Marie-Antoinette Dimayuga

Anthropology 175 S

June 8, 2000



Nationalism in Manga and Anime

When Japan suffered defeat at the hands of the United States during World War II, it lapsed into an identity crisis, much of which is still felt today by its people. Because of this, nationalistic sentiments have taken on a different form, which ranges from changing views over traditional national symbols, to creating a new term of Japanese uniqueness- called nihonjinron. This identity crisis is most evident in the media, reflected in manga and anime.

When I took History 1C during fall quarter of 1997, my professor defined nationalism as the belief that the nation is the basic organizing category of society, and that the individual’s primary allegiance is to his or her nation. Nationalism used to be democratic but shifted to a conservative view. Democratic nationalism dealt with the country uniting to form a bond. Pride in one’s nation is the key. Conservative nationalism also emphasizes national pride, but at the expense of other nations. I will be looking at nationalism in its conservative form. Thus, nationalism can refer to how a nation views itself or how it views the outside world.

Cultural manifestations of nationalism come in a variety of forms: physical symbols, personages, rituals, and discourses. Every nation uses these instruments as a way of creating a sense of national identity, reminding its citizens of the importance of patriotism and bolstering loyalty to the nation [Befu 1992: 26]. Such instruments include the national anthem, the Japanese flag, national monuments, and royalty. However as we learned in lecture, after World War II Japan moved into a national vacuum when its people realized they could no longer relate to these symbols, for they were all related to war and were reminders of warfare. These instruments became regarded as symbols of aggression, not of pride and national identity. Japan’s defeat led to a wholesale rejection of prewar institutions and a wholehearted adoption of most of the occupation reforms as a means of ridding Japan of its inferior status as a vanquished state [Stronach 1995: 45]. Nihonjinron was born to fill in this vacuum. A term coined by Ruth Benedict and used in her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, nihonjinron is defined as the search for Japan’s cultural identity and uniqueness [Befu 1992: 26]. Although nihonjinron is a temporary substitute and does not exude strong feelings of nationalism as physical symbols, it is flexible and allows continuity of nationalistic ideology.

Nihonjinron’s flexibility is demonstrated in humor and the media. Both are often used as social critics, safe outlets to express one’s comments and opinions about the state of society. The Japanese use humor, in the form of manga and anime, to exude nationalistic sentiments, but at the same time to convey feelings of identity loss. Manga can be traced back to forms of humorous art as far back as the 12th century with the Chōjūgiga, or "Animal Scrolls", a satire on the clergy and nobility [Schodt 1996: 22]. Its present physical form as a comic book arrived around the same time as did American comic books, during the 1930s. However, in contrast to its much slimmer Western counterparts, manga are very thick comic books. Whereas a typical American comic book ranges from 30-50 pages long, manga can range from 250-400 pages [Schodt 1996: 23]. Anime, manga’s predecessor, originated around 1914, in which cartoonists were among the first Japanese artist to experiment with animated motion pictures. Japan’s first worldwide success was Kitayama Seitaro’s short film Momotaro [O’ Connell]. Manga and anime appeal to Japanese people from all walks of life, from the young elementary school student to the middle-aged salaryman.

Since their initial meeting in July 1853, Japan and the United States developed a tumultuous love affair. At first the United States viewed Japan as a small and harmless, but charming country and took it under its wing. In return, the Japanese eagerly welcomed modernization and adopted Western attitudes, fashion, its government, culture, and technology. But victory over the Russians during the Russo-Japanese war in 1904 caused the Americans to see the Japanese differently for the first time. The defeat of a Caucasian power by a non-Caucasian race negated the concept of Western superiority upon which the legitimacy of colonialism rested [Stronach 1995: 9]. Japan proved to be a formidable opponent and good student as it competed with the United States as a non-Western colonial, imperialist power in Asia. Conflict and tension between the two nations culminated in 1941, when the tiny archipelago struck out at its former sensei. Four years later, when the United States retaliated and taught its upstart pupil a lesson, it drastically altered Japanese society a second time. After their loss in World War II, nationalistic attitudes changed, reflected in the media. Stories about invading giants that thrash cities surfaced, such as the infamous Godzilla. One example is found in an anime series called the Macross Saga, the Japanese (and original) version of the popular Americanized cartoon "Robotech". I will focus on the first installment in the series, "Macross in Clash of the Bionoids". In the Macross movies giant aliens called the Zentradi invaded Earth, wiping out most of civilization. The surviving earthlings escaped and made their new home in the Macross, a giant space ship. These earthlings continue to fight for their survival as they battle the Zentradi in space and on Earth. This can be seen as an analogy to the Allied invasion of Japan. In one scene two of the main characters, Lieutenant Hiraku Ichiko and his commanding officer Captain Misa Hayashi are stranded on the desolate Earth. It is a dry, gray wasteland, with no sign of life. This seems analogous to the state of Japan after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Japan’s defeat in 1945 caused a national loss of confidence that clearly extended to its self-image. Western ideals of beauty were not only accepted but also pursued, often to a ludicrous degree [Schodt 1996: 60-61]. This is most evident in popular culture, namely manga and anime. When most foreigners look at manga for the first time today and see characters with huge saucer eyes, lanky legs, and what appears to be blonde hair, they often want to know why there are so many ‘Caucasian’ people in the stories. When told that most of these characters are not ‘Caucasians’, but ‘Japanese’, they are flabbergasted [Schodt 1996: 58]. An example is the character Sailormoon. Sailormoon is a highly popular children’s manga, which crossed over to anime and enjoys a substantial amount of worldwide success. The story centers on 14-year-old Usagi Tsukino, a typical Japanese schoolgirl. When evil shows up to threaten the innocent, Usagi transforms into Sailormoon, defender of justice and the weak. Complete with magical powers and superheroine costume, -a sexy and mature version of Usagi’s sailor suit style school uniform- Sailormoon keeps the city safe at night while her alter ego Usagi goes to school during the day [Grigsby 1999: 181]. As I mentioned, Sailormoon/Usagi is supposedly Japanese; however she like most manga and anime characters, does not look Asian at all. Possessing obviously Western features, Sailormoon’s blonde hair and big blue eyes can be explained by a cultural metamorphosis in Japan. Before they came into contact with westerners, the Japanese drew themselves with Asian features. However, after contact with the West, particularly after World War II and U.S. reconstruction of Japan, they began to depict themselves with idealized western physical characteristics: round eyes, blonde, red, or brown hair, long legs, and tall thin bodies [Grigsby 1999: 191]. One example that clearly demonstrates the difference between manga/anime of today and of pre-World War II is the Four Immigrants Manga. Fredrik L Schodt, who provided the introduction, translation, and notes for the 1999 reproduction, discovered the manga in 1980 when he was doing research. Schodt explains that the Four Immigrants Manga has a unique history behind it. First issued in 1931, the place of publication was not in Japan, but in San Francisco. It thus has the distinction of being one of the first modern "comic books" ever published in America [Schodt 1999: 7]. In addition the comic is autobiographical. It tells the story of author Henry Yoshita Kiyama’s real-life experiences with his friends as young Japanese men living in San Francisco in the early 20th century. What is interesting to note is that although Kiyama’s layout of his comic book was influenced by American cartoonists (such as use of word balloons and the order in which panels are read), the Japanese characters look more Asian than Western. Instead of exaggerated appearances such as enormous eyes and ridiculously long legs found in modern manga, the characters in the Four Immigrants Manga have slanted eyes and average looking bodies.

One can understand Japan’s fascination with Western culture. I consider it the "grass is greener" effect: that which is unfamiliar and unique yields mystery, excitement, and intrigue. This is of course true for Americans also as we eat sushi, drive Japanese cars, play Japanese video games, and take anthropology classes on Japanese society. However, as big an influence Japan is to the United States, American animators have never drawn any American cartoon or comic book characters with Asian features. A very simple and logical answer to why Japanese animated characters have Western features is because anything related to English and to the West leads to good revenue. For example, although most of the characters’ dialogue is printed in Japanese, there is always at least one English word on the cover of manga. The consensus is that in Japan, English sells products, possibly because of buyer association of English with quality merchandise, novelty, or modernity, and the symbolic value placed on things Western in the aftermath of World War II [Grigsby 1999: 192]. In addition the Japanese often use foreigners, usually Caucasians, in their advertising. According to Millie Creighton’s essay "Soto and Uchi ‘Others: Imaging Racial Diversity, Imagining Homogenous Japan", by providing an oppositional contrast, these images help construct and perpetuate an imagined Japanese self-identity [1997: 212]. Images of foreigners in Japanese advertising function to underscore Japanese identity by visual citations of what Japan and Japanese are not. The Japanese self is thus created in juxtaposition with soto Others [213]. (They) become fantasy vignettes, representations of exoticism, visual quotations of Otherness, while foreigners are rendered misemono, things to look at, and not quite real [Creighton 1997: 214].

To say that the Japanese use white foreigners in advertising and Western images in animation simply to appeal to the consumer’s feelings of soto barely scratches the surface, however. Creighton postulates that one of the major reasons images of white foreigners are so prevalent in Japanese media is because although the Japanese perceive them as "not quite real", they identify with them symbolically. In Western culture the colors black and white transcend mere skin color. Black and white represents one’s socioeconomic status and place in the social hierarchy. ‘White’ has always been associated with power, prestige, modernity, and progress, while ‘Black’ is usually linked to inferiority and lower economic status. The Japanese appear to have taken note of their role as one of the most successful countries in Asia and applied their knowledge of Western society to their feelings of elevated economic and social prestige. With the post-war attainment of fully modernized nation status, a high level of economic affluence and some of the world’s most efficiently run business institutions, mainstream Japanese have entered the symbolic space of ‘White’, a space suggesting privilege, economic and political prominence, and cultural dominance [Creighton 1997: 228]. In addition, they further solidified their symbolic place of ‘White’ by creating their own versions of ‘Black’- minorities such as the Burakumin, the Ainu, the Okinawans, and non-Japanese Asians. One example is found in "Macross in Clash of the Bionoids", with the Chinese character Lynn Minmei. Her character seems to suggest that Chinese women are merely sexy, flirty, and bubbleheaded. It seems that Minmei’s main purpose in the movie is to look pretty and get into trouble so that Hiraku can come and rescue her. Although Hiraku falls for Minmei at first, in the end he chooses Misa, who by the end of the movie seems to transform from an officer into the ideal Japanese woman- a good housewife.

In spite of the general positive attitude towards Western countries namely the United States, it is not uncommon for the Japanese media to sometimes portray their favorite Western country in a negative light. It is perplexing to see that although Japanese characters in manga and anime have Western features, in some cases American characters are depicted as evil, corrupt, stupid, or as stereotypical caricatures. One example is found in "Riding Bean". The story centers on Bean Bandit, a courier for hire framed for the kidnapping of a tycoon’s daughter. Set in Chicago, most of the characters are American, but one particular character stands out: Detective Percy of the Chicago Police Department. Percy is the archetypal image of the American: obnoxious, loud, bullying, and boisterous. He has slicked back blonde hair, wears a white suit with a black shirt and red tie, and drives a blue Shelby Mustang Cobra, the epitome of the American muscle car. At one point he actually screams a very stereotypical American "YEE-HAW!" A more explicitly negative portrayal of Americans is in "The Professional- Golgo 13". The main character is Duke Togo (code name Golgo 13), a professional hit man. When Golgo 13 assassinates the son of Leonard Dawson, a rich and powerful businessman, Dawson swears to have the hit man eradicated by any means necessary. The movie attacks American big business and government. The extremely wealthy Dawson uses and abuses his economic power over high-ranking government officials such as the heads of the CIA and FBI, the Army Special Investigator, and the Pentagon Information Director. The officials are portrayed as corrupt, greedy yes men with no morals, sacrificing their own men’s lives to take out Golgo 13. These men with powerful positions in our nation’s law enforcing and defense organizations are depicted as mere underlings to corporate America. At one point when the government officials express their difficulties in killing Golgo 13, an enraged Dawson threatens to close down his companies that will lead to a shutdown in the U.S. economy.

Another negative, but less explicit portrayal of the Americans is from the manga Silent Service. In the story, the United States and a secret Japanese government create Japan’s first nuclear-powered submarine. On a test run the submarine’s crew, led by Commander Shirō Kaieda, mutinies and takes off. Kaieda christens the sub the Yamato -the name of both ancient Japan and one of the most famous but doomed battleships of World War II [Schodt 1996: 165]- and declares the sub as an independent nation. Considered a threat to national security, the United States and the Soviet Union join forces to destroy Yamato, while Japan is torn between wanting to join them or to save the renegade submarine. Yamato succeeds in skillfully outmaneuvering and destroying most of the U.S. and Soviet naval fleets, humiliating both superpowers. As the series unfolds, readers gradually learn that Kaeida’s real goal, despite his use of force and violence, is world nuclear disarmament and the creation of a transnational military force to enforce world peace [Schodt 1996: 166]. Yamato’s terrorist tactics cause nation capitals around the world to fall into disorder as world leaders scramble to find ways to resolve the situation. When Silent Service first appeared in 1989, it quickly achieved immense popularity among the Japanese. The series ran for seven years, was featured in all the major media in Japan, and even in national newspapers in the United States. It was a hotbed of discussion and analysis for political, economic, and technology experts. By 1996 the story was converted into anime format, and the original 29 paperback volumes had sold over 22 million copies [Schodt 1996: 166]. It is obvious why Silent Service was so popular with the Japanese audience. It appealed to a latent nationalism and also surfaced in the public consciousness of Japan when people were still somewhat giddy from the economic and technological successes of the 1980’s. There was a sense that Japan’s superior technology and enlightened views of mankind would lead the world into a new, better, era, and that the United States in particular, was old and in the way. Silent Service articulated many of the rarely vocalized national aspirations of the general public [Schodt 1996: 167].

With the help of the American Occupation after 1945, Japan rapidly rebuilt itself and rose out of the nuclear ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to become a leading superpower in Asia. However as it continues its role as dutiful student of Western culture and maintains its love affair with the United States, Japan’s need to catch up to the West by continuing to Westernize, while at the same time maintaining distinctions between itself and the rest of the world in order to maintain its own identity, continues to be a strong element of Japanese nationalism [Stronach 1995: 44]. As long as Japan’s identity crisis remains, nihonjinron continues to serve as a bandage for its people, as they identify with their Western neighbors but paradoxically separate themselves from those soto Others.




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Translated with an introduction and notes by Fredrik L. Schodt. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press.

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Macross in Clash of the Bionoids. Dir. Shoji Kawamori. With Akira Kamiya and Ijima Mari. Tatsumo

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Riding Bean. Dir. Hasegawa Yasuo. With Patrick Lawlor, Brennan MacKenzie, and Barbara Lewis. Youmex,

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The Professional- Golgo 13. Dir. Osamu Dezaki. With Greg Snegoff, Michael McConnohie, and Mike

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