If disasters harm humanity, what is the purpose of creating more disasters in fiction? A case study of the Japanese science fiction story that has been adapted nine times since its release as a novel in 1973.
Critical disaster studies do not recognize the existence of “natural” disasters. Disasters and the response to them are always shaped by economic, social, political, and cultural factors. If human society shapes the outcome of real disasters, I say it also feeds the creation of imagined disasters. If disasters harm humanity, what is the purpose of creating more disasters in fiction? Since interpretations of disasters have a direct relationship to their specific environment, I will focus on imagined disasters in Japan through an analysis of Japan Sinks, a Japanese science fiction story that has been the basis of many works. Unlike stories of fantastical characters, like Godzilla, or imagined scenarios, like a meteoroid that destroys an entire city, Japan Sinks deals with earthquakes, tsunami, and volcanoes, which are historically repeated disasters brought on by elements of Japanese geography. Most importantly, this story has been reproduced over nine times through different time periods, using different mediums, and by different artists and producers. The general storyline works as a constant model, allowing the comparison of unique differences in each version. Why are there so many versions of this story and what can we learn from the differences? Does it reflect the social, political, geological, and cultural environment of its particular production year? Is Japan Sinks about disasters or does it reveal something deeper about the Japanese society?
From the nine different adaptations, I will concentrate my analysis on the 1973 novel Japan Sinks by Sakyo Komatsu, the 1973 film Japan Sinks directed by Moritani Shiro, the 1995 second-edition novel Japan Sinks by Sakyo Komatsu, and the 2020 Netflix anime adaption Japan Sinks: 2020 by Masaaki Yuasa. The only difference between the 1973 and 1995 editions is the “A Note from the Author” included in the latter. For the two novels, I will use the English translations for referencing purposes. The first English abridged edition was published in 1976, and the second in 1995, and both are true to the original 1973 Japanese novel. When I mention the title Japan Sinks, I am referring to the Japanese title, Nihon Chinbotsu, instead of the translated titles such as Tidal Wave or Sinking of Japan, which are either entirely different productions or translated in a way that caters to American viewers.
Japan Sinks in Context
Except for the 2020 anime adaption, all of the versions take place in 1970s Japan and share the following storyline. Tadokoro, a geophysicist, discovers that the earth’s mantle convection patterns are moving such that Japanese land will eventually sink. Tadokoro continues his research with the help of Onodera’s submarine operation. Soon after the discovery, earthquakes in Izu Hanto cause a volcanic eruption, and the Japanese government asks to host a meeting with earthquake scientists. Tadokoro is invited to speak and claims that the Japanese archipelago might submerge due to the movements of the Earth. Others at the meeting, including members of the cabinet and other scholars laugh at his statement. However, Mr. Watari, a hundred-year-old rich man with political connections finds Tadokoro’s theory very interesting and funds the “D-plan,” a plan to address this still imagined risk. He invites Prime Minister Yamamoto and scholars from different fields to think about Japan’s future. While this is discussed, Kyoto and Tokyo face massive earthquakes and Mount Fuji is on the verge of eruption. At this point, the Japanese archipelago is still above water.
To seek citizens’ reaction towards Tadokoro’s discovery, which the Japanese cabinet has come to believe is possible, the government lets him speak on TV. Tadokoro’s anger towards the dubious TV host feeds the news media. Struggling to communicate with everyone and upset about discovering this in the first place, Tadokoro leaves the D-plan. Meanwhile, a computer simulation predicts that Japan will sink in ten months. Prime minister Yamamoto holds a national emergency assembly to present Mr. Wataru’s D-plan. The plan consists of three contingencies: 1. Make a new nation somewhere else; 2. Immigrate worldwide and become citizens of their nations; 3. Do nothing. From these choices, Yamamoto announces the D-2 citizen evacuation plan, which sends as many citizens abroad as possible. Seventy million people are taken in as immigrants all over the world, twenty million people remain stranded or remain out of their own will. Many elderly stays or disappear from their family to avoid being a burden. Twelve million are dead from earthquake, tsunami, volcano, or suicide. As predicted, the Japanese archipelago sinks completely.
This original version of Japan Sinks was the bestselling novel in 1973, and the film adaption released in the same year was viewed by eighty-eight million people, making it the highest grossing film and even doubling the second highest grossing film of the year.1 What made this disaster fiction so popular?
I will begin by discussing the representation and role of science in Japan Sinks. Susan Sontag in The Imagination of Disaster states that disasters in science fiction are a form of art, providing a sense of relief through last-minute happy endings; they are entertainment rather than anything to do with science, which people enjoy because the fantasy aspect can lift people out of everyday boredom.2 A typical science fiction story, according to Sontag, introduces the “other being” that brings people together with the common interest of defeating “it.” Then, some kind of science or technology is used to resolve the threat, and the plot usually makes no logical sense.3 In the case of Japan Sinks, scientific development does not directly work as a last-minute deus ex machina. Moreover, it is not so much “fantasy” considering this novel and film spurred real-life reactions, “sen[ding] millions of Japanese to department stores to buy earthquake kits.”4
In Japan Sinks, the function of science is not about overcoming the unexpected situation. Tadokoro’s science discovers the risk and reasoning behind why the Japanese archipelago is sinking, but there is no scientific factor that prevents it from happening. The D-plan did not have any actions that would prevent Japan from sinking; rather it dealt with managing the displaced population, making it a political plan, not a technical or scientific one. The focus is on how to control the people instead of the threat. Sontag also states that science fiction films have a trend of seeing scientists as Satanists.5 There are science fiction films that depict scientific discovery as a metaphor for real-life awakening power. However, Tadokoro did not discover any awakening power; he merely worked as an interpreter of the threat.
On the other hand, it could be said that Tadokoro’s science did lead to a happier ending in that it resulted in the government enacting evacuation plans at an earlier stage, instead of Japan sinking without anyone realizing what was happening. His discovery served as a unifier in terms of convincing the government to make evacuation plans and citizens to become immigrants in other countries. However, the science in Japan Sinks goes beyond a typical happy ending. It actually caused great anxiety in real-life Japanese society. It may be surprising to the modern reader, but the scientific aspect of Japan Sinks was revolutionary in shaping the general public’s understanding of Japanese seismology. When the novel and film were released in 1973, plate tectonic theory was not recognized by the geological community in Japan. After World War II, suspicion the of imperial state led to democratization movements in different communities. This included the Japanese geologist community that founded Chidanken in 1947.6 Chidanken played a leading role in academia, founding a geology community free from state intervention. Unfortunately, they also defied tectonic theory that was published globally in 1912 and accepted by most geological scientists by 1966.7 Instead, they used geosyncline orogenesis theory to explain changes in geology, which is now rejected in Japan. They believed this theory because it followed their Hegelian historicism belief of a progressive history.8
Plate tectonic theory was instead picked up by individual journals and popular media. Komatsu clearly followed the latter group. He began writing his story in 1964, which collides with the first science journal publication on sea floor spreading and continental drift, and 1969 was the first article published on plate tectonics. It was only in the middle of the 1970s that the Japanese geological community gradually began to accept plate tectonic theory, and it took another decade for it to become widely accepted. However, there were differences in acceptance of tectonic theory across scientific disciplines. The Japanese geophysics community accepted it soon after the introduction of the theory, but it took about twenty years for the Japanese geological community to fully accept it. 9This explains why Komatsu presented Tadokoro as a geophysicist that studied abroad instead of a geologist. In Japan Sinks, Tadokoro was laughed at by the cabinet members and other Japanese scholars, and the only reason they do not entirely dismiss his idea is because he must be “smart” since he is recognized by the U.S. science community.10 Japan Sinks presents real-life conflicts and differences in scientific understanding. In terms of the general public’s understanding, Japan Sinks must have played a huge role in spreading the knowledge of plate tectonics through millions of copies sold and viewed in theaters. Even though it was fiction, and was received as such, plate tectonic theory was at least picked up by individual journals, popular media, and the general public, whereas it was rejected by the people who studied it.
Japan Sinks reflects of the actual science discussed in Japan, and it was influential in marking the evolutionary process of Japanese seismology in the 1970s. Then why was Japan Sinks produced again in the next few decades, when the general public has access to global scientific knowledge? From analyzing the timeline of Japan Sinks’ production and current affairs during that time, we can see a relation to the sociopolitical and economic environment of the time.
Nineteen seventy-three, the production year of the first two versions of Japan Sinks was a time of economic and political crisis, with anxieties over the state, doubts about the future, and also a reminder of the great Kanto earthquake. Up until 1973, Japan had been in a time of recovery and growth. World War II ended in 1945, and rapid reconstruction was possible with the support of the U.S., which had intentions of strengthening an anti-communist regime during the Cold War. By 1960, Japan was going through an economic boom and industrial production reached 350 percent of the pre-war era.11 However, the 1970s saw the end of Japan’s economic miracle, as social, political, and economic instability lurked behind the scene. Nineteen seventy-three was a year of shortage in America, from the stock market crash, followed by the October Arab-Israeli War that led to export limitation of oil and extreme price inflation. Japan, with heavy dependence on imported oil, faced economic and political crisis.12 Industrial production decreased, and by November, there was public anxiety: a toilet paper shortage came from panic-buying, as many people stocked up on necessities. The first narrative of Japan Sinks was produced during this postwar Japan that was going through rapid transition between war time to economic rise, and released in the context of the 1973 oil crisis, which marked the first major national economic issue since the war. This decade started with the World Expo, but with the loss of trust in the state, Japan Sinks also became an expression of anti-future sentiments and skepticism toward such celebratory displays of postwar Japanese prosperity.
Nineteen seventy-three was also the fiftieth anniversary of the great Kanto earthquake. This year was a reminder that 130,000 people died from the earthquake and fire, leaving 60 percent of the Kanto region population homeless.13 The 1973 film alludes to and displays memories of this disaster by including the destruction of Tokyo during the foreshocks. There is a scene where a father tells his family that they will be fine as long as the fire and stove are shut off since that is what caused the majority of the destruction during the Kanto earthquake.14
In 1995, Komatsu produced a second edition reprint of the original 1973 novel, with an additional “A Note from the Author” which re-examines the relevance of his imaged disaster after he experienced the 1995 great Hanshin earthquake that struck Japan. The Cold War ended a few years prior, in 1991, which was followed by the collapse of the Japanese economic bubble. It was a time of economic depression, but most importantly, the publication came right after the great Hanshin Earthquake that caused 6,433 deaths.15 This was the biggest casualty since the great Kanto earthquake. Many media outlets mentioned similarities between the Hanshin earthquake and the fictional Japan Sinks and Fukuoka prefecture TV canceled their rebroadcasting of the Japan Sinks drama series. Komatsu’s response to this can be seen in “A Note from the Author,” where he mentions his faith in Japan’s civil engineering and building techniques was shattered after experiencing in real life the unpleasant scenes in his book.”16 Komatsu and his second edition of Japan Sinks reminds the audience that “Japan has a history of repeated natural disasters . . . and to see its islands as a haven guaranteeing continued prosperity would be wishful self-delusion..”17 As Komatsu warned, the built environment in Japan was not entirely resilient; the great Tohoku disaster in 2011 resulted in the greatest number of deaths since World War II. In July of that same year, Komatsu passed away, at the age of eighty.18
After his death, there was another Japan Sinks TV series rebroadcast, but this was cancelled again, due to the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake. Unlike Komatsu’s second novel that was meant to be read after the 1995 earthquake, TV producers seem to be mindful of triggering viewers to avoid criticism for being insensitive. For profit-based TV, there is no reason to continue airing something if nobody is going to watch it. A total of three great earthquakes happened since the first release of Japan Sinks, proving the significance of Komatsu’s message of warning for those living in Japan.
The 2020 anime adaptation, directed by Masaaki Yuasa, had no affiliation with Komatsu himself. However, Komatsu’s son has publicly commented on the modern version’s relevance in reattempting to stir up society’s outlook on natural disasters.19 The Tohoku disaster continues to live vividly as many victims, are still in temporary housings and the nuclear meltdown continues to radiate Fukushima. As a way to revitalize the “Japanese mood,” the former prime minister Abe put forward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Ironically, the events have been suspended due to Covid-19, but Yuasa’s Japan Sinks was written in the lead-up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and released just before the games were planned to have begun. Parallel to criticism of the 1970 World Expo, Japan Sinks appeared again at a time when Japan seems to be celebrating a superficial restoration. Finally, there was an announcement for a 2021 TV series, Japan Sinks: Person of Hope, expected to be released during this time of uncertainty. From the title, this must be a hopeful response to the global pandemic, but it has raised online criticism for being frivolous at a time of stress and anxiety.20
In sum, Japan Sinks has been released many times in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries, and, at each moment, it functions specifically as a reflection of economic and political instability, memories of real disasters, and anxieties for the future. This constant anxiety in Japanese society is reflective of the constant demand and place for disaster fiction. Is this relationship unique to Japan or can it be applied elsewhere?
New York Sinks, Too: Fantasies of Destruction in the United States
In The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction, Max Page looks at how, in American disaster fiction, New York is constantly the city being destroyed. Similar to the correspondence of real-life catastrophes and the publication timeline of Japan Sinks that I’ve pointed out, Page notices that disaster fiction is reflective of real life social, political, and cultural environment of America. He says each era has its own apocalyptic imagery that seeks to resolve its cultural tensions and fears, and it is always New York that is destroyed because symbolically, it is the heart of the United States.21 Fantasies of the city’s end go back to the beginnings of New York’s colonial history. For example, eighteenth century fiction was based on European New Yorkers who feared Native American attack and slave uprisings.22 Twentieth century fiction displayed fears of being victim of its own size and rapid growth, internal corruption, and threats from abroad.23 Page states that narratives helped understand and resolve society’s fears. On the other hand, “a new generation of disaster narratives, dedicated more to humor and entertainment” arrived as prolonged nuclear fear during the Cold War gave way to neutralization of those fears.24 Page also notes that the most powerful depictions of New York’s end were seen when the city was at its greatest prosperity. This is based on the “American ideology” of embracing progress and modernism but suspecting failure and threat, which is similar to Komatsu’s attitude towards Japan.25 He concludes that American culture destroys New York out of sociopolitical fears that exist in reality but also destroys it out of homage to the city. This may also apply to those who enjoy Japan Sinks because it depicts many characters who do not want to let go of “Japan” and risk their lives to stay.
As Page writes, fantasies of the city’s end can bring “inspiration, a reinvigoration of the city’s image and its identity,” and the many portrayals of destruction was born out of love for the city, not disgust.26 This pleasure in disaster is not unique to fiction. Page includes how real-life disaster, especially 9/11, brought conflicting emotions. While people did not wish for national calamity, witnessing something extraordinary served as an unexpected liberation 27 from everyday life. They felt energized and alive. They “felt the rush of history.” 28 This euphoric feeling is similar to the effects of science fiction as Sontag describes them. Instead of ignoring this peculiar feeling, Rebecca Solnit in A Paradise Built in Hell specifically explore the positive emotion that rise at a time of real-life crisis. It makes sense that imagined disasters with solutions create adrenaline rush from the thrill and relief. Solnit explores why real-life disasters also brings out these emotions. She believes that disasters free people from the constraints of everyday life. This allows rise of extraordinary communities that have the power to regain autonomy through mutual aid before the state can offer any help. She calls this a utopia. Solnit and Page display how both real life and imagined disasters have this liberating power. Does Japan Sinks display any form of liberation through imagined disasters? Solnit’s book does not include case studies on Japanese hell. She says that language, distance, and culture kept some disasters out of reach for her study, but she did make sense of earthquakes in China and Nicaragua.29 Is it possible that Japanese disasters do not create any paradise?
While it is still hard to claim any liberatory understanding of disasters in Japan Sinks, Catfish prints from early modern Edo period display what may be a Japanese version of Solnit’s Paradise. In Agents of World Renewal, Takashi Miura describes how catfish woodblock prints were produced by the thousands and was a huge trend especially right after the 1855 Ansei era Edo earthquake.30 Miura states that the people of Edo blamed underground catfish for earthquakes. We do not know if Edo citizens genuinely believed this or if they used catfish as a symbol, but this narration is equivalent to a modern disaster fiction that tries to make sense of disasters. For Edo’s people, the catfish brought world renewal because rich hoarders were punished, and there was post disaster economic boom experienced by low wage workers. Edo people valued the circulation of wealth as a way of maintaining a healthy and functioning society, and wealth inequality in Edo was rehabilitated through earthquakes.31 However, this world renewal was about flow of money and revitalizing the economy rather than systemic reformation or liberation from the everyday life.
Page and Miura display how fiction can be used as a narrative tool to make sense of real-life disasters, and Solnit recognizes how these disasters can be liberating. However, Japan Sinks does not function in the same way Edo society used catfish to interpret disasters. Instead of questioning why the earthquake happened or creating meaning out of it, Japan Sinks moves to questioning how to deal with such a situation. Specifically, it examines how the government handles the citizens’ future. Although the catfish and Japan Sinks are both fictional, in both cases, creativity is not spent on coming up with fantasies to resolve confusion or fear. Japan Sinks lets the disaster happen as expected and focuses its creativity on how individuals deal with it. Yet, Japan Sinks does not present any particular good that comes out of facing the fear. Tokyo and Kyoto are destroyed during the earthquakes’ foreshocks. There is nothing more to it. This is at least how Japan Sinks presents the disaster, from the perspective of the Japanese cabinet. Japan sinks because it was inevitably going to happen, millions die, and individual characters decide if they want to stay and die or immigrate to a different country. The main action that takes place is when the UN Japanese representative announces that Japan is going to sink and asks if any nation is willing to take in immigrants.32 There is nothing really liberating about this, the audience sees it happen through the emotional disconnect from the mundane cabinet members.
I have been discussing how imagined disasters are based on societies in real life. This empty feeling or suppression of any emotion can be seen in real-life disaster victims as well. Japan Sinks’ narrative style is reflective of the reality of Japanese disasters as told in Richard Lloyd Parry’s nonfiction book Ghosts of the Tsunami. Llyod is a British journalist based in Japan, and he writes about the 2011 Tohoku disaster through the tragedy, or crime, that happened in Okawa Elementary School. This incident was especially sensational in Japan because out of the seventy-five children in all of Japan that died under the care of their teachers, seventy-four of them were at Okawa Elementary School.33 The novel illustrates vivid memories of parents who dug through “pine trees, and the legs and arms of children sticking out from under the mud and the rubbish.”34 The parents single-handedly laid out piles of children’s dead bodies. The parents naturally initiated the process and worked together to find any bodies before the Japan Self-Defense Forces, central government, or police could, but there was no space for paradise from this Jigoku (the title of this chapter, meaning “hell” in Japanese). In the chapter “What Use Is the Truth?,” families of children who died at Okawa sued the city of Ishinomaki and Miyagi prefecture in the Sendai District Court. The parents won their case and were awarded compensation, but all their children remain dead.35 There is no true victory story or liberated community that comes out of the deaths of these children. Okawa Elementary school is one example of how there is no adequate fiction or adequate paradise to be created out of this kind of disaster.
Since the catfish of the Edo period, there has been a shift in social interpretation of earthquakes. Through repeated earthquakes and development of scientific understanding, people in Japan have recognized their earthquake-prone location. Disasters are expected, and instead of questioning why earthquakes happen, parents of Okawa wanted to know how and why their children died, even if the truth had no use. Komatsu shares the same attitude in his fictional story. Japan Sinks’ narrative reminds people in Japan that no matter how well prepared the technology or engineering is, unpredictable disasters happen. Komatsu’s focus on exploring the government response parallels how Okawa parents questioned the systematic responsibility of school, city, and prefecture. This pattern could be further stretched into questioning the role of the Japanese state. Then is Japan Sinks a story about critiquing Japanese state responsibility towards disaster prevention?
As discussed, Japan Sinks was reflective of the actual science discussed in Japan, influential in marking the evolutionary process of Japanese seismology and also reminded people of past destructions. Yet, the focus is on how the Japanese government, especially Prime Minister Yamamoto, responds to the threat. As for the audience, Japan Sinks does not provide informative steps toward individual preparation. We only see the different paths people took when Japan was already sinking. The D-plan is the main response put forward in Japan Sinks, and this imaginary plan is neither a success nor a failure. In Mission Improbable, Lee Clarke states that some real-life disaster planning has “so little instrumental utility in them,” and are produced by organizations at an attempt to control the uncontrollable.36 Page also mentions how mock terror attacks and plans for evacuation developed under the Bush administration read just like a good Hollywood script.37 When real-life disaster preventions are deemed fantasy documents, D-plan in Japan Sinks is just another rendition of these fantasy documents. Japan Sinks is like Komatsu’s simulation game.
However, why is this same simulation of Japan sinking played over and over? If Japan Sinks was accepted and demanded throughout different time periods, there must be something to which readers and viewers across generations can relate. This “something” is the “Japanese identity” that Komatsu tries to understand.38 By sinking the Japanese archipelago, Komatsu attempts to rethink what it is to be Japanese.
In the 1973 version of Japan Sinks, the only regret or sadness Tadokoro has is being the first one to realize “Japan” is over, rather than the fear of the disaster itself or the deaths caused by it. Tadokoro and many other characters display their fear for the loss of “Japan.” Is this fear about losing the nation state, landscape, or the community?
What Sinks with Japan?
The novel and film have the same general storyline, but the novel makes more obvious references to the ideologies of imperial Japan. The crucial difference is “Epilogue: The Death of the Dragon,” which only appears in the novel. In this chapter, Mr. Watari tells Tadokoro that this disaster is the beginning of a challenge, and whether the Japanese people wish it or not, they will integrate with others and learn to find their place in the world.39 Right after reflecting on the future of the “Japanese race,” Mr. Watari imparts his last words of wisdom: “I am only half Japanese” and “my father . . . was a Chinese monk.”40 He dies, leaving Tadokoro and the readers confused. This is interesting because all along, Mr. Watari had been portrayed as the wise, powerful, and most ancient form of a “Japanese” man. If he is half Chinese, the title “Death of the Dragon” is a symbol of Mr. Watari’s death since the mythical dragon has travelled its way from China to Japan, bringing power and luck. Origins of Japanese culture is built on Chinese culture, and the death of the dragon also symbolizes a new beginning for “Japan.” Unlike Mr. Watari’s hopes for the “Japanese race” Tadokoro claim that there is no other place like Japan, and he wants to die with “her.” Before Mr. Watari says his last words, he tells Tadokoro you’re the last stiff-necked Japanese I’ll have to deal with and encourages him to let go of this attachment to “Japan.” ”41 I believe the revelation of Mr. Watari’s Chinese origin was placed in order to open conversation on the multiethnic Japanese population in contrast to popular beliefs, but this is followed and overshadowed by the origin story of another character, Mako. Mako is a young girl who worked as a hostess in Ginza, and she only appears in the novel. At the end of the story, Mako and Onodera is stranded from the rest, and wounded Onodera asks Mako to tell him a story. Mako tells the story of Tanaba, an ancestral origin story of Hachijo island, where her grandmother was born. A long time ago, a tidal wave swept over Hachijo Island, killing everybody but pregnant Tanaba. She gave birth to a son, and when he grew up to be strong, she told him what happened. Tanaba tells her son that in order to continue the island’s race after them, it has to come from them, so let me conceive your sister, and after her, have children by her. This is where the people of Hachijo Island came from. After telling this extremely incestuous story of Hachijo, she says “I’m a girl who has island blood, and I would do just what she did,” hinting the possibility of Mako bringing back this “tradition” with Onodera.42
Although this ending seems to promote the Japanese myth of pure origin, it may be a postwar critique of how absurd “Japanese identity” is. Tadokoro and Mako’s self-initiated willingness to die and make children out of their unconditional “love” for Japan is a representation of what Tosaka Jun calls “Japanism.” Tadokoro and Mako’s attitude are not perverse when thinking back to the ideologies during imperial Japan. “Japanism” is “common sense” created by the Japanese imperial system and carried on by the “general consciousness of the middle class.”43 It is a top-down and down-up ideology of Japaneseness that did not end with the war. Japan Sinks may have been Komatsu’s internal questioning of why he is so invested in thinking about the Japanese future, how he carries Japanism, and if he can ever be liberated from these invisible constraints. He attempts to do so by sinking Japan.
Tosaka died one month before World War II ended, and his critique is of Japanese government during Showa era. On the other hand, Komatsu’s criticism of the Japanese state includes a global perspective where he tries to imagine how Japanism will survive outside of Japan. Japan Sinks may also be covering how globalization actually reinforces this Japanism. Through Tadokoro and Mako, we see that the “Japanese identity” only changed itself from imperial government and patriotism to nationalism and nepotism. We do not know if this change will bring good or bad. Komatsu does not tell us what happened to those who fled Japan. This open-ended story allows different interpretation of what it is to be “Japanese.”
The film version does not include these events and reflections, and I assume that the production team at Toho removed Komatsu’s in-depth critique of Japanese identity to make the film appear politically neutral and appealing to anyone in the theater. The idea of Japan sinking and the science behind it was interesting enough for it to be best-selling movie of the year in 1973. Komatsu was probably able to publish his original story in the novel because neither the editors of Kobunsha nor Komatsu expected it to be best seller of the year. Tosaka on the other hand, got in trouble for his antiimperialist opinions during his time.
Japan Sinks in a Multicultural World
The most recent version of Japan Sinks, the 2020 drama-animation series, is the director’s attempt at answering the question Komatsu imposed on everyone. Yuasa’s Japan Sinks is a completely different version in terms of the structure of the story and intention. Yuasa’s version has completely new characters that give off a globalized version of Japan that Komatsu tried to imagine back in 1973. The story includes contemporary ideas, such as a millionaire YouTuber from Estonia and a weed-growing cult. The main character is Ayumu, who we do not realize is, like Mr. Watari, half Japanese until her Filipino mother comes back from abroad. It is as if the people that escaped Japan in 1973 came back to 2020 Japan Sinks with their interracial children and cultures. Is Yuasa unintentionally fetishizing racial mixing as a new version of “Japaneseness” in the same way Mako fetishized pure blood?
This story follows Ayumu and several others who try to survive through the slowly sinking Japanese archipelago. This main plot remains the same: Japan sinks. Instead of seeing politicians and scientists scrambling to find a solution, this version looks at disaster through the experiences of individual citizens. The perspective is lowered from the national level to the individual, and we see how each action becomes a choice of life or death. Perhaps as a reflection of decline in faith in the Japanese government after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. By doing so, Yuasa touches on the struggle Parrish explains in “Mediating Disaster, or, a History of the Novel.” Parrish explains the problem of a “disaster gap,” where scientists, meteorologists, and novelists all have different levels of understanding the same event.45 Yuasa’s Japan Sinks provides narratives from children like Ayumu, an individualized perspective which was not represented in Komatsu’s version. However, Yuasa enhanced the struggle of scientists and disaster communication in general by making the scientist paralyzed. Ayumu tries to understand his “important message” through blinking morse code but communication barriers eventually lead to his accidental death because nobody understood him. This is an exaggerated portrayal of how real-life scientists struggle to communicate their studies. No matter how groundbreaking their discovery or knowledge is, scientists are often isolated until proper translations are made.46 The story ends with Japan sinking, but unlike Komatsu’s version, this one is not open ended. Ayumu survives and gets care from the international red cross. “Japan” on the other hand, becomes accessible through a virtual reality technology similar to Google maps. Memories of Japan are digitalized and maintained on the internet with the help of technology. Finally, we see survivor athletes attend the Olympics as representatives of the nation that disappeared, and the rest of the world claps for this “new” version of “Japan.”
Unfortunately, Yuasa’s Japan Sinks has mostly gotten negative comments such as being insensitive, unrealistic, and even like a leftist propaganda tailored to foreign viewers.47 I agree that this version lacks logical science, and the celebratory mood at the end depicts what Susan Sontag would call typical science fiction. The narrative is tragic in that almost everybody except for Ayumu and Ayumu’s brother dies, but the experience of this disaster was hard to connect with emotionally. The voices of people represented in Yuasa’s fiction is far from the deep level of communication conveyed by Ghosts of the Tsunami. However, there is nothing wrong with this version if you view it as Yuasa’s attempt at answering Komatsu’s question on the “Japanese identity.” Komatsu’s intention was to let his audience reflect on their identity by sinking Japan in his fictional world, and Yuasa’s adaptation is one such reflection. His version displays a continuation of the Japanese nation state identity, carried on by dispersed citizens even after the Japanese archipelago sinks.
Japan Sinks is not a typical science fiction. It is not about making sense of the disaster, but rather questioning what is left when one is detached from the familiar landscape, friends and family, and the nation state. Finally, not just Japan, but every citizen in today’s interconnected global environment can relate and reflect on the subjection one may have with their nation. The self-reflective journey of Japan Sinks continues worldwide!
- Susan Sontag. “The Imagination of Disaster” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays. (New York: Anchor Books, 1990), 42.
- Sontag. “The Imagination of Disaster,” 42.
- Sakyo Komatsu. Japan Sinks. (Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International 1995).
- Sontag. “The Imagination of Disaster,” 46.
- Fumihiko Tochinai, “Rejection and Acceptance of Plate Tectonics—a History of Earth Science in Postwar Japan,” East Asian Science, Technology and Sociey, Volume 3, No. 1 (March 2009): 153–156.
- Tochinai, “Rejection and Acceptance of Plate Tectonics.”
- Tochinai, “Rejection and Acceptance of Plate Tectonics.”
- Tochinai, “Rejection and Acceptance of Plate Tectonics.”
- Japan Sinks. directed by Shiro Moritani (Toho, 1973).
- Ichiro Nakayama, Industrialization of Japan, (East West Center Press, 1964).
- “Oil Crisis of 1973,” University of Pittsburgh,
- Mai Denawa, “Behind the Accounts of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923,” Brown University,
- 日本沈没 (Japan Sinks), directed by Shiro Moritani.
- “Jan 17, 1995 CE: Kobe Earthquake,” National Geographic Resource Library, This Day in Geographic History.
- Sakyo Komatsu, Japan Sinks, (Kodansha International,1995)
- Komatsu, Japan Sinks.
- Dani Hevessi. “Sakyo Komatsu, Science Fiction Writer, Dies at 80,” The New York Times, August 11, 2011.
- “日本沈没２０２０がNetflixで２０２０年配信へ,” Nlab, 2019.
- “小栗旬ドラマ「日本沈没」は放送1年先,” Goo News, 2020,
- Max Page, The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction. (Yale University Press, 2008), 6.; 14.
- Page, The City’s End, 17.
- Page, The City’s End, 23.
- Page, The City’s End, 171.
- Page, The City’s End, 8.
- Page, The City’s End, 8; 15.
- Page, The City’s End, 8.
- Page, The City’s End, 6.
- Rebecca Solnit. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (Penguin, 2010), 8.
- Takashi Miura, Agents of World Renewal: The Rise of Yonaoshi Gods in Japan (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2019), 86.
- Miura, Agents of World Renewal, 95.
- Sakyo Komatsu, Japan Sinks, (Kodansha International, 1995), 233
- Richard Lloyd Parry, “Old and Young,” Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone (Picador, 2018).
- Parry, “Jigoku,” Ghosts of the Tsunami.
- Parry, “Save Don’t Fall to Sea,” Ghosts of the Tsunami.
- Lee Clarke, Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster (University of Chicago Press, 1999), 2.
- Page, The City’s End, 218.
- I put that in quotations because Japanese identity, like all identities, is a social construct that goes through constant change.
- Komatsu, Japan Sinks, (Harper & Row, 1976), 231.
- Komatsu, Japan Sinks, (Harper & Row, 1976), 231.
- Komatsu, Japan Sinks, (Harper & Row, 1976)
- Komatsu, Japan Sinks, (Harper & Row, 1976).
- Ken Kawashima, Fabian Schaefer, and Robert Stolz, Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader (Ithaca: Cornell University, 2014), 63.
- Susan Scott Parrish, “Mediating Disaster, or, a History of the Novel,”44Susan Scott Parrish, “Mediating Disaster, or, a History of the Novel,” in Critical Disaster Studies, edited by Jacob Remes and Andy Horowitz (University of Pennsylvania, 2021).
- Kerry Smith, “The Tōkai Earthquake and Changing Lexicons of Risk,” Critical Disaster Studies, edited by Jacob Remes and Andy Horowitz.