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Review of The Representation of Japanese Politics in Manga: The Visual Literacy of Statecraft, ed. Roman Rosenbaum

By Brandon Murakami

Rosenbaum, Roman (ed.). The Representation of Japanese Politics in Manga: The Visual Literacy of Statecraft. Routledge, 2020.

In the past few decades, Japan has seen no small number of successive crises: the burst of the bubble economy in the early 90s; the impact of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008; the triple whammy of 3/11; the currently ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic; and, just recently, the public assassination of one of Japan’s most prominent Prime Ministers, Abe Shinzō. With each, the realm of Japanese politics has—for better or worse (though, depending on who you ask, most often the latter)—struggled to adequately “deal,” much less reverse the myriad looming issues that threaten the nation’s future. Although Roman Rosenbaum’s second edited collection via Routledge, The Representation of Japanese Politics in Manga: The Visual Literacy of Statecraft (hereafter, Politics, 2020), may not be a panacea for Japan’s current political woes, it is a timely and much-needed contribution in the realm of manga scholarship in its aims to “explor[e] the multifaceted relationship between Japan’s political storytelling practices, the media and bureaucratic discourse as played out in the visual arts… of Japan’s modern pop-cultural narratives” (1). (In the author’s opinion, Politics is a “sister volume” to Rosenbaum’s previous 2013 edited collection: Manga and the Representation of Japanese History.)

The essays in Politics work from and address the decades-long impact of neoliberal policy—and more recently, the aftereffects of “Abenomics,” the aforementioned Prime Minister’s economic policies, that are widely regarded as a failure—as well as the upsurge of (neo)nationalist discourses and their impact on Japanese society and popular culture. Contributions within also address the overwhelming sense (if not reality) of precarity among Japan’s younger and older generations alike caused by economic crises and the cutting away of a bulk of governmental safety nets. As such, Politics resonates deeply with the above events—and others as well within both the recent and distant past—and invites readers, scholars, and those curious about the intersection of Japanese politics and manga to ponder the increasing role and power which popular culture plays in 21st-century Japan.

The issue of representation in manga is at the heart of Rosenbaum’s project in two ways: the “representation of politics” and the “politics of representation” (1). Indeed, given the now-long history of manga’s role in (re)presenting Japan—to its people, mainly, but also to the world at large—it is no wonder that manga has become an “alternative platform for political and historical debate” and an “alternate avenue for people to acquire and disseminate information that shapes the public opinion of the nation’s political history” (1). Thus, the significance of Rosenbaum’s collection becomes apparent: it unpacks the medium’s inherent “political messag[ing]” alongside the appeal of manga’s “graphism” during a moment when politics is more pressing and consequential than ever before (15). (This feels especially so in the wake of the United States’ 2020 election and its current aftermath in 2022.) As Rosenbaum closes the volume, “today’s intermedial texts have become highly charged and loaded with symbolism that target our innermost fears, longings[,] and wishful thinking; to look beyond this pregnant iconicity is no easy task, but… political representation can take many subtle forms” (273). Put another way, we must be vigilant in parsing how popular culture (into which I would also personally slot “social media”), can shape both society and the political consciousness of its consumers/participants, for both good and ill.

Of the book’s fourteen chapters, the introduction and conclusion are written by Rosenbaum. The middle chapters address a range of spanning contemporary fantasy, a media mix franchise, works both depicting and endorsed (!!) by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, post-3/11 manga, and some “classic war-themed manga” (20). Rosenbaum’s introduction, “The Political Potential of Manga,” frames the collection well and maps out the stakes of analyzing the explicit and implicit politics of manga and mangaka—both those on the Left and the Right. Not only does Rosenbaum’s work trace a “brief history of politics” (5) in manga, but it also addresses how manga has, historically, assisted/aided various political ends. From wartime propaganda (e.g., Norakuro), to denoting shifts in “complex socio-political issues” (Slam Dunk, 1990-96), to the scandal of Hasumo Toshiko’s anti-immigrant “Syrian refugee manga” in 2015, and even as a way to increase voter turnout among the younger generations.

The rest of the volume is varied and not necessarily organized by theme, chronology, or medium. However, the chapters address many overlapping topics and events such as Article 9, gender, (Japanese) identity and nation/ality, the ever-worrying issue of historical revisionism, the impact of 3/11, and, pressingly, what is “true” and for whom. Together, they offer an ample survey of issues facing the Japanese State and body and how these have been taken up to varying extents by artists writing and illustrating for a mass public. Despite the seemingly disparate range of texts under examination, the chapters in this collection strongly resonate with each other.

For instance, Sean Patrick Webb’s “NEETs versus nuns: Visualizing the moral panic of Japanese conservatives” and Ben Whaley’s “What Tezuka would tell Trump: Critiquing Japanese cultural nationalism in Gringo” echo each other despite their dissimilar topics. Webb analyzes Christianity in manga, whereas Whaley reads Tezuka Osamu’s unfinished Gringo series, with the (perhaps unexpected) overlap between them being the issue of identity. Christianity, for Webb, invokes “historically conditioned fears about the integrity of Japanese national identity” (86), while in Whaley’s reading, Tezuka’s manga parodies “stereotypical images of [domestic] ‘Japaneseness’” while also critiquing the necessity of asking the question “who is really Japanese?” and by what measure (164).

Similarly, Stephan Köhn’s “Questioning the politics of popular culture: Tatsuta Kazuto’s manga 1F and the national discourse on 3/11” and Rachel DiNitto’s “Envisioning nuclear futures: Shiriagari Kotobuki’s 3/11 manga from hope to despair” both undertake manga that revolves around the 3/11 disaster. Köhn addresses popular culture participation in the “discursive field of Japan’s ‘atomic dream’” (184). In contrast, DiNitto’s analysis unpacks how the mangaka Shiriagari Kotobuki makes “radiation visible and meaningful despite the attempts of the government, nuclear industry and affected areas to shut down critical discourse” (20). While both focus on manga about 3/11, each contributes an analysis in distinctive ways, with the former addressing the larger conversation about Japan’s nuclear politics and the latter addressing the immediate failures of governance in times of extraordinary “natural” crisis. Perhaps, uncannily then, both are even more relevant and pressing points to consider (writing this in 2022) if the Japanese State has “learned” anything since 3/11, given the contemporary global energy crisis (as a result of Russia’s war on Ukraine), the ongoing and burgeoning pandemics (COVID-19 and now, “monkeypox”), and the unprecedented heat waves wracking the planet.

Other overlaps occur between Rachael Hutchinson’s “The body political: Women and war in Kantai Collection” and Christopher Smith’s “Database nationalism: The disaggregation of nation, nationalism and symbol in pop culture.” Here, Smith builds off Azuma Hiroki’s database theory to argue, “pop-cultural texts can… mix elements in ways that are surprising and incongruous” that simultaneously and paradoxically “rehabilitate or subvert nationalist symbols” (203). This parallels Hutchinson’s unpacking of the fascinating and hypercommodified phenomenon of the Kantai Collection franchise (which anthropomorphizes Japanese warships into busty, hyper-sexualized girls). For Hutchinson, the transformation of nationalist objects into objects of desire also exoticizes the Pacific War as “distant and unreal” (17), an act that has troubling connotations given the questioning of what “actually happened.” Thus, Kantai Collection embodies Smith’s database nationalism: we are not sure if “collecting” sexy, anthropomorphized battleships rehabilitates or subverts nationalism. Or if it merely participates in the market(ing) logics of late-stage capitalism and appropriates—albeit creatively—one way to package the distasteful glorification of Japan’s former imperial ambitions into a much more consumable and tolerable form: voluptuous digital “women.” (“Women,” here, given that they are, in fact, battleships.)

Although these are not the only overlaps between the collection’s chapters, those addressed (admittedly, all too briefly) here exemplify how the representation of politics in manga takes many shapes and cuts across time, medium, and relevant crises: political, social, or otherwise. And while I could not cover every chapter’s significant and pressing contribution to the discourse surrounding politics and manga here, the omitted ones are just as exemplary in there analyses and highlighting of how the political is (re)presented, or how the historical goes hand-in-hand with politics within the various mediums of popular culture. Ultimately, each chapter complements the others and the collection as a whole in fulfilling Rosenbaum’s aim: assessing both the representation of politics and the politics of representation in manga. As manga remains to be one of the most recognizable of Japan’s cultural exports and perhaps one of the most accessible given the rampant and rising rates of manga piracy (6.7$ billion lost in the industry between January 2020 and October 2021), this collection is a strong starting point for conversations to continue, particularly given ongoing crises in politics both domestic and global.

Oddly, my sole criticism is the reverse of Keith Leslie Johnson’s in his review of Rosenbaum’s 2013 edited collection of Manga and the Representation of Japanese History. In it, Johnson writes, “the analysis of manga’s role in the representation of history should be extended beyond overtly historical titles like Phoenix and Rainbow Trotsky to include other genres whose historiographic significance may be more occult, shall we say” (255). Instead, I would have liked to see more canonical and perhaps globally recognized series that are “political,” such as a more in-depth focus on say, Isayama Hajime’s Attack on Titan and similarly popular series. Although there is much to say about Isayama’s series—including the praise it receives from audiences on both the Left and the Right of the political spectrum—the larger metaphors within would also resonate well with other issues addressed throughout the collection (such as “historical revisionism,” “conspiracy,” “purity-identity politics,” “the nation,” etc.).

At the same time, the less blatantly political works that might be an interesting addition to the collection remain absent. How might we read the “statecraft” of a slice-of-life series? A shōjo romance? Perhaps a seinen historical drama? Or even a josei psychological thriller? In what ways is the political masked as “apolitical” and made seemingly nonchalant and quotidian because of the wondrous and otherwise fantastical stories, settings, and characters? How might we see the framework of their creators and the politics that, as Rosenbaum closes this collection proclaims, “can take many subtle forms”? Although the collection does not ponder these questions in the directions I have just suggested above, Rosenbaum and his contributors nevertheless provide ample starting points for those further inquiries. I am hopeful for the next iteration in his series of edited collections, given all that has happened since 2020.


Works Cited

Johnson, Keith Leslie. Review of Manga and the Representation of Japanese History, ed. Roman Rosenbaum. Southeast Review of Asian Studies, vol. 35, 2013, pp. 252-255.

Rosenbaum, Roman (ed.). Manga and the Representation of Japanese History. Routledge, 2013.


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