It surprises me sometimes how little shōnen manga is treated in the academic and pseudo-intellectual literature. Far more attention is paid to shōjo manga and its social function in constructing for young readers a particular conception of girlhood. Moreover, I’m surprised how little the ever recurring themes of shōnen manga are compared with and understood in the context of Japanese education (outside of comics’ effects on literacy), since public education in Japan is so tightly controlled by Monbusho (the Japanese Ministry of Education etc.) and its dictates concerning curricula. This means that the educational experiences of Japanese youth are surprisingly unvaried, even though from middle school on students are regularly tracked, as they say in education speak, i.e. curricular paths are specifically tailored for entry into college, agricultural vocation, foreign language study, etc. This tracking is extended by the wide range of senmon gakkō or vocational schools specially tailored for training in a particular career. If you wanted to, in the Japanese educational system you could easily be prepped for becoming an interpreter later in life the second you enter middle school.
Now, there is a fair amount of research regarding the relationship between education and the earliest print periodicals tailored to children and adolescents, for it’s quite hard to avoid the rather convenient coincidence that the first magazines for children appeared shortly after the implementation of the Imperial Rescript on Education (Kyoiku chokugo), the very first document detailing the character of a modern, national Japanese educational system. Now, the imperial rescript no longer determines the content and structure of the contemporary Japanese educational system, but many of its prescriptions have become the assumptions underlying modern Japanese educational theory: the need for moral education, strong central control, the inculcation of a kind of mild nationalism, and the reinforcement of various Confucian values (filial piety, for instance) with the Meiji Emperor as the figurative “father” of the Japanese “family.” While I admit that reverence for the emperor is no longer demanded of Japanese subjects, students in all Tokyo schools are still required to sing Kimi ga yo, a song which explicitly references the emperor, at
all official school functions just graduation [whoops], this despite the objections of more liberal minded teachers who regard Ishihara as a retrograde twat.
I’ve been thinking quite a lot of late about the relationship between characters’ experiences in manga and the socialization implicit in Japanese education. You might recall, dear reader, that I have even written something along these lines, not just once, but twice. Today, I’d like to focus on the phenomenon of moral education, its inherent contradictions in Japanese education, and how Isayama Hajime’s recent Shingeki no kyojin (Attack on Titan – I hate this translation, btw) reflects both a clear expression of these contradictions and characters’ anxieties about them.
You Are [Not] Alone
Of the many statements expressing the need for moral education in Japanese curricula, very few go into any great detail about what that moral education should consist of. Part of the reason for this is political: for the longest time, the Japan Teachers Union was one of the few forms of officially sanctioned resistance to typically conservative government policies, so while the Banzai Bozos often got their way in terms of including a moral component, the teachers themselves made sure, more often than not, that what constituted that component remained necessarily vague. However, the “Moral Education” section of the 1983 Course of Study for Elementary Schools in Japan goes into rather eye-opening detail as to what the practice of moral education out to be in the eyes of the Ministry of Education. There are 28 prescriptions, each with an explanation for how to implement it at various grade levels, but I’d like to focus on just 3: #s 4, 17, and 27.
There is a contradiction in these moral contents between individual freedom and willing acquiescence to the demands of one’s community and the state. #4 reads as a simple expression of what one hopes any individual in a democratic society would aspire to: “to act according to one’s beliefs, and not to be moved unreasonably by others’ opinions.” Yet, this is followed by things like #17, “to respect those who devote themselves to others, and to appreciate their work,” and #27, “to love the nation with pride as a Japanese, and to contribute to the development of the nation.” Now, the jingoism inherent in #27 is rather obvious, but I suspect that most readers, at first glance, would think #17 to be rather innocuous, even admirable. However, it’s the details that give away what Monbusho means by “those who devote themselves.” It adds in the explanation, “in the higher grades, to admire the great achievements of one’s predecessors [senpai].” The use of the loaded term senpai makes clear that the predecessors are not illustrious graduates or important persons in society but rather one’s immediate predecessors in clubs and so forth, the ones who in practical terms dictate what the culture of extracurricular activities in Japanese schools (which, I hasten to add, are pretty much mandatory) is. Though it need not necessarily be this way, in many clubs, this amounts to “do whatever your senpai tell you,” even if that goes against not being moved unreasonably by others’ opinions.
This points to a facet of education we all too often overlook, and it is something not limited to Japan. In the schools we have set up for ourselves, we expect students to do a lot of the heavy lifting in determining and enforcing norms that otherwise ought to be the purview of the people in positions of authority, i.e. teachers and administrators. Moreover, where “being true to oneself” and “being responsive to one’s elders” conflict (and they do regularly conflict), the expectation is generally that one’s own bullshit is to take a back seat to the consensual bullshit that everyone wills into being even without ever expressing any opinion on it pro or con.
My interest here, then, is how education functions as a form of social control, one that in Japanese society encompasses far more of a person’s life than anywhere else I’ve seen. For, in addition to the school day, you have mandatory club activities (at least in high school), for most students cram school either before or after the school day begins/ends (sometimes both), regular extracurricular examinations such as the kanken exam that measures one’s proficiency with kanji, not to mention the social pressure of one’s family to study, “succeed,” and rise to the not-so-lofty heights of the semi-permanent white collar jobs that serve as the increasingly illusory cogs of Japan’s capitalist mythos. One wonders what “success” even means in this context when all you get from working yourself to the bone day and night is the privilege to… wait for it… work yourself to the bone, day and night, for the rest of your days until retirement. I suppose “plus money” enters in there somewhere, but what a lousy consolation…
You Can [Not] Advance
It surprises me that so many people are shocked by what transpires in Isayama’s Shingeki no kyojin (Advancing Giants), because when I began reading it a few months ago, I immediately thought to myself, “what an obvious allegory of life inside Japanese education.” Now, of course, I do tend to say that about a lot of shōnen manga (because it’s true), and perhaps you, dear reader, are getting sick of my “if you’d only ever lived in Japan” schtick, but I think I can say this with a great deal of authority, because I have actually worked in the Japanese educational system and have made the acquaintance of many others, both Japanese and non-Japanese alike, who have also had the pleasure of that rather strange experience, that much of shōnen manga can only be understood in the context of education in Japan, both because so much of it is set within the context of the school life of children and adolescents but also because even those texts that take place in a fantasy setting still clearly reflect it (e.g, why does Naruto have a ninja school and a series of examinations for rises in ninja rank?). I have a feeling, if more people were to do this, we wouldn’t persist in such pointless navel-gazing exercises as the following:
However, as is so often the case, Shingeki no kyojin not only manifests an alter-reality of school life but the anxieties that attend to it as well. Thus it is simultaneously expression and critique all rolled up into a lot of quizzical claptrap trying to justify a rather odd and arbitrary premise: human beings were almost entirely wiped out by a bunch of lumpy, aggressive, salarymen who played entirely too much Rampage as teenagers. As a result everyone is now German-ish and living inside a massive parody of a medieval castle town.
You can guess from my tone that I’m not all that impressed with the plot, but there are aspects of this text that are worth paying close attention to. First of all, the kyojin are decidedly middle-aged and, shall we say, lumpy in appearance, not that lumps are a bad thing, often with a remarkably dopey grin on their faces. Our teenage Wunderkinder, on the other hand, are lean and grizzled, with looks that appear to have been seared into their faces by gazing at the sun–or by the absolute horror of seeing everyone you love eaten alive by the local district manager of a logistics firm and his secretary. Their lives are largely dictated by the pervasive, inescapable, and incomprehensible presence of giant oyaji who consume and consume and consume, as it turns out, for seemingly no other reason than to consume.
There are exceptions to the lumpy giants, in particular the colossal/armored/female ones whose physique is notable for being, literally, muscular. There is a reason for this, because [SPOILER ALERT - ZOMG CLOSE YOUR EYES, PLUG YOUR NOSE, AND PUT BANANAS IN YOUR EARS!!!] all the “lean” giants are, in fact, youngins, in particular adolescent members of the very super elite teenage squad meant to protect the last human city thing from the threat of 7-10 workaday oblivion–or, err, annihilation. In a sense, they have become giants but have not acquiesced to the hurp-dee-dur that typifies their lumpy brethren. This is because their stated goal, as revealed in the most recent arc is [WE NEED MORE BANANAS!!!1] simply to get away somewhere beyond the wall. If the rest of humanity has to suffer and die as a result, then so be it.
It has been suggested, though not explicitly revealed, that ALL giants are, in fact, simply transformed humans like the “deviant” ones above, but, should you happen to believe Hanji’s suggestion that giants have simply learned to tunnel under the walls (and that’s why there was no breach), then I’d like to interest you in my full proof investment opportunity, payment in full up front. This suggests, to my mind, that the lumptastic giants are simply a metaphor for human complacency in “maturity.” That much should be obvious from their appearance. However, the corollary, with regard to our intrepid Spider-wannabes in the scouting legion, is a group of adolescent boys and girls trapped in the untenable logic of a civilization that wastes their lives (the indiscriminate casualties throughout Shingeki no kyojin are one of its more arresting features) as readily as the giants munch on the humans they claim in their wake. Some, those who have become giants themselves, have chosen to opt out and wish, though rather selfishly, to save at least a few of those they care about. Most are simply cloaked in the fear of what is to be in a world where the known is dwarfed by the unknown.
This is exactly what being a teenager is like: a range of diffuse often contradictory expectations rain down upon you, and when you fuck up, as a result of perfectly reasonable choices between competing concerns, you suffer every manner of consequence, each one more horribly arbitrary than you could have foreseen. The only way to escape from this nightmare is to toe the line, to play the complex game implicit in the system of exams and activities and behavioral codes in educational environments that become ever more complex as the years pass, due, more often than not, to an overhyped moral panic about the state of our youth. What Shingeki no kyojin reflects is a world in which those in authority no longer have to suffer the indignities of their moral prescriptions, where, throughout the world now, youth unemployment has been in the double digits for a VERY long time, and where you have to struggle twice as hard as your senpai just to stay afloat, all the while you’re compelled to recognize how much greater their achievements are than yours. So far in the story, those who have attempted to be themselves, not unduly swayed by the opinions of others, have been visually coded as giants and thus the “enemy.”
The world of Shingeki no kyojin preys upon their underdeveloped, dare I say, adolescent logic. The Us vs. Them of the humans vs. giants antagonism that animates their ersatz nationalism/unity is fed to these youngins in heavy doses, when the reality slowing being unfolded in the comic is one in which there is only Us vs. Us, in which the greatest as yet unrevealed threat is that of becoming the thing you fear most.
Next Week: uuuuuuummmmmm… any suggestions?
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