My goal with Unseen Japan has been to draw attention to Japanese voices that don’t get heard in English. This has primarily meant highlighting the work of reporters, lawyers, feminists, LGBT people, and other activists. Which is why I found myself in an uncomfortable position recently when a picture I took of a Japanese Red Cross poster went viral on both English and Japanese Twitter.
I wanted to report the news. It was never my intention to make it.
Erotic Anime Has a Place (And This Isn’t It)
It started when I was in Japan a couple of weeks ago. My wife and I were set to meet my mother-in-law for lunch near Shinjuku Station. My wife is originally from Tokyo. We go back several times a year to live, work, and spend time with friends and family.
As the three of us were talking through the station, I saw the poster below. It was an advertisement for the Red Cross. The character is Uzaki-chan (宇崎ちゃん) from the manga Uzaki-Chan Wants to Hang Out! (宇崎ちゃんは遊びたい！). In the ad, Uzaki stands with chest stuck out, cheeks flush, butt thrust back, and hand curled. She sports a drool/fang-type effect typical of eroticized manga characters. And she’s calling out to passing men: センパイ！まだ献血未経験ナンスか？ひょっとして。。。。。注射が怖いんスか？(“Senpai! Have you still never donated blood? Perhaps…you’re scared of needles?”)
Uzaki, in other words, is explicitly appealing to heterosexual men via her sex appeal. And she’s goading them into giving blood by bringing their manhood into question. (“You’re not afraid of a little shot, are ya, ya wimp?”)
My first reaction – and my wife’s to boot – was that this wasn’t an appropriate image for the Japanese Red Cross to use. While I have absolutely no grip with ecchi anime, or with sexualized depictions of men and women, I don’t think they belong in the public square. Putting forward sexualized pictures of women, in particular, reinforces the view that women exist primarily as sexual objects for men. That’s not a view I believe anyone should reinforce – in Japan, the US, or anywhere.There's more that's sexual about Uzaki in that drawing than just the size of her chest. Click To Tweet
Being a guy, however, I wanted third and fourth opinions. I sent the picture to my Twitter friend Sachiko Ishikawa, who had the same reaction I did. (Actually, being a Japanese woman living in Japan, I think she was more angry.) Other male and female friends also couldn’t believe that the Japanese Red Cross had approved this.
So I posted the picture to Twitter along with my comments. I then sent the link to Ota Keiko (太田恵子), a prominent lawyer and feminist. Those of you who follow UJ may remember that Ota-sensei was the activist who called out NHK’s use of virtual YouTuber Kizuna Ai. Ota-sensei particularly objected that Ai’s role was to nod and back-channel while smart men explained things to her.
Ota-sensei’s reaction to the Uzaki-chan poster was less angry, and more, I sensed, tired. “This has happened before,” she wrote to me, “and people still haven’t learned.” She sent me a link to a story from 2015 about how the city of Minokamo in Gifu Prefecture had teamed up with the anime Norin (のうりん). While Norin is primarily an anime about students at an agricultural high school, it also has an ecchi, or erotic element to it. And the city’s first posters featured one of the series’ most sexualized characters, Yoshida Kocho ( 良田胡蝶), in a pose where she’s partially exposing and pushing up her breasts. The city eventually replaced the poster with a different version.
So Ota-sensei posted my link on her account.
And the discussion erupted – in Japan and the rest of the world.
The Wave of Nastiness
When I woke up the next day, my Twitter app asked me if I wanted to turn on Notification Filters. I soon found out why. The post had blown up.
Some of the comments were supportive. And I was pleased that the post garnered over 2.4K likes and over 1K retweets. That shows just how much of an issue this is – not just for women in Japan, but around the world.
But a lot of the comments were from the followers of big-name anime fan Twitter accounts. And they were livid.
The majority of the comments weren’t substantive. Most were personal attacks or some form of ad hominem argument. People accused me of faking my values and posting the photo for the retweets. People who saw our Patreon slammed the pic as a “money-making stunt.” (That should be amusing to anyone who’s ever seen our balance sheet.) More than a few told me to STFU because I didn’t live full-time in Japan, and thus my opinion didn’t matter. This will, I’m sure, come as news to the faculty of Japanese Studies departments around the world.
More than a few chose to send me nasty Direct Messages, most of which Twitter filtered to the “you probably don’t want to read these” bucket. Here’s a small taste, with messages mixed between English and Japanese.
These are common debate tactics you see used by the right-wing in the US. If you can’t argue your opponent on merits, then attack their character. Accuse them of being a publicity hound, or a soulless profiteer. Accuse them of the very thing they’re calling out. And, when all else fails, just bombard them with hate and abuse until they delete their account and STFU.
I want to note that, at the same time that I was dealing with this, my friend Sachiko Ishikawa was dealing with a similar bombardment. Except hers came from users of notorious
free speech hate site 4chan, who were upset by a thread she wrote about how white people in the West fetishize Japan. Sachiko later pulled some highlights from that 4chan thread. They are beyond vile. Sachiko had her identity questioned and her dignity assaulted, and she was subject to death and rape threats. As bad as the pile-on was at times, I feel that my privilege as a white male shielded me from the worst of it.
In the Name of Blood
The official response of the Japanese Red Cross was, fortunately, much more staid. In an email to Ota-sensei, and in its responses to various media outlets, the organization said it had “no awareness of the character in question constituting sexual harassment.” They emphasized that they have done tie-ins with other anime in the past. However, I think one can take a look at the appropriate tie-in they did with the anime 働く細胞 (hataraku saibou; Cells at Work), and see a clear difference between this and the Uzaki-chan collaboration.
Others, in both Japanese and English, emphasized how critical blood supplies are, and defended the use of Uzaki-chan if it brought Japanese otaku to the blood banks. This is a sort of Machiavellian “end justifies the means” argument that Japanese user Nobi dismissed in a succinct tweet:
Fantasy Japan vs. Real Japan
Of the substantive (or close to substantive) arguments I saw, most insisted that they saw nothing sexualized about the Uzaki-chan poster. They said that, to them, she looked like a normal girl. Others said I saw it as “sexual” simply because Uzaki-chan has large breasts. They accused me of discriminating against large-chested women. One person even went so far as to downvote our Facebook page on the grounds that I was “misogynistic and racist.”Japanese women indeed find this sort of thing offensive – and have spoken out against it before. Click To Tweet
I don’t hold much stock in these arguments. An anime character with large breasts isn’t de facto sexual. (Mami from Madoka Magika is a good example.) There’s more that’s sexual about Uzaki in that drawing than just the size of her chest. (Note, however, that the character in the manga often wears a shirt reading “sugoi dekai” – “super large” – explicitly calling attention to her boobs.) And any contention that I don’t believe in the message of this post is laughable to readers of Unseen Japan. Ditto accusations of misogyny and racism. Indeed, misogyny is what I was calling out.
The other significant criticism was that I was a Westerner bringing my “Western values” into Japan. The poster, critics maintained, was “perfectly normal” for Japanese society. This is an old trope that refuses to die. One of the missions of this site is to show those in the English speaking world the diversity of thought in Japan. We’ve documented here previously how plenty of women have issues with the way that they’re portrayed in anime and manga. The Norin incident I referenced above is proof that some Japanese women indeed find this sort of thing offensive – and have spoken out against it before.
The vast majority of people attacking my post fall squarely into the “weeb” category. They’re people who are into anime and manga, but no little about Japan beyond a stock set of stereotypes. They see Japan as a single, uniformed, undifferentiated society. They regard Japan as “racially homogenous” – despite the ever-increasing number of foreign residents and mixed-race Japanese.
Because few actually know Japanese, they can’t experience the diversity of voices in Japan demanding change on critical issues such as workplace harassment, paternity leave, working hours, sexual assault, and treatment of minorities. Nor do they really care to educate themselves about these issues. Raising them ruins the fantasy Japan they’ve created in their heads. Hence the anger.
If there’s one thing I would want people to take away from this, it’s that the people in Japan are people. And when Westerners defend prejudice in Japan – when they dismiss charges of sexism, racism, ageism, ableism, LGBTQ discrimination – they’re defending policies and practices that hurt real people. Criticizing such things isn’t “attacking” Japan; it’s saying that Japan needs to respond to the evolving needs of its citizens.
Interview with Bunshun Online
To round out this article, I want to offer a partial translation of an interview I did with the Japanese magazine Bunshun Online. I’m very thankful to Bunshun’s Amy Cahill for the opportunity to discuss this issue in more depth and am very happy with the work that Amy did on this writeup.
Bunshun: There are some who acknowledge the voices calling this” upsetting,” but they say that we shouldn’t limit speech.
Allen: I think you have to balance freedom of expression with creating safe space in public places.
Especially in Japan today, there are many women expressing doubt about how Japanese society treats women. Groping and sexual harassment issues persist. And the improper dismissal of several sexual assault cases has led to the Flower Demos.
Putting over-sexualized images like this out in the public sphere sends a message. It says, “This is how you should treat women.”
Bunshun: Some say it’s impossible to draw a line between what is and isn’t appropriate.
Allen: I first learned the Japanese word TPO [an acronym standing for Time, Place, Occasion] due to this debate. This is definitely an issue of TPO. This wasn’t the time, place, nor the occasion for this form of expression.
If I had seen this ad in a corner of Akihabara [Tokyo’s anime mecca], I wouldn’t have felt uneasy about it. If I saw the original manga in a bookstore, I’d have thought, “Well, it takes all kinds.”
Bunshun: What sort of criticism have you gotten in English?
Allen: I’ve been told, “you’re an American criticizing this from a Western perspective.” But before I posted this, I sent it to various female Japanese friends and asked their take. They were angrier than I was….
Bunshun: But it’s also true that there’s a pattern of things being taken down only after they’re pointed out by Western media.
Allen: I spoke recently with a Japanese reporter, who told me there’s a lot of self-censorship at Japanese newspapers. Japanese media can use foreign coverage as an excuse to take up a certain issue. Journalists call it “outside pressure” (外圧; gaiatsu).
With modern Japan becoming more diverse, I think Japanese society needs to take minority voices more seriously so that minorities in Japan feel there’s a place for them.
Please do not misread my criticism of the Japanese Red Cross in this instance. The Red Cross does great, necessary work around the world. Especially with the damage wrought by Typhoon Hagibis in Japan recently, the work they do is more important than ever. If you read this, please consider making a donation to the Japanese Red Cross to support typhoon recovery efforts.