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Science and SF in Japan

by John G. Cramer

Alternate View Column AV-58
Keywords: Japan science fiction HamaCon physics Tscuba KEK TRISTAN
Published in the April-1993 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine;
This column was written and submitted 9/17/92 and is copyrighted ©1992 by John G. Cramer.
All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced in any form without
prior explicit permission of the author.

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Japan has achieved a quasi-mythological status in the USA as the one country that is doing things correctly in the development of new industry, in science and education, and in planning for the future. Like most generalizations, this picture is simplistic. Japan is a complex and fascinating country. Above all, it is different in interesting ways.

At the end of August, 1992, my wife, daughters, and I spent 15 days in Japan on the occasion of my son's wedding in Hokkaido. During this trip we attended the Japanese National Science Fiction Convention and spent a day at the Japanese National Laboratory for High Energy Physics (KEK) in Tscuba, the Japanese "science city" near Tokyo. This Alternate View column contains my impressions of science fiction and science in Japan.

* Tokyo - The 90 minute bus ride into Tokyo from Narita Airport gave us a distant look at the new Japanese Disneyland and many direct views into Tokyo office buildings from the elevated expressway. It was about 6:30 PM, but every office we saw was bustling with activity at a time when most business offices in the USA would have been empty for an hour or more. The Japanese workers do work long hours, and seem to be working hard, even toward the end of the day. On the other hand, Japanese culture dictates that men in the business offices do the intellectual work, while the women employees wear uniforms, do the menial jobs, and serve tea to the men. This tradition must ultimately limit the productivity of Japan by using effectively only half of the potential work force. Long hours may not be enough to compensate.

In late August Tokyo is almost unbearably hot and humid, and, with a population of almost 9 million, it has incredible automobile traffic jams. The only efficient modes of travel in Tokyo are the large subway system and the separate system of above-ground trains. We came to prefer the trains over subways because of the sightseeing. From the elevated tracks they provided wonderful and bizarre night views that gave a definite Bladerunner feel to the vast metropolis.

This impression was enhanced by a visit to Tokyo's "Electronics City" near the Akihabara train station. The square area several blocks on a side is honeycombed with thousands of shops selling consumer electronics, electronic toys, and electronic parts, components, and test instruments. The depth and variety if electronic items of sale was stunning. The Japanese love electronic gadgetry, and their domestic market supports the production of a vast array of consumer items, many not sold outside Japan. But the thing that made the most impression on me was not the finished consumer products, but the vigorous market in electronic components and parts.

I'm an experimental physicist with much experience as a designer and user of complex electronics. At Akihabara there were city blocks of small shops selling capacitors, connectors, resistors, LSI chips, power supplies, circuit boards, and other parts. The implications of this market in components for the concentration of technical expertise and level of activity still amaze me. I know of no comparable concentration of expertise and activity in the USA, even in Silicon Valley. The Akihabara area of Tokyo concentrates not only retail and wholesale shops, but also many firms that design and manufacture electronics, a vast mainspring of the Japanese economy, in a small area. The vigor of this industry, its throb and drive, can be experienced at first hand in Akihabara.

* HamaCon - Yokohama is a port and industrial city, about 3 million population, a short $5 train ride from the center of Tokyo. In recent years the Yokohama waterfront has been transformed from a purely industrial area to an attractive site for meetings and expositions. It has good rail connections, a large convention center, and world-class hotels. The Yokohama Grand Intercontinental Hotel, where we stayed, is an amazing work of architecture that rises like a massive curving shark-fin from the edge of Tokyo Bay.

It was the site of this year's Japanese National Science Fiction Convention, HamaCon. The meeting rooms were large and there was plenty of space for a large convention. The hotel was an excellent site for a SF convention in every way, except that "convention rates" are a US innovation that has not spread to Japan. Since a dollar's worth of yen has about 1/3 its US buying power, HamaCon was a very expensive convention.

It was attended by several thousand Japanese fans. My daughter Kathryn and I were the only American SF professionals there. This gave us a certain instant glamour and many opportunities to meet Japanese fans and SF professionals. Except for the dominance of the Japanese language, HamaCon was very much like a big US convention in its structure and organization. There was multi-track programming, an art show, several TV/video rooms, a large dealer's room, a room for laser-tag, and many sessions of role-playing games. Despite the language barrier we were able to communicate and to have a good time. We were even asked to address the assembled multitudes (with concurrent translation) at the impressive closing ceremonies. HamaCon was a large and well run convention, and we all had a good time there.

I have an admitted bias toward written SF. From my point of view, there was too much emphasis on media-related SF at HamaCon, (but I also feel this way about most SF conventions in the USA). On the other hand, the Japanese have raised animation to a high art form. The ideogram written languages of Japan lead to a very visually-oriented culture. On the trains and subways my informal survey shows the count of businessmen reading printed books and reading comic books to be about equal. Comics are abundant (and amazingly thick) in Tokyo bookstores, and a display of written SF books is relatively rare. Therefore the strong emphasis on comic books and characters at HamaCon in the convention programming, in the art show, in the masquerade, and in the dealer's room was to be expected. The HamaCon closing ceremonies culminated with an elaborate computer-animated video showing the convention hotel and surrounding complex of buildings transformed into a vast space ship, launched into space by a multi-stage launch vehicle, and ultimately transformed into the starship Enterprise entering warp drive. The preparation of such an expensive and elaborate video for a SF convention has implications that I still do not comprehend.

* Japanese SF - My hard SF novel Twistor is being translated and published in Japan, and this new development lead to several discussions with Japanese editors and writers on the state of SF in Japan. The consensus is that Japanese SF is in a "down" period of contraction and retrenchment. A decade ago five SF/fantasy magazines were published in Japan. Now there is only one. In the bookstores SF novels are losing shelf space to mysteries and international intrigue novels. There are no SF specialty bookstores in Japan. While SF is very popular in comic book form, it is less so in written form. The many young fans of comics have not, as they mature, made the transition to novels and magazines, as might have been expected.

Translated works of US authors are very popular in Japan. This is particularly true for hard SF. Hogan, Forward, and the Three B's (Bear, Benford, Brin) were prominently mentioned during our discussions with fans at HamaCon. In the area of fantasy, translations are also popular, but Japanese writers of fantasy compete more directly and successfully with their US counterparts. Translations of SF works in the other direction, from Japanese to English, are still extremely rare. The Japanese editors with whom we talked considered that several new Japanese writers had produced interesting works which might do well in the US, given good translation and marketing, but there were no plans to move in this direction.

* Tscuba and the KEK Laboratory - Tscuba is a new town built in the 1960's in what had been a national forest on the southern slopes of Mt. Tscuba northeast of Tokyo. It is a planned city with wide streets, created to be the focus of Japanese science. In Tscuba are many research and development laboratories of Japanese manufacturers, as well as federal institutes which provide centers for a wide variety of scientific and research activities: agriculture, environmental sciences, transportation, inorganic materials research, space sciences, disease prevention, building construction, and so on. We learned, however, that the physical closeness of federal and commercial labs has not promoted the cooperation and close ties that had been expected.

KEK at Tscuba is the Japanese National Laboratory for High Energy Physics. It has three primary machines, a 12 GeV proton synchrotron, a 30 GeV on 30 GeV electron-positron collider (TRISTAN), and an electron storage ring operated as a "photon factory".

TRISTAN is a ring accelerator 3 kilometers in circumference using 700 electromagnets. It just fits within the boundaries of the KEK site. Its low design energy was a "calculated risk" that didn't pay off. It was believed when the machine was designed that its 30 GeV beam energy would be sufficient to produce significant quantities of Zo and W+/- mesons for study. As it turns out, 30 GeV is too low. Experiments are restricted to the energy region below the Z/W production threshold, while most of the interesting physics lies above this threshold. The TRISTAN designers had planned a "backup" in case 30 GeV was not sufficient. The "T" in TRISTAN originally stood for "Tri-beam", and the plan was, if necessary, to install a proton ring in the same tunnel as the electron ring and to produce Zo and W+/- mesons with electron-proton collisions (as is done at the HERA facility in Hamburg). However, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture (MONBUSHO) has killed this plan. The "T" in TRISTAN has now been redefined to stand for something else.

The proton synchrotron (PS) at KEK has been developed into a good source of "strange" K mesons (the matter-antimatter combination of a strange \and an up quark) and used to study the interactions of kaons with matter. The kaon beams at KEK are the world's best, and Japanese groups are leaders in this area of physics.

The electron injector for TRISTAN is also used to supply electrons for the KEK photon factory. When energetic electrons change direction while passing through a magnetic field, they tend to lose energy by producing photons of light as "synchrotron radiation". This process can be used to produce intense, monochromatic, and highly directional beams of light that are very useful in materials and atomic physics studies. The KEK photon factory is an electron storage ring (an elliptical ring of magnets and acceleration sections) with more than 25 beam stations where light ranging from far ultraviolet to soft X-rays are produced and used in experiments.

After the impressive show of electronic prowess at Akihabara Electronics City, I had been expecting something comparable at KEK. I didn't find it. The computers were less impressive than those in my own laboratory in Seattle. The experiments were well designed and constructed, but not notably better in their command of technology than our experiment and others at CERN. Somehow, the Japanese dominance in consumer electronics is not spilling over, as I had expected, into their physics capabilities.

I do not understand why this is the case, but I can venture a guess. The Japanese scientific funding agencies has been very tight-fisted with physics funding, except in cases where a strong tie to industry can be demonstrated. One would think that this would promote good cooperation between industry and physics, but the evidence I saw suggests that it has had the reverse effect.

The physics goals, under funded without industrial ties, have been relegated to second place behind industrial tie-ins, which have become primary. The result is that Japan is actually getting less out of its investment in physics, with a few exceptions, than is the case in the US and Europe. This syndrome is of particular interest because there is presently a move in the US Congress and in the NSF leadership to place more emphasis on industrial ties in US science activities.

What can I conclude from these observations? Japan is a vigorous nation which has chosen a path notably different from ours. The difference are what makes it such an interesting place to visit. We can learn from the choices the Japanese have made and their outcomes, but we must be careful to understand the mistakes as well as the successes. We must not oversimplify. It requires a lifetime to understand a culture.


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