Anime: A global commodity or soft power strategy?

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There is a common experience shared by most Twitter users — or those of us who are still masochistic enough to use it — after enough time venturing into the bowels of the social media platform and its various subcultures. One day, you might stumble on a tweet marked “Viral” by the whims of the algorithm. Upon opening the replies to read the brilliant literature contained therein, putting your finger on the pulse of the online masses, you become awash in avatars of Japanese anime characters. 

If you’re a Twitter user, it’s just as likely that you have an anime profile picture yourself — I certainly do, hence why I have a dog in this race. After all, in their vastness of genre and style, anime and manga create almost limitless opportunities for self-realization and expression through characters and stories that many people can easily identify with no matter how fantastical. Of course, using anime as a means of self-expression is far from limited to Twitter and social media in general. What was once considered a nerdy and desirable community and artform less than a decade ago is now sweeping the globe unlike any other cultural export. Popular shonen anime — a genre marketed primarily to teenage boys in Japan — can be seen plastered around fast fashion brands such as H&M and Urban Outfitters. Relatively newer titles like “Jujutsu Kaisen” and “Demon Slayer” are joined by classics like “Naruto,” “One Piece” and Studio Ghibli films in occupying an increasing amount of shelf space at alternative and music merchandise retailers like Newbury Comics and Hot Topic.  

Through licensing out their properties to merchandise and clothing retailers, anime and manga have become ubiquitous in virtually any American store. Furthermore, the growing popularity of anime streaming platforms like Crunchyroll in addition to the competition between American streaming services like Hulu and Netflix for exclusive rights to host popular anime has been one of many forces that has caused an explosion in the industry’s market value to more than $24 billion, while a 120% growth sparked by isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t hurt, either.  

Given the hundreds of millions of people in and outside of Japan who enjoy it, it’s safe to say that anime is the country’s most significant cultural export — not a physical commodity but a product that agglomerates art, music and narratives that put the cultural landscape of a community on display. The state of Japan benefits from the popularity of anime through profits and taxes just as South Korea does from K-pop and the United States does from Hollywood films. Throughout history, economic and cultural hegemony have been a powerful tool to states that want to exercise external influence. This concept is known in political science as ‘soft power,’ as opposed to ‘hard power,’ which is influence through military and economic coercion.  

It is undeniable that Japan uses the cultural cachet of anime to exercise power in some capacity— the government used characters from the series “Tokyo Revengers” to advertise a change to the legal age of adulthood to a massive audience in January of this year. The definition of soft power, then, applies aptly as the commodified artform shapes international consumers’ attitudes about Japan and prompts them to enrich the national economy through streaming, purchasing merchandise, organizing conventions and even sparking tourism.  

Anime fans and people who are rightfully critical of the industry can immediately recognize these attitude changes, many of which are harmful in how they romanticize and whitewash the country and its history. The magical realism of Studio Ghibli films such as My Neighbor Totoro and Whisper of the Heart, for example, is exceptionally successful at envisioning the everyday environments of rural and urban Japan with swift, harmonious movement and deep, saturated colors. When proliferated to audiences with little exposure to the material realities of Japan, it contributes to a fetishistic ideal of the country — a key function of orientalism against East Asians. A peculiar indicator of this phenomenon is the “place, Japan” meme that demonstrates how Western audiences can be infatuated with the most banal of sceneries if they simply associate it with Japan. The popularity of this meme ostensibly signifies how common it is to see people who fetishize Japan and East Asia in this fashion.  

I consider this example a unique example of soft power — as opposed to insular and inconsequential art with no messaging. Japan, as a capitalist state, benefits from the beauty of magical realism wiping away the less desirable elements of poverty and inequality under its political and economic system, which incentivizes sending social and economic capital to the country. Even casual readers or viewers of the “slice of life” genre, which often does address the impacts of economic inequality on daily life, might not get the impression that Japan has the second-highest poverty rate of the G-7 countries — or major industrial nations — and the ninth-highest poverty out of the known 38 countries in The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. Under even more ironic circumstances, the aesthetically rich associations with Japan offered by anime are created by artists and workers who are “overtaxed and underpaid,” making the animation studio a pressure cooker of harsh deadlines, low pay and rising costs of living — a commonality very familiar to video game developers in the United States.  

Of course, the ‘anime-ification’ of Japan has other major adverse effects which dip into a variety of social injustices. Feminist scholars around the world have long contemplated the habit of anime and manga, especially of the shonen genre, to depict women and the LGBTQIA+ community in degrading, infantilizing and generally patriarchal ways. Consequently, as any Asian non-man has likely witnessed in their lifetime, the historical fetishization of East Asian women as playfully submissive has prevailed through this mode.  

Another relevant, albeit somewhat hyperbolic, argument is that the popularity of anime as well as cute, ‘kawaii’ brands like Sanrio’s “Hello Kitty” universe helps erase Japan’s imperial history and war crimes in Korea, the Philippines and China.  

Especially pertinent to the latter point is that Japan is not unique in its use of soft power to proliferate its influence, sell a national image and rake in billions of dollars in profits. After all, Marvel movies in the United States function almost identically, replacing easily-relatable narratives and decadent aesthetics with gritting action, special effects and the gross valorization of the United States military, another egregious war crimes-doer.  

What is absolutely critical in this discussion is that we do not isolate media from its broader role in society, either as a critique or reinforcement of  the economic base that fuels the cultural ‘superstructure.’ In the meantime, I’ll still be waiting with bated breath for the release of chapter 1068 of “One Piece,” appreciating it more due to my base knowledge of the context in which it is created.

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