Eastern Culture: Manga and Anime Culture Part 1

This semester, I’m conducting an independent study with Franklin & Marshall College’s new Asian history professor, Dr. Richard Reitan. Using the anime Sailor Moon as a keyhole into something deeper, my research will focus on understanding why Japanese popular culture seems fixated on heroines and heroes with Western (Caucasian) features.

In the late nineteenth century, Japan actually looked down upon most other nations as less civilized. Indeed, the Western version of “civilization” in Japan was met with resistance, and in the early twentieth century many Japanese scholars and elites began to profess their belief that Japan and its people had something to offer the Western world without having to conform to its ways. Japan’s collective identity—highly militaristic and male-dominated—remained proud and strong until the end of the Pacific War with the United States and Allied Powers. The nation was truly traumatized after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their unconditional surrender to the Allies a short time later.

Because creating a military was forbidden to the Japanese government after its defeat, it worked hard to become “civilized” in a world that viewed Nazi Germany and the United States as ideal by focusing purely upon economic greatness. Middle- and upper-class Japanese also adapted to Western-style clothing (suits and top hats over traditional kimonos), gravitated toward handshakes and away from honorary bowing to greet one another, and learned English in an effort to “civilize” themselves and become “worthy” of being a first-world nation.

Unfortunately, official Japanese texts and rhetoric did little to allow for retention of Japan’s former identity—in fact, it was often officially suppressed in order to conform to Western standards of “rehabilitation”—or for the stages of mourning the loss of two entire villages, their belief in the emperor as Divine, and the emphasis on the military in government documents and proceedings. Although official texts may not address the trauma Japan’s people endured after World War II (and, in some ways, are still enduring), Japanese popular culture did and still does through manga and, with the growth of widespread television viewing, anime.

Between 1945 and the present, anime has evolved in many ways. However, there is still a sense of inferiority to and idealization of the West seen across pop culture; anime acts as a window into the deeper issues Japanese men and women still face today. For example, Sailor Moon’s title character is a markedly Japanese girl living in Tokyo in the early 1990s, and yet she has blonde hair and blue eyes. As the title character, she holds the most power and influence over the other characters—and even the storyline itself—eyet she is a complete klutz who is infatuated with boys and beautiful (read: Western-style) weddings.

In my independent study, I want to find out why Sailor Moon is blonde and blue-eyed and learn more about her interactions with the other characters. To do that, I’ll be going back in time to learn what, if anything, caused Japanese infatuation with the West. Hopefully, I will be able to give you, the readers, an update in the May 2007 issue with my findings. Wish me luck!