Digital Distribution of Techno-Orientalism through Anime and Manga

Since the 1970s, Japan has been a target (perhaps the target) for Techno-Orientalism, whether in reference to worries of the country taking over the world through its economic growth or when viewed as some strange land of electronics and cute characters. Part of the current image of Japan is its popular culture, notably in the form of anime and manga, especially with how digital distribution has sped up to the extent that virtually every anime television series and an increasing number of manga titles are available within 24 hours of their Japanese domestic releases. One question that arises from this is whether the relative immediacy by which anime and manga reach their audiences around the world creates the potential for fans to engage with Japan through a new sense of Japan as exotic “Other.”

While digital distribution has been tied to the spread of anime and manga since at least the advent of high-speed internet, it is notable that the use of digital distribution has been adopted not only by controversial sources such as fan translators but also by the official anime and manga companies themselves through sites such as Crunchyroll and Hulu. There are also active efforts to appeal to non-Japanese fans on sites such as the art-oriented pixiv and the merchandise vendor amiami, and it is as simple as clicking a “follow” button on Twitter to be connected to a favorite director, artist, or voice actor, even if someone is unable to read Japanese. International viewers are acknowledged, if in some cases only begrudgingly.

What I suspect is that there are an increasing number of opportunities for audiences to feel as if they are directly connected to Japan, with the risk being that many unspoken or unconscious cultural assumptions are brought along as well. The speed at which anime arrives can make fans feel as if they are directly connected with their peers in Japan and are participating in that cultural zeitgeist. In the case of the recent and popular animated adaptation of Attack on Titan, an international audience could view not only this show soon after its original broadcast but could immediately see the efforts of Japanese fans through cosplay and art (things that are often assumed to not need “translation”) and then create their own responses. Because it was distributed through official channels, the companies responsible for it could acknowledge these fans and even cater to them, appearing to legitimize their connection to Japan, furthering the image of Japan as a kind of Utopia for alternative lifestyles, regardless of whether or not that is true.

Similarly, having such instant access to “what Japan is currently watching” also leaves open a greater possibility of reinforcing the stereotypical view of Japan and the Japanese as capable of anything, especially breaking taboos. An international audience can look at trends or fads in anime and manga and regard them as indicative of something “inherently wrong” with Japan, and because of that immediacy it is potentially viewed as even more valid.

This provides an interesting contrast with how Japan has been approached in the past, whereby its perceived power and mystery have been associated with its connection to tradition, an idea that has been propagated not only from outside of Japan but also by figures within its culture. With the current state of anime and manga as digitally distributed forms of Japanese popular culture, however, I must ask if technology becomes the conduit for a Techno-Orientalist image to be fueled not so much by the past or the future but the ever-present, the here and now.


I think your use of Attack on Titan and its associated texts make an excellent example of your point here. Having personally watched the show in near real-time to its original airing, I was up on all the talk about the show, its twisting plots, and especially the fan reaction after the anime ended and in anticipation of the manga (now) being ahead. For people somewhat in the know like me, this was an exciting show that was trying new things. And it wasn't even especially any stranger than many other other shows currently airing.

However, most of the reaction I saw from the West after the first season ended and it was spread more widely was focused on how bizarre the show was to them, how the fandom didn't seem to make sense, and in many cases there was just the simple reductionist response of "only in Japan." From those types of replies, it was easy to see how just being aware of the context of the show, even outside of just watching it, created a culture bridge that inculcated myself and many others to some sense of understanding the cultural norms, to some degree anyway, at play within the show.

Yet, for those who had only seen the Suburu car commercial, or even the growing number of parody videos, this was metaphorically a giant monster that was chasing them across various media. They would see people discussing the show on Twitter or Facebook, watch it cross into a new shared video or show up as part of a meme in a Tumblr feed, but ultimately have no context for it. It was just another thing from the "Other" that was Japan for them, some latest weird they felt comfortable dismissing without much investigation.

Thank you for your comment, Dan. I think what contributes greatly to the effect that Attack on Titan has had on anime fandom and its image is that it has become well-known enough for a great many people to be reacting to it. It is an unusual series in many ways, but it is the series' spread and popularity that likely bring attention from those less familiar with anime, that then brings up the old "Only in Japan" mantra as you've pointed out. Just the fact that Marvel Comics has decided to do an official crossover with Attack on Titan says a lot. While there have been attempts to do "manga-style" comics, and plenty of titles have made reference to anime and manga properties, I can see this crossover drawing in new readers to Attack on Titan who bring with them all of their values as superhero comics readers.

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