apache-zoku (The Japanese Apache), in which many Japanese people are reduced to obsessively rummaging in heaps of metallic debris left by warfare, the search for scrap metal now their livelihood.

In 1995, 50 years after most urban areas were reduced to ruins by war, Japan experienced two major disasters. On January 17, the Great Hanshin Earthquake devastated much of Kobe and adjacent areas. This was followed by the...


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pp. 465-468
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