Perhaps the most fascinating feature of Japanese culture is the ability to take an outside influence and amalgamate it with their own rich heritage to make a unique, yet ostensibly Japanese phenomenon. This effect is seeded in its relatively isolationist beginnings and resulting opening up to the world after the arrival of Commodore Perry and his “Black Ships.”
It is particularly interesting that the arrival of Perry during the late Takugawa Shogunate (1853-1867) and the resulting Meiji Restoration that resulted from it (1868-1912) intersected nicely with the Victorian era (1837-1901). This parallel between two contrasted histories that both experienced industrial revolutions during a reasonably overlapped period allows room for great discussion in the field of speculative fiction, namely Steampunk.
Perhaps the reason why Steampunk was primarily associated with Victoriana was due to the fact that science fiction in general was born in England by the pens of Verne and H.G. Wells. The two fathers of SF postulated a future of machinery, invasionism and romantic voyage, while infusing the romanticism of their non-genre counterparts. Meanwhile, in Japan, literature was shaped primarily by their own brands romanticism and classicism.
It would only take a century after Wells for Japanese Science Fiction to take form in its own uniquely Japanese aesthetic. With the worldwide popularization of Gundam, Evangellion and others, the meccha was the foremost symbol of Japanese technological speculation.
But the problem in trying to associate meccha with steampunk is the technology involved in creating such beings. Steampunk was speculative in the simplicity of the technology available at the time, whereas meccha was penned during an age where the Japanese were touted as technologically ahead of the rest of the world. It was only natural for both genres to be essentially different.
But what if we reversed the roles? What if we set the industrial revolution as originating in Japan, or more logically, reaching and taking off in Japan long before the Black Ships? Realistically, this is a plausible train of thought, considering that the Japanese were not isolated in the most literal sense of the word. Rangaku, or literally Western Learning, had its roots in Dejima, the sole foreign outpost in Japan during the isolated years of the Edo Period.
It was due to their connections with the Dutch that the Japanese learned of technology as it was being developed in Europe. This means the Industrial revolution. While idealistically traditional, the pursuit of technological advancement in Japan was strictly under the table, mainly against the wishes of the emperor and shogunate. One notable example of this is Wadokei, or Japanese clockwork.
One can imagine the possibilities of Japanese ingenuity and artistry when extrapolated to more grander designs. In particular, note the artistry of Japanese automata, or Karakuri Ningyo:
If automata were originally constructed to serve tea, imagine the other functions that could be imagined and realized through speculative Japanese fiction. Think Memoirs of a Fully Automated Geisha.
The steam in steampunk is fully applicable to Japanese speculative history when looked at through these avenues. However, while similar to Victorian era technology, the punk aspect is the ultimate difference maker in the genre, one that would make Bafuku Steampunk stand on its own apart from Victorian, and perhaps my favourite aspect of the genre. But that will have to wait until another day and another post.