by Matthew Chase

The last 50 years have experienced a resounding explosion in the production and distribution of anime media from Japan, spanning the world. It has spurred the emergence of an equally strong global fan community, underpinning the popular culture phenomenon and commercial success that is anime. There are negative connotations regarding anime as a trivial or juvenile activity, and yet this misconception fails to explain the global presence of the medium and particularly its fan community. Anime has essentially become a transcultural force as many countries have come to adapt it into their own popular cultures, especially in the United States. I myself have been a lifelong fan of the medium. This international popularity can be attributed to not only its creators, but to its fandom as well. While still being a Japanese product, the anime industry has met with a rapidly increasing demand over the last few decades, mainly owing to its expanding international audiences. The United States has been a leading importer of anime, but its mass appeal can be traced to other countries around the world such as Germany, Italy, Brazil, and Russia.

L from Death Note (2006-2007)

Although anime studies remain incredibly scarce in sociology, the topic can nonetheless reveal valuable insights into the complex issues of globalization and how different communities navigate them. Anime owes a great deal of its international success to emerging technologies, and to its own fans who actively share information across physical and digital spaces. Yet many scholars have also found that anime is a globalized product by design, having been intentionally produced as culturally odorless, or mukokuseki. By culturally odorless, I am referring to how anime content is created to lack cultural and national characteristics. One example would be anime characters themselves, who might be identified as Japanese but they are otherwise designed to be phenotypically unidentifiable across race and ethnicity. This helps in localizing anime to the consumer audience’s geographical, national, and cultural identities.

The globalization of anime is a collaborative effort between Japanese and Western industries. U.S. distribution companies that license anime will often reproduce it with English-speaking voice casts, censored content, and even the insertion of corporate branding (e.g., Pizza Hut, Pepsi, etc.). It is perhaps not unlike what we see with multinational industries such as McDonald’s, which seeks a global business model by localizing itself to the tastes of different national consumer bases. Big-budget films in the United States are also often edited and produced to be suitable by other countries’ rating systems so as to maximize potential profits overseas. Anime is ultimately a niche commodity in Japan that is becoming increasingly competitive, and depends immensely on international sales as a result. To support that success, anime studios actively develop and reference from what can be called a database fantasyscape. It is a knowledge bank containing the elements for content to be identified as distinctively anime. The elements for anime can range from the style of animation to the character archetypes to the genres and tropes.

Pizza Hut
Pizza Hut in Code Geass (2006-2007)
Afro Samurai (2007)

Anime is a unique representation and vehicle of globalization. It is surprisingly subtle in its approach to integrate itself into the popular culture consciousness of other nations, particular the United States. With the issue of globalization, the discussion normally focuses on the mass proliferation of U.S. culture in other countries. Yet anime presents a sort of reverse to this pattern, as the United States plays the part of consumer in this case. However, it should be noted that we cannot paint this relationship as equal. The fact that anime is culturally odorless implies that it carries no ideological or cultural messages for U.S. audiences to react meaningfully. This is different from the historical relationship between the United States and Japan. Being a highly homogeneous society, with less than 2 percent of the nation’s population as foreign born, Japan has very little contact with other cultures. Japan instead depends in part on Western and particular U.S. media for fostering a global perspective. Just as anime has its own culture database from which to reference, so does U.S. media.

Herein lies the social issue as we consider the unequal representations in U.S. mass media and commodities, carrying ideological prejudices and messages across racism and sexism. These messages can inform existing Japanese cultural perceptions, and thus influence the kind of anime content produced. Examples include the lack of black anime characters, the sexualization and sometimes fetishization of women characters (i.e., fan service), and the reliance on stereotypes as styles and tropes. Although anime is dubbed culturally odorless, the reality is that anime creators still depend on cultural elements to inform their content, whether it is drawing from Japanese ideology or Western. In a global capitalist economy, media industries feel the pressure to sell a certain brand of ideology, even as its odor is buried under cultural ambiguity and transculturalism.

The issue is far from clear cut as it involves a complex historical relationship between Japan and the West. Representations of diversity in anime have steadily improved as the years go on, reflecting the attitudinal changes in both Japan and the United States over time. The fandom community itself has a significant role in transforming anime as a community space for exclusion and/or inclusivity, which is a topic I’ll delve into further in a future blog. An important takeaway is that globalization facilitated through transcultural media like anime have accelerated cultural exchanges across the world at an unprecedented extent. Even the consumption of media is rarely a passive act, but a practice embedded with a cultural recipe that influences how we as fans interact with content. Anime is a unique cog in the larger media industrial machine, demonstrating the social responsibility of anime producers and the entertainment industry as a whole have to their audiences.