Alternate Japan in Speculative Fiction: United States of Japan & Ninth Step Station

Like Man in the High Castle, United States of Japan & Ninth Step Station use dystopian alternate Japan to tell their sci-fi stories.

On January 9, Serial Box launched their newest title: a science fiction drama set in a war-and-disaster-torn future Japan. Ninth Step Station, created by Malka Older with a writing team that includes Fran Wilde, Jacqueline Koyanagi, and Curtis C. Chen, is part cop drama and part political thriller, pushed along with a solid dose of weird science fiction. New “episodes” are released every Wednesday.

In Ninth Step Station‘s version of 2033 Tokyo, sci-fi elements like body modification (cosmetic and weirdly functional, like cybernetic eyes that privately access digital information and infrared vision) and sleeves that work like tablets, cell phones, and ID rolled into one, are commonplace. 

Our future is filled with wars and disasters that haven’t happened, but, in reading Ninth Step Station, it’s easy to imagine that they could: an earthquake could rock Tokyo, and an invasion of Japan by China could leave parts of the nation contested. In fact, the future feels so immediate, the characters so relatable, that it’s easy, despite the weird tech, to forget that Ninth Step Station is science fiction at all.

That being said, it’s always clear that Ninth Step Station is set in a dystopia. And, in that, along with its overarching sense of two oddly-paired investigators trying to get to the bottom of a crime, it shares a common lineage with another recent speculative fiction work that uses alternate, dystopian Japan to tell its story: Peter Tieryas’s United States of Japan.

I’ve raved about Tieryas’s 2018 title Mecha Samurai Empire, and the novel inspired me to catch up on Tieryas’s previous book set in the world: a Man in the High Castle-esque setting in which Japan and Germany won World War II and carved up the United States between them, and now face each other in a cold war.

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While Mecha Samurai Empire shows a brighter vision of the future of the United States of Japan, United States of Japan, set only a few years earlier, spends more time in the corrupt aspects of the setting, reveling in the dystopia. Although United States of Japan takes place in an alternate 1988, it feels like a future: people carry tablet-like porticals, drive electric cars, and indulge in body modifications (such as a flesh-phone, used by couriers for the ultimate in secure connections).

While both the novel and the serial exist independent of each other, reading them in tandem creates an interesting subtext about power, trust, and truth—and because Ninth Step Station’s season has just started, it’s worth picking up United States of Japan while waiting for new episodes.

United States of Japan: A Japan in Power

United States of Japan opens with the liberation of one of the Japanese internment camps in 1948. The mistreated Japanese-Americans (and other Americans suspected of Japanese-sympathies) are thrilled to be freed—but there’s little rosy shine on the Japanese Empire when they realize almost immediately that there will be no freedom of speech. To criticize the Emperor means death.

Fast forward forty years: the George Washingtons are the last American hold-outs, rebelling from their base in a destroyed San Diego. Beniko Ishimura, a censor of video games, becomes involved in the investigation of the death of Claire Mutsuraga, daughter of General Mutsuraga, formerly Ben’s commanding officer and currently suspected of creating a wildly popular and scandalously anti-USJ game, USA.

Akiko Tsukino, a member of the Tokko, or Japan’s secret police, treats Ben alternately like a suspect and an asset—until a turn of the tables puts them both on the run from the Japanese authorities. They have to find General Mutsuraga to clear their names—and for other, hidden reasons that don’t become clear until the narrative’s climax.

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United States of Japan isn’t an easy novel to read. The setting is grim, the violence is graphic, and the fear of stepping out of line vivid even for members of the secret police. It’s also utterly brilliant. Tieryas’s narration takes care never to reveal too much at once, so that while the narrators always feel trustworthy, it’s also clear that they’re never revealing their full hand—not to the world, and not to the readers. The novel revolves around the concept of sacrifice, and the ultimate conclusion is powerful enough that it will stick with readers well beyond when they’ve finished the book.

And of course, in the middle of all of the twisting narratives that drive closer and closer to the truth, there’s amazingly cool tech, from the video games to the weird body modifications to the occasional appearance of mecha. United States of Japan doesn’t create a picture of a place I’d like to visit, the way Mecha Samurai Empire did, but it created a story I had to continue reading, because I needed the puzzle pieces to click into place.

Read United States of Japan

Ninth Step Station: A Japan at the Mercy of Enemies and Allies

Ninth Step Station puts a futuristic Japan in exactly the opposite position of power: rather than being an empire that occupies large portions of the world, Japan is torn, parts occupied by China, and its government is only barely functional. The nation has never recovered from the earthquake that made it vulnerable to invasion. And while the world is at peace—for now—there’s no telling what small spark could set that fragile peace ablaze.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police force is working with a limited budget and a fraction of the resources they used to have—their facial recognition and fingerprint databases were fractured by the earthquake and much of their data never recovered. But, despite the limited resources, Detective Miyako Koreda is anything but thrilled to hear that she’s being paired with a US peacekeeper, Emma Higashi, as her new partner.

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Essentially on loan to the local police, Emma’s not exactly thrilled with the assignment, either—she’s nominally working with the Tokyo police to improve the allied-US’s understanding of Tokyo, but she wonders if part of her position isn’t meant to keep her eyes on her allies, as well as their enemies. Despite their reluctant team up, Miyako and Emma end up complimenting each other well, and as the serial (which I’ve read in an advance format) progresses, they solve a number of cases, including several murders and a kidnapping.

Further reading: The Best Online Serial Fiction You Should Be Reading

While the core story of each episode would fit well as a developing buddy-cop drama on television, with all the right tropes and cues, it’s the ongoing world-building and political intrigue that keeps the story fascinating. Emma and Miyako are both compelling characters, and—reminiscent of the narration in United States of Japan—while the readers think they know them both well enough to sense their motives, the suspicions they have of each other may leave readers wondering if their loyalties are really clear. When Emma is told that there’s a leak to China in the police force, she’s forced to wonder if that leak could be her partner. And when Miyako comes into information that would be relevant to US interests, the fact that she keeps it to herself may further undermine their relationship.

All this is set against a backdrop of drones, cool personal tech, and a weird black market of body shops—as well as a mysterious resistance with motives that aren’t clear. Are they rebelling against China’s occupation alone, or is there a part of their own national government they’d like to bring down? Watching the story unfold involves some of the same puzzle-piece placing that makes United States of Japan so good, and may leave readers wondering just who to root for.

Despite their differences, both United States of Japan and Ninth Step Station give a strong sense of Japanese literary heritage (in the eyes of this non-Japanese, long-time manga-reading reviewer). And though the timelines are completely different, the atmosphere of the worlds, the uses of innovative technology, and the questions they pose make them excellent complements to one another. 

Alana Joli Abbott writes about books for Den of Geek. Read more of her work here.

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