Book Reviews

Book Review: United States of Japan, by Peter Tieryas


United States of Japan

By: Peter Tieryas

Published: March 1, 2016 by Angry Robot

Page Count: 400 pages; paperback

The Rundown: “Decades ago, Japan won the Second World War.  Americans worship their infallible Emperor, and nobody believes Japan’s conduct in the war was anything but exemplary.  Nobody, that is, except the George Washingtons—a shadowy group of rebels fighting for freedom.  Their latest subversive tactic is to distribute an illegal video game that asks players to imagine what the world might be like if the United States had won the war instead.  Captain Beniko Ishimura’s job is to censor video games, and he’s working with Agent Akiko Tsukino of the secret police to get to the bottom of this disturbing new development.  But Ishimura’s hiding something… He’s slowly been discovering that the case of the George Washingtons is more complicated than it seems, and the subversive videogame’s origins are even more controversial and dangerous than either of them originally suspected.”

Don’t Get Strung Out By the Way I Look: Standing in front of a gray cityscape is an enormous mecha, the Japanese sun painted prominently on its left arm.  The red, white, and blue text reads: “The United States of Japan.”  It is an ominous image that effectively communicates to the reader the dystopian world of the novel.

What a Wonderful World: After Japan and Nazi Germany win World War II, the United States is incorporated into the Japanese Empire.  They force Americans to assimilate to Japanese culture, making them adopt Japanese names and feeding them Japanese propaganda.  Interestingly, most of this propaganda comes from state-sponsored video games, which all the characters play on computer-like devices called porticals.  In United States of Japan, technology is a tool of oppression rather than liberation.  Mechas patrol cities, gaming habits are used to detect subversive thinking, and tech is used to turn people into living sculptures.  In addition to being high-tech, the USJ is also hypocritical: they zealously pursue any sign of insubordination in their citizenry, but allow high-ranking military men and powerful criminals create violent, hedonistic houses of pleasure.  It’s no wonder there’s a rebellion.

The Good Guys: When he was a child, protagonist Beniko Ishimura betrayed his dissident parents to the secret police, causing their deaths.  Now an officer in the Japanese military, Beniko finds that his career has stalled.  He blames this on his compatriots’ fear of him—after all, if he was willing to betray his own parents, he won’t hesitate to turn on his coworkers.  However, the lack of promotion is more likely due to Beniko’s lazy attitude; he’d much rather pursue women than do his duties as a video game censor.  He comes across as a total sleaze, but there’s more to him than meets the eye.

Beniko finds himself forced to work with Akiko Tsukino, a member of the Tokko, Japan’s secret police force.  She’s a political hardliner who’s so devoted to her God-Emperor that she will immediately attack anyone who questions his divinity.  Even when she knows that her superiors are lying to her or treating prisoners cruelly, she obeys their directives.  But like Beniko, she has her secrets…

The Bad Guy: Beniko and Akiko are trying to find General Mutsuraga, who is believed to be the mastermind behind an illegal new game called United States of America.  The game envisions a society in which the Allies won the war.  It is especially subversive in that it does not gloss over the cruel tactics employed by Japanese troops.  Unfortunately for the protagonists, while the game is everywhere, Mutsuraga himself is nowhere to be found.

A+: United States of Japan is a study of revisionism.  The Empire tells an alternative history of the war, a history in which Japan committed no atrocities.  They were saviors, rescuing the world from American, British, and Russian imperialism.  Never mind that Japan and Germany are now imperialist powers themselves who are engaged in a cold war.  The Empire is just.  The Emperor is an infallible God.  Don’t let pesky things like “facts” convince you otherwise.  It is chilling, especially when you consider that the real Japan participates in historical revisionism, despite being a democracy.  Many Japanese citizens do not think the atrocities committed by Japanese troops were real, believing them instead to be a part of a disinformation campaign spread by the country’s enemies.

F-: In recent days, there’s been a lot of furor about the upcoming HBO show Confederate, which posits an alternative history in which the Confederacy won the U.S. Civil War.  Many people were angered, feeling that the show would sell slavery—and the sexual violence that goes along with it—as entertainment.  At best, it was as problematic; at worst, it was slavery fan fiction.  Is it appropriate to use real world atrocities as a backdrop for a fantasy setting?  You could argue that United States of Japan falls into the same category as Confederate by using the real world oppression of South Asian peoples as backdrop for a science fiction novel.  Personally, I wasn’t offended by it, but if you’re someone whose family experienced the real brutality of Japanese occupation, you might not enjoy this book.

Does it Represent…

Women: Interestingly, sexism does not seem to be present in the USJ, which has unrealistically achieved gender parity.  There are several cool female characters in the story, including the secret police’s Agent Akiko Tsukino, reporter Tiffany Kaneka, gamer Eagle Killer, and rebel leader Martha Washington.  Beniko’s friend Claire Mutsuraga is the Rue of the novel, standing in for the violence visited by the USJ on its citizens.

People of Color: Due to cultural assimilation, all of the characters in the novel have Japanese names, whether or not they are ethnically Japanese.  Beniko is ¾ Japanese and ¼ Chinese, but is given the perks of the full-blown Japanese.  Akiko, who is rabidly loyal to the regime, is interestingly not actually Japanese; she’s French and Korean.  She has completely internalized the narrative of Japanese supremacy, encouraging her fully Japanese boyfriend to donate sperm in order to maintain the racial identity of the Empire.  Despite its heterogeneity, the USJ is extremely racist, and racial segregation is the norm.  For example, those not ethnically Japanese have to use separate bathrooms.

LGBT People: I think there are some gay hookers?

The Disabled: A major character gets their arms amputated midway through the novel, and has one arm replaced with a sick gun prosthetic.  The USJ’s best mecha pilot is disabled, and Eagle Killer had her legs amputated so that she could interface with her games better… somehow.

Memorable Quote: “Shouldn’t we be magnanimous with the locals?  It’s their gods that have abandoned them, not ours.”

Recommended for: People who want to read a dystopian sci-fi novel interspersed with gruesome torture scenes.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars


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