Looking back on 2014, part 7: anime and Japanese politics

A symbol of…what exactly…?

Watanabe Shin’ichirou’s latest work, Terror in Tokyo [Zankyou no Terror], was one of the two series I followed this year that I personally felt got more flak than it should have. Whilst there was at least one mistake made by the animation studio, many of the critical comments elicited but one reaction from me: you don’t really understand what Watanabe’s actually trying to do, do you? The themes he’s interested in, the context that he’s written this show in — some of it is obvious, and possibly quite universal. Some of it speaks heavily to those who have a very good grasp of Watanabe’s aesthetic: yes, Bobduh at Wrong Every Time is one of the reasons I appreciate Terror more than I probably would have otherwise. But some of it is also quite Japanese, and you’re not going to understand it if you don’t have a decent grasp of Japanese politics. And this is the aspect that Watanabe hooked me on, because Japanese politics is precisely what my life currently revolves around.

The debate I want to consider here is the question of just how much control Washington has over Tokyo. It was very interesting to see some incredulous reactions after episode 9, where the old politician told Shibazaki of the dream of his conservative faction: that Japan would finally be independent again. And after episode 12, where an American official was directing the US military to erase Sphinx and thus evidence of US involvement in the bombing incident at the airport, the impression I got was that a number of viewers were rolling their eyes at that ridiculously biased interpretation of US-Japan relations.

Japanese police officials waiting for the American to finish his phone call…
isn’t the symbolism a bit heavy handed?

I can understand why people might feel this way. In the immediate aftermath of WW2, Japan was occupied by the US for seven years. Additionally, Okinawa prefecture and several other southern islands remained under US control for an additional two decades, and the American military still has a large presence there. However, these developments have all taken place with the consent and cooperation of the Japanese government; in fact, one can argue that the bargains that Japanese leaders struck in the 1950s were hugely beneficial to Japan. Under what remains known as the US security umbrella, Tokyo was free to direct domestic spending towards reviving its devastated economy instead of worrying about defending itself from potential attacks by the communist states it was surrounded by. During those years, Japan would also benefit from being able to flood the wealthier US market with cheap but durable mass-produced goods. Furthermore, even though the US has pushed Japan to take on more responsibility for defending itself as its economy has grown, the latter’s defense spending remains at a touch above 1% of GDP, much lower than that of any other US ally. And even more controversially, Tokyo has been known to ask the Washington to apply pressure to itself when it wants to change policies against domestic sentiment. The ways in which Japan benefits from its relationship with the US thus belies that argument that the country is a client state of ‘Uncle Sam’.

However, how independent is Japan, really? In the 1960s, Japanese business had wanted to reestablish relations with China, for the immense economic benefits that it foresaw. However, the US vetoed that, and Japan was blindsided when Kissinger secretly set up the foundation for the Nixon Shock in the 1970s. The US also prevented Japan from resolving the Northern Territories issue with the USSR in 1956, by threatening to keep Okinawa if Japan agreed to give up its claim to the two larger islands. Perhaps unbelievably, to this day, Japan and Russia have not signed a peace treaty and set up ‘normal diplomatic relations’. Some in Japan also lay the blame of the decades-long economic recession at Tokyo’s inability to stand up to Washington at the time that the Plaza accord was signed — in this case, however, the debate over the most significant causes of the country’s stagnation has yet to be settled. And finally, when the Democratic Party of Japan attempted to take initiatives to reach out more to China back in 2009, Washington’s cold reaction spoke volumes. These are some of the reasons for the popular Japanese saying of “When Washington sneezes, Tokyo catches a cold.”

“Even now, the spirit of this country is still that of a loser, without a shred of dignity.
This country must become truly independent.”

I’m not trying to argue that either extreme is correct: all I want to ask is whether those of us who aren’t Japanese have enough awarenesss and knowledge of the political environment in Japan to understand some of the debates that Terror in Tokyo touched on. In fact, this isn’t the only series that is heavily coloured by the state of Japanese politics — Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Guilty Crown and Psycho Pass are three more, just off the top of my head. There are Western films and TV shows that I find myself unable to truly appreciate because of my lack of knowledge of the context in which they are created, but the same is true of any media. My point is: shouldn’t we try to learn a bit more before we launch into our diatribes about ‘how shitty’ something is?

About karice
MAG fan, translator, and localization project manager. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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