by James Kirkup
Shinichi Hoshi was one of the best-known specialists in Japan in "essu effu" (SF, or science fiction). As in Britain, SF was looked down upon as a lowly form of art by the Japanese literary establishment, but Hoshi succeeded in writing 1,000 stories, a world record, by 1983.
The art of science fiction had a late start in Japan. In 1955, Kodansha published the first SF anthology, "Stories of Scientific Adventure", intended mainly for schoolchildren. Famous Western works by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Karel Capek, Aldous Huxley and Ray Bradbury had already gained popularity in Japanese translation, and influenced a number of novelists, including the late Kobo Abe.
Abe's almost exact contemporary, Shin'ichi Hoshi was brought up by his maternal grandmother, sister of the novelist Ogai Mori. Hoshi studied agriculture at Tokyo University and joined the family pharmaceutical business, founded by his father Hajime Hoshi, who was also a member of the Diet. On his death in 1957, the pharmacies went bankrupt, and Shin'ichi abandoned the profession.
In the same year, the pioneer Japanese SF magazine was born: Uchujin ("Space Dust"), a members-only journal, as is common in Japan. Hoshi published his first short story, "Sekisutora", in it, a text full of devastating black humour. It was reprinted in a commercial magazine, Hoseki, in 1957, and aroused great interest.
Hoshi excelled in parodies of human behaviour and acerbic portraits of common Japanese types in outer-space settings. He became an expert in what he called "shoto-shoto" (short short stories) with an O. Henry-style surprise switch at the last moment.
Science fiction began to take off in comics and animated cartoons. The illustrator Hiroshi Manabe said of Hoshi: "He reflected the spirit of the quickly changing modern world in the trick endings to his stories." His first collection was Jinzo Bijin ("Man-made Beauty") in 1958. In 1960 SF Magajin began publishing in association with the American magazine Fantasy and Science Fiction, introducing British and American SF writers to a growing audience of Japanese enthusiasts.
Hoshi and others began to have their works published in translation all over the world. He was translated into 10 languages and was particularly successful in Russia and the Eastern Bloc countries, while English translations appeared not only in Britain and the United States but also in Japan, where during the 1960s and 1970s the Japan Times published a series of his "short shorts".
Hoshi's most famous book is Bokko-chan (1963). It was followed by another collection, Oi-detakoi ("Hey There, Come on Out") in 1967, whose satirical humour brought him many fans. SF fiction became almost as popular as detective stories, and the two genres were often mingled. In 1968 Hoshi was awarded the Japan Detective Writers' Association Prize for Moso Ginko ("Delusion Bank").
But he also wrote longer works like the novel Koe no ami ("The Voice Net") in 1970, in which he showed great skill and insight in predicting the future in a literary form the French call a "novel of anticipation". It is a story of special interest today, with its theme of an "information world network" resembling our Internet's sinister encroachments, in which human beings fall completely under the control of their computers. His criticism of modern society and the consumer civilisation is here displayed with ferocious and comic disgust.
He wrote a fine biography of his grandfather Koganei Yoshikiyo (1859 - 1944), a famous anatomist and anthropologist. Hoshi composed another long work based on the life of his father, Jinmin wa yowashi kanri wa tsuyoshi, a title employing the words uttered by his bankrupt father: "The public are weak: the government is powerful." It tells of the hardships of his father's early life in America and his heart-breaking struggle with Japanese government bureaucracy and official interference and police harassment by the supervisors of the Ministry of Home Affairs' Medical Department that brought his father's firm to bankruptcy. This novel, 10 years in the writing, reveals the roots of Hoshi's bitterness.
He spent the last year of his life in hospital. The novelist Morio Kita describes meeting him at a literary party, looking unhappy and wretched, having lost all his former vigour, and yet capable, when drunk, of "interesting behaviour". Another writer, one also famous for his sardonic humour, Yasutaka Tsutsui, said, "Mr. Hoshi, when drunk, was a rich mine of black humour and the most preposterously funny tales. He spread the cult of SF throughout Japan, making his readers dream of other, possibly better worlds."
Shinichi Hoshi, writer: born Tokyo 1926; married; died Tokyo 30 December 1997.
First published in The Independent (London) on February 16, 1998. Reprinted with permission.