Outbreak Company and the dissemination of mass culture
November 5, 2013 6 Comments
The premise of Outbreak Company seems a little odd at first – developing good relations with another nation (in this case one in a fantasy world) through the use of popular culture. However, once we look a little closer at this series whilst also exploring real world examples we can see that such a premise has been used before on multiple occasions, and is arguably central to the Japanese governments attempt to enhance its standing in today’s globalised world. Indeed, culture – be it political, religious, or social – has always been one way for a country to strengthen its position with its neighbours, or perhaps in a foreign country. If we look at the process of imperialism throughout the 17th-20th centuries we can see how elements of the conquered nations culture were supplanted by the conqueror. Culture can be used to rebrand a countries image, change how it is perceived in the world, and recreate a powerbase that was once lost.
As Douglas McGray (2002) states:
Japan is reinventing superpower – again. Instead of collapsing beneath its widely reported political and economic misfortunes, Japan’s global cultural influence has quietly grown. From pop music to consumer electronics, architecture to fashion, and animation to cuisine, Japan looks more like a cultural superpower today than it did in the 1980s, when it was an economic one. But can Japan build on its mastery of medium to project an equally powerful national message?
In the 1980s, Japan pioneered a new kind of superpower, one that focused on the power of the economy without the distractions of an army, puppet regimes, or proxy wars. What made Japan a superpower in this period, more than just a wealthy country, was the way its great firms staked claim to a collective intellectual high ground that left competitors such as the United States, scrambling to reverse-engineer Japanese successes. We might all be familiar with the iPod, mp3 players, smart phones, and tablets, but such devices owe a significant debt to inventions like the original Sony Walkman, and early games consoles – there are of course many other important inventions. Seeking guidance on everything from ‘quality circles’ to ‘just-in-time’ inventory management, corporate executives in America and other countries bought stacks of books on Japanese management techniques, hoping that they could somehow learn how to be as successful.
But, if we move forwards to 2001 we still had a Japanese economy with high incomes, long life expectancy, and still more benefits in favour of Japan, but the national swagger is gone, a casualty of a decade long recession (one that has been ongoing since the early 90s, and still persists today). The economy looks terrible with the yen, GDP, and the Nikkei Stock Index all at new lows, resulting in far less lifetime employment – something considered to be fundamental to Japanese lifestyles – with a rise in part-time or temporary work, something considered to be a sign of the damage done to Japanese society. But, it is arguably the case that Japan reinvents what it means to be a superpower in this period when it moves away from the economy to focus on its popular culture and its growing influence on other countries. Japanese cultural sway is not quite like that of American culture abroad, which, even in its basest forms, tends to reflect certain common values, such as American style capitalism and individualism. In fact, contemporary Japanese culture outside Japan can seem shallow by comparison, suggestion a nation in flux, a superficiality that has led to contemporary Japanese culture to be equated with ‘Super Flat’ art, devoid of perspective, and devoid of hierarchy, all existing equally and simultaneously. Takashi Murakami famously said that ‘we don’t have any religion, we just need the big power of entertainment’, although his comment can perhaps be seen as a more cynical approach to contemporary Japan.
Outbreak Company presents us with an example of Japan using its cultural wealth to create political, social, and economic links with another country. Shinichi acts as a ‘Moe Missionary’ so that Japans government can use this element of popular culture to their own advantage and help cement important relations with a country that no one else currently knows about. This is very similar to the way western fans have come into contact with Japan – indeed, many bloggers and fans may only know about Japan through their limited knowledge gleaned from watching anime. There is much more to Japan than the national cool of anime culture, and most foreigners will never penetrate the barriers of language – just look at how poorly anime comedies can be treated – and culture well enough to see Japan as the average Japanese sees it. But, while this may the case, the popularity of anime and manga, coupled with the increased interest in Japan further demonstrates the power of Japanese popular culture. It could be reasonably argued, for example, that a significant number of people who are now interested enough in Japan to plan trips in order to visit may not have done so without the presence of popular culture in their societies. In this respect we see how much of an impact anime culture in particular has had on creating a specific, very appealing image of Japan as a place of exotic, but also fascinating culture and places.
Of course this does not mean that those who are interested in Japan through their consumption of anime, manga, and the assorted paraphernalia of the culture fully understand Japan, quite the opposite. And while Outbreak Company shows numerous characters, and the nobility of a nation gradually become more interested in the culture that Shinichi is presenting to them, the subtleties, and socio-cultural undercurrents remain a closed book. In fact, if we look at Outbreak Company we can see how the difference in cultures, and subtleties found in language and attitudes create problems in the dissemination of ‘otaku culture’. Shinichi might preach the importance and brilliance of his games, manga, and anime, but most people will never truly know what he is talking about due to language and culture barriers. While Shinichi endeavors to teach members of the Eldant Empire Japanese he invariably comes across cultural barriers including race and class boarders that further complicate the dissemination of otaku culture. Furthermore, even though he is able to teach a few Japanese, and has the magic rings to aid communication, cultural and social subtleties found in anime and manga will be lost on those who may not fully understand them. His, and his student’s perspectives on this aspect of Japanese culture are completely different, which may result in new and interesting interpretations of the material that the creators could not have envisioned.
But that is part of Japan’s secret to thriving amidst globalization, and helps to explain why this aspect of its culture is constantly reinforced and brought to a global audience. There exists a Japan for the Japanese and a Japan for the rest of the world. There may be some overlap in the case of particular youth fads, or fashion, or even aspects of anime like particularly well received and influential films – Spirited Away, Akira, but even then much of the nuance is lost on foreigners – or particular elements of culture and society that become well know outside of Japan. In cultural terms, Japan has become one of a handful of perfect globalised nations, and has succeeded in balancing a flexible, absorptive, crowd-pleasing, shared culture with a more private, domestic one while also taking advantage of that balance to build an increasingly powerful global commercial force. In Outbreak Company we see Japan’s government using this shared, crowd-pleasing culture as a way of gaining leverage over the Eldant Empire, whilst keeping this private, domestic culture out of reach.
What is particularly interesting about the use of this flexible culture in this series is how easily it can be adopted and reformed and interpreted by different social groups in the empire. Imagine trying to use Kabuki, Tea Ceremony, Noh, or any number of the ‘traditional’ arts in order to create a cultural, political, and economic alliance? That sort of culture is highly ordered and brings with it a complex set of rules – not that otaku culture does not, but in this case the rules are more flexible – in doing so the gap between cultures may even be extended. The use of Otaku culture is therefore essential in order to create a shared set of experiences and ideals, and despite the obvious language, and cultural barriers, we are beginning to see how easy it is to adapt the cultural product to your own culture and take from it a different, but still important message. This is the power of a flexible, absorptive, crowd-pleasing, shared culture, and demonstrates how astute the Japanese government in Outbreak Company is to use such a culture as a method of gaining political traction in this new, strange, and potentially highly lucrative world.
Effectively, Japan’s growing cultural presence has created an engine of national cool, something that it is impossible to measure, a form of ‘soft power’, as opposed to hard power’ (usually military). National cool is an idea, a reminder that commercial trends and products, and a country’s knack for spawning them, can serve political and economic ends. This is all we see in Outbreak Company, the use of soft power, and the government important its otaku culture into another society in order to gain political and economic leverage, without ever exposing the national to the realities of Japanese life. It also demonstrates the surprising power of culture, something that any anime blogger or fan may notice from time to time, but never truly question. The desire to buy the latest fashion, the newest anime, manga, figure, single/album demonstrates how powerful soft power can be, but how many fans outside of Japan know anything about Japanese society, traditional culture, political culture, or what Japan looks like outside of Tokyo and Kyoto? Arguably very few fans really know about Japan, partly because of the difficulty in penetrating language barriers, but also because of the power of Japanese popular culture. Many know of Japan through this culture, but that is where knowledge and understanding ends, with the culture serving as a means for Japan to produce a popular image of Japan that becomes self replicating and reinforcing, especially in today’s world of social media and (mostly) fast internet.
Throughout these first few episodes of Outbreak Company we see how the Japanese government deliberately limits its information flow to the Eldant Empire. It uses otaku culture, and Shinichi as a buffer, a conduit through which they provide what they consider to be the best way of acquiring political and economic leverage over the empire. Interestingly, Shinichi is also teaching people the language – a necessity if they are to understand the manga, anime, and games he is trying to show them – and so, provides a way into broader Japanese culture and society. To understand the language means you are capable of picking up on specific nuances, and comedy, although even then the language is being taught within the confines of otaku culture, in order to best present this culture to the empire. We also do not know about any of the other countries and empires that border Eldant, and have no knowledge of their take on otaku culture, assuming they even know about it. But, considering how flexible, and absorptive this culture can be, it would hardly be surprising if others soon acquire it and begin to approach Japan for possible trade negotiations. So, Outbreak Company demonstrates how a country, without using military force – although Japan seems to have an armed contingent for self-defense in Eldant – can gain significant influence over a country simply through the use of its culture. And if we think about it, numerous elements of global culture, from music, to fashion, and videogames have been influenced in one way or another by Japan’s popular culture, demonstrating how important popular culture is.