Today we welcome a guest blog post from Andrew C. McKevitt, author of Consuming Japan: Popular Culture and the Globalizing of 1980s, on the popularity and impact of anime and manga in America today.
Consuming Japan explores the intense and ultimately fleeting moment in 1980s America when the future looked Japanese. Would Japan’s remarkable post–World War II economic success enable the East Asian nation to overtake the United States? Or could Japan’s globe-trotting corporations serve as a model for battered U.S. industries, pointing the way to a future of globalized commerce and culture? From autoworkers to anime fans, this insightful book introduces new unorthodox actors into foreign-relations history, demonstrating how the flow of all things Japanese contributed to the globalizing of America in the late twentieth century.
Consuming Japan is available now in both print and e-book editions.
Globalization’s Heroes in the Age of Trumpism
As I wrapped up my first book, Consuming Japan: Popular Culture and the Globalizing of 1980s America, the last thing I expected to come across in the deluge of daily news on the 2016 presidential election was the intersection of the Donald Trump campaign and Japanese animation, or anime, one of the Japanese products I examine that came to U.S. shores beginning in the 1960s. In the heat of the contentious Republican primary season from which the reality-TV star would emerge victorious, one party operative criticized his voters as “single men who masturbate to anime.” As someone who’s studied and written about anime fans for more than a dozen years now, this claim seemed one more ugly stereotype to emerge from a moment of nastiness, less a denigration of Trump voters than of the diverse millions of people across the United States who consume anime.
I had this absurd political context in mind when, during the first week of July 2017, I attended Anime Expo, the largest convention (or “con”) in the United States dedicated to the celebration of the many facets of Japanese popular culture. I had been invited to deliver the keynote address at the Anime and Manga Studies Symposium, a four-day academic conference built into Anime Expo’s programming, alongside the hundreds of panels dedicated to favorite anime series, manga, video games, and the “cosplay” that celebrates it all. To me, the diversity on display among the 100,000 attendees at Anime Expo demonstrated the emptiness of claims of anime’s perverse marginality. Fans represented a cross section of a nation in the midst of a decades-long demographic transformation. No doubt, somewhere in a country of 320 million souls, a solitary white male Trump voter sat in his parents’ basement enjoying his favorite hentai (which refers, at least in the United States, to sexually-explicit anime and manga). Actual anime fandom, though, reflects not that stereotype but the reality of a world of increasing global interconnectedness and the challenges a diverse nation faces adapting to it. That diversity has served as a canvass for U.S. fans to confront ideas about race and gender. In one way, then, anime fans are globalization’s champions, especially in a political moment of resurgent economic and ethnic nationalisms.
Anime’s diversity particularly struck me when, a couple weeks earlier, I was chatting with an arts reporter about the state anime in the United States in 2017. He asked me a hard question to answer—what are anime fans into these days? Truthfully, I have no idea; their interests are so diverse and varied and ephemeral (much of it mirroring the industry fans admire so much) that it’s difficult for an outside observer to keep track. (Scroll through the list of available anime on a streaming service like Hulu, for instance, which offers at least 200 different series right now, to get a sense of the vastness of the genre.) The industry, too, is rapidly changing in ways difficult for a historian, accustomed as I am to asking questions about long-term context, to understand clearly.
My historian’s answer, then, was that anime fans today are into what anime fans in the United States have always been into—difference, to put it simply. Since its first appearance on U.S. television in the 1960s, through its largely underground 1980s existence, to its commercial boom (and subsequent bust) at the turn of the twenty-first century, anime fascinated fans in the United States because it contrasted sharply with mainstream American popular culture. Across genres, anime told bold stories with rich characters in compelling fictional worlds. Its provenance in a country with a very different language, social structures, and cultural attitudes only brought those contrasts with American popular culture into greater relief. From the start of the subculture, fandom celebrated anime’s difference, and for fans in the United States, that difference manifested as Japaneseness.
Today, embracing anime’s difference—its Japaneseness—is hardly a transgressive act, evidenced by the massive turnouts at Anime Expo and the hundreds of anime cons held annually throughout the United States. But in the late 1970s and 1980s, as anime fans in the United States first started building fan clubs and organizing the kinds of cons that are now commonplace, embracing Japaneseness could be an act of political and cultural rebellion. Decades after the Pacific War, anti-Japanese sentiments rose sharply in response to Japan’s postwar “miracle” recovery, which had made it the world’s second-largest economy by the early 1970s. Most Americans encountered that success via the billions of consumer goods Japanese companies shipped to U.S. shores. Sometimes the Japaneseness of those products meant little; other times, it proved divisive, even deadly. Most infamously, a Chinese American man named Vincent Chin was beaten to death outside Detroit in 1982 because a laid-off autoworker and his stepson believed he was Japanese and thus responsible for the U.S. auto industry’s plight. (The murderers later negotiated a plea bargain that resulted in no jail time.) Japanese economic growth continued unabated for a decade, prompting predictions of a “coming war with Japan.” In such a context, then, anime fans’ embrace of Japaneseness could be transgressive indeed.
So when I say those fans were globalization’s heroes at that moment, I’m only being a bit glib. Of course, globalization is a complicated phenomenon, or, better, a series of intersecting phenomena stretching back decades and centuries. Since the 1970s especially, people around the world have experienced an intense conflation of time and space, but this broad process has diffused unevenly across the globe, generating wealth and lifting standards of living but also exacerbating gaps between rich and poor. To say there are heroes and villains in globalization is as simplistic as saying there are winners and losers. But in a moment when we’re witnessing the reemergence of the sorts of nationalisms that divided Europe and the world in 1914 and 1939, anime fans’ unabashed celebration of border smashing is something to admire.
Andrew C. McKevitt is assistant professor of history at Louisiana Tech University and author of the forthcoming Consuming Japan: Popular Culture and the Globalizing of 1980s America. Follow him on Twitter for further updates.