Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Dr. Tezuka’s Ontology Laboratory and the Discovery of Japan

I've put another publication online (title above). Download at:

Abstract, TOC, and introduction below.

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Abstract: Not long after the end of World War II Osamu Tezuka published three manga known collectively as the SF Trilogy: Lost World (1948), Metropolis (1949), and Nextworld (1951). Taken together they represent an effort to rethink Japan’s place in the world, and that, in turn, required rethinking the world itself from top to bottom. Each text features a parade of creatures, from plants to animals, to humans; each has scenes of primordial nature. All involve radiation that changes the flora and fauna of the world, all involve strange humanoid creatures, some ‘natural’ and some artificial. In particular, Tezuka plays with gender identities. In Lost World a woman made of plant matter becomes the ‘Eve’ of a new world. In Metropolis the central character is an artificial being that can be either male or female. In Nextworld we have a pair of physically identical young women where each is raised in a different society and so has quite different adult characteristics. Japan is not mentioned in the first book, but by the third Japan is a mediating factor between two warring superpowers. The strange humans in these manga are precursors to the robots, cyborgs, and quasi-Utopian humanoids that have proliferated in Japanese popular culture over the last half century.


Stories As Equipment For Living 2
Geopolitics: What Is Japan? 2
The Ontology Lab 3
Primordial Scenes 4
Parade Of The Creatures 5
Varieties Of The Human 6
Radiation And Artifice In The Building Of Worlds 7
At The Core: Grief And Loss 8
Things To Come: Astro Boy And Beyond 9
References 10

This is the final draft of an essay published in Mangatopia: Essays on Manga and Anime in the Modern World. Timothy Perper and Martha Cornog, editors. Westport, CT, USA: Libraries Unlimited, an imprint of ABC-Clio/Greenwood. 2011, pp. 37-51.

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Dr. Tezuka’s Ontology Laboratory and the Discovery of Japan

On August 15, 1945, the Empire of Japan came to an end. It was on that day that the Japanese people heard a radio broadcast in which Emperor Hirohito read the Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War, announcing Japan’s surrender. As an abstract entity, the Empire was at an end. Yes, the land was still there, the people too, and the infrastructure of an advanced civilization, though much was in shambles. But certain symbolic and social bonds that had held Japan together as a single socio-cultural entity – those bonds were sundered: for example, the Imperial rhetoric that the Emperor’s lineage went back in time to the mythological origins of the Japanese islands (Benzon 2010). Even for someone like Osamu Tezuka, who was not a partisan of the militarist regime that had ruled Japan, Japan’s surrender and all it implied must have engendered a profound existential problem. What was to come next?
As Frederick Schodt notes:
With the end of the war, new difficulties appeared. Tezuka also witnessed starvation among a once proud people, and during the wild, unstructured early days of the occupation, he suffered the humiliation and anger of being beaten by a group of drunken American GIs who could not understand his broken English. It was a brutal and direct experience in cultural misunderstanding that he never forgot. Like all young Japanese of his age, he had also seen how an authoritarian government—his own—had been able to manipulate information and public opinion, and how, after the war, the entire value system of the country was overturned and replaced by a new democratic ideology. It was horrifying, he later said, to realize that “the world could turn 180 degrees, and that the government could switch the concept of reality,” so that what had been “black” or “white” only days before was suddenly reversed. (2007, 29-30)
How did Tezuka allow the old, Imperial “Japan” to die in his mind so that he could create a new Japan to replace it? How did he restore a sense of order and meaning to the world?

I certainly do not have a general answer to those questions. It seems to me, however, that the process would have been comparable in scope and magnitude to mourning the death, for example, of one’s parents. As such, it would have been a process that involved Tezuka’s whole psyche. This process was certainly emotional, grieving for the old Japan; but it would also have been intellectual.

Imagine a conceptual system as a vast network of interconnected concepts; think of a large roadmap where each city, town, and junction is a concept and the roads are relations between concepts. For the Japanese of Tezuka’s day “Imperial Japan” would have been a subnetwork within that larger network, one with connections to an extensive range of related concepts about Japan, but also about humans and families, about animals and artificial things, and about the kinds of actions and agency appropriate to each. Now, remove “Imperial Japan” from the network. What happens?

What happens is that the network has a lot of dangling connections; as an analogy, recall what happened to world-wide air travel when New York City airports shut down in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. Those connections have to be repaired or replaced. That reconnecting and replacing is, at least in part, what Tezuka was doing, one wave after another, in his early so-called science fiction trilogy: Lost World, Metropolis, and Nextworld. Tezuka was using his fiction as a means of working through that process so as to arrive at the beginnings of a new — and non-imperial ¬— conception of Japan, its place in the world, and the place of individual Japanese people in this emerging Japan.

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