Google gave me a piddling nine results for my search, but actually turned up something relevant:
"A popular genre of Chinese science fiction is an analog for steampunk, which Ken has dubbed "silkpunk." These stories are set in a classical or medieval East Asian setting, and instead of steam, the fictional inventions tend to be powered by wind, water, animals, or uniquely Chinese concepts like qi, ox sinew, and jiguan (a type of mechanical engineering associated with the Mohist philosophers of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods)."
(Ken Liu's author bio, The Dragon and the Stars
So silkpunk isn't set during the Industrial Revolution, then, but during China's dynastic history - at least in Chinese SF? (What about Japan or Korea? :/ Do they have their own analog, or is this all supposed to fall under the same umbrella?) This would explain the name, at least, when before I was staring at the screen sideways and wondering why the subgenre needed a different one just because the setting wasn't European. Buuuut I'm still not quite sure how accepted this definition is, or if it's just something one author came up with while no one else agrees, or what.
Writing technology into Ming China would be kind of awesome, but the request was for a Japanese setting. Initially I ran with the idea that this was supposed to be steampunk set in Japan, and started thinking about the Meiji and Taisho eras, where I thought I might find some potential for internal character conflict in Westernization (which includes but isn't limited to the adoption of new business values, new class/political values, literal industrialization ala factories, changes in dress, pressure from Christian missionaries, and a ton of things I am surely not thinking of here). Instead, it looks like I could take this back farther and set a story in Japan's warring states period, or maybe even earlier.
There are advantages to more modernized technology and invasion by unfamiliar cultures, but part of me doesn't want to touch Western colonial-anything with a ten-foot pole. I'm not sure I could do it right. But if I focus on a period where the major tensions were between Japan, Korea, and China, would I do that right? I feel like it might be less of a landmine, but then again, the three probably do not agree on certain points in history, which means I have just as much studying ahead of me.
I realized, thinking about this, that I have zero idea of anything related to Korea or Korean history, except as it's expressed in Japanese history and literature. I really need to fix that. It's not like it doesn't sound equally interesting, but that I've had a hard time finding books - at all. Meaning, there are almost never any on the shelves when I look. Earlier today I was reading a post on manhwa and how hardly any of it is translated into English, and seriously, that's a problem in more than just comic genres. As far as history goes, our bookstores weren't carrying any books on the subject when we had them, and I don't recall seeing much at my library, either, but I will check again. Hopefully I just wasn't looking hard enough. My intent is usually to find - you guessed it - Japanese history.
... what was I saying? I was thinking of using a diplomat character, and since telegraphs, phones, and so forth would make political disaster spread a lot faster, I'm slightly tempted to go with Taisho era. But I could easily localize it in an earlier setting, so I don't know. Don't even ask what sort of alternate power or technology I'd go with, because I have no freaking clue.
Silver Goggles looks like a blog I should read, though. I found it through this post about bamboo and coconut trees and their uses in steampunk, which never occurred to me. :D
I'm not sure how far I'll take this, or how into it I might get. Steampunk has a cool aesthetic, but at the moment I'm pretty neutral about it otherwise. I haven't read much fiction in the genre yet. For all I know this post might be appallingly ignorant - in more than one way.