Japanimation and Techno-Orientalism

Japan as the Sub-Empire of Signs1

Ueno Toshiya

The word Japanimation is a neologism made up of two words: Japan + animation. Today, it is seen throughout the world as people outside Japan are showing interest in Japanese subcultural products such as Japanimation and manga. If people once asked the stereotypical question, "What is ZEN?", now they ask, "What is an otaku?" But I'm very skeptical about this condition--it is a phenomena that in the end is the effect of globalization and information capitalism.

Under the Fordist economic system of the past, globalization meant nothing more than "Americanization," with media entertainment being supplied by Disney and its animated works. However, we must now consider seriously and ponder the meaning of the fact that globalization in the post-Fordist social environment will include Japanimation.

From another perspective, we can say that the logistics of this cultural movement is the effect of sub-imperialism. According to Chen Kuan-Hsing, the sub-empire is a secondary, dependent empire which is hegemonic much more culturally and economically than militarily2; this is a new version of imperialism that uses sub-culture in general--a kind of sub-(cultural) imperialism. By analyzing a work of Japanimation, I would like to illustrate and criticize Japan as the sub-empire of signs.

The "Ghost in the Shell"

The film Ghost in the Shell (Oshii Mamoru, 1995) is set in the world of A.D. 2029. This near-future is not so information-based that nations or ethnicities have vanished, although the networks of many enterprises cover the planet flowing with electricity and light. In this world, East Asia is a huge corporate zone dominated by multinational economic and information operations. The lives of human beings are intertwined with advanced technologies; this is a world of cybernetics and sophisticated electronic information networks in which the border between machines and human beings sometimes becomes blurred or invisible. For some people, reality is only virtual. Many in this world become cyborgs, a complex of man and machine; except for a kernel of their brain, they have substituted a cybernetic, prosthetic body for their own.

The main character of the film, a woman named Kusanagi Motoko, is the leader of the "Shell Squad," Section 9 of the Department of the Interior, which has been formed by the government to combat cyber crimes and political terrorism in the information society. Through the net, crimes have become more sophisticated and violent. The story of the film is about a conflict and conspiracy between some of the departments and agents of the government, centered on a strange hacker who has the code name "Puppet Master." This unidentified super-hacker started out as a computer virus manufactured by the Foreign Ministry and can now take over human beings to further his own purposes by using what is called "ghost hacking."

Even though people in this world may for practical purposes change their own body into machines, they still remain human in so far as they have their own "ghost": a sort of spirit, not mind in the general sense. It is indeed unconsciousness itself, but also memory, which helps found people's identities; as the Puppet Master says, "Memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind." Yet the identity of a human being, as if it were the water in a cup, needs a form or shell at the same time that it needs a "ghost."

One cannot distinguish between the shell and the ghost in human beings, but this problem is not an issue of the traditional philosophical dichotomy between mind and body. Rather we come face to face with the most basic question in SF: is a cyborg human or machine? What is self or identity for a cyborg ma(chi)n(e)? The Shell Squad team as an organization tries to chase and catch the Puppet Master while Major Kusanagi Motoko tries personally to respond to that basic question. Sometimes Motoko is skeptical about her identity and whether she has a "ghost." Because her body is almost a machine, she sometimes believes in a paranoid scenario according to which she was made as an android and provided with a virtual self and an artificial "ghost." In fact, some people arrested by the Shell Squad as the Puppet Master have turned out to be just agents who were given fictitious personalities through cyber brain hacking. They were "puppets without ghosts" and have only an illusionary memory and self-identity.

In so far as it can be said that humans and cyborgs each belong to different tribes and "races," these problems are closely concerned with the micro-politics of identity, including the opposition and segmentation between classes, genders, ethnicities, and "races." This context recalls the problematic of "cyborg politics" presented by Donna Haraway, which I will discuss later.

Broadly speaking, the question here is whether the self is a mind/spirit or rather consists of a suit, a shell, a prosthetic technology. Does the vested shell or suit incorporate the body and become the self itself, or doesn't it? As the audience of this film, we share the same question as Major Motoko: the problem of the "shellfishness of selfishness" and the question of "Who am I?"

The Puppet Master appears before the Shell Squad and it (or, perhaps, he) speaks through a cyber body without a "ghost." In the end, it seems that he allows himself to be caught. He then affirms, "I'm not an AI. I'm a living, thinking entity who was created in the sea of information." It is easy to discern here the problem of Artificial Life (AL). For natural life, DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself since life, when organized into species, relies on genes to be its memory system. Conversely computer and cyber technologies are the extension (explosion) of human memory. Some programs can function independently of human will and so gain autonomy. If these processes become more complicated and sophisticated, then certain programs or algorithms are going to become more like life itself. Of course it is very different from life in nature, but at least we can define some information programs as Artificial Life. The Puppet Master as AL uses memory and cultural genes to control multitudes of systems and human beings--in this sense it does have a "ghost."

Information Capitalism and Techno-Orientalism

Manuel de Landa has already remarked that interest in AL came out of self-examination over the failure of the AI paradigm. This observation overlaps with his perception of a shift from a top-down to a bottom-up approach in computer information science, where the latter focuses upon emergent and autonomous processes. In general, artificial life experiments work to design a simple copy of an individual animal which must have the equivalent of a set of genetic instructions which both create and are transmitted to its offspring. De Landa says,

This transmission must also be "imperfect" enough, so that variation can be generated. . . . The exercise will be considered successful if novel properties, unthought of by the designer, spontaneously emerge from this process.3

If AL truly were more than a simple program and could become life, it would send some information to its own offspring by "imperfect transmission." One can say that the behavior and intention of the Puppet Master in Ghost in the Shell is based on this logic: at the end of the film, he proposes to Motoko that they merge with one another. Through this unification, he would be able to die as a real living organism would, while Motoko could generate varied offspring into the net.

We are probably already familiar with "Puppet Masters" in our ordinary lives. In fact it is possible to find such invisible manipulators in market and financial systems, since the market and capital are increasingly becoming dependent on processes of emergence and non-linear logic. "Emergence" here means any sudden change of state or haphazard phenomenon that occurs in a system that relies on such radical contingency. These forms of emergence and bottom-up decision-making within a system are very important to the AL paradigm, which is why we can consider the work of huge capitalist corporations as well as complicated, virtual financial systems from the point of view of artificial life (or of an artificial market). From the beginning, the central issue in the possibility of AL was not the artificial creation of actual life, but the process of simulating life, of thinking of movements other than life as "life-like." There is nothing in corporations or financial systems like the "invisible hand of God," but there are some invisible hands of "Puppet Masters"--of non-linear and emergent processes. Of course they are just anonymous processes, but in this sense, one can at least say that the Puppet Master is an allegory of information capitalism.

De Landa presents a similar point of view about the market.4 Any replicating system that produces variable copies of itself in order to obtain new and evolving forms has to need "the divergent manifestation of the antimarket." The market for capitalism has always already consisted of self-organized, decentralized structures and has always also been an "antimarket," where the antimarket constitutes aspects of the non-linear process of the market itself.

To analyze this film further, I would like go back to the issue of "Japanimation" itself and ask why this kind of animation is so highly developed in Japan. One reason, I believe, relates to the Western gaze upon Japanese culture as well as to the problem of Orientalism. In the 1970s, for example, when the German techno-pop band "Kraftwerk" used android or machine-like gestures in their live shows, they reportedly took the gestures of Japanese businessmen in Europe as their model. It shouldn't be surprising that they focused on robot-like bowing and expressionless laughter: as David Morley and Kevin Robins have argued in their influential book, Spaces of Identity, "Western stereotypes of the Japanese hold them to be sub-human, as if they have no feeling, no emotion, no humanity."5 These impressions respond to the high development of Japanese technology and are a phenomenon of what they call "Techno-Orientalism."

The basis of Orientalism and xenophobia is the subordination of other cultures or areas of the world through a sort of "mirror of cultural conceit." A host of stereotypes appeared when binary oppositions--culture and savage, modern and pre-modern, and so on--were projected onto the geographic positions of Western and non-Western. The Orient exists in so far as the West needs it because it brings the project of the West into focus. Sakai Naoki says on this point,

The Orient does not connote any internal commonality among the names subsumed under it, it ranges from regions in the Middle East to those in the Far East. One can hardly find anything religious, linguistic or cultural that is common among these varied areas. The Orient is neither a cultural, religious or linguistic unity. The principle of its identity lies outside itself: what endows it with some vague sense of unity is that the Orient is that which is excluded and objectified by the West in the service of its historical progress. From the outset the Orient is a shadow of the West.6

If the Orient was invented by the West, then the Techno-Orient was invented by the world of information capitalism. In Techno-Orientalism, Japan is not only located geographically, as Jean Baudrillard once said, as a satellite in orbit, but also projected chronologically by being located in the future of technology. Morley and Robins say,

If the future is technological, and if technology has become "Japanised", then the syllogism would suggest that the future is now Japanese too. The postmodern era will be the Pacific era. Japan is the future, and it is a future that seems to be transcending and displacing Western modernity.

Japanimation is defined by the stereotype of Japan as such an image of the future. The West is seduced and attracted by this model, but at the same time, that envy passes through jealousy to become prejudice and contempt. Morley and Slavoj Zizek have stated that this psychological complex about Japan seems to contain a psycho-mechanism similar to that of anti-semitism. As Japanese capitalism becomes highly developed and very powerful in areas such as the US, the EU, and Asia, Techno-Orientalism works in such places as a manipulator of these complexes about Japan, such that Japan becomes an object of transference for the envy of and contempt for other cultures and nations. So now, Japanese are more and more playing a role resembling that of the Jew. Of course, it is vain to link the Jews and Japanese in reality and essence; rather, we can say they both function as effective imaginary figures within information capitalism.

The Japanoid Automaton

I believe that the stereotype of the Japanese, which I would like to call "Japanoid" because it does not designate actual Japanese, exists neither inside nor outside Japan. This image functions as the surface or rather the interface controlling the relation between Japan and the Other. Techno-Orientalism is a kind of mirror stage or image machine whose effects influence Japanese and others. This mirror is in fact a semi-transparent or two-way mirror: through this mirror stage and its cultural apparatuses, Westerners and others misunderstand or fail to recognize an always illusory Japanese culture while at the same time look at themselves; it is also the mechanism through which Japanese misunderstand themselves, using Western understanding as a means of explaining themselves. Unlike the Lacanian mirror phase, a complete solution to this structure of disavowal, through which a "real" Japan could be properly recognized, is impossible.

Interestingly, the film Ghost in the Shell uses the metaphor of the mirror in particular ways. The Puppet Master whispers a passage from the Bible to Motoko when he tries to approach her through cyber hacking. At the end of the film, the Puppet Master says to Motoko, "We resemble each other's essence and are mirror images of each other's psyche." And after she merges with the "Puppet Master," Motoko cites the Bible as below:

At present we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but one day we shall see face to face. . . . When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child; but when I grew up I finished with childish things. (1 Cor 13.11-12)

There are two mirror stages in this case of Techno-Orientalism. One is about the encounter between the human and the machine, humanity and the net; the other is about the relationship between Japan and its others (in the West, Asia, and so on). These two mirror images constitute the "Japanoid" as object of envy and hate.

I have already mentioned that the Japanese have often been laughed at because of their "automatic," robot-like gestures. Of course, as Freud has observed, there is a very close relationship between automatic action and humor and laughing, but one should be thinking here about why androids or robots are subject to ridicule and why the person laughed at becomes like an android. Rey Chow has an interesting analysis of this point:

In Chaplin's assembly line worker, visuality works toward an automatization of an oppressed figure whose bodily movements become excessive and comical. Being "automatized" means being subjected to social exploitation whose origins are beyond one's individual grasp, but it also means becoming a spectacle whose "aesthetic" power increases with one's increasing awkwardness and helplessness.7

To promote the culture and industry of the modern world is to summon the "other" automated by that age's rhythms of technology and the machine. As far as it is workers, women, and the ethnic other who experience radical changes in work conditions because of high technology, the image of the automated doll tends to be imposed on exploited minorities. This image is also imposed on the nation/people who over adapt to the mutation of technological conditions. Needless to say the Japanese are being seen as that "automated other," but Japanimation, by organizing the image and technology of the automatization and animation (giving life) of animation, constructs and presents "Japan" as an "automaton culture," and the Japanese as the "Japanoid" in "Post-Modern Times."

It is worth returning to the Puppet Master in Ghost in the Shell because it reminds us of the mode of controlling the "automaton." The one controlled does not think s/he is a puppet, even though s/he in fact behaves as a puppet manipulated by a master. It is the same with the relation of ideology in general to individuals. Motoko, as a woman cyborg, thinks of herself as an "animated automaton." In order to supplement her void (as cyborg, as woman, as minority, and so on), she agrees to the proposal to merge with the Puppet Master. As a minority, she would abandon her "ghost" to a huge system and the net; in turn, the Puppet Master as a system would earn death and a so-called life cycle.

Rey Chow has already defined the strategy of the cyborg feminist as rejecting the binary opposition of masculine human subject versus feminized automaton. Chow argues that this strategy "retains the notion of the automaton--the mechanical doll--but changes its fate by giving it life with another look. This is the look of the feminist critic." Chow asks, "Does her power of animation take us back to the language of God, a superior being who bestows life upon an inferior?" The only being that can do this is the cyborg as half-machine/half-living thing--as transgressive being. Conversely, it is when the subject takes up the tactics of transgression that it unconsciously becomes like a cyborg. So for the cyborg feminist, this strategy should be extended beyond just "animating the oppressed minority." Cyborg feminists have to make the automatized and animated condition of their own voices the conscious point of departure in their intervention. By abandoning and sacrificing her own identity and ghost to the "Puppet Master," Motoko takes up the strategy of cyborg feminism.

Merging with the Puppet Master may constitute a rejection of the "Japanoid automaton," but this rejection and resistance has always broken down in Japanese subculture. Japan's a-national (non-national) culture and the Japanese (Japanoids) found in Japanimation are "animated and automatized" as beings or locations neither Western nor Asian. But this cultural climate, this political unconscious of Japanimation (subculture), only unconsciously reproduces a "Japan" imaginarily separated from both West and East. Although Japanimation often emphasizes the landscape of Asia and Japan in the near-future, this only operates to forget and conceal the real situation. It is when this half-Western, half-Asian chimera, this cybernetic transgressing of borders becomes fixed and made national that that the "Japanoid automaton" is born.

Yet in a certain sense, Japanimation is not just an ideological apparatus, it is also (virtually?) an armament of criticism. Why do Asian landscapes excite the cyberpunk imagination? Certainly the problem can be related to the influence of the film Blade Runner, but it should be realized that Japanimation has illustrated the mutation of global capitalism itself by appropriating the illusion of Asia or Japan. By choosing Hong Kong as the setting of Ghost in the Shell, by trying to visualize the information net and capitalism in the figure of the canals and streets of Hong Kong, and yet dot it with "Japanese" objects, gestures, music, and customs, director Oshii Mamoru unconsciously criticizes the sub-imperialism of Japan (and other Asian nations). The breakdown of the rejection of the "Japanoid automaton" itself becomes a symptom of the illness penetrating "Japanese" information capitalism.

Japanimation travels through the cultural diaspora into the world, and is translated, communicated, and misunderstood. One should recall the passage from Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto":

There is no way to read the following list from a standpoint of "identification," of a unitary self. The issue is dispersion. The task is to survive in the diaspora.8

If the image of the body donning a cyborg suit and shell is circulating in the diaspora, it is not impossible to discover various "automated others" in cases where it is either dissolved into or rejected by various societies or forms of information capitalism. It is also not inconceivable that Japanimation itself can grasp the opportunity to "animate" the "automated other" in another form.



1. The English version of this essay was originally written by the author and then revised by Aaron Gerow, who added some translations of sections of a somewhat different Japanese essay on the same topic by the author (published in the Japanese edition of Documentary Box).

2. Chen Kuan-Hsing, "Teikoku no manazashi," Shiso (January 1996).

3. Manuel de Landa, "Virtual Environments and the Emergence of Synthetic Reason," Flame Wars, ed. Mark Dery (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994).

4. Manuel de Landa, "Markets and Antimarkets in the World Economy," Technoscience and Cyberculture, ed. Stanley Aronowitz, et al. (London: Routledge, 1996).

5. David Morley and Kevin Robins, "Techno-Orientalism: Japan Panic," Spaces of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries (London: Routledge, 1995).

6. Sakai Naoki, "Modernity and its Critique," South Atlantic Quarterly (Summer 1988).

7. Rey Chow, "Postmodern Automatons," Writing Diaspora (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).

8. Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge: 1991).


Ueno Toshiya

Critic and assistant professor at Chubu University. Has written on a variety of topics related to film and media and participated in "Media Wars: Then and Now" at YIDFF '91 and "7 Spectres" at YIDFF '95.