41. The Imperial Fantasia of Ghost in the Shell


While I and the world would most likely be better served by finishing part 3 of my series on shōjo bunka, I thought I might return to a critical controversy whose most recent discursive turns, given the release of the terrible (?) film underlying them, have frankly bewildered me.  I might not have considered doing this, if it were not for the interest generated by a recent talk I gave on cultural appropriation in and of Japan.  The tl;dr of that was it astounds me how little attention is actually paid to what Japanese people say about matters of cultural appropriation, especially when, as in the case of the Japanese bloggers who wrote about the kimono controversy at the MFA in Boston, they try to introduce important and contradictory nuances into a progressive line that sees appropriation as always bad, 100% of the time.  Moreover, the Youtuber Yuta has done a number of street interviews in Japan asking about whitewashing of Japanese media properties, and one of the most common experiences he has had in doing so is to have to explain in excruciating detail what is even meant by whitewashing.  I find Yuta’s videos especially important, because they reveal something that’s often missing from these debates: that there is no such thing as uniform Japanese public opinion.  In fact, Japanese people, just like anyone else, can have their opinions changed or reified in accordance with or in reaction to arguments made for or against a particular position.  To imply anything else is, as far as I am concerned, just another form of exoticizing.  What is more, that very same well-meaning but inevitably essentialist impulse actually bolsters a form of ethnic coercion one commonly sees in so-called nihonjinron theories of Japanese identity.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

I might not have bothered to write this piece and would have continued to labor on a historical period hardly anyone seems to care about these days, if it were not for a piece Noah Berlatsky has at Forward.  He makes the intriguing, though I will ultimately argue, flawed argument that the live action Ghost in the Shell film is a white supremacist (he does not use this phrasing, though I think it is implied), American fantasy of assimilation.

The assimilation narrative is not an imposition; the filmmakers are well aware of it — not in a Jewish context, but in an Asian-American one. It turns out that Major’s original, human body was Japanese; her name was Motoko Kusanagi. There is even a scene where the white Major reunites with her Japanese mother (Kaori Momoi), who thought her daughter was dead. Mom talks about how “wild” her daughter was, while Major continues to stare blankly across the unbridgeable distance between human and android, which is also, metaphorically, the distance between a mother still linked to a Japanese past and an ambivalently assimilated second generation.

The theme of assimilation is there, but the film struggles to handle it in a meaningful way As Japanese actress Atsuko Okatsuka pointed out at the Hollywood Reporter, the meeting between Major and her mother is awkward and “generic.” Beyond the mother’s appearance and slight accent, there’s no sense of cultural difference or tension, no food or personal rituals which bring back memories for Major. There is also, as Okatsuka says, no sense of shame about having abandoned the past, or about having failed to abandon it completely enough.

Because of this, as Berlatsky points out on Twitter, Japanese opinion on the matter is largely irrelevant.  As he says, “[i]t would be weird if Japanese people in Japan had strong feelings about that one way or the other. No reason for them to care, particularly.”  I’m not here to defend Ghost in the Shell in any of its manifestations, for as regular readers of this blog already know, I find it mostly to be authoritarian drek for ammosexuals.  Only Stand Alone Complex comes close to living up to the series’ intellectual pretensions, perhaps because it has much more time and space to develop its thematic threads.  What I do want to push back against, though, is this notion that the opinions of Japanese people are somehow irrelevant.  For if, as Berlatsky argues, the live action film is an assimilationist fantasy, then that makes it even more Japanese, not less, and the very moment in the film he brings to bear in support of his argument, the lack of shame for abandoning the past, is actually what aligns it perfectly with the problem of how Japan’s own imperial history works in the politics of the present.

At this point, there are a number of obnoxious digressions I could go on, but I will try to limit myself to just two: the dominant discourse of racial identity in Imperial Japan and the cultural scrubbing of Japanese commodities when produced for consumption outside Japan.

What I will treat here schematically is much better developed in Oguma Eiji’s A Genealogy of “Japanese” Self-images, and there are far worse things you could do with your life than to close this browser window and read that book instead.  What Oguma shows there is how during the height of Japanese colonial expansion in the first half of the 20th century, the dominant sociological conception of the Japanese polity was multi-ethnic and multi-racial.  Nowadays, it’s common among Westerners to regard the Japanese as more or less culturally and racially homogeneous.  This is due in no small part to a discourse that emerged in the postwar era among Japanese intellectuals propagating just such a notion, which goes by the name nihonjonron most commonly in English, though is usually called nihon bunkaron in Japanese.  During the empire, the multi-ethnic theory of Japanese identity was used as an intellectual basis for the colonization of East Asia, especially as manifest in the so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.  Korean and Taiwanese (then Formosan) men were even admitted to the same status as ethnic Japanese, in theory if not always in practice, as fully enfranchised voters.

Anyone familiar with the contemporary geopolitical situation in East Asia can tell you that there really is no pan-Asian solidarity there.  In fact, what we see is the exact opposite, and the primary reason for this is the fact that the one major example of such a movement was straightforwardly supremacist in intent.  Moreover, due in no small part to radical revisionist entities such as the Nippon Kaigi, the Japanese government has steadfastly refused to acknowledge, at least with any great force or contrition, the country’s historical role in destabilizing the continent.  And let us be clear, when I say “revisionist,” generally two issues come to mind: comfort women and military massacres like the one in Nanjing in 1937/1938.  This unwillingness to acknowledge is a constant strain on relations, especially with China and Korea.  And this tension exists within Japanese society as well, not just at the governmental level.  The situation of zainichi Koreans, for instance, has changed surprisingly little since the repatriation movements of the 1950s and ’60s.

There is not even pan-ethnic solidarity among self-identified Japanese.  As many nikkei who have gone back to the archipelago can attest, they are quite often treated as hardly different from foreigners.  When unemployment was on the rise in Japan following the global financial crisis, the dekasegi, mostly Brazilian and Peruvian migrants of Japanese descent who had been encouraged to emigrate to Japan to fill labor shortages, were now being given substantial cash incentives (300K yen [~3,000 USD] for individuals, 200K [~2000 USD] for each additional family member) to return to Latin America.  These individuals, whose labor was clearly being exploited for the benefit of Japanese industry, were never thought of as properly “Japanese” and therefore never entitled to the rather generous social welfare benefits conferred up the country’s citizens.  As a personal testament, I cannot count the number of times friends of mine have claimed to be “not very Japanese,” when I note that they themselves are very unlike the stereotypes of Japanese homogeneity so regularly peddled about.  It is clear that for them, having been raised in Japan, Japanese ethnic identity is prescriptive, not descriptive.  Moreover, that very prescription in the here and now is a creature of abandonment, namely the abandoning of Japan’s historical reality in favor of a mostly ahistorical, seemingly universal, and “clean” notion of Japanese cultural identity.

All of this is to say that the assimilationist narrative one sees in Ghost in the Shell emerges from within Japanese culture and history and not, I would argue, from American white supremacy.  This is not to say that the two versions do not have an affinity for one another and are therefore simpatico, but I would resist thinking that the Japanese are somehow indifferent to this aspect of the narrative.  Also, I imagine underlying this presumption of indifference is the assumption that Japanese media companies are more or less acquiescent to their Anglo-American counterparts.  This could not be further from the truth.  When it comes to what gets translated, localized, adapted, etc. the Japanese media companies very much call the shots both with regard to what crosses over and how those translations are realized.

Which brings me to my second digressive axis: the cultural scrubbing that in Japanese is called mukokuseki, a word that means “statelessness” but which refers in practice to the way in which Japanese commodities are stripped of anything that might mark them as culturally specific to Japan.  One might well wonder, given the contemporary craze for Japanese popular media in Europe and North America, why Japanese corporations would do such a thing, but I, unlike most of the very young, self-styled otaku of the modern day, actually remember the 1980s, in particular the anti-Japanese panic that spread throughout the US, the widespread and ultimately fallacious notion that the Japanese were going to somehow eclipse and takeover the United States through sheer economic force of will.  The op/ed hysterics of the time never could fathom that Japanese economic imperialism, such as it was, was built upon a bubble that popped in the early ’90s and never recovered.  One can imagine, though, how, in such an environment, it would be advantageous for Japanese firms to fly under the radar.  In fact, when it comes to international negotiations the Japanese government is infamous for being inscrutable and getting what it wants largely through obfuscation and misdirection.

A case in point is one of the most recent side deals negotiated with the United States in tandem with one of Barack Obama’s legacy projects, the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP.  In one such deal, Abe’s right-wing government managed to achieve one of the Nippon Kaigi’s long term goals, to free Japan’s military apparatus from the constraints placed upon it by the US, the only ally that ever bothered to make certain Japan stuck to its constitutional obligations to non-aggression.  Not so coincidentally, this turned out to be the culmination of a draft proposal put together in 2013 by the LDP’s Council of National Defense for full-scale rearmament on the order of other developed countries.  The US negotiators conceded these terms largely because they seemed to have little to do with the primary sticking point of the negotiations, automobile and agricultural subsidies, and so they were seen as a convenient means to break the impasse.

The original draft proposal was spearheaded by Ishiba Shigeru and Nakatani Gen, both Nippon Kaigi members and each one even more militaristic than Abe.  Ishiba is a self-described gunji otaku or militaria geek, an ammosexual, as I prefer to call them, whose personal identity is closely tied to a neo-imperialist vision of Japan.  That a latent imperialism in Ghost in the Shell might have a strong appeal for someone like Ishiba would not be worth noting–and this digression a self-indulgent flopping of my scholarly wang–if it were not for the fact that Ishiba and many others like him have a hand directly on the levers of power.  Yet, this faction of the LDP, currently the dominant one, has always had to conceal its aims even from the Japanese people themselves.  The Japanese public as a whole has remained vehemently anti-militarist ever since the occupation–perhaps because historically they have born the brunt of the fallout from Japanese belligerence–and have protested both the United States’ military presence in Japan as well as the government’s acquiescence to America’s own imperialistic interests in East Asia.

It might be tempting to regard that commonplace of Japanese media properties, just like their American counterparts, of solving all social problems by beating them up or vaporizing them with an impressive array of ballistic weapons as not necessarily representative of individual political opinions.  I imagine one can both advocate diplomacy in foreign affairs even while cheering on Jessica Jones’ simply murdering the bad guy.  Humans are complex creatures.  Nevertheless, the assimilationist impulse underlying Ghost in the Shell corresponds to a not altogether uncommon public sentiment in Japanese society.  In my previous post on why the whitewashing argument does not quite work in the Japanese context, I noted the popularity in Japan of the 2003 film The Last Samurai.  I speculated that its popularity had just as much to do with how huge of a star Tom Cruise is in Japan as with how it presents a wayward American subject assimilated to a conservative Japanese ideal.

The film was a great success because it conforms, in large part, to the conservative and nationalist worldview of Japanese public institutions, the government most of all.  It is itself a fantasy, one in which the much admired white movie star is made to see the light of the extra special pure Japanese spirit (barf).

In light of our current debate, I would recast this point to say that there is still in Japan, just as previously during the empire, a desire to be the axis of assimilation, to be that to which other cultures conform.  There was a real fear once in the US that this might actually come to pass, and you can see the sentiment underlying films such as Ron Howard’s Gung Ho from 1986, as well as Marge Piercy’s 1991 novel He, She and It.  Since then, Japan has been bumped down to third in the economic pecking order, behind its regional rival, China, and has had to acclimate to a state of affairs in which there seems to be no near future emergence from a slow to no growth economy that has persisted since the bubble crash.  Yet, despite the setback of possible economic hegemony in the 1980s, Japan’s move toward militarism and re-armament has continued apace, due in no small part to how the major players in this development have operated just below the surface of widespread public alarm.  Just as Panasonic, Bridgestone, and Citizen worked their way into global markets by being inconspicuously Japanese and therefore, according to one line of thinking, more universally palatable, so too a dangerous worldview from the height of Japan’s colonial ambitions has worked its way back into the Zeitgeist.  Ghost in the Shell might merely reflect that fact, rather than seek to propagate it, but it worries nevertheless.

As a postscript to all this, I want to add that it was not my intention to pick on Berlatsky.  In fact, his opinion of the Ghost in the Shell manga more or less aligns with my own, so I do not mean for this to be a takedown.  Rather, I wish to make clear that there is more to all this than even what appears just below the surface, and if anything, people really ought to pay more attention to that period in Japanese history that so often gets looked over, since it is quite often the key to seeing just what is being obfuscated and how.  That is my basic point.

However, because I am a petty individual, I do also want to take this opportunity to say “I told ya so.”

One comment

  1. […] Nicholas Theisen explores the complex interplay of race, identity, and commodification in the recent Ghost in the Shell film adaptation. [What Is Manga?] […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: