THE WAR THAT MATTERS: MILITARY ICONOGRAPHY IN JAPANESE MEDIA


📚 Introduction

Consuming Japanese media from an early age made me develop an inquisitive curiosity for other cultures and their narratives. The context and society originating them are vital to understand them fully. 


My mind always wondered what the difference between Japanese storytelling might be compared the ones I was used to (Italian first, European second). My eyes were taking in the glamour of anime and manga designs, transfixed. They were so different from the cartoons I used to watch from France or the United States! Also, I kept asking myself how or why some characters wore a particular type of clothes, had specific quirks, colours or behaviours.


That rough analysis was the beginning of something bigger. I started to delineate patterns throughout stories, some kind of fil rouge that helped connect the dots. The characters came from a specific culture, with a specific background and a specific history, like every country on Earth. They were also based on traditional theatre, hence the constant repetition of certain features (physical and psychological).


Once I started breaking the media down, my questions became more about concepts. What did the author mean by this story? Were they influenced by something? Were they referencing other works? 


Also, why is there so much war apologia in my manga?


⭐️ Note: this is a non-comprehensive essay on the representation of European and Japanese aesthetics and their presence in otaku culture/spaces. The focus will be specifically linked to a general Italian and German fetishism, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Prussian uniforms (and subsequently, WWI and WWII references). This is not an accusatory piece of any sort. 


📚 Briefly, fascism and Japan 


1.1 The Empire and Japanese fascism


「自衛隊が目ざめる時こそ、日本が目ざめる時だと信じた。」

“Once the army had opened its eyes... We trusted Japan, too, would awaken from its slumber.” 

- Mishima Yukio, balcony speech.


Every nation has its own version of Fascism; Japan is no exception. When referring to Japan, "fascism" is a word that is usually substituted with five other concepts: traditionalism, nationalism, uniformity, militarism or imperialism. Such a choice is, mostly, used to show how the country has always had a particular idea of fascism, deviating from the Italian original or German variant. 


If all three Axis countries shared most concepts usually seen linked to a fascist ideology (see above), Japan was, to a certain extent, “leaderless”. Italy had its king, Umberto II, but everyone followed and exalted Benito Mussolini, while Germany had no monarchy, just the Chancellor and leader.


Japan created its own branches of fascism: 天皇制 tennō-sei (or 天皇主義 tennō shugi), the glorification of the Emperor figure or the Emperor system and 日本主義 Nihon shugi, Japan-ism, one variation of traditionalism mixed with nationalism.


These two ideological pillars grew, almost naturally, from the ashes of the pre-Meiji bakufu system that, for about 200 years, kept Japan under a militaristic regime governed by the Tokugawa family. The Emperor’s figure was not particularly powerful, nor had any political influence, relegated to his lushful palace in Kyōto. His role was more form than practice.


Change swept the islands once the United States forced Japan to open its borders… To stop having them be closed (remember that video? History of Japan?). Then, the country quickly began affiliating with Europe in an attempt to be in their favour, despite being an Asian country (i.e. racism). The new Meiji (enlightenment) government, much like a sponge, swiftly assimilated concepts from various European countries and tried to apply them to its people and society-- With a variety of results.


A Prussian army, a German constitution, a Franco-Italian school system, Anglo-Japanese relations. To those European -- not so much American, at the moment-- eyes, a victory against Russia, too, confirmed Japan as both a threat and an interesting party to trade with.


The Meiji constitution of 1889 was promulgated.


As these new sensibilities took hold of the heart of Japanese society, so did the concept of nationalism, racial superiority, traditionalism, militarism and imperialism. Japan wanted to become the Asian country Europe would fawn to. At the same time, Japan also had contacts with Communist ideologies, founding underground groups as a pushback to these tumultuous far-right waves. Once the Peace Preservation Law (治安維持法)passed, in 1925, special police enforced a red purge, dwindling the already weak left. 


Neo-Confucianism was introduced as the standard rule for civil life (see: contrary to military), bearing its fruit much later, in the 30s, where fascist ideology, appraisal of the army and strict gender and hierarchical roles became the norm. We find the concept of ryōsai kenbo (良妻賢母), “good wife and wise mother”, the precept women should follow in society. The Emperor became a religious figure, an all-powerful being that held Japan together under the idea of purity and homogeneity. Shintō (神道) was canonised and standardised, pasting together an array of rites and cults, vaguely connected to one another.


Even after the war, Japan kept its cultured far-right nationalists in its government. Contrary to many countries (like mine), where far-right ideas sneak into the populace to trick the minds of the more naive, those who could not study or are not prone to curiosity, Japan has very, very knowledgeable extremists. Most of them come with University degrees, from “good” families and intellectual backgrounds.


The man whose quote I started this paragraph with is one of them: Mishima Yukio. Mishima is best known outside of Japan for his novels, such as Confessions of a Mask (仮面の告白, 1949), or The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (金閣寺, 1956). However, his political and moral essays are still hard to come by in other languages. Sun and Steel (太陽と鉄, 1965-1968) and The Defense of Culture (文化防衛論, 1968) put on the table Mishima’s nationalism, machismo and traditionalism. 


Mishima imitates the St. Sebastian painting by Guido Reni, picture taken by Shinoyama Kishin, 1968 (left). Mishima during his balcony speech before his ritual suicide, dressed in military-inspired clothes. November 26th, 1970. (right)


Yet, the writer became known as a queer icon of sort instead of an ultra-nationalist. Roses are still used to highlight a male character’s queerness based on one of Mishima’s photoshoots, while the whole concept of traditional Japanese manliness has links to the gei-komi genre (ゲイコミ, manga made and for gay men. Yes, those manga you all call bara). His suicide was not seen as some mad man blindly acting upon his fascist beliefs but as something honourable, a last resort. The speech Mishima gave at the balcony is one of a man rambling before his suicide: about the military; how it should help Japan rise up against enemies; how his Nation had been pushed down and made powerless by American forces.


Mishima in his photoshoot Ordeal by Roses (薔薇刑) by Hosoe Eikō, 1961.


That moment would be the start of military fetishism in Japan, thanks to the newborn otaku culture, which will distort and warp the meaning behind the Imperial Japanese Navy, the Imperial Army, military uniforms, historical events and World War II paraphernalia.


 1.2 How Japan taught they lost the war


Usually, people are taught that Japan lost the war in 1945 when Emperor Hirohito surrendered publicly via a radio speech to the people. The nation was then in the hands of the allied forces (see: the United States) until 1952. Usually, people see the Emperor as just a pawn with no actual power, moved by a bad government, or Japanese people as deceived subjects. 


It is a complicated topic, so it usually gets oversimplified, reducing it to the bare minimum of “war equals awful” and “the people equal victims”. Of course, this is also what was taught to Japanese children and teens up until the mid-1980s. 


Books barely acknowledged the war crimes Japan had committed and ignored the Emperor as an active part of the war and how, as usual in regimes, most people bought into the idea of right-wing nationalism.


As perfectly illustrated in her book War Memory, Nationalism and Education in Post-War Japan, 1945-2007 (2008), Nozaki Yoshiko depicts a dreadful landscape of post-war Japan, focusing on how the governments that followed the conflict tried to mute down the country’s war responsibilities. 


They managed to meticulously create an image of both “aggressor and victim” that is still pretty strong nationally, though not so much internationally. During the 1950s, the goal was to tell slightly altered facts and remove all mentions of war campaigns from textbooks. 


Nominally: the Okinawa mass suicide, where Japanese soldiers forced at least a thousand Okinawans to kill one another; the Nanjing massacre, where troops sexually and psychologically abused, tortured and killed women, children and unarmed men; the use of Korean “comfort women”, where Korean women were forced into prostitution in favour of Japanese soldiers; Unit 731, which included vivisection, human experimentation and biological warfare on Chinese soil. By the way, Japan’s later attempts at formally apologising for these crimes are mostly seen as insufficient by the victims and are often in contrast with the government’s actions.


Textbooks were kept at a specific right-wing nationalist standard by the Ministry of Education (文部省), a government entity created, among other things, with the intent of analysing and revising any possible “history book” for primary and secondary schools. These revisions pushed away any actual attempt (by many!) to critically and factually tackle the fresh wound of the Second World War conflict while promoting a very biased view of Japan, favouring a “useless cultivation of patriotic spirit”. 


Although the Allied Forces, Japanese moderates and left-wings were trying to scrape off the adoration of the Emperor’s figure from the pages of history books, the reviewing process stayed, more or less, the same throughout the 1960s, building a state control over textbooks, much like during the war.


Finally, during the 1970s, the spotlight was moved on the idea that Japan had been, well, an aggressor, with the first research on the faults of Emperor Hirohito by Inoue Kiyoshi. But it had been twenty years or so of Japan singing only a piece of a very long and complex song. The damage done to the new generations could not be addressed as a simple mistake; it was by design. 


Shōwa Emperor, Hirohito.


Outside of Japan, the role the country played during the Second World conflict is well known, recognised and studied, with many testimonies and facts to support the case. The same “objective facts only” method had been previously used by the right-wing management of the Ministry of Education, ending up with a bunch of excuses on why some allegations were allowed to stay and some, more “controversial” facts, to be removed from books.


Reading this big pile of information, you might think media such as movies or comics were spared by the censorship sword, but you would be sorely mistaken. Art, like in any regime, is highly controlled. During the 1930s, artists were also subject to the same treatment used in the red purges, in which affiliated or members of the JCP (Japanese Communist Party, 共産党) were expelled, physically abused or even killed. 


That meant the art allowed to shine through and presented to the general population, especially children, was highly controlled, ultra-nationalist and full of military propaganda. After the war, If the Ministry of Education’s task was to censor History books, during the conflict, the New Japanese Comic Book Artists Association (新日本漫画家協会, 1941-1945) had the same power over manga. (Pellitteri 2021, 34)


The control did not wither during the post-war period. It just changed: sometimes artists would choose a more “Americanised” style (like with e-monogatari) to appeal to their audience while still creating stories with highly authoritarian and militaristic morals. Children and young adults were still exposed to a tamed down version of Japanese fascism via comic books and, from the 60s, animation.


Kenkyō Byakko Kamen (Chivalrous sword: White Tiger Mask 剣侠白虎仮面, 1951-1954)  by Oka Tomohiko, published on Shōnen shōjo bōken ō (Boys and Girls Adventure King).


Even after the full-on public indignation that arrived during the 1980s and 1990s, asking for a more diverse variety of books that expressed different points of view, entire generations were brought up with an interesting (read, partial) idea of what war and nationalism meant, or how they were represented.


 1.3 The current state of propaganda



Propaganda comes from Latin, meaning “something has to be shared”. That something can be an ideology, a moral imposition or a mindset. Starting with the 1980s, Japan has pushed a very peculiar type of propaganda; an aesthetic of Japan. Soft, interesting, bizarre, commercial.


The first wave of propaganda almost seemed accidental: Japan had no real interest in sharing media with the outside world; they just happened to get popular abroad. However, the country kept a vigilant eye on allowing foreigners to get into its culture. Actually, it still is pretty vigilant, bordering on hostile, but some things have gotten better. 


Anime, manga, technology, fashion, music, food and video games from Japan started pouring into the international frame with exponential growth. The second wave became the late 90s/early 00s Japan craze, a way to market itself as cool, fun, young and hip to baby millennials. Most of its media were still inaccessible (I still remember those forums where you could download J-POP music only if you passed through a Japanese proxy), but what came out sure was… Different from what American cartoons offered.


The image crafted around Japan became almost monolithic. Abroad, Japan is still often referred to almost as an "alien-like" country, with a supposedly homogeneous population, with a special and intrinsic quirkiness, highlighting its cultural uniqueness and so on. Every blemish Japanese society might have was coated with cute anime mascots, fun comics, cool colours, captivating music. I had direct experience of non-Japanese people coming to Japan with a rose-tinted glasses image of it in mind, getting sorely confused, almost disappointed to discover that the country was, well, a country. 


Japan had managed to fool many people into consuming its cultural products without wondering why they were made in a certain way, where they came from. That included the commodification and normalisation of war symbols, such as the rising sun flag, commonly associated with the Imperial Army flag. Now, we can find it in clothes, hats, merchandise etc. and very little debate is given over it. Especially in Asia, such a flag is comparable to those of the Fascist Kingdom of Italy or Nazi Germany’s. 


In 2013, the then prime minister Abe Shinzō, who served until 2020, implemented an economic strategy called “Abenomics”. The plan garnered a lot of mixed responses, most of which were of the idea the economy did not receive the promised boost it should have. However, the real diamond Abe presented to the world was his Cool Japan Fund, pushing for Japan’s soft power to extend its roots even further, now with an active political move.


I want to remind people that Abe (and his successors, Suga Yoshihide and Kishida Fumio, too) is a conservative politician, from a right-wing party (Liberal Democratic Party, 自民党), which has governed Japan since the late 50s, with almost no breaks or change. 


Inside Japan, propaganda affected a lot of people, too. Critical viewpoints on the role Japan played in the 1930s and 40s and rebuttals on war apologia were almost absent. This lack of accountability is vital to understand the reason so many Japanese productions seem to contain war propaganda or Imperial Japan/Axis Powers praise and nostalgia. Also, Europe and North America do not seem keen on listening to Asian survivors as much as they think they do. I wonder why. 


As we have previously seen, entire generations were shaped with a nationalist and partial view of history-- Those people entered a variety of fields, specifically art. I myself grew up with art made with fascist (see 1.1) undertones at best or overtones at worst, without anyone noticing. The focus here will be on the specific field of anime and manga, but the war aesthetic has permeated other Japanese media, too. 


Let's pick something fresh. The Adventure of Comandante Cappellini (潜水艦カッペリーニ号の冒険) is a brand new TV drama to be broadcast in 2022 on Fuji TV. The story will revolve around three Italian (fascist) navy officers who happened to be in Japan in 1943. The same year, the Kingdom of Italy had signed an armistice with the Allied Forces, formally making Italy and Japan enemies, but the submarine had been travelling for so long that the news had not reached the crew yet.



Imagine my shock (sarcasm) in discovering Japan welcomes the three fascist men from Italy with open arms (日本から大歓迎を受ける). Out of all of Japanese and Italian history, out of all moments in history, Fuji TV decided to create a heartwarming story between Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy. Why? Because of the war aesthetic and the detachment from actual history. 


But let us move back to our favourite mainstream niche.



📚 Otaku


   2.1 The war aesthetic and fascist iconography in anime and manga


“I am a Malaysian of Malay and Chinese descent. My father was born in 1942 in pitch darkness as Japanese bombers flew overhead to bomb Singapore. His brother, a toddler, died of malnutrition. My mother’s uncle – barely an adult – was sentenced to death by the Japanese; his little brother was then enrolled into Japanese school to learn the ways of the master. I totally get Astro Boy. I get it when Dr Tenma howls over his son’s dead body. I get it when Astro Boy’s home gets devastated by fire. I get it when Seita loses his sibling to starvation in Fireflies. But military aircrafts gliding placidly like some elegant swans over occupied territories? Only in anime, I suppose.”

- From Commentary on Manga: The Citi Exhibition (2019) by Salina Christmas. The movie she refers to is The Wind Rises (2013) by Miyazaki Hayao. 


We now know how Japan taught its people about contemporary wars, as it slowly created a groundwork for a specific Japanese twist to the fascist ideology. Stepping into anime otaku culture, I want to reiterate that I do not believe every single anime or manga fan is an otaku, or, if they choose to use the label for themselves, that they are a) a fascist, b) actively endorsing right-wing policies or c) “weirdos”, “shut-ins” and any variety of those.


These are all general statements based on my observations of the sub-culture as a whole, checking with studies of academics and accounts taken from internet interactions. I am not talking about individual people. That said, let us dive in. Also, for the sake of brevity, from this point on I will use the Japanese term aniota (アニオタ or アニヲタ) to refer to anime otaku.

 

Intermission image with various people cosplaying in full costume, from Comic Market 59 (2000). Picture taken by private blog user, Misuya Tamotsu - site abandoned.


Once we take a look at the anime and manga landscape, we mostly see uniforms or World War II (see: Axis Powers) related aesthetics, used with a general disregard for their context and what they represent. This is a problem seen in a variety of countries in Asia, due to the distance, both historical and geographical, from the events of the 1942-1945 war or fascist regimes. That is understandable to a certain extent, but in the case of Japan, it gets suspicious. 


On the other side of the Ocean, anime fans from the United States usually align the so-called “nazi loli” iconography with an intrinsic and outward political statement that brings English-speaking nerds (= aniota) to use those images. With this blatant political affiliation, these anime girls in uniforms are seen in context, back into their original fascist frame instead of being seen as pure aesthetics. That does not mean Japanese aniota are a-political, though. Most people who claim to be non-political are, actually, deeply political.



Searching on the free search engine “Qwant” for “nazi loli anime avatar” on December 13th, 2021. 


Japan is a little different. Fascism is taken for its aesthetics and made into illustrations, art, videogames and light novels. It has become a piece of the moe-characteristics database; just a specific quip of design or character behaviour one might find in any Japanese media. However, those characteristics are the latest step into commodifying the idea of fascism and militarism: the first one was moved way back in the 70s.


When engaging with media from those artists born around the 1930s or 1940s, such as Tomino Yoshiyuki (Mobile Suit Gundam series) or Matsumoto Leiji (Space Battleship Yamato, Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999), we encounter a different approach to the concept of war. That will completely change later, with the younger generation of authors born between the 1950s and 1960s.


Earlier stories reflected an idea of unity, of fighting against war, a prominent love for peace: the real problem was the vague nostalgia for the army that was still heavy in the air. The Imperial Japanese army was still seen as something to be proud of, as we can confirm with the amount of Imperial Navy warships featured in these works. I noticed a distinct dichotomy, as the army is often European in flavour; the navy is often of a Japanese one. 


These early titles were trying to say something against war as just war itself. A noble message that lacked blame towards the ideology that pushed Japan to conquer and declare war on half of Asia. The works are still reminiscing of a time, where the nation was “strong” and “independent”. The war aesthetic we find here is ever so present, but it seems (mostly) functional more than fetishistic. 


Poster for Mobile Suit Gundam’s first movie (left) and Space Battleship Yamato’s (right).


The later generation, what we usually call “boomers”, started assimilating the label otaku during the 1980s and, with that, the subculture took its first steps. Otaku alienation was exasperated by the strict heteropatriarchal, traditionalist hierarchy Japan boxed its youth in. It created a suffocating social immobilism that pushed young people towards fiction as they tried to find solace in different, fictional worlds. However, that was not all: as Azuma Hiroki states in his book Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals (2009), the first otaku generation started losing sight of the “grand narrative” in the media they watched, read, played. They were losing sight of why stories are made, what they mean and what they wanted to say.


With that, the 90s had a growth-spur of characters specifically created to cater to otaku aesthetics; war finally became a fetish. It drew from the endless well of fantasy, where these young lost people could view a time that never existed but felt familiar and traditional enough to resemble reality, fixed, warm and theirs. Also, it drew from the prevalent anti-American sentiment that mirrored Japanese nationalism: anime became a beacon of Japaneseness. (Azuma 2009, 13) The country is portrayed as strong, traditional, static and immutable, making the perfect otaku safe space.


Inevitably, that attracted people romanticising war both as a comforting aesthetic and a cultural ideal. Plus, uniforms themselves, as a piece of fashion, do not help. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan’s soldiers were dressed up to look charming and intimidating by design: they had to seem slick, powerful, in charge and cool (a modern rendition of what “cool” means, of course). That circumnavigated back to using Germany as the inspiration for blatant references to World War II, even when the work portrayed something different. Past the 80s, swastikas will rarely ever be shown on screen or paper, but we all recognise them.


Examples: Saga of Tanya the Evil represents WWI uniforms mixed with WWII aesthetics, clearly romanticising Nazi Germany (left). Attack on Titan heavily references Germany in its architecture and Nazi Germany aesthetics in various ways, this being the most blatant one.


Furthermore, we find works in which Japan is portrayed as a post-conflict victim, using the ideological aesthetic of war rather than directly related paraphernalia. Works by Kawaguchi Kaiji, such as Zipangu and Spirit of the Sun are a clear example just with visuals alone. In these works, Japan is often portrayed as subjugated by an external force (may they be another military power or aliens) and has to fight back. The parallel is often pretty blatant, though it could get muddled for foreigners who are not savvy on Japanese history. 


The prime example is Sunrise’s own Code Geass. In this past anime season, I found two titles that had this type: Gyakuten Sekai no Denchi Shōjo, which, by design, mixes otaku culture and Imperial Japan’s aesthetics, or Kyōkai Senki, inspired by its mecha-style predecessors, such as the above mentioned Code Geass. Attack on Titan, too, features a mirroring between the Eldians and Japanese people, among the rest. 


Another instance of blatant romanticisation comes with the manga written by Issei Eifuku and illustrated by Junichi Nōjō, Shōwa tennō monogatari, in which the dictator and war criminal, Emperor Hirohito, becomes a sympathetic character: the reader will see his struggles, feelings and, to a certain extent, might even be tempted to relate to him. The editor-in-chief of the magazine the story is published on was interested in depicting the “Emperor’s feelings and personal situation”, thinking it could also be a topic that could interest Japanese readers. To know the guy better, you know. 


Poster to promote volume 9 of the manga (October 2021). 

It reads “The world… Is watching this Country.”


The war aesthetic is not just a trend in media directed to men. During the early 00s, visual-kei (ビジュアル系) fashion started using a lot of nazi and Imperial Japan-inspired clothes and uniforms, normalising them as a popular and cool trend among women. That specific fashion choice is very present in BL works, with many bishōnen characters drawn in sexy hawt fascist-like uniforms. Imperial Japan uniforms are also extremely popular in fujoshi-muke (腐女子向け, “made for fujoshi”) works. 


Yes, I am aware Japan (character) is an otaku and, yes, I know Germany (character) has a BDSM kink. Those are not flaws or acknowledging their historical past. I have to unveil my past as an APH fan (2009-2012); tragic, I know. If one was to search Hetalia Japan Empire (ヘタリア日本帝国) on Google search in Japanese, one of the related searches is かっこいいヘタリア大日本帝国 “cool Hetalia Great Japanese Empire”.


The trend of sexy nazis returns with recent news of a Nazi-themed Host Club in Ōsaka, which underlines how little historical context is given to nazism, perceived as just a readily available uniform to wear whenever, much like a police or firefighter uniform. It is a pick in the cosplay scene, too. The nazi-chic movement celebrates the uniforms with gatherings and memorabilia. A specific branch is dedicated to Japanese Imperial uniforms, too. They are seen as just wearing a cool uniform, and conventions allow gatherings of nazi/Imperial Japan/fascist cosplays, contrary to European ones, where such displays are usually banned.


Nazi-themed host club (left), two men in nazi cosplay at Winter Comic Market 2012 (right).


Otaku culture removes symbols from their political context: they do not mean anything besides what they physically represent. This could be seen as the reason that led the production committee for Attack on Titan to start publicizing the above pictured Eldian armband as merchandise for the anime’s fourth and final season before taking it back and issuing an apology. 


Okay, you know what we are left with now.



 2.2 Cute girls doing war crimes


We briefly mentioned the “nazi loli” earlier, but you might still want to ask the reason why cute girls are mentioned in this essay. Well, my dear reader, if you have ever looked at any cute girl in a Japanese anime or manga, you might already know the answer.


From the hentai title Cream Lemon (1984-1993), episode 14. 

The episode's villain is a sexy young lady dressed in a nazi uniform.


Starting from the 1980s, the “cute girl” aesthetic began morphing. From a genuine will to portray young, sweet female characters to a consumerist meat grinder, recycling the same standardised tropes and aesthetics. It is undeniable that the trend also created a direct pipeline to a certain type of paedophilic content, among other things. 


The moe character that we know of today became a canonized trend in the late 00s when K-On! perfected the prototype, both in its presentation and application. K-On! was the perfect moe-anime, coming from Kyoto Animation, well known for their stylised cute girls' designs, at the perfect time. In 2010, social media had just started its momentum, Japanese otaku consumerism was gearing at full speed.


Poster for the K-on! movie.


As I have previously mentioned, otaku culture is drenched in nationalism and right-wing behaviours (ネトウヨ), may those be conscious or unconscious. So, the meat grinder churns in some “more” girls a-là K-On! and pushes out sexy, childlike characters surrounded by military paraphernalia. 


Searching online, much like in English speaking spaces like Reddit or Twitter, one might find nerds (= otaku) excusing themselves as “not on the right (side part of politics)” but still expressing very traditionalist, nationalistic, racist (anti-Asian, anti-Chinese and anti-Korean, specifically) and homotransphobic sentiments. It is not hard to find: if you can read Japanese fluently, you can hop on Togetter or 2chan and have a blast reading these circlejerks.


Nerd culture has always had a right-wing fringe, but it grows depending on how much it gets fed and Japan keeps their otaku base fat. The mix of war themes and cute girls was a match made in heaven. The ultranationalist sentiment survived the test of time by becoming a subculture (or infiltrating one), like a virus infecting a cell. It started replicating itself in different ways, mutating, becoming unrecognisable to the general eye– Ultranationalism managed to become a regular happening in otaku works and fan-works.


Collage of some titles that came to mind. In orange: source.

As I was piling up information, I came across several threads discussing the series Saga of Tanya the Evil (pictured above). Fans of the series were trying to explain (to an already agreeing audience) how the character could not be an actual nazi since she is sporting a uniform mixing both WWI and WWII aesthetics. You see, the story is also set in WWI and the protagonist is not racist etc.


Such an example highlights the lack of understanding of the grand narrative I had mentioned earlier: these are just cute girls wearing cool clothes. There is no political meaning behind them– Even when there is one. Every piece of media I listed in the essay, seen on its own, could be excused in a way or another, yet, listed side by side, they show an undoubted fascination for war. The Axis Powers and Imperial Japan, hidden under piles and piles of cute girls in skimpy uniforms.


By being a copy, of a copy, of a copy, of a copy of reality, otaku culture (and its consumers) can ignore any connections to real life, to their country’s politics and to propaganda. The same happens in American media (and we all know how much the USA loves war) – since it is not a particular issue only found in Japanese society.


📚 Conclusions

For the TL;DR section: we have learnt about Japanese Fascism and imperialism! How war was taught in Japan from the 1950s to the 1980s and how otaku culture appropriated the ultranationalist ideals of a “comfort Japan” and the war aesthetic.


This whole essay is not to call out works that feature war or a plea to stop narrating stories about armed conflict because “war sucks”. However, it is for all the people wanting to enjoy media within an active framework instead of simply and passively consuming content. Japanese people are not a monolith; many works pushing against these depictions exist and are created every single day. Counterculture art has always existed, from post-war Japan and even earlier, both in academia and in media in general. 


Understanding how a fascist narrative can insinuate media helps us be vigilant enough to enjoy fictional works with a more critical eye. I hope it was at least informative and a stimulating read! Go now, enjoy your anime! 


Beta-readers:
- Cissy
- Squiggles

Biography/Sitography found specifically for this article:






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