Cultural flows between nations are extremely interesting phenomena. They represent the inter-connectedness of our world and the people who inhabit it while also providing alternate channels for nations to exert “influence” outside of typical economic, political, or military spheres. This type of cultural clout, often termed “soft power” to distinguish it from the “hard power” type of stuff listed previously, is a really cool way to look at international relations, especially for anime fans such as ourselves who are very much in the midst of this type of thing. More importantly, however, soft power is in fact in fact the largest type of exposure a great majority of Americans (and perhaps most nations) actually receive from other nations. Many more of us, for instance, watch shows like Doctor Who or Sherlock than keep up to date with British politics and international relations. We form our opinions based on scattered memories and experiences, encounters with strangers and small snippets of news articles we skim over while browsing the web. Most of the time, we don’t bother getting to the bottom of things, or investigating the details behind what we’re reading: the information we get is crudely processed into an image, an association, between a country, it’s people, and other things we know. Why exactly are Pope Francis‘s actions able to drastically change the image of an organization of the Catholic Church in the span of only a year? Why does anime and otaku culture exert such a strong influence over us–especially for us elitist anibloggers, for whom it’s significantly affected our lives and hobbies? How does society and culture (as well as our own psyches) lead to, strengthen, and perpetuate these influences? How do influences play off each other?
Since I’m obsessed with anime, and since I love these types of questions, I decided to look into some of the influences present in anime itself. As anime is popular worldwide (it may make up to 50% of all cartoons broadcast worldwide, according to some estimates!) and generally regarded as a big form of Japanese soft power, noticeable influences on the genre are also simultaneously exposed to a global audience. A type of 2nd-order soft power, expressed through anime.
Which is what led me to look into the ideas of Germanic influences on anime and, by extension (somewhat), Japanese pop culture at large. For the longest time, I’ve thought that there’s been an excessive amount of German things popping up in much of the anime I watch. From the heavy use of German in magic systems (Fate/Stay, Strike the Blood), to iconic characters (e.g. Asuka from NGE) and settings (Attack on Titan, Fullmetal Alchemist), German-esque stuff seems to pop up everywhere I look! So, in order to get to the bottom of this, I decided to look into just what exactly might be going on here. Is it simply selective memory, or is there some wider Germanic landscape that anime draws upon–or possibly created?
Warning: 4000 word post incoming.
Soft Power and Japan
As many psychology and political science studies have shown, we tend to not be the completely rational agents that we think we are. Instead, humans function for the most part based on certain heuristics, frequently going off of personal experiences, emotions, and general sentiments rather than cold-hard facts and logical reasoning. While itself a possibly unsettling phenomenon, this style of non-rational thinking especially comes to the fore when dealing with often-polarizing topics such as politics. Soft power, then, can be an incredibly powerful tool because its main sphere of influence is precisely in this area – the conceptions and feelings around certain phenomena that people then may associate with certain nations.
When it comes to soft power, no other nation seems to get as much attention as Japan. With its inability to hold a standing army thanks to the infamous “Article 9” in its Constitution and its falling political and economic clout, Japan’s ability to exert itself in the world has been the subject of intense debate from both insiders and outsiders. It is in this climate of declining hard power, and the desire to remain a “key player” in the modern global economy, that the ideas of soft power seem hold the most sway. From the widespread popularity of the Pokémon franchise, the influence of “kawaii” culture (e.g. Hello Kitty, Tamagatchi) and the prevalence of anime in world cartoon markets, Japanese influences in popular culture seem to be as wide-ranging as they are sustaining. I don’t think it’d be an exaggeration to say Pokémon, for instance, is one of the main things that binds our (1990s) generation together, and anime’s presence in American media goes as far back as Astro Boy (1963-65) and Speed Racer (1967-8) and continues today by influencing popular shows such as Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-8) and The Legend of Korra (2012-).
But Japanese pop culture is no more a representation of Japan than any other nation (AKA ANIME ≠ JAPAN), and is made up of a variety of influences from different places and times. Like, say, stuff relating to Germany. In, say, anime. Yea…that works.
What is “soft power”?
One thing that’s really bugged me is that the term “soft power” is thrown about without really understanding what it actually means (including the section above). So let’s try and nail it down here. First, soft power can’t be hard power (by definition). But what’s the real difference between the two? Hard power is defined to be essentially any means of coercion or force (e.g., political, economic, military) by which one actor tries to get another to do something. So soft power then is some sort of “co-option”, where you can persuade people without such means. So: soft power = co-option without use of political/economic/military/etc. clout.
But soft power obviously can’t work in isolation: in order to persuade people, you need some sort of “hard power” to enable it. Or do you? Switzerland, for instance, is seen as a nice, peaceful, friendly nation. But it’s not a political, economic, or military juggernaut. And yet it has a wide reputation of being a great place. Why? Most likely because of a host of influences that include history (not really being involved in WWI/II), media (Sound of Music), and sociocultural (fancy chocolate, home of the Red Cross), among others. So: while soft power and hard power are two different things, and they can clearly influence one another, one is not dependent upon the other. This is in contrast to what many scholars seem to believe, but I think is little bit more accurate.
The heart of the question, though, is this: what is soft power? There are two main components I think.
- For something to qualify as soft power it needs to have connections with a country or place or organization. It needs to have a strong image or association with something else. Otherwise, it’s just sort of cultural milieu that stews around and goes away. Memes are somewhat like this, for the most part.
- Soft power can’t just be the strength of such an association–the association also needs to have power. It needs to influence people. China, for example, is often associated with cheap products and labor, but unless this influences, say, international tourism or how many Chinese products you purchase on a daily basis, then it’s not really soft power. It’s just general impressions. This type of power then can manifest in direct ways, such as inspiring me to write this essay, or indirect ways, such as different manifestations of things like stereotype threat or Orientalism.
Soft power is then the strength and prevalence of impressions, images, etc. (anime) that is associated with another actor (Japan) and the consequential impact those have on you (becoming an “otaku”). It has nothing to do with intent (from either side), directionality (from one country attempting to project an image onto another), whether the government is involved or not, or whether such associations are positive or negative. We could define it to include directionality and control, if we wanted to roll that way, but I think that’s kind of pointless considering how often governments fail to achieve this. By defining things this way, we also have a little bit fairer of way to compare different types of “soft power” against each other. We also finally clear things up so now projects like “Cool Japan” don’t really muddle things through direct government intervention, and the Anime Mirai project doesn’t “complicate” anime’s influence in the West. Take that academia!
How Does Germany Fit into the Picture?
By looking into the ways that Germany has influenced certain aspects of anime, and how they in turn influence Germany (e.g., Germany hosts several anime conventions each year that regularly draw tens of thousands of visitors; there’s also this gem), we can get a glimpse into the ways that culture flows between nations. Furthermore, in the context of soft power, anime also serves as a great way to examine how Germany indirectly exerts (although that’s not quite the right word here) its own type of soft power through other media, indirectly creating (hopefully) positive associations for itself in a context that seems quite far-removed.
Germany’s influence in anime can be broadly divided into two categories:
- “Direct” – cases where Germanic traits are explicitly referenced (e.g., speaking German in shows, having German-named characters), and thus are relatively easy to pick out.
- “Indirect” – cases where elements are not strictly Germanic in origin but have been heavily influenced by Germanic sources (e.g., Germany’s influence over modern Japanese history), and sometimes require a little bit more digging to pick out.
While the former clearly can contribute to some “ideal” of indirect German soft power, the latter–while more interesting in a historical sense–are usually less so.
To see an example of Germany’s influence on anime, one need look no further than the most recent hit show, Attack on Titan, an enormous commercial success both within Japan and abroad. Besides having a host of characters with names like “Hannes” and “Reiner Braun”, the main character’s last name – Jaegar – derives directly from the German word for “hunter”. Additionally, the character designs in the show are overwhelmingly Germanic and predominantly blond. And, if that wasn’t enough, the opening song for the show even features several segments sung in full-on German. (Sidenote: Besides the OPs, Linked Horizon in general has a ton of Germanic influences – and is quite popular! In fact, the opening concert for one of their albums, based on German fairy tales, even involved fans sing happy birthday in German!)
Alternately, we can look at one of the most influential anime ever made–Neon Genesis Evangelion. One of the main characters of the show, and in fact the only foreign member of the cast, Asuka Langley Soryu, is German (technically, she’s American and is 1/4 Japanese and 3/4 German, even though she was raised in Germany, but whatever). Her name displays prominent influences from WWII, her Japanese surname coming from the Japanese WWII aircraft carrier Soryu and her German one from the American carrier Langley. The show (and subsequent Rebuild movies) frequently emphasizes her German heritage, throwing in multiple scenes where Asuka speaks/curses in German. Her foreign presence in the show is also often commented on at school, where students seem to notice fiery bright red hair color (whilst completely ignoring co-protagonist Rei Ayanami’s blue hair color – gotta love anime!). So, indeed, strong Germanic influence is at least a thing in individual shows, and some of the most popular ones.
(Small rant: I could’ve just ended the essay here, as many academics seem to, taking a particular example of a well-known work as indicative of more widespread influence, and then just extrapolating outwards after over-interpreting them. This frequent mistake of what are clearly a distillation of influences and cultural values for something that is supposed to be a representative microcosm of them annoys me to no end. Case studies and small samples are useful, but are not representative! I try my best to avoid this trap by listing a plethora of examples to get a sense of the more elusive cultural landscape that pervades anime, rather than more concrete but likely false over-speculations.)
On this note, a good number of shows actually do include a foreign character in some way, shape, or form. In a majority of cases, this character is European rather than North American, with traits such as blond hair and fair skin. This is often linked to perceptions of greater beauty and higher social standing, frequently similar to that of European aristocrats. While this is more an example of European cultural influence, in a fair number of these cases, these characters are actually German.
Broader Germanic Influences
More Germanic influence can be seen in the settings, character designs, and plot elements that are chosen in anime. A number of high-profile works have picked settings that resemble that of Germany at different points in time. Fullmetal Alchemist, another popular anime, contains characters designs and an overall setting that resemble Pre-WWI Germany. A host of the main characters are blond, and frequently dressed in outfits reminiscent of wartime Germany. In fact, the main plot manifests several parallels to WWI, as does the geography of the regions featured in the show. Girls Und Panzer, another recently commercially successful anime, focuses heavily on tanks, many taken from WWII-era Germany, and commonly features quotes from Rommel and Guerdian. (No, I still haven’t watched this show. At the moment, I’d much rather watch the second season of Highschool DxD, which has been sitting on my list for far too long!)
Besides recent commercially popular works, Germanic influence can be seen more directly through the actual use of the German language in the show. The light novel series turned anime Kämpfer, for instance, features German both directly in the title as well as extensively throughout the show. And shows like Rozen Maiden, Weiss Kreuz, and Elfen Lied seem to indicate that this trend in German naming is not an isolated anomaly. Bleach, one of the most popular manga today (and anime, since it still is pretty popular), shows clear Germanic influences in the portrayal of its current antagonists, the Quincys, many of whom have abilities with German names, such as “blut vene [blood vein]”, and are members of the “Wandenreich” (seriously, just go check out the Bleach wiki to see just how many German words the Quincys have managed to utilize). In fact, this type of thing is so popular that it is listed as a meme under TV Tropes by the name of “Gratuitous German”.
Direct historical influences can also easily be identified. The “Principality of Zeon” and “Galactic Empire,” the antagonistic organizations of the popular Gundam franchise and the Legend of Galactic Heroes (still haven’t watched it!), respectively, show strong influences from mid-19th century Prussia (Germany).
And of course there’s Nazi’s. Hellsing, the popular manga and recently completed anime, follows the vampire Alucard as he defends London from Vampire Nazis and the Catholic Church’s 9th Crusade. Black Lagoon, an action-packed gun-slinger, spends an entire story arc battling crazy Nazis. The long-running manga (and kickass anime) JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure even features Nazis (STROOOHHEEEEIIIIIMMMMM!!!) as both antagonists and supporting characters in its Battle Tendency arc.
The clearest version of direct German influence, however, comes in terms of the concepts and portrayals of magic that often appear in anime. In almost any show that features more “traditional” magic (casting spells, rituals, etc.) the main conduit language is German. This pops up all the time in Type/Moon franchise in shows such as the globally popular Fate/Stay Night and Fate/Zero (new season ahhhhhhh!!!), but also appear in more recent shows like Strike the Blood, which features weapons such as the “Schneewalzer”. Mephisto Pheles, one of the eight Demon Kings from Blue Exorcist, takes his name from a demon in German folklore and commonly chants in German before casting his spells.
Ultimately, Germanic influence in anime is not only present and wide-ranging but in fact quite common – so much so that it could be said to be an essential feature of the genre. This leads us to two interesting trains of thought:
- How does all this “project” Germany’s soft power to the world at large?
- Can this wide array of Germanic influence shine some insight into the extent of Germany’s soft power in the past?
The German Fantasyscape
First, it’s useful to define the idea of a “fantasyscape”. As outlined in previous posts, a fantasyscape is an extension of the idea of landscapes, a setting/place created by land or scenery, and “soundscapes”, the spaces or backgrounds created by sound: they are areas that we have crafted with our imagination. As Professor Susan J. Napier of Tufts explains it,
“Fantasyscapes…are the ways at which fantasy can craft spaces and backgrounds to build from…inherently liminal worlds, temporary alternate lifestyles that exist parallel to the mundane, which people enter and exit when they please.”
Fantasyscapes, then, are places that exist parallel to reality – and derive their power from being so – but that also are ambiguous places themselves where interaction (active) and setting (passive) also become blurry. Germany’s indirect soft power here then can be seen as a question surrounding the fantasyscape that anime has constructed – the image of Germany that is projected and the ways that fans interact with them.
So what does this fantasyscape then look like? Much of it, ironically enough, actually looks like fantasy. Many of the common expressions of Germanic influence is associated with phenomena related to the supernatural, the “foreign”, and the fantastical (both in terms of being fantasy-esque and also in terms of appearance) – much, perhaps, like the way that the Orient is often perceived to many Western nations. The image is a historical one, the ones you see in folklore, mythology, and fairy tales, rather than the actual country, far-removed from the present day state of affairs. But this image holds some power, much as the past “Oriental” image of Japan and China still do for many Americans today. Regardless of their presence today, it is the ninja and samurai that seem to hold our interest the most (oh god 47 bronin) – maybe it is the same with German magicians.
The Story of Two Germany’s
The interesting thing about this German portrayal is that it isn’t unified. There exists two Germany’s – the one detailed above, of fantasy and magic and exoticism, and the one primarily rooted in WWII, of Nazism and war and destruction. The remarkable thing about this second picture, however, is that it seems completely divorced from the present. This is huge, because the events that took place in WWII are not even a century old. By being recast so many times, in so many ridiculous circumstances, anime seems to make this era of history almost a meme or trope, a fact or artifact of history rather than real events that are directly passed down from the Germany then to the Germany today. It treats them as source material, in a way seeming to absolve Germany of its past sins (or at least, reinforcing Germany’s seemingly detachment from the events surrounding WWII) by treating them as if they were another time and place. This indirectly helps to increase the sense abroad that a divide exists between the past German Nazi state and the current one – a “clean break”, in a sense. And for a country like Japan, for which issues from the war such as “comfort women” and war guilt still play a prominent role between relations in Southeast Asian, this strikes me as particularly ironic.
Most importantly though, I feel the most important element of this fantasyscape is neither of these traits, but a much more “down to Earth” one – namely, that Germany is “cool” by virtue of simply being featured so prominently. This very low-level association of the “cool”-ness of German language, culture, and history probably holds much more sway over the average viewer than any of the other more nuanced ideas surrounding the anime German fantasyscape (and I haven’t gotten into some of the shows like Hetalia or Strike Witches, where characters are literally stand-ins for countries, and have inspired decent amounts of fan participation in learning about German history). While many of the traits above function as backdrops to this German fantasyscape that has been heavily drawn from, this perception of German coolness functions as a fundamental unit that comprises the very fabric of the fantasyscape, encapsulating the motivation behind the continual renewal/reuse of ideas and concepts. Germany’s indirect soft power then seems to be quite positive – and quite powerful.
Germany and Seifuku
Note: I hope I get most of the history right here. If not, go check out Brian Ashcraft and Shoko Ueda’s Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential, which gets it right and is a nice read.
To get to the heart of the second question concerning what anime can tell us about past German soft power, we look towards sources of Germany’s indirect influence, which is just as prevalent–if not more so–than their direct influence. For instance, German influence during the Meiji era is responsible for one of the main trends seen in anime today: the schoolgirl uniform. During Japan’s modernizing era, the state attempted to model many of its policies around those of Prussia. This led many state officials to adopt German-style military uniforms in their duty, which are commonly portrayed in anime that are set in the Meiji Period such as Rurouni Kenshin. This also led the state to adopt uniforms in many schools around the country patterned on Prussia’s military uniforms. This worked fine for boys, but girls, who at the time also began to be educated, had no pre-existing model uniform. They eventually hit upon using sailor uniforms (seifuku) to complement the boys’, and a powerful cultural force the likes which could not have been predicted had been born. Seifuku today are ubiquitous in anime, appearing in almost every shape and size across every single genre. While the most well-known example in the West probably comes from the Sailor Moon franchise, they really are endemic within the genre as a whole, most recently being showcased in the currently airing KILL la KILL.
German Soft Power and the History of Anime
The history of anime itself illustrates more directly how strong this soft power may be. Anime, contrary to what some may claim, was inspired by American/Western film. Many of the current styles of animation, now iconic to the genre, were often implemented simply to cut costs as a war-torn country emerging from the wake of total defeat tried to emulate the media of its occupier. Given this then, we could ask the obvious question: how prevalent is American influence in anime itself? The answer, surprisingly, is almost none, outside maybe negative tropes such as the “dumb American” (yeaaaa Dan Eagleman!).*
*One could argue that the “whiteness” of anime characters is probably a carryover from American cartoons, but, in an argument about soft power and country associations, this point holds no real power since it isn’t associated with America per say. Furthermore, the majority of Japanese do not view this “whiteness” as foreign, which negates much of the possible influence within the country itself. A discussion of whether the “whiteness” of anime characters might have increased the influence of anime in the West, regardless of soft power associations, is beyond the scope of this post.
But then where would the majority of outside influence come from? Using what I’ve argued, I would say the Meiji period, and Western powers that interacted with Japan during this time.* In fact, the influence Germany (then Prussia) had over Meiji era Japan cannot be understated, as much of the government at the time was in fact modeled on the Prussian state. Most importantly, the reason much of these changes were actually implemented was not by economic or political or military coercion/pressure on Prussia’s part (although those likely were contributing factors), but because Japan was so impressed by the image of Prussia as a nation. For a nation forcibly opened by the US and under constant threat of imperialism by Western powers, it is particularly telling that, after visiting scores of Western nations, it was in fact Prussia that Japan decided to base its new government on, not the US. In the end, it was soft–not hard–power that eventually carried the day.
*This hypothesis actually makes a prediction – that the majority of influence in anime should not only be European, but center on the main powers of the time, which would be Germany, Britain, and France. Amazingly, from just thinking about many of the shows I’ve seen, this actually seems to be true!
So that I think is a decent run at some of the influence Germany’s had over anime and the genre as a whole. Probably a little bit too over the top, a little bit too strong of an argument, a little bit too long (~4000 words?!), and way too simplistic. But a decent pass. :)