So for this one I have a lot to say that I’ve wanted to say for more than a few years so I’m just jumping straight to my thesis right here at the top of the page: People use Japan as a handwavey scapegoat as a result of a background culture of “wacky Japan” jokes and growing up joking about Japanese video games. They also use it as a catch-all marker of reactionary sentiment partially in reaction to the supposed popularity of anime amongst the resurgent online right wing. The problem with all this is that it almost invariably extends beyond the media itself or even the (deserving) targets of mockery that this stuff is meant to lampoon. Especially in circles that spend a lot of time on nerdy bullshit like video games and TV shows, what arises is a kneejerk response to anything appearing to be of Japanese aesthetic sensibilities and a strange defensive environment where things are on some level expected to be enjoyed in spite of their country of origin. When Japanese media is reactionary, it is said to be a representation of a whole culture, when it isn’t it is said to be a surprising break from it and thus, no matter what, the discussion ends up at the supposed inherent backwards reactionary nature of Japanese popular culture.
My complaint naturally is not that people are critical of harmful and reactionary content in the media they consume or expect higher standards from it (all of which, I’d like to think, goes without saying but nevertheless it pays to be careful). My complaint is that, taken as a broad view, what this amounts to is discursive mechanisms constantly being oriented back to putting an entire country’s popular culture mediums on trial for the mistakes of any one of them over and over. Worse still this is being conducted in English speaking western circles amongst the inheritors of a culture of hate and suspicion towards Japan, going back much longer than Western investment in anime and video games. When it comes to queer issues specifically, we find ourselves rocketing straight into the kind of processes by which queer and feminist struggles are deployed by our nations to paint other cultures as backwards, barbaric and most importantly: in need of our guidance. It is hard to discuss Japanese media in an open and progressive forum without being dragged back to first principles about how X game did this hateful plotline about Y group, and while, again, it is important to be aware of those things, what occurs eventually is less awareness and more akin to derailing people trying to talk about British movies by constantly bringing up how Marvel movies treat women.
Which brings me to the important point here: Were this targeted at other countries in the exact same terms the progressive internet would have no trouble identifying that it seems at best a weird uncomfortable thing to say. Additionally it is important to note that it is never targeted against our own western nations that are plagued with the exact same issues. Can anime be racist? Yes. Can it be homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic or outright fascist? Absolutely yes. Does Japan have a nightmarish resurgent and powerful right wing at work in their political arena? While I am thin on details I believe that is also the case. The thing is though, we have all of that and we manage to have a wealth of critical discussion about it without writing off all western popular culture and patronising the one good thing we happen to see by saying it has risen above the backwards culture it was created in (though frankly, that would be significantly more reasonable, cus hey, reverse racism doesn’t exist). Western media isn’t judged on or used as a representation for its entire culture, and nor is it routinely presented as if America is the only western country in existence and also represents some kind of monoculture (though I could make some bitter jokes here that you can imagine for yourself).
That was something of a lie, though; I’m sure we can all remember a lot of recent and not so recent history in which the white western world picks and chooses individuals to uphold as representatives of entire cultures they wish to demonise. We’ve gone through the cycle a million times over by now – “rap is all about materialism and misogyny”, “jazz music is dirty” and so on. The point isn’t that these are the exact same scenario but it is that the processes at work here are total background noise to our culture, everyone has heard “good” rap being praised for “rising above” its own medium and thus being granted validity by white discovery and then ultimately ending up with Eminem being said to have taken the medium and done it better than anyone who came before (see also: the repeating cycle of westerners “discovering” the visual novel genre and being lauded for making it worthwhile via their touch, or y’know basically any other thing the west decries and then gets into).
The process can easily be seen with Japanese popular culture becoming the property of white westerners to fetishise, either to the point of projecting a fantasy of a racial purity state onto Japan, or to fashion it into a weapon used to blame our own festering political moment on pernicious outside influence (see: “Russia Stole The Election” instead of any kind of introspection about their treatment of minority and class from the American liberal establishment). Japan has long been an immediate source of fear for the west; it can be hard to remember, given how little America or any of the rest care to mention it, but a surrendering Japan was the first and only country to suffer nuclear bombing simply because America wished to use them as a show of force. Not only that, but Japanese people were branded enemies of the state, spies and talked about as some kind of bizarre invading hivemind (much as China is spoken about now). Later Japan became a scary boogeyman for western news to crank stories out about how they were taking over all the industry and stealing our “rightful place” at the top of the world. So, yes, Japanese cultural output should be criticised for its negative elements just as any other should, but if we are in the business of using that media to discuss an entire culture, then it behooves us to shine that light upon ourselves and the mechanisms at play in this specific focal point.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone operating in progressive circles making jokes about anime is a racist, nor am I saying disliking a show or a game or whatever else makes you one. For one thing, it isn’t my place to declare with any kind of finality, and for another, I would say the focus on asking if people “are” racist rather than whether or not their actions are resulting from or strengthening a racist culture is what makes people refuse to take the responsibility of examining their own actions – people object to the label and act as though they are under siege and go on to cement their defense of their actions, culture and position in it, rather than simply learning and moving on. However, I think it says a lot about where we are in this discussion that I feel I need to make this disclaimer when the heart of what I’m saying is is “it is racist to treat foreign cultures as needing to prove themselves as living up to standards your own has not remotely reached and in many ways is responsible for enforcing on the rest of the world.”
I have some theories about how we have ended up here, based largely on conjecture and my own experience with existing inside of this culture as it shifted over the years. Back in the good old utterly miserable days of forums run by, shall we say, “less enlightened figures” (most of whom have now rebranded as progressives who still run around doing the kind of stuff I’m complaining about right now at best), it was a pretty unquestioned thing that Japanese media was just worse, “Japan is wacky what kind of drugs do you even have to take to make this” and “Japan is perverse” were (and are) basically constants. Not to mention that in amongst all that, jokes about how you could never tell the gender of characters (and the resulting “trap” term that plagues trans women online) and a constantly repeated ritual of masculinity whereby any character being emotional was a step too far. In short, not only was this culture an outlet for a pervasive cultural suspicion of Japan itself, it doubled as a site to engage in chauvinism, homophobia, transphobia, and to do so at a distance that allowed any criticism of them to be dismissed because “anime tentacles” or whatever else.
Most engaged in these discursive circles now grew up in these environments and inevitably absorbed them as part of ourselves – the defensive “yeah it’s anime but it’s good”, or the open disgust for Japanese seeming media both as unconscious to us as breathing by this point. So, my theory about the progressives who would never act this way about another country or culture’s media is that they have never managed to conceive of Japan as either of those things, the western internet has reduced the country to a running joke, a political football to kick back and forth for the aggrandising of white people. Reactionaries latch onto all the stuff people rightly criticise as part of their childish agitation tactics until they operate in groups based entirely around it, they fantasise about their ideal racially pure nation purged of all the people who call them racists online or live in any way different to them etc. Progressives take a theoretically oppositional position that nonetheless barely conceives of Japan or its media as being a real thing that arises from physical reality. Everything Japanese becomes the property of white reactionaries through this back and forth, simply because at a time when anime is massively popular worldwide, people notice a lot of accounts with anime character avatars arguing on the internet, and those in turn use them to provoke further.
As established though, it is not that simple, it is the result of decades and decades of western culture teaching us that Japan and indeed all other non-western countries aren’t to be seen as places of culture and history comprised of countless individuals. They are instead props, places that exist only when we want them to, to be put down when they start seizing a place in reality for themselves and to be collectively held responsible for any single one of any one of their individuals, media or political bodies’ actions.
It is unfortunate that, ultimately, I’m just another white person with a poor grasp on Japan’s culture and history outside of its popular media output passing comment. However, it is honestly heartbreaking to me to see a medium that gave me so many of the stories about women and queer people that have affected me throughout my life be painted as this inherently hateful thing that can only hope to occasionally reach our glorious western standards. It is infuriating to see claims like that made from a culture that by no means has a friendly media environment for queer women, when we all very much know that fact until it comes time to conveniently forget so we can paint foreigners as backwards, intended or not. None of which matters because in all those cases I’m arguing about my white feelings against the white feelings of the medium’s detractors – what should matter is having enough thoughtfulness to recognise that making a nation of untold imperial victimhood on the part of the USA into the representative and property of white reactionaries is an absolutely vile thing to do.
Ultimately it shouldn’t even be about Japan either, we should be able to categorically recognise that western nations are so frequently able to transform our good intentions into joining in on calling for the removal of the scary Other. I know much of the response to this will suggest I’m upset about people criticising anime and video games, but I couldn’t care less about that, what matters to me is hopefully making even the smallest dent in this culture that sees no issue treating an entire nation as a symbol of barbaric outsiders and internal enemies – whether that be Japan, Russia, whichever oil rich nation we wish to build a pretext to invade and install fascist governments in that we can blame on their backwards culture years down the line, doesn’t matter.
Western exceptionalism should be fought in all its forms, and rather than think “it’s just anime”, I’d prefer to think that if we can’t even manage to halt this process in what should be simple, cut and dry arenas, then what chance do we have to get people to think about the broader impacts of this culture built on centuries of foundations and reinforcements. More than anything I want the unspoken concept that western countries are pioneers of queer rights and the effective owners of queer politics to die, not only because it is a tool the powerful use to justify all manner of politically convenient assaults on foreign cultures, but because we are the inheritors of the culture that stamped out what we now consider “queerness” across the planet. Foreign successes in LGBT rights and feminism aren’t because of our leading light, they are cultures very gradually reconfiguring themselves out of our shadow now we’ve stopped killing them for it (officially, anyway). The west in no way treats trans people with any kind of dignity, it is engaged in a process of eating away at abortion rights, it genocided gay people via the AIDs crisis in recent US history, and not a one of us has the right to talk down to any nation as a whole about “keeping up” with us when our present state is one of total barbarism and entrenched hate.
So finally, just to save us all some time here – I am not asking anybody to not criticise other nations’ policies, I am not saying people can’t be homophobic if they aren’t white, I am not saying don’t talk about serious issues common to a lot of anime or Japanese games. I am saying don’t do these things in a way that treats them as inherent to a “national psyche” or whatever other collective responsibility based framing, and I am also saying, don’t do these things if you cannot or will not apply them to our own output and if you are going to act as though western media, plagued as it is by queerbaiting and murdered queer characters and abused women even in its lauded better examples, is above all this.
Quite simply we are not better, we are not worse, we are the same in all ways apart from ours being the culture that crushed the world into the state it is in now.