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Pop Culture Politics

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New Emissary

Pop Culture Politics

Japan’s anime can help us understand its politics, says MIT prof and author.

Today, our top feature is an exclusive interview that touches on one of the most heated and pressing issues facing the Japanese government now—the much-disputed Futenma US airbase on the southern island of Okinawa.

So, it seems a good time to mention a recent conversation we had with Ian Condry, a Japan-expert and author of Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization. While most of us familiar with Japanese pop culture forms, such as anime, wouldn’t necessarily think of it as overtly political, Condry has said previously that understanding Japanese popular culture can actually be a big help in understanding its political culture—even in the case of the Futenma-Okinawa issue.

We asked him to elaborate, and although he was careful to add that it’s hard to make direct connections, especially with the recent change in government, he had some thought-provoking ideas to share on the topic:

On the political nature of Japanese manga (comic) and anime

‘I would say though is that there are examples of anime and manga that are critical and at least imply a certain approach to politics. Some are right-wing, truth be told. There are some manga artists who are quite nationalist and revisionist when it comes to Japan’s wartime experience. But at the same time there are examples of other opinions in Japan…’

A ‘bloody’ example…

‘There is a TV series called Blood + which is also part of a wider media franchise but revolves in part around an international conspiracy in which pharmaceutical companies and military contractors are colluding together across national borders to both make violence and then sell themselves as the solution to that violence.’

A metaphor for Futenma-Okinawa?

‘So Blood + is actually a kind of interesting political commentary about American militarism around the world. One of the early incidents took place in Okinawa where there was a killing on a high school campus. The US military comes in and cordons it off from the Japanese police and the American fans who translated this anime episode added the note to audiences that a lot of them might not know that this actually happens in Japan—that if there’s some kind of conflict on Okinawa, the American military can sometimes take jurisdiction even though it’s not their country. This is interesting for me to see that there are not only implications of politics in some anime but then anime fans feel strongly about conveying their politics and showing their position.’

Then, one reason why we should watch anime

‘It can provide an alternative picture that is different from what we hear in public negotiations between the US and Japan governments.’

Ian Condry is also the Associate Professor of Japanese Cultural Studies in Foreign Languages and Cultures at MIT, Boston. Interview by Victoria Tuke.