Outbreak Company – Cultural Imperialism and Development
December 23, 2013 Leave a comment
In my last post about Outbreak Company I explored the dissemination of mass culture as a form of soft power, a way of maintaining political, and cultural power within a globalised and changing world. 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. There are clear similarities here in the way western anime 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, reading manga, or playing games. There is much more to Japan than the national cool of anime culture, and most foreigners will never penetrate the barriers of language – we just have look at how poorly anime comedies, and those shows that focus on specific cultural and social aspects of Japanese life can be treated – and culture well enough to see Japan as the average Japanese sees it.
But, the popularity of anime, manga, and everything associated with them, coupled with the increased interest in Japan further demonstrates the power of Japanese popular culture. It could be argued, for example, that a significant number of people who are now interested enough in Japan to plan trips to the country may not have done so without the presence of popular culture in their own 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. We see how the Japanese government in Outbreak Company uses the partial image of ‘Cool Japan’, an image that has been carefully created through anime and manga to increase the Eldant Empire’s interest in Japan as a country and culture. This carefully constructed image does not, however, 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. In a sense the portrayal of Japan in Outbreak Company is a mere façade, a simple image constructed to gain access to the potential wealth of the empire, with the subtleties, and socio-cultural undercurrents of Japan remaining a closed book to most.
This brings us to one of the major themes of Outbreak Company; the idea of cultural imperialism, and the process of development that many ‘developed’ countries may push on those they consider to be less developed. Throughout the series we have seen the many problems encountered by Shinichi in his quest to teach the Eldant Empire about the culture he loves. In earlier episodes we are faced with racial disparity, and a strict caste/class system, with Myucel at the bottom due to her half-elf/half-human nature. In his attempts to spread the otaku way Shinchi builds a school and forces the different races together in a manner that was bound to cause conflict, even resulting in his being taken captive. What Shinichi is attempting, and the message he brings is one of empowerment and equality, he talks about Japan having no such caste systems, and preaches the ideas of modernity.
This is tricky territory when it comes to Japan, and development in general – one of the key questions within the anthropology of development for example is whether developing a country is even the right, or correct thing to do. Should we be able to decide how one country is run, and whether it is right to change their way of life, even if it means the maintenance of slavery, and strict caste system? This is a tricky question, and in many respects there is no right answer, but in the case of Outbreak Company we see Shinichi use certain ideas and assertions that do not ring true. His claim that Japan has no class system for example is clearly untrue, and there is a significant amount if social, and culture injustice in the country, like any modern nation state.
Furthermore, we also have to consider the complicated nature of empowerment, especially in the case of empowerment through a certain, altogether different culture. Advertisements beckoning consumers to ‘empower’ themselves by buying the latest designers mimic the individualism of the use of this term by development banks and institutions, just as the ‘brand’ of ‘spiritual empowerment’ offered on the websites of the new Christianities lends radically different meaning to its uses by feminist activities to talk about collective action in pursuit of social justice (Cornwall, 2007). Shinichi offers the possibility of social and cultural empowerment through otaku culture, and presents it as a means with which different social, and ethnic groups can come together in harmony. Rather than looking at the Eldant Empire and learning about its society, he, as a proxy for the Japanese government pushes this aspect of Japan’s culture as a means socio-cultural change. 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.
The central premise of the Japanese Governments project is people’s capacity to aspire, they wish to introduce a new, wonderful culture to an otherwise primitive land (at least in their eyes), creating a demand for that culture and leading to aspirations of something new, something different, something that only the Japanese Government can provide. Culture is essential to the capacity to aspire, without the cultural norms and ideals within society, and particularly in each area of society, we would not have aspirations or even the capacity to aspire. It is in culture that ideas of the future, as much as those about the past, are embedded and nurtured. Thus in strengthening the capacity to aspire, conceived as a cultural capacity, especially among the poor, the culture-orientated logic of development could find a natural ally, and the poor could find the resources required to context and alter the conditions of their own poverty.
The world Shinichi finds himself in is one with deep cultural, ethnic, and class barriers – not unlike Japan, or most other ‘developed’ countries – a place where Myusel, a half-elf is looked upon by everyone with scorn, and in some cases hatred. By introducing Otaku culture, Shinichi manages to tap into this capacity to aspire by providing something that is not intrinsically linked to class or ethnic backgrounds, but has the possibility of crossing them. However, at first the introduction of otaku culture is purely for the privileged few, with Petralka effectively monopolizing Shinichi’s time, partly out of jealousy, and partly out of curiosity. But, through Shinichi’s persistence we see the creation of a school, dedicated to teaching the Eldant Empire’s children about otaku culture. it is however through Myusel that we see the importance of the capacity to aspire, and how it pertains to the poorer in society. the more privileged in any society have simply used their extensive list of contacts and experiences to explore the future more frequently and more realistically, and to share this knowledge with one another more routinely than their poorer, weaker neighbours.
Culture is a dialogue between aspiration and sedimented traditions, and in our commendable zeal for the latter at the cost of the former, we have allowed an unnecessary, harmful and artificial opposition to emerge between culture and development. As we see in Outbreak Company, one of the key moments comes when a group of traditionalists take Shinichi and Petralka hostage, claiming that the new culture was in danger of destroying the old traditions and changing the Eldant Empire forever. They yearned for an artificially pure Empire, one that was more a wish than reality, and one where ethnic and racial divides remained, with half-elves like Myusel remaining little more than slaves. By brining the future back in, by looking at aspirations as a cultural capacity, we are surly in a better position to understand how people actually navigate their social spaces. And in terms of the relationship between democracy and development, this approach gives us a principled reason to build the capacity to aspire in those who have the most to lose from it’s underdevelopment – the poor themselves.
Here we see one of the main tensions within Outbreak Company, that of tradition and modernity, with the old ways prized as pure and unsullied, while the new ‘otaku culture’ is seen as something demonic, with the ability to remove the Eldant Empire’s unique traits. There are clear problems here as the development of the Eldant Empire through learning Japanese and learning about otaku culture certainly comes at the cost of more traditional, ways of life, with certain characters seemingly forgetting about heir families businesses and focusing exclusively on the new, exciting cultural products that lie before them. On the other hand there are certain positives, such as the changes in Petralka’s attitude towards half-elves like Myusel, and the way ethnic divisions within Shinichi’s students are replaced with divisions based on games, anime, and manga. As we now know from Outbreak Company’s most recent episodes, the Japanese government has been actively using otaku culture as a way of gaining access to the vast resources of the Eldant Empire.
Shinichi is therefore a cultural invader used by the government as a disposable pawn to create, and maintain a steady, but deliberately reduced flow of otaku goods to those who want them. By deliberately limiting the flow of Japanese culture, Matoba suggests that the Eldant Empire, and particularly those who are now enamored with this aspect of Japan’s culture will be willing to conceive to the government’s wishes, and provide them with the opportunity to exploit the resources of the empire, without the knowledge of other countries. However, if they had used the JSDF, it would have been fairly obvious to outside observers that Japan had found something particularly interesting, thus stopping them from fully exploiting what they had found. The use of otaku culture, and in particular Shinichi was therefore essential in creating a peaceful dialogue between the two nations, one that would greatly benefit Japan, while also potentially leaving the Eldant Empire as little more than a puppet state.
During the final episodes we see how the Japanese Governments use of otaku culture was merely a means to and end, a way of getting into the country and gaining influence over its ruling classes. They have a clear plan that they use Shinchi to carry out, but as soon as Shinichi deviates from the plan, or the Eldant Empire starts to pursue otaku culture in some other way that is not part of this plan, the government acts to retain control through force. To use an example from international development:
An NGO in India aimed to provide everyone in a particular area with proper irrigation and a good water supply for their fields, suggesting that the lack of proper water supplies was leading to local poverty. The population did not want this, and instead wanted clean drinking water for themselves, so that they didn’t have to make long treks and wouldn’t have to worry about the possibility of catching water-borne diseases. This did not fit with the NGO’s plan, but instead of altering the plan, they instead concreted all the water pumps into the fields, thus making them useless.
This simple story demonstrates how rigid development can be, and shows us that while the Japanese Governments’ actions in Outbreak Company were a little more extreme, they were not unique. Development often comes at a cost, and as long as it fits with the plans of those providing the money and materials for the development to take place, everything will run smoothly. Shinichi changes the status quo, and forces the Japanese Government to give in to his demands of face being ejected from the Eldant Empire entirely.
What is not explored however is the impact that the development, and aspects of Cultural Imperialism have had on this fantasy world, at least not fully. We actually know very little about the Eldant Empire, or the world in general, instead it is assumed that things are better now that Shinichi has brought Otaku Culture to the empire, but there are signs that things may have changed for the worse. Elbia in particular is introduced drawing wonderful landscapes, but towards the end of the series all she draws are characters, this is not inherently bad, but it does demonstrate that new forms of culture can completely supplant older forms, regardless of how good they might be. Outbreak Company demonstrates the double edge sword is development, while also showing us the impact of Cultural Imperialism and its ability to render older forms of culture, and indigenous cultures redundant through sheer force. It also shows us how complicated development and the introduction of new cultures can be, after all, every country and culture develops over time, acquiring aspects of other cultures and societies and subtly changing. The happy ending is somewhat artificial and merely glosses over the constant troubles, and problematic nature of Shinichi’s presence within the Eldant Empire, along with his influence over Petralka. But, perhaps that is the best way to end; presenting us with a happy conclusion that hides the complexities of development and cultural imperialism beneath its smiling, glossy façade.