Or, alternatively titled, “Unbearable Cuteness in Front of the Swastika”
About a month ago, I started watching Hetalia: Axis Powers on Funimation’s Youtube channel. I heard about this a couple of years ago, but the idea of a story featuring the personifications of different countries in WWII was so bizarre that I didn’t pick it up. I did this time because I feel like I finally have the conceptual tools to deal with something like this, and also because I wanted to procrastinate on writing my thesis. If you visit my entry on my rant blog, 27, 000, 000, you can see a long conversation I’ve had with various persons regarding how I have struggled with this series.
The series was initially a webcomic by Hidekazu Himaruya, a Japanese student studying design in New York. The only other webcomic series that has become as popular that I can think of is Megatokyo, and even so I don’t think they are on the same scale. Most cultural productions have an intended audience; this audience is limited by language if not geography, and culture, gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity. Note that this does not mean that a story must include main characters with specific gender and age to appeal to that gender and age, as many adults enjoy Harry Potter and so forth. However, this often helps (though regarding gender, I once read a writer saying that while girls would read novels with male main characters, most boys don’t want to read novels with girl main characters). If we analyze Hetalia with the audience categories above, what would we get? (if you want to skip this seemingly inane list, go
Language: Originally for Japanese-literate audiences, because I assume that as a student in NY, if Himaruya wanted to create a comic in English, he should have had the English skills to make one. Also, the focus of the main storyline is on the Axis powers, which included Japan, and most people in the West would probably think twice about creating a story from the perspective of the Axis. But now English-speaking fans have translated almost everything. Even his blog is translated. There are Spanish Livejournal communities, so language is not necessarily a barrier in this as long as fans and companies are willing to translate it.
Geography: As it’s a webcomic, technically it has no geographical intentions other than those limited by language and culture.
Age: Likely late teen to young adult, 15-30 years old. The author himself is in this age bracket, and the format of his initial publication suggests that aside from creating a personal passtime, he had been creating this series for people who access webcomics. Who are in general not, say, 70 years old.
Gender: This is harder. On the wonderful website TVtropes, which accepts contributions from fans regarding the themes of any/all narrative production, the page on Hetalia notes that many people are surprised that the author is male, because of “all the Ho Yay.” As yaoi and shounen-ai manga and anime are generally produced by straight females for other straight females, Hetalia, which exhibits a lot of homoeroticism, seems to enjoy a largely female audience. I would think that males who are interested in WWII would go watch BBC documentaries and Band of Brothers instead. However, I cannot conclude that this is what Himaruya intended.
Sexuality: Again, since most yaoi and shounen-ai manga and anime are generally produced by straight females for other straight females, I would think that despite the homoeroticism, many of the fans are straight. Or, to put it in more academic terms, although the series features homoeroticism, it doesn’t try to offer any theory or criticism regarding homosexuals in real life; homosexuality isn’t its main topic. Most yaoi and yuri and so forth are along the same lines in that they don’t make sexuality their objective, and do not represent the LGBTQ community. This is not to say that homosexuals don’t enjoy yaoi and yuri and so forth. I remember my gay 40 year old highschool counsellor quite enjoying the series Fake.
Ethnicity/Culture: Putting these into the same category because even now I don’t quite know how to demarcate race/ethnicity/culture. Leaving aside language, I mean “culture” as whether the society accepts this kind of thing as a legitimate passtime. For example, 40 years ago North American culture would not have received this well at all, given the focus in Axis powers and the homoeroticism. The intended audience for Hetalia are probably those living in a liberal humanist culture, ie a culture that seeks to advance human interests (whether personal or those of human communities), not overly devoted to religion, believes in human individuality and freedom and artistic freedom. This is a very broad definition of “culture,” and maybe it’s better to use the word “zeitgeist.” I mean that most people in industrialized societies think this way.
When culture overlaps with nation, what is outside the intended audience is the number of national cultures which are represented in Hetalia. This seems obvious, but this also means that it increases the number of national cultures which have a stake in what the series is saying. The popularity of Hetalia rests on the number of nations it represents (someone at the Hetalia LJ writes there are around 50 so far) but also what nation means. Recently, a lot of academic talk has been on things like the “death of nation,” as people increasingly move around more, things like the European Union are appearing, and the corporations become multinational to the point where it’s hard to locate anything particularly “American” about Coca-Cola. However, there are also academics that point that that this perspective is a very Western-centric one, as many nations have only recently won status as a nation through very hard work and a lot of bloodshed, and probably don’t like to see the whole idea of a nation dismissed.
It’s very convenient that I am writing this at the end of the Fifa World Cup (the result of which I am sure many Hetalia fans are happy about). Even if the Western world is feeling the benefits of globalization (being able to read Hetalia even though I don’t understand Japanese, for example), when it comes down to it people are still very nationalistic. Nation is still bound up with culture, and hence defines human beings even if they are able to move to other places in the world and access the culture of other places. Globalization hasn’t gone on long enough for nation not to matter.
What makes Hetalia popular is that as long as you are within one of the 50 personified countries and even marginally engaged in its culture, there is a feeling that somehow the series has you in mind. With this vast representation, the other parameters of age and gender and language do not decide the number of fans as much. Added to the lightness of the series (which I will return to in the “Controversy” section), the series offers engagement with an aspect of what defines you, and makes you laugh. Even if some of the audience isn’t there for the nations, the nations are good-looking young people.
The fact that these nations are human characters also makes this different from engagement with BBC documentaries. There are lies, damned lies, and statistics, because statistics can’t deliver the emotional impact of what things mean, and ideas like “nationhood” are often too abstract. A writer once said that in war, the average soldiers almost never fights for their “nation,” but for people they know in that nation. Hetalia compounds national and human feeling together. Knowing that 27, 000, 000 Russians died in WWII doesn’t quite give the impact as seeing the personification of Russia lament over this (this bit about Russia isn’t in the series but a fanwork).
More importantly, it is the premise of Hetalia that makes it possible for infinite fan participation. I believe that what makes a work open to participation is its lack of closure. Most novels, for instance, try to tell a story like the story is the most important thing that happens to its characters, and the story has a clear conclusion where the characters emerge from still alive (or not), but will never face anything like this again. The story is emphatically “over.” However, with Hetalia, the story focuses on WWII with many many side stories exploring history before that and since then, even current events as they occur. The short comic strip form does not give the same message as a novel or graphic novel; there is no sense that each comic strip tells the most important story its characters will face. This encourages the audience to think up other scenarios than to think that the story is “over.” Even if your nation isn’t one of the 50 in the series, you could imagine what your country would be like, and produce fanwork based on this. It is also impossible for Himaruya himself to exhaust all of the history regarding the 50 nation-characters he has created. Recently, someone on the Hetalia LJ posted a video with some viewers found “confusing,” because he/she used many dates, juxtaposed with fanart, that the official series has not addressed. But that is creative fanwork. And events are ongoing, eg the World Cup, which has generated thousands of fanfictions and fanarts in English audiences alone, and the recent bizarre case in which Russian spies in America used Canadian identities.
This series is light. It’s moe, according to Anime News Network, which means the audience response is likely one of feeling some kind of love for most of the characters. Most of the countries’ leaders do not get too much spotlight, and the series does not equate the country with the dominant political party/person. For example, Funimation introduces Germany’s leader as “hard to manage.” This is obviously a reference to Hitler, who hasn’t made an appearance in the webcomic or manga, that I know of (correct me if I’m wrong). In other words, the character of Germany doesn’t espouse Nazi values, rather more stereotypical “German values” like productivity.
In addition, the series sometimes privileges likable characters over historical accuracy. The character of Poland talks in something like a valleygirl accent and repeatedly ignores Lithuania’s attempts to warn him of Russia’s intention to invade with Germany, rather concentrating on buying ponies and painting his house pink, which really has no historical equivalent. As with Poland’s accent, sometimes the characters’ characters don’t correspond to their reference countries. There are also many light-hearted stereotypes, such as China ending all of his sentences in “-aru,” which is apparently the stereotype Japan holds of how Chinese people talk in general. And of course, Italy, who is totally useless in a cute way, with no tendencies towards Mussolini’s brand of fascism or anything.
If nationalism can make people embrace the series for its positive portrayals of audience home countries, then nationalism added to the light-hearted stereotypes also makes people reject it. South Korea censored the anime completely due to what it considers an offensive portrayal of Korea in the webcomic and manga. For those who haven’t read these, Korea is a somewhat strident, though cheerful young man who seems a bit self-centred, and who likes to claim that he’s the eldest of the Asian nations and that he invented everything. Fans in the West have generally been thinking that Korea couldn’t take a joke, and that the series pokes fun at every country anyway. Personally, I had the thought that we haven’t heard of Poland denouncing the series yet, and the character of Poland could be seen as just as offensive.
But Japan didn’t try to invade Poland. Going back to the intended audience – Hetalia is a Japanese production, even if many fans all around the world have created fanworks accompanying it. In WWII, Japan (the real life country) went on its quest to unify Asia, or rather, its invasion and brutality towards the rest of Asia, and from what I know, a lot of citizens supported this effort (at least in the early stages). Say that Korea has a chip on its shoulder, but it wasn’t so long ago that its status as a nation was almost revoked. I also read on the excellent webcomic Secret Asian Man that Korea was spelled “Corea” until Japan changed it in WWII because they did not want Korea speaking before them at international assemblies, then rostered alphabetically, and this spelling stays. And with Japan’s refusal to apologize for war crimes and even censoring its role in WWII from textbooks, it’s easy to think that Hetalia comes out of the same destructive machine. So the censorship of Hetalia in Korea is understandable, even if it is unfortunate. Along the same lines, the character of China has a Hello Kitty knockoff doll called Shinatty-chan, though in Chinese fandom “Shinatty-chan” is called “Gitty,” as “Shina” is a really offensive term the Japanese called the Chinese in WWII. The equivalent in the US would be personifications of different races in America, with the African American character carrying around a toy called Nigger. Although Taiwan has licenced the anime, I’m just waiting for the Chinese government to pounce on Hetalia, though I hope it won’t come to that.
Accept for the moment that nations (both people and governments) are justified in feeling unhappy with stereotypes in Hetalia. What can they do about it? One solution is censorship, which South Korea is trying (and I’m very very glad that Himaruya didn’t take the series on a suicide run by creating a North Korea). However, there are different types of censorship. There is censorship of sexuality and violence, which most people feel somewhat justified about, and censorship ofconcepts, which people don’t feel justified about. The former kind of censorship judges that people will one day be able to access concepts behind sex and violence once their cognitive skills can handle it, whereas the second kind judges people as never being able to handle it.
Although I feel that Korea is justified in wanting to censor Hetalia, I believe that actually censoring it shows its lack of confidence in its national citizens. First, it is assuming that people will draw a strong link between Korea the character and Korea the real life nation – after all, if people don’t, then it is no danger. While this seems like an obvious intention of the work itself, it is not true. Most audience members would be trained in the difference between fiction and nonfiction, even if it is historical fiction. Fan works with mature content sometimes urge its audience to try and see the characters as people rather than as countries. Canadians may find the doujinshi about Canada being lovesick towards America entertaining without wishing Canada to cozy up to the US politically.
Second, censorship assumes that the audience receives the work and it ends there, that there is no way to voice contradictions without editing the original. As I mentioned in the “Success” portion, the fanworks now outnumber the official work by the thousandfold, filling in gaps that Himaruya would not approach due to the sheer size of his topic. Because the audience in different nations see themselves represented, often they take it as a welcome challenge to create their own stories about their country. South Korea censoring the series means that while the rest of the world sees the annoying Korea character, less Koreans would be able to do something about it. A better solution would probably be to let the series run and sponsor fans who want to create and publish their own Korean Hetalia doujinshi.
** August 2010 edit **
Having read more about the controversy the series created in South Korea, there is a bit more to add. Apparently the national assembly met together and rejected Hetalia based on, among other things, a piece of fanart showing Korea grope Japan (This is probably a worse provocation than featuring an annoying Korea character by himself. I guess the people in the national assembly thought that this piece of fanart originated in Japan, or if they didn’t know it was fanart, thought it was a part of the Japanese official work. Since there are still gloomy sentiments towards Japan, this fanart at once implies what Japan thinks about Korea AND refuses to acknowledge Korea’s anger towards Japan by making him GROPE Japan). In some ways this buttresses what I have been saying so far about the power of fanworks, especially with regards to Hetalia.
The community members who think that South Korea is misjudging the situation argue that their rejection of the official series was based on fanart, which are not the same thing. This is true, but increasingly it is difficult to say what is authoritative and bounded piece of work. This what happens in postmodernity – information flows are so convenient compared to past centuries that a lot of popular culture is people reworking what other people have created; think of all the celebrities and fictional characters satirized on The Simpsons, and The Office featuring a wedding based on a Youtube video of a wedding. I am not disagreeing with the community, but the controversy over Hetalia proves that the line between the official and the fanwork is increasingly blurred. Apparently CCTV (main new network in China) broadcast a piece of Hetalia fanart about China and Russia when talking about about citizen responses to the joint Russia-China space program, without knowing the context of the fanart at all. This really amused fans, but on the other hand, the person who drew the picture of Korea groping Japan probably regrets it now.
** end edit**
Also, there is something in the fan communities called a “kink meme.” Someone submits a request for a character pairing with some sort of condition, often sexual, and someone else fulfills this request with fanart or fanfiction. While most of this is light-hearted enjoyment, some of the requests can get pretty disturbing. I have extolled fanpower as a positive force, but here may be evidence against fans taking up a series too much. Some posters’ arguments in favour of kink memes are that it’s not real life; enjoying a story about rape does not mean that someone condones rape. Having said that people can tell the difference between the nation-characters and the nations themselves, I cannot be a hypocrite now and say that when it comes to kink memes, people cannot tell the difference, however uncomfortable those requests make me.
People who objected to this sort of kink meme seem to be worried about spreading “Racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia” in general. At its foundations, this problem relates to the nature of enjoyment, and the fear that enjoying a story about rape will make that enjoyment bleed to cover everything in the story, going so far as to make rape itself enjoyable. Psychological studies have shown emotional carryover to be true, such as this article here. But I’m not sure emotions and preferences are the same thing, just like love and hatred are not really emotions. Finally coming to the picture at the start of this entry, I believe the majority of readers would appreciate Italy being cute without also thinking that the swastika is cute. In fact, what I love about this page in the comic is the utter disjunction between Italy being cute and the swastika. I get to write 3000+ words on it, after all.
Alternatively, the argument could be that preferences are built upon exposure if not on carryover, and this is the argument used by anti-videogame censors who believe that excessive exposure to acting violent will create massacres like the Columbine shooting. But this sort of worry leads to things like the No Fly List, which hits its targets but also a lot of false positives.
Speaking of liberal humanism, many fans espouse the philosophy of “if you don’t like it, don’t read it, but don’t try to stop someone from writing it.” This position has faith in individual discretion, which is valid. However, going away from Hetalia for a moment, this philosophy sounds too much like it’s condoning shutting one’s eyes to things one doesn’t like instead of doing something about it. Going back to the series, I believe that if people find something objectionable, they SHOULD say something about it. But also keep in mind that the result might not go your way.
Another thing that some fans have argued is that filling a rape kink meme does not necessarily mean the fill is automatically pornography; it depends on how it is written. This is true, but then again, a kink meme has its purposes in being pornographical, and most people do not want to to read fills for lofty reflections. Rationally, I understand that I should have more faith in the fan community, and I have mostly argued in the fans’ favour. I am confident that people who read a rape scene between Germany and Poland and enjoy it as characters do not want a repeat of it as a historical incident. As a poster said on the fandomsecrets blog on June 4, 2009 at 10:08pm, “I don’t mean to sound nosy but I always find Hetalia fans incredibly sensitive towards other people and their country’s histories.” For very disturbing kink meme, there is probably also a fanfiction that handles the same nation-characters and historical incidents in a very sympathetic manner.
However, if someone has not met any Koreans and reads Hetalia and none of the fanworks, and takes it literally, it is possible that the person will form a stereotype of Koreans as being sort of annoying and self-centred. Taking Hetalia literally probably won’t happen very often, but it is possible. I believe in artistic responsibility; there should be some sort of reference to or documentation of non-fiction resources in both official works and fanwork. Translators of the webcomic and manga have very nicely provided links to articles that Himaruya have used and even say they have no idea what he meant because they couldn’t find any sources on what he was saying, but I wish fanworks would also give footnotes to the effect of “real life was actually something like this, and I changed it because….” As I said in the edit, fanworks can now have as much impact as official works. While no fan should condone self-censorship, this means that potentially nothing you do is only for yourself, and fans should take up equal responsibility to actual authors and artists.
Regarding the last caveats, I am still not certain that the position I am taking is the “right” one, or even if there is a right one. I dread the day in the far future, when countries closer to the equator are fighting countries north of them due to global warming, where a terrorist quotes Hetalia during his or her trial. Hetalia touches many people and elicits very strong reactions – this makes it a powerful work if nothing else and worth participating in on all levels, whether you watch the anime casually or suddenly get the urge to submit a paper on it to an academic conference.
I think I’m going to make myself some pasta now.