A couple of days ago Frogkun wrote a post about how the anime adaptation of Little Women choose to portray black women, specifically their language and dialect, which, anime fandom being what it is, got him some pushback from more reactionary fans about it being too political and ideological. Which in turn led him to write a post on forcing one’s own cultural assumptions onto anime, which I found interesting:
At best, it comes across as lazy argumentation in context. At worst, the writer is guilty of exactly the same cultural elitism they’re supposed to be decrying. In their effort to delegitimatise viewpoints they disagree with on a personal level, they project their own cultural assumptions onto anime. The “Japanese culture”, as they choose to portray it, becomes a shield to deflect criticism of their favoured works. And sometimes, it works very well as a rhetorical strategy, because how can you argue that the “Japanese culture” has it backwards without sounding like a racist?
Anime fans are of course far from the first ones to use this sort of argument, a rightwing appropriation of leftist language twisted into an apologia; several of the more authoritarian regimes in Asia are found of using anti-colonialist language to dismiss human rights complaints. Closer to home, here in the Netherlands any foreign criticism of Zwarte Piet as being suspiciously similar to blackface is dismissed as not understanding the Dutch cultural context. It’s slightly less common to see people use this argument to defend a foreign culture to their own, but it’s not unknown either. A tempting trick to use, because if done right, it also means you yourself don’t have to defend your questionable tastes anymore and your opponent now has to defend themselves.
To counter this argument, what should be remembered is that it depends on two big lies, in this case 1) that whatever anime is being criticised can be thought of as a standin for “Japanese culture” as a whole and 2) that whatever is being criticised in anime as a whole is actually an accurate and trustworthy representation of Japanese cultural values, with “Japanese culture” as a monolithic bloc.
But what if some of the cultural assumptions and values seen in anime are not the natural outcome of deeply held cultural beliefs, but rather deliberately constructed in the same way that everything else in anime has been created by smart, intelligent, culturally savy people? Here I’m reminded of a post about Noragami published at Therefore it is last month, which talked about Noragami as “an updated, contemporary, “hipper” anime attempt for the youth that will inherit the country to preserve their cultural heritage”.
That is then, there are a lot of shared assumptions about what Japan is like as a country, what Japanese culture is and what normal, everyday Japanese life looks like (well, at least normal, everyday teenage Japanese life, but I digress) in anime. But that doesn’t mean that these shared assumptions are true or the whole truth. It might just as well be a constructed reality of an imagined, idealised Japan, something rooted in reality but with all the conflicting ideas and ideologies airbrushed out of it. Could it not be that anime creates the image of a Japan that’s more conservative than reality, as its creators’ desires and market forces collude to do so, or is holding hands really that lewd? In other words, the idea that anime is this passive receptacle of “Japanese culture” that could have foreign values imposed on it is far more offensive than actually judging it by your own (western) standards, as long as you realise that anime != Japanese culture and are careful in explaining where your own ignorance starts.