Japan is a Place on Earth
October 22, 2018 5:35 AM   Subscribe

"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."
posted by Sokka shot first (34 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thank you for posting this. I was trying to formulate a more engaged comment than this, but I’ve been awake since 0230 despite my best efforts, and I just don’t have the bandwidth to put together something cogent. But this is a good read with a lot of food for thought, that puts into words something that has subconsciously bothered me for a while.
posted by Caduceus at 6:24 AM on October 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm super interested in this topic but couldn't get through this piece. The writing.. oh my.

That being said, there have been a couple instances of this recently that I found quite interesting. The first that comes to mind would be the controversy in anime circles regarding Netlfix's Neo Yokio. Is it anime if it's in a similar style, makes references to anime and is directed by Kazuhiro Furuhashi? Or is it not anime because it's created by Ezra Koenig and is produced by Netflix? What is it? And also who cares? Why is there such a fevered debate around what is and isn't anime?
posted by RobertFrost at 6:30 AM on October 22, 2018 [7 favorites]


What is it?

It's a goddamn masterpiece, is what, but that's neither here nor there.
posted by Sokka shot first at 6:42 AM on October 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


I feel like there are some interesting points being made, but I really wish the writer had worked out specific examples for their ideas, instead of sticking to broad strokes and generalizations. Hypercritical attitudes toward Japanese anime; depictions of queer and feminist issues in anime in ways that are good, or bad; treating a whole country as a monolith; and so on... it's hard to have a discussion at this incredibly broad level.
(I also find myself wanting to respond "Yes, well, that may be so but Japan itself doesn't know and couldn't care less." Japan has its own exceptionalism, or insularity, to match the West's version, in both good and bad senses.)
posted by huimangm at 6:55 AM on October 22, 2018 [10 favorites]


And also who cares? Why is there such a fevered debate around what is and isn't anime?

The fanbase does. It's a form of backlash against being stereotyped themselves (it's not for kids, it's hyperviolent schlock too, oh wait, it's not ALL hyperviolent schlock, please read my 10,000 word screed about it, where are you going...) -- plus fetishizing Japan and all its cultural output, in some cases.

The fanbase tends to believe that "Real" Anime = Always Good; Western Animation = Always Bad. Similarly, dubs are always pure evil forever and ever. Fandom does not tend to do nuance well.
posted by cage and aquarium at 6:57 AM on October 22, 2018 [7 favorites]


Yeah, this was pretty hard to get through. "Wacky Japan" is a fertile subject for critique but I'm not sure that's what this essay is doing. The author seems to use anime interchangeably with Japanese culture as a whole, Japanese media, and Japan itself (which is not a good thing to do, especially if you're working under "Japan is a place on Earth" as a frame). I can't tell whether the primary concern is that the unidentified critics are treating anime as an inferior art form, "inherently hateful", wacky, perverse, pet of the right wing, or what. Would help if the author had quoted the kind of writing about anime that they consider problematic, and then grounded their reactions in actual anime that was meaningful to them.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 7:02 AM on October 22, 2018 [4 favorites]


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.

That pretty much sums up this article.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:04 AM on October 22, 2018 [16 favorites]


“Don’t judge all Japanese culture on the weird subset of it that fetishizing weirdos glom on to” seems to a fairly simple and obvious point that this article is maybe trying to make? Maybe? I dunno, there’s hoards of nazis out there with anime avatars, getting upset that people have noticed that seems a weird approach versus, say, saying that says more about nazis than it dies anime or something, if you really wanted to make that point.

Maybe we are not the target audience for this?
posted by Artw at 7:25 AM on October 22, 2018


I also agree with the desire for a more informed take on anime that includes more historical awareness and examples (not a "well actually" but a "yes, and also"), but I don't think that that was ultimately the point. I think the article had more to do with the way people co-opt things from other cultures, twisting it to be supportive of their worldview, while also ignoring the stuff that contradicts their views and also being dismissive and not even trying to have a nuanced or informed understanding of its real-world impact, either of their co-opting the thing or how people interact with that thing in its home context ("Japan is wacky," "it's just anime").

At the same time I suspect that the screen cap at the top of the article may be from episode 2 of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei Zoku.
posted by koucha at 7:49 AM on October 22, 2018 [2 favorites]


In conclusion, Japan is a land of contrast.
posted by mikeh at 8:05 AM on October 22, 2018 [5 favorites]


But then it becomes a bit like trying to defend Pepe the Frog by defending the Nazis who adopted him.

And with Nazis and their subset of Anime it’s a lot less like nazis and Pepe and more like Nazis and Warhammer. They’ve found something they can work with there.

The article could stand with being a good deal less Nazi-defendy, is what I’m saying. As it is the thing reads a bit like one of those articles that popped up during the reaction to the reaction to Gamergate and was all “Why are you attacking gamers? Games are good!”
posted by Artw at 8:09 AM on October 22, 2018 [2 favorites]


I also find myself wanting to respond "Yes, well, that may be so but Japan itself doesn't know and couldn't care less." Japan has its own exceptionalism, or insularity, to match the West's version, in both good and bad senses.

I feel like the problem here isn't really how this kind of discourse does or doesn't affect Japan - I think it's bad for us, Americans, to keep the level of dialogue as low and stupid as "haha, Japan is weird" when there are clearly interesting and nuanced things to discuss here. It makes us dumber, more prejudiced, more knee-jerk, less nuanced.

And as always - and you knew I was gonna say this - Japanese Americans are collateral damage. I had people assume a lot of weird things about me growing up based on the "knowledge" about Japan that they had gleaned from anime. Anime has become a lot more mainstream since then and I hope that doesn't happen so much to kids nowadays, but some white girl on my brother's Facebook did recently think "yeah well ur culture is weird" was a useful retort to something or other when talking to a half white guy who's never been to Japan, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by sunset in snow country at 8:14 AM on October 22, 2018 [18 favorites]


Japan has its own exceptionalism, or insularity, to match the West's version, in both good and bad senses.

For a lot of writers, "Japan" is conveniently whatever they want it to be. You could write anything (like the sentence above) and a significant number of readers would ponder the sentence, stroke their chin thoughtfully, and murmur, "Mmm, yes, quite right."
posted by JamesBay at 8:52 AM on October 22, 2018 [3 favorites]


I think it's bad for us, Americans, to keep the level of dialogue as low and stupid as "haha, Japan is weird" when there are clearly interesting and nuanced things to discuss here. It makes us dumber, more prejudiced, more knee-jerk, less nuanced.

That's something that makes talking about media from other parts of the world so difficult to do well. There's often tension between trying to give context for how something is created and received in the originating culture and in how it is going to be received in an outside context where other values and histories are in play.

Setting aside anime for a moment, I've been trying to work up a post on a important figure in the Indian movie industry, something I know a little about, but am no means expert on, but also have some acquaintances who know more. Part of the purpose I had in trying to make a post is in giving some better context to something people often treat as wacky exoticism in a way that seems dismissive of the culture. At the same time though, there is both elements that are almost certainly going to amuse for their difference and, more importantly, some elements that are hard to put forward as worthy of attention in the context of the cultural moment we're going through.

To put it plainly, there is a lot of blatant sexism and other issues in Indian commercial cinema. There are reasons for why it is that way, but that doesn't necessarily make it therefore free from being considered irksome or worse when viewed from an outside perspective. Indian culture or even Indian film culture isn't just "Bollywood" as stereotyped, and even within Bollywood there are ranges of values expressed. But at some point, to go back to anime, presenting hyper-sexualized 12 year old girls as an image does say something that needs reflecting on.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:57 AM on October 22, 2018 [8 favorites]


Can white people please stop telling other white people what non-white people are offended by?
posted by humboldt32 at 9:03 AM on October 22, 2018 [5 favorites]


The author is attempting to connect a couple of disconnected points--weird Japan stories do tend to reinforce certain racist stereotypes and people outside Japan should be mindful of how those stories are framed. However, that's unrelated to the points about anime. And "anime" really shouldn't be used as a stand in for "Japan" considering its negative reputation over there.

The author seems to feel that finding value in deeply problematic material somehow puts it beyond criticism. Even if you personally feel that Girls und Panzer is about feminist friendship, that doesn't change the fact that it was created to be masturbation fodder for military otaku and was understood as such in Japan.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:02 AM on October 22, 2018 [4 favorites]


that doesn't change the fact that it was created to be masturbation fodder for military otaku and was understood as such in Japan.

Was it, though? Do you have link to support that statement?
posted by JamesBay at 11:15 AM on October 22, 2018


The show about panty shots of schoolgirls in SS uniforms is the one we are talking about here, right?

Yeah, not thinking there’s a subtle cultural difference we are not appreciating about it.
posted by Artw at 11:18 AM on October 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


Yeah, not thinking there’s a subtle cultural difference we are not appreciating about it.

I'm not going to die on the hill of defending Girls Und Panzer, but they're not in SS uniforms. They drive around a bunch of tanks. They wear school uniforms and sometimes fairly generic military caps. I haven't watched the show all that much, but it's not about panty shots or whatever. It's about cool (if you're into WWII armor) tanks having battles. There isn't really a lot of opportunity for upskirts.

Schoolgirl uniforms are present in a lot of media in Japan aimed at all ages and demographics, not just otakus. Why there is a focus on schoolgirl uniforms is an interesting discussion. I haven't thought a lot about it (I gave up amateur cultural criticism after graduating from university some time ago) so I'm not going to walrus on about why I think it is.

To be clear, the commenter said the show was created specifically for otaku masturbation. My earlier point above is that "Japan" can be used as a vehicle to state anything at all. It would be nice to see a citation for this statement.
posted by JamesBay at 11:28 AM on October 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


“DEBATE ME!”
posted by Artw at 11:41 AM on October 22, 2018


Hahaha, like I said, GuP is not the hill I am going to die on. I don't even particularly care all that much that "someone is wrong about Japan."

"Japan" doesn't me to protect it.
posted by JamesBay at 11:47 AM on October 22, 2018


The article does feel like it would benefit from concrete examples. If we fixate on Girls Und Panzer at least then we're talking about something specific rather than generalities.
posted by RobotHero at 11:52 AM on October 22, 2018


Though, conversely, it may be a bit like that thing where Benny Hill got run on American TV for several decades past its sell by date and Americans got the idea that it was a representative and relevant part of British Culture.

Turning it around again, it’s not like I can deny Benny Hill was a product of British Culture even if I’m vagurly horrified by it and other British Culture I’d much rather you look at existed even in the 70s...
posted by Artw at 12:01 PM on October 22, 2018 [3 favorites]


I think it's bad for us, Americans, to keep the level of dialogue as low and stupid as "haha, Japan is weird" when there are clearly interesting and nuanced things to discuss here.

sunset in snow country, I think you're right and I'm sorry I was lazy in my phrasing. I felt as if the original article didn't get past "how the West looks at Japan" to an actual consideration of "what effects this might have from a Japanese perspective"--or, as you point out, a Japanese-American perspective, a separate issue that also needs attention and that I'm not qualified to get into. That's partly why I'm frustrated by this article, it brings up so many things worth discussing but doesn't manage the nuances of discussion I'd like to read. Not sure I managed to do any better, though, so will keep thinking...
posted by huimangm at 2:07 PM on October 22, 2018


So I think the authorprobably has a point somewhere in that mess. But on the other hand, I haven't heard "lol wacky japan" rhetoric in literally a decade.

What I have heard is rhetoric sort of like "some angry neonazi with a hentai avatar calling you a cuck on twitter". But that strikes me less as .... anything about japan .... It seems a lot more like an observation of American culture, that the dudes who occupy this particular space also tend to like anime.

And they like it because of the racial and gendered frameworks in which they interpret it. I think that's one of the things the author is naming and pointing out.

But it feels like the author is conflating

a) reactionary right subgroup, who watches anime with a misogynist and white lens and liking what they see
b) progressive subgroup who looks at (a) and forms counterreactionary opinions that splash onto the medium of anime and Japanese culture

and they're completely missing (c) a progressive subgroup that watches anime and is made really uncomfortable by it in a visceral way by the treatment of female characters

and because they doesn't run in those circles, he is also missing (d) queer progressive subgroup that's really attracted to the gendered framework in various ways, typically shounen and shoujo ai. And he's missing (e), queer progressive subgroup that looks at (d) and thinks they're fetishizing and gross, and that opinion also splashes onto the medium.

(a), (c) and (d) are the authentic reactions of an audience to a piece of art. That process (of experiencing, interpreting and internalizing art) almost by definition involves cultural bias, and racist and gendered biases.

The other two are not that; (b) and (e) are reacting to the audience, specifically two distinct subgroups of the Western audience, and seeing a lot of, i'll just be dramatic and say they see a lot of sins. And they may or may not tar Japanese culture with those same sins, and that's racist in a different way.

so i guess what I'm saying is, the author's analysis seems so shallow to me that I must be missing his point entirely. and I have "Heaven is a Place on Earth" stuck in my head now.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 2:16 PM on October 22, 2018 [5 favorites]


Rainbo Vagrant, the author is a queer woman, so, uh, I strongly suspect she is aware of groups c-e.

I agree this piece could have used a few more passes for clarity/tighter focus, but I read it unambiguously as koucha does, and I'm...honestly not sure how one gets from the pull quote or a reference to "a medium that gave me so many of the stories about women and queer people that have affected me throughout my life" (emphasis mine) to an idea that the author is defending Nazis, or (even though it is technically about girls) Girls und Panzer for that matter. Even going straight from "the entire medium of anime" to "Girls und Panzer" seems like exactly the kind of sneering dismissiveness the author is critiquing.

I've never mentioned this before on MeFi for Reasons, but I spent a few early childhood years in Tokyo. After I returned to the US I became gradually aware that my former home full of everyday people doing everyday things was, to almost everyone else I met, an exotic and unknowable space onto which they felt free to project. Japan is definitely not the only non-Western culture subject to the kind of political footballing the author mentions, but it occupies a strange space in our consciousness where it's imagined both as a nation of wacky, backwards, sexually repressed perverts and a society of the inherently genteel, possessed of greater refinement and artistic sensibility than us greasy-fingered, loud-mouthed Westerners. Beneath the explicit arguments about what Japanese culture is or isn't, or whether its various artforms do this or that thing badly, is a whole lot of casual cultural essentialism, fetishization and not-quite-appropriation that is both pervasive and entirely unremarked upon even in the most progressive (white-dominated) spaces.
posted by bettafish at 2:46 PM on October 22, 2018 [3 favorites]


I'm...honestly not sure how one gets from the pull quote or a reference to "a medium that gave me so many of the stories about women and queer people that have affected me throughout my life" (emphasis mine) to an idea that the author is defending Nazis, or (even though it is technically about girls) Girls und Panzer for that matter.

There’s a reference to the “supposed popularity of anime amongst the resurgent online right wing” right there in the first paragraph, so it gets off on a bit of a bad foot. Like, we’ve all met the Anime-Nazis. Pretending the fuckers don’t exist is profoundly unhelpful.
posted by Artw at 4:09 PM on October 22, 2018 [2 favorites]


It could have been phrased better, but I parsed that as pushing back against the characterization of loving anime as a trait unique to or disproportionately common among Nazis, as opposed to a denial that Nazis who love anime exist.
posted by bettafish at 5:45 PM on October 22, 2018 [3 favorites]


Slowly backs away from writing my own Japan / Anime essay.

GuP isn't the nazi loli's with lots of panty shots and bouncing boobs anime. It's a plain girls high school sports anime. It's just intramural tank combat. Problem is, they did parts of that tank combat really well for anime, cut out the girls and it's good war footage. The other parts of tank combat are ridicudonkulous shenanigans. The plot is generic save the school.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:23 PM on October 22, 2018 [2 favorites]


If you want militarized panty shots then you're looking for Strike Witches.

Girls und Panzer is pretty goddamn wholesome, actually.
posted by glonous keming at 6:37 PM on October 22, 2018


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


This isn't really about anime or Japan, is it?

Girls und Panzer is fun. "Tankery" is considered a girlish pursuit.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:44 PM on October 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


If you want militarized panty shots

I'm good, but thanks
posted by thelonius at 6:50 PM on October 22, 2018 [2 favorites]


As I see it, the issue is in entangled ideas of context. The author is primarily talking about context within anime and extending the positive values they in some of it to Japan as a whole, at the same time though they are assuming a larger context in or of Japanese culture they admit to not actually knowing all that well. The problem then is that the article itself is sort of edging towards a "wacky Japan" reading of the culture as it simply assumes there is a non-problematic reading of anime or its tropes that Japanese culture explains simply by being a culture other than their own.

The first part of that is normal enough, once you accept some element of the culture like a genre say, then your appreciation of works within that genre are comparative, taken as part of a larger norm. In the US, and much of the rest of the world in varying degrees, Hollywood is an accepted cultural product that many largely take as a given and, at best, compare products within that system for their relative values. It's something like saying Hollywood isn't only movies like 300 it's also Wonder Woman. That's fine in a comparative sense, but it still is accepting of a host of values that make up such an enormous part of Hollywood, like the violence and general sexism, racism, solipsistic exceptionalism and so on. Some movies may play down the worst of those elements relatively speaking, but it is still baked in to Hollywood culture as a whole. Saying you can't judge the US by Hollywood, in that sense, is both right in a broad sense, the US is more than that, but also wrong since Hollywood does both reflect and help determine the culture.

Simply accepting anime tropes like the constant use of school girls as just being the norm doesn't really work in that larger sense. That trope carries values and its ubiquity suggests important systemic issues in anime and because of that carries some meaning for how one sees the culture from which those ideals arise. That anime isn't the entirety of Japanese culture, or even close to holding the same dominant place as Hollywood does in the US certainly gives limit to how widely one can reasonably transfer those values, but it still carries an informative suggestion of wider application to some unknown extent for outsiders. Even if that wasn't the case and there was some meaningful cultural purpose for those tropes in Japanese culture that has positive impact in Japan, as outsiders we watch anime from that outside perspective where those cultural values aren't necessarily shared. Trying to claim anime is positive because people in Japan find meaning in it isn't all that useful when you're talking about viewers outside Japan who find values of their own in it.

That points to the article having an equally important implicit argument of comparing anime to mainstream culture outside Japan, where it's as much Hollywood being held as comparison as anything to do with Japanese culture. It's Hollywood's dismal history of representation that leads some to celebrate anime for embracing what US media has long ignored in regards to gender and sexuality. The article is as much arguing that the best elements, as seen by the author, in anime are providing something that isn't available in much other media and as such deserves recognition for that as being part of some larger somewhat vague culture.

That is how we tend to view media from perspectives that don't fit the norms as we understand them. We take special note of that which stands out and just accept that which feels like convention. Anime does things other media doesn't or can't easily do because the possibilities of the medium are so elastic compared to that of live action and also because Japan has embraced different possibilities of storytelling than the US and much of the rest of the world. Anime strikes a unique tone because of those differences, but that tone isn't free from problems just as it provides enjoyment that can't easily be found elsewhere. Judging Japan or Japanese culture as a whole from anime would be ridiculously idiotic, but that doesn't mean one should just accept that the more problematic elements don't also carry suggestions of larger issues in Japan or wherever anime is enjoyed. The same is true for any media product from anyplace. It can't possibly contain the entirety of the culture, but popular media unavoidably contains some elements of it that are being given added emphasis which speaks to some values or desires.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:41 PM on October 22, 2018 [3 favorites]


reactionary right subgroup, who watches anime with a misogynist and white lens and liking what they see

In my experience and unlike what the author of the original essay postulates, it's this group which is most likely to view anime = Japan and most likely to argue that you cannot judge either on western standards, that Japan is by its very nature a conservative society where people have very different ideas about traditional gender roles yaddayaddayadda

Basically, it's those who watch certain anime series through their own reactionary lenses and project their own values on Japan as a whole.

What too often happens in progressive circles less familiar with anime and all is that this reactionary land grab is taken at face value, that what rightwingers claim anime (and by extension Japanese culture and Japan itself) is, is true.

So you get the whole nonsense about Girls und Panzer as shown here, which ignores or is completely unaware of the large female/queer following it has.

Because of that combination of ignorance on a the part of a lot of anime critics and the unfortunate truth that asshole nazi wannabe 4channers are often the most visible anime fans, there's a tendency here in the west to write off the entire medium as reactionary, with some exceptions, to see all Japanese anime fans as gross otaku man children.

And there is some truth in that, but it ignores the large, often very large female/queer fanbase that also exists. The dirty little secret of the otaku industrial complex is that it's actually women who keep it in business, the most loyal buyers of blurays, live tickets and assorted plastic tat.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:12 AM on October 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


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