Review: United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

Posted by DarkChaplain at 11/11/2016
A spiritual sequel to The Man In The High Castle, focusing on the New Japanese Empire, from an acclaimed author and essayist.

The Axis won WWII and now, in the late 1980s, the Japanese Empire rules over the western US states, their power assured by technological superiority (giant mecha, etc.) But when a video game emerges that posits a worldwhere the allies won, a game censor and an Imperial Government agent discover truths about the empire that make them question their loyalty.
This book has been on my reading list for most of the year. For some reason it always slipped my mind, until I ordered a print copy. But when I started it just this week, I ended up devouring and loving it.

The Story:
"A spiritual sequel to The Man In The High Castle, focusing on the New Japanese Empire, from an acclaimed author and essayist.

The Axis won WWII and now, in the late 1980s, the Japanese Empire rules over the western US states, their power assured by technological superiority (giant mecha, etc.) But when a video game emerges that posits a worldwhere the allies won, a game censor and an Imperial Government agent discover truths about the empire that make them question their loyalty."

The Review:
Earlier this year I decided to read The Man in the High Castle. The idea of what might have been had Nazi Germany and the Axis won World War II back then is an interesting one to me. Not only because I am german myself and see what effects, positive and negative alike, the outcome and ensuring stigma had and has to this day, but also because it would have been a domino effect for a lot of things in the world to take different routes. The United States of America would likely not nearly be as dominant in the world as right now, various wars would not have happened, or in a very different way, and ideological directions might have been shifted away from self-devouring capitalism into authoritarian kinds of socialism instead.
A lot of things would have been worse off, while some others might have seen more rapid developments, especially on the technological front.

United States of Japan tackles those points excellently. It builds upon The Man in the High Castle, runs further down that road, and provides a shocking thriller in a world dominated by fear, oppression and violence. Set around 40 years after the conclusion of the second World War and victory by the Axis, propaganda is rampant, and any hint of doubt in the japanese emperor's divinity or the regime may see you lynched and executed. Mechas are patrolling the streets of the United States, now belonging mostly to Japan, and every form of media is heavily censored and may even include bait for potential dissidents to swallow and get tracked through. It is a horrible world where wrongthink is punished excessively, and a simple accusation, no matter how false, can see your head on a spike.

Many of the rapid technological advances, such as the far earlier widespread adoption of mobile phone technology through "Porticals" and the Internet via the "kikkai", and virtual reality gaming don't serve to increase liberty but get perverted into methods of persecution and brainwashing. Even today, in our otherwise more enlightened age, voices are still popping up here and there claiming that video games, for example, make Gamers violent or sexist, but in the USJ, gaming is actually used as a way to shape public opinion on a grand scale, and indoctrinate children, teenagers and even adults.
Non-asians are regarded as lower class citizens and heavily scrutinized. While on the surface, everyone who worships the emperor is considered equal, erasing a lot real of sexism and bigotry from the USJ, the truth is quite different, and a single suspected traitor in the family can doom everyone related.
The many ways in which United States of Japan describes and visualizes actual fascism go beyond the wildest imaginations of easily-offended people on social media - and its success here is utterly terrifying.

Enter Beniko Ishimura, son of a mixed couple from the old United States of America. He was born not long after his parents were freed from the concentration camps for asians the Americans raised during WW2, yet seemingly gave his family up as traitors during his childhood. He is regarded well enough by his peers, but has a reputation for laziness and is locked in his position as a Censor of video games. When he is contacted by an old superior through highly questionable means, his hope of finally getting promoted is dashed and he is paid visit by agent Akiko Tsukino of the secret police.
Turns out said superior, general Mutsuraga, is accused of being a traitor and his contact with Ishimura tainted the latter's reputation. Beniko's life becomes a lot more complicated from here on out, as he sides with agent Tsukino in trying to expose Mutsuraga, who seemingly allied with the american rebels, the "George Washingtons", and even created a propaganda video game for them, depicting an alternate version history could have taken, had the Axis lost the war - our reality. With unsettled business between him and Mutsuraga, Ishimura is prepared to go the whole way and set things right.

I loved Ishimura's character. He is outwardly lazy, yet highly competent and intelligent. There are a lot of surprises spread out through the book, and while he may seem sleazy at first, my opinion of him rose further and further as his past experiences and reflection unravel the half-truths and outright lies of the regime. What may have been a highly entertaining revenge story instead turned into a complex, layered, innovative venture for justice. It is a novel of buried grief and false pretenses, of fear and underhanded resistance. The further you get, the more of an understanding you get of the deeper scars of all the major characters and their entanglements.

Agent Tsukino, too, was compelling and maybe showed the most growth in the cast. She goes from being a stern, impulsively dangerous woman in service of her emperor to becoming more self-aware, more righteous than self-righteous and, overall, more honest with herself. Her change from utter hardliner to developing a more open mind due to all she has to go through, from political persecution, scapegoating and violent torture, was a major draw of this book.
And yes, there is torture, and excessive violence. If you cannot stomach that, you'd best not touch the book. Everybody here suffers on some level, some psychologically, others in very real, very tangible and very shocking ways. Tieryas didn't pull any punches, and the first major torture scene hit me like a brick. I almost couldn't believe that he'd go through with it on this level, thinking it was an act, something he could write himself out of.
He didn't. As disturbing as the results were, they were impressively handled and, for all their cruelty, made the setting and characters feel much more alive.

The way the George Washingtons fully adopted a perverted version of christianity was stunning as well. Their utter belief in their god, with additions to and vile interpretations of biblical texts were bordering on mania. Their hot-blooded religious zeal contrasted well with the cold-blooded belief of the secret services acting in their god-emperor's name. It also showed that neither side's extremism is a good answer, and that all things can be turned to evil if only the justifications are strong enough in the perpetrator's mind.

Everyone here is haunted by elements of their past, whether it be Ishimura, Tsukino, Mutsuraga or the George Washingtons. Nobody is clean here, and everybody is trying to do something they believe is right. For team Ishimura & Tsukino, it is a long, hard road of cooperation despite mutual misgivings about one another, and one that shapes the novel just as much as the ghosts of the past and buried war crimes. If there's anything to take away from the book, it is that fanaticism and extremism don't solve anything and only cause further destruction and grief.

Straight-up references to The Man in the High Castle are relatively sparse. I spotted a few easter eggs here and there, but mostly the familiarity is down to the setting. United States of Japan is a spiritual successor to Philip K. Dick's work, bringing up similar ideas and themes, yet also mixing it up and adding a lot of substance and action. As much as I enjoyed Dick's novel, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed at its conclusion, and I can certainly see it being too slow for a lot of readers. With USJ, it is almost the polar opposite: The book's pace is incredibly quick, spanning only a few days as far as the present-day plotline is concerned. There is more than enough action to keep blockbuster fans engaged. Plenty of intrigue and specks of new information keep you thinking and connecting dots, before everything becomes utterly clear in the end and blows up big time.

If nothing else, you'll get a kick-ass dystopian action thriller with all bells and whistles. But there is much more to United States of Japan; enough to make it one of my favorite and quickest reads of what 2016 had to offer. Give it a whirl and be amazed at what Peter Tieryas constructed here. It won't be pretty, but is highly compelling!

United States of Japan on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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