I’ve been thinking about Bobduh’s essay lately. Despite the trollbait title, it actually does provide a nuanced argument about how people consume media – at least as far as one’s personal politics goes. For those who haven’t read it, the basic argument is as follows: a little self-scrutiny goes a long way. Thinking hard about why you like certain things is ultimately a more fruitful avenue of discussion than hiding behind self-defence measures, like claiming “IT’S JUST FICTION” or assuming everything you like is “SODEEP”.
What struck me as most interesting is this idea that all media propagates messages, whether consciously or not, along with Bobduh’s claim that a message unexamined is a message believed. The latter is not entirely true in the strictest sense – not paying attention to the racist overtones in, say, H.P. Lovecraft’s works doesn’t automatically mean you’re a racist. If someone posed the question to you whether you condoned racism or not, I like to think you’d say no if you consider yourself as a decent person. But in not engaging with active criticism, you’re passively endorsing values you don’t agree with, or at least letting them go unchallenged.
I think this is particularly important in anime fandom, especially considering the realities of Japanese nationalism and soft power. In this post, I’m going to build on Bobduh’s argument that you should be engaging in serious critique rather than using your media solely to validate yourself, and I’m going to apply that to the broader political context behind anime’s production and consumption. I think it becomes easier to seriously examine your own personal politics when you zoom out and explore the macro-politics. (Because these are big, complex issues, don’t take my post as anything more than an oversimplification. The idea is just to get you thinking about how the personal and the political interact.)
Basically, your taste is bad and so are you and so is Japan and so is the rest of the world.
Whaaaaaat? How is anime political?
Anime is political in the way all media is political. I think it’s easy to just think of politics in terms of parties and speeches. But politics is moved by people, which means it’s thoroughly intertwined with social values and culture. And that sort of stuff comes through our day-to-day actions and our media.
In the case of anime fandom, we’re dealing with the media products of a foreign country, so on the surface level it seems less relevant to what is going on with our lives. Yes, you’ll find some familiar ideas and themes relevant to your outlook on the world because the storytelling in anime is universal to a degree. But there’s more to critiquing anime than just identifying common elements and assuming they mean the same thing everywhere. People – and cultures – are more complicated than that. The assumptions fans make about anime and Japanese society at large are key here.
What I mean by this is how you interpret your media is more important than what the media actually is. There is no such thing as an “objective essence” to a media product, even if there are aspects which are widely agreed upon. Subtext, too, is fluid. How literary scholars interpreted the subtext in Shakespeare’s plays changed enormously when Freudian analysis came into vogue, and the accepted interpretations have changed even more since then. And, of course, people disagree with each other about subtext all the time, as the comments on Guy’s infamous post about Mahouka’s political subtext clearly demonstrate.
So the act of watching an anime and becoming a fan of it – which involves making the assumption that it has something special to say to you in particular – is significant because it decontextualises the media. The circumstances in which the media was originally created mean little and are outright ignored in most cases. Consumers see emotional truth in a story because it affirms something they have always believed, or they can read themselves into it.
Now let’s put this into context. Because fans create their own meanings for the media they enjoy, they’re not likely to adopt new ideas based on the political context of the work. It’s for this reason that the Japanese government’s attempts to wield anime as “soft power” yield limited success. The idea behind soft power is that by exposing global consumers to anime, they will like Japan better. This doesn’t produce controllable effects because a) there’s no focus to the goal (see: Murphy 2010) and b) Japan doesn’t actually care about accepting migrants or catering their cartoons to foreign tastes.
The latter is really oversimplifying things, of course, but that’s basically how the situation is. Besides a few notable exceptions (Space Dandy, Under the Dog) the Japanese anime market caters almost solely to a domestic audience. So while the Japanese government obviously cares about promoting anime’s “cool” image, the philosophy behind it can be summed up as: “JAPAN IS SO UNIQUE AND SUGOI. I BET THE FOREIGNERS THINK SO TOO. LET’S TELL THEM HOW COOL WE ARE WITHOUT ACTUALLY COMMUNICATING WITH THEM.”
As for Japan’s policy on immigrants, the number of immigrants accepted into the country remains incredibly low, despite Japan’s plummeting birth rate. It really says something about the Liberal Democratic Party’s attitude on this issue that a high-ranking official would only speak up about accepting more foreigners on condition of remaining anonymous.
The motive for rejecting immigration is to prevent drastic changes from occurring in Japanese society and protecting the Japanese identity (whatever that may be). This, along with pushing for anime as soft power, points to a distinct political agenda: Japanese nationalism.
Modern anime trends make sense when they’re perceived through these lenses. Yes, they’re all about making money, but they’re also about crafting a national identity. This is not limited to the anime industry – it shows across all of Japan’s cultural industries, including (but not limited to) enka, J-pop and manzai comedy. (See, for instance, Stocker 2001 and Yano 2002) Those bizarre, “that’s so anime!” moments which turn up in anime so frequently are part of a complex identity creation process. Anime is forever in the search of becoming more like anime.
While I highly doubt nationalism is being propagated through anime as a conscious right-wing campaign, there’s a degree of self-validation and conservatism inherent to the medium. This is particularly understandable given the context of Japan’s economic stagnation and its uncertain domestic situation. Nationalism is a powerful ideology that brings people together in times of trouble, but there’s a darker side to it too, because nothing brings people together like hating a common enemy. And in Japan’s case, the big enemies are China and Korea.
I’ve avoided using the word “otaku” so far, but I think it’s worth pointing out that there is a non-trivial link between moe otaku and right-wing nationalism. This is not to say that all otaku are right-wing nuts, or even that otaku are more overtly nationalist than other subsets of the population. With hate speech against Chinese and Koreans on the rise across all of Japan, maybe it’s inappropriate to point fingers against otaku in particular. But the fact that such attitudes are part of the mainstream is perhaps even more unsettling.
As seemingly apolitical most anime are, nationalist overtones do occasionally slip into the narratives from time to time. Code Geass is one example; Mahouka is another. I think it’s also important to think about what isn’t shown in anime, as far as cultural representations go. As I write this post, I can’t think of any popular anime featuring Koreans in prominent roles, aside from Akatsuki no Yona, which hasn’t even aired yet. There’s also the Winter Sonata anime, but that was based off the massively popular Korean drama. The sheer absence of Koreans in anime is really concerning – it indicates a desire to wipe Koreans out of sight and out of mind.
And given the heated reactions that arise when Korean things are so much as even shown passingly in anime, it’s no wonder there’s an almost complete absence of Korea in anime – despite how heavily involved Korean animators are with the actual production side of things. There was a shitstorm on 2ch when the Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo anime showed a Korean dish briefly in episode 6. This caused a number of viewers to boycott the anime and rate it one star on Amazon. A similar (though smaller) controversy happened with Hentai Ouji to Warawanai Neko, when a bit of product placement for a Korean artist was shown passively in the background.
But arguably the most virulent form of Korea hate in anime and manga comes through Kenkanryu, which literally means “Hating Korea Wave”. This manga, which was never translated into English (for good reason, no doubt) is about historical revisionism. It attempts to describe the “true history” of Japan’s actions during World War II. Those uncivilised Koreans ought to be grateful they were colonised by the Japanese! The rape of Nanking was just an exaggeration – it wasn’t that big a deal! The comfort women thing is just a conspiracy! They weren’t actually raped because they asked for it!
To sum it up, privileged young Japanese guys attempt to MANSPLAIN the world. Depressingly enough, Kenkanryu was a bestseller.
“So What Does That Have to do with Me?”
Realistically speaking, there’s not much you can do to change Japan’s conservative politics. Your taste in anime will not have a direct bearing on the situation, so you hardly need to worry about that.
But please, bear this in mind: when you glorify anime and describe it as somehow “unique” or “superior” to western media, you are buying into the Orientalist myth. Besides making you look like an idiot, being a weaboo has the serious consequence of stroking Japan’s ego. You are unconsciously affirming the unhealthy brand of nationalism I’ve described in this post.
Even if you do consider yourself a critical person and you are not a fan of anime just because it is Japanese or whatever, to claim neutrality would be beside the point. Form/text-based criticism overlooks the implicit values anime is propagating about the so-called “uniqueness” of Japanese culture. This is also a serious point of contention for scholars, not just “fans” in the typical sense. Iwabuchi (2010) argues that “being supposedly politically neutral will mean colluding overtly and covertly with the uncritical pragmatic uses of media culture” for what he deems “brand nationalism”.
This is not to say anime is created and distributed for the purposes of EVIL, but the impulses which Bobduh criticises in his essay are just as relevant to a country’s politics as they are to English-speaking anime fans on the internet. Like the fans who adopt their media and use it to create an identity around how “special” they are, so too do Japanese consumers and content creators shape their identity alongside their media.
So what is the takeaway message from this? I’ve presented some of the ways anime is appropriated by the Japanese public and the government, but none of this is set in stone. Your own fandom activities (including reading this blog!) are a part of this complex process of cultural exchange and identity creation. And being critical about this whole process is a good thing, because by being aware of it, it’s easier to understand yourself and the part you play in it.
Don’t fall into the trap of just using your media preferences to validate your own worldview. Do question your preferences and why your favourite anime seems special to you. What does it mean to other people? What might it mean in its original context?
This is a pretty complex topic which I know I can’t do justice to, so feel free to ask questions and add your own input!
(Note: You can read this post as my response to my earlier post about the “otaku database”. I’ve been wanting to update that post for a while because I think it falls into the trap of romanticising otaku culture. While I do appreciate my own desire to be open-minded, I think it’s best to maintain critical distance.)