“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.” This famous opening couplet from Rudyard Kipling‘s “Ballad of East and West” may be an exaggeration (and indeed, one belied by the life of Kipling himself), but it’s no revelation that the parts of the world broadly known as “the West” and “the East” have had their fair share of conflicts, misunderstandings, and discord. Even in the more benign and low-stakes world of cultural exchange, Westerners and Easterners have talked past, misinterpreted, unthinkingly offended, and crudely stereotyped each other. Anime may not get the critical eye that other, more high-profile works of this ilk do, but it’s subject to the same pressures, contexts, and interpretations as any other piece of art positioned in a multicultural framework. Put on your mortarboards and adjust your eyeglasses because it’s time to get academic up in here.
For centuries, the West’s scholarly engagement with the Orient (Asia) took place within a framework of inquiry called Orientalism. This meant “the study of the Orient,” and entailed sending a steady stream of linguists, cartographers, archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, missionaries, businessmen, and diplomats eastward to research the many cultures of the Orient, interpret them for a Western audience and package their findings in an easily digestible format. Many of these scholars were genuinely curious, motivated, and diligent. They did much to expand the world’s understanding of itself, fill in gaping holes in the Western narrative of Oriental history, and even defend the objects of their study from abuse. But Orientalism took place within a context of imperialism. Their judgments were almost always couched in racist terms that perpetuated negative stereotypes and carried the implication (or sometimes overtly stated) that these Orientals needed Western domination to straighten them out.
This observation was most famously articulated by a Palestinian-American academic named Edward Said in a 1978 book called Orientalism. It’s to a large extent thanks to this book that “Orient” and “Oriental” have such racist implications today. It got a fair amount of criticism at the time and still inspires arguments today—what about the Germans, after all, who have a voluminous scholarly tradition, including in Orientalism, but never tried to colonize Asia? What about the time before and after colonization? But Said was insistent: “to be a European or an American… means being aware, however dimly, that one belongs to a power with definite interests in the Orient, and more important, that one belongs to a part of the earth with a definite history of involvement in the Orient since almost the time of Homer.”
Said mostly focused on the relationship between the West and Araby, a bitter and tortured story if ever there was one, and one with no happy ending yet in sight. Happily for anime fans, the West’s relationship with Japan is nowhere near as bedeviled. Japan has been treated as an equal by the West for many years now. It is a member of the G-7, the world’s third-largest economy, and one of America’s strongest and most loyal allies. Japanese technology is regarded as some of the most advanced in the world, and many Westerners, especially Americans, are to some degree envious of Japan’s peaceful, well-ordered, and polite society.
But that’s not to say that Orientalism and its aftereffects didn’t affect the field of Japan studies, either. “The Orient” means all of Asia, after all, and specialists in areas further east than the Arab lands found that Said’s critique applied to their fields of study too. Look at the common notion of the samurai and how the shrieking, bloodthirsty, honor-obsessed portrayal has its roots in depictions of East Asians as sinister, primitive warriors. Look at the Western fixation with the geisha and how the assumptions that they are some sort of cultured, refined, high-class prostitutes are rooted in a stereotype of Asian women as submissive, innocent, and sexually available. Look at a lot of portrayals of elderly Japanese men and it’s not hard to see the outlines of an Orientalist notion of old Asians as serene, mystical, mysterious, and wise.
This discussion gets further muddied, though, by an important point that Said also made, though it often gets overlooked—that the representations of the Orient so rooted in colonialist condescension have themselves been adopted and perpetuated by Asian people themselves. It reflects the general postcolonial predicament: in a world completely shaped and still mostly dominated by Western interests, it’s easy for non-Westerners to just work with what they already have rather than build something completely new, especially if that would entail conflicts that’d rip their societies apart. Thus attributes that are deemed to be “national characteristics” in Orientalist writing have been internalized by the societies they describe, who often go on to attribute other national characteristics to other nations, and so on and so forth in a complex web of stereotyping and essentializing.
The most blatant examples of this sort of national stereotyping in anime might be in shows like Axis Powers Hetalia or Mobile Fighter G Gundam, but there’s plenty if you look for it. Lupin III‘s Goemon is basically a (positive) caricature of a dignified samurai. Food Wars! likes to veer drastically into Orientalist imagery when someone has a foodgasm from a Japanese dish. The Gibiate anime proudly declares that it is “Japanese-themed,” and sure enough, it features samurai and ninja running around a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Even something as subtle as a random gust of cherry petals or a quick shamisen chord carries the implied message that what we are seeing is essentially, resolutely Japanese.
Sakura Wars © SEGA•RED / TBS•MBS
A lot of this can be explained by Japan’s tendency (like many other countries) to use the West as its primary point of reference. That makes it easy to attribute anything distinctive as intrinsically Japanese. Its island geography and a long history of cultural isolation also help make the dividing line pretty clear—it’s obvious what sort of clothing, food, or performance art qualifies as Japanese. Of course, when we get to behavioral aspects of culture, what separates Japan from other Asian or even some Western cultures gets fuzzier. (Are the characteristics of Yamato nadeshiko really that different from other ladies with proper upbringings?)
But what really adds a fascinating wrinkle to this discussion—and one where anime really lets Japan come into its own—is the flip side of Orientalism. If the Orient can be essentialized, stereotyped, exoticized, and misinterpreted, why can’t the Occident (West) too?
Ian Buruma, a fascinating polymath with a particular interest in Japan, wrote his own take on “Occidentalism” (with Avishai Margalit), but mostly posited it as a reflexive anti-Westernism, a distaste for the West’s venality, intellect, and industry. This distaste was influential in Japan during World War II, and in other parts of Asia (particularly the Islamic world) it still holds sway today. But reducing Occidentalism to knee-jerk hatred of the West doesn’t capture how Orientalism works. It’s too facile to portray Orientalists as hating the Orient (although some definitely did); many of them were quite fond of it, even. The key distinction is that Orientalists tended to reduce the object of their study to a collection of crude archetypes, producing a distorted image of the Orient that reflected Western tastes and prejudices.
Japan’s fascination with the Occident goes back to the Meiji Revolution of the late 1800s (a.k.a., the Rurouni Kenshin era), when, keenly conscious of how imperative it was for Japan to modernize before it was gobbled up, its governing and intellectual class pushed through an all-encompassing modernization agenda—and in those days, that meant Westernization. It wasn’t enough for trains to get built; they had to pull into European-looking train stations. It wasn’t enough for soldiers to train along German lines; they had to wear German-style uniforms under the watchful eye of officers with monocles and pointy mustaches. It wasn’t enough to import science and technology; you had to dance the waltz, drink black tea, and doff top hats.
In its most extreme forms, this fascination with Western ways led to a backlash against Japan’s Asian context. China and Korea were scorned as revolting, dirty, primitive backwaters mired in weakness, ignorance, and conservatism. Any Western attributes that could be acquired were assumed to make you smarter, more capable, and more “modern.” The Japanese astutely noted which Western countries were most advanced in which areas and imported accordingly, helping to shield their countrymen from some of the less appealing aspects of the Occident. A few even dreamed of mass intermarriage with white people in the hopes of creating some kind of fusion race. (White people themselves were less enthusiastic.)
The Meiji-era enthusiasm for all things Western has died down and the West isn’t exoticized quite as much anymore, but a romanticized and idealistic image of the West lingers around in Japanese pop culture. This is probably most obvious on TV, which features lots of travel shows in picturesque parts of Europe, where the locals are friendly and dubbed over, the architecture is quaint, and the weather is gorgeous. Although it showcases Japanese settings just as often, Studio Ghibli presents a lovingly detailed, heavily idealized version of Wales, Sweden, and Italy in Laputa, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Porco Rosso, respectively, and its animators made their mark with adaptations of Western kids’ literature like Heidi, Girl of the Alps and Anne of Green Gables. Heidi, in particular, is full of gorgeous Alpine landscapes, yodeling, and delicious-looking fondue.
Kiki’s Delivery Service ©1989 Eiko Kadono • Nibariki • Tokuma Shoten • STUDIO GHIBLI Inc
Many early shoujo anime and manga—Candy Candy, Heart of Thomas, Princess Sara, Rose of Versailles—transported their readers to a bygone version of Europe. Keiko Takemiya, the artist of the groundbreaking Kaze to Ki no Uta, a manga about a tormented romance at a French boys’ boarding school, said that interest in Europe was “a characteristic of the times” and that “you could draw anything about America and Europe, but not so about ‘Asia’ as seen in Japan.” Banana Fish—recently adapted into an anime but originally from the ’80s—focuses instead on the gritty, violent streets of New York. Its portrayal of America, like Gunsmith Cats or Mad Bull 34, is much less rose-tinted, but even here there is a sort of longing. As manga scholar Frederik Schodt puts it, “it seemed symbolic of America’s raw energy and exciting individual freedoms.”
The glorification of Europe by foreigners might not come across as anything new, especially if you’ve had to work your way through throngs of tour groups in major European cities. Western influence is global, and the identification of modernity with the West is still deeply ingrained no matter how much crowing there is about the decline of the West. But in many anime, manga, and light novels, the identification of Japan with the West is pushed even further. Thanks to its ability to combine white-looking people and Western settings with Japanese scripts and voice acting, anime offers an unparalleled opportunity for Japan to indulge in Occidentalism.
Consider Lupin again. The conceit of Lupin III is that a group of Japanese criminals (and one Frenchman) run around mostly Western settings, tailed by a Japanese cop, interacting seamlessly with each other and the locals and blending in completely. Sure, we could spend an entire article writing about Things in Lupin That Make No Sense, but this Japanese-Western intermingling should be included in the “highly unlikely” category. Or consider Thermae Romae, a fascinating manga that posits a fixation with bathing as the essential link between ancient Roman and Japanese civilization. Satsuki, a young Japanese scholar of ancient Rome, just so happens to meet a Roman bathhouse architect who’s been sucked into her time and place and falls in love. The live-action movie rams the self-insert fantasy even further by converting Satsuki into the manga-ka herself and using Japanese actors to portray the ancient Romans!
©2012 「Thermae Romae」 Production Committee
Things get really muddy when we turn to the ongoing isekai craze. These “other worlds” are mostly derived from JRPGs, which in turn take inspiration from Western fantasy like The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons, so the generic medieval villages we so often see are inspired by hamlets in places like Germany. But increasingly, the characters in these stories aren’t just getting sucked into other worlds; they’re getting reincarnated into them. Thus, characters with names like Satoru Mikami, Haruto Amakawa, and Hinata Tachibana turn into characters with names like Rudeus Greyrat, Catarina Claes, and Schwartz von Lichtenstein Lohengramm. The castles are turreted and built from stone; the kings wear golden crowns and beards right out of a card deck; the local taverns look more like pubs than izakaya.
There are qualifications, of course. There are plenty of isekai like Fushigi Yuugi and Inuyasha that look to Asia for inspiration. Reincarnated isekai heroes will often retain some memory of their past identity and voice a hankering for familiar cuisine. A few isekai, like Isekai Izakaya “Nobu” or The Executioner and Her Way of Life, imply that these otherworlds would be better off with a dose of Japanese culture and customs. But it is still striking that in show after show, the generic fantasy template we’re very familiar with by now is cloaked in Western garb. The identification of the Occident with normality apparently extends even to alternate fantasy worlds.
Said’s Orientalism ignited a firestorm of indignation and demands for better, more accurate representation. Why hasn’t Japanese Occidentalism provoked a similar backlash? The most obvious answer is that so many of these depictions are not derogatory or mean-spirited in any way. The Occident is shown as a place of tradition, coziness, artistry, and refinement. Even when there’s melodrama, like in a lot of shoujo manga, or gruesome violence, as in Vinland Saga, the West is still shown as alluring, inviting, magical even.
But the more profound answer is probably—to circle back to Said’s crucial point—because of the underlying power dynamics involved. Japan has largely forgotten the brief periods of weakness in the early Meiji Era and the postwar occupation and sees itself as the West’s equal. Westerners see no harm or hidden agenda in misrepresentations of their culture. If anything, Japan comes off as benign, even charming, in its mostly flattering portrayals of Europe or America.
Pompo: The Cinéphile ©Shogo Sugitani, KADOKAWA, Eiga Daisuki Pompo-san Production Committee
Representations of foreign cultures is a complicated, difficult subject. As the world interacts more and more and everyone learns more about other cultures, the temptation to depict them grows— as do the pitfalls associated with it. I by no means want to be a killjoy in writing about this topic. So much of Orientalism is unintentional, unthinking, or unchallenged that it would be exhausting to call it out every time. Above all, anime is supposed to be fun escapism, and the ability to depict a foreign culture with dialogue in your own language is part of the boundless opportunity of animation. But it never hurts once in a while to question the underlying assumptions and context behind what we see depicted and try to compare it with how we would react if the situation was reversed.
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