Making Manga Out of the U.S. Military

News Abroad

Sabine Frühstück is Professor of Modern Japanese Cultural Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a Japan Focus associate. She is interested in problems of power/knowledge, gender/sexuality, and military/society. She is the author of Uneasy Warriors: Gender, Memory and Popular Culture in the Japanese Army (University of California Press, 2007), published in Japanese translation as Fuan na heishitachi (Hara shobō, 2008) and Colonizing Sex: Sexology and Social Control in Modern Japan (University of California Press, 2003). A longer version of this article appears at Japan Focus.

At noon on Wednesday, August 4, 2010, the Public Relations Office of the United States Forces Japan (USFJ) released the first of four volumes of a manga, Watashitachi no dōmei – Eizokuteki pātonāshippu/Our Alliance – A Lasting Partnership.  The manga series was intended to mark and celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan (better known as AMPO) that had been signed between the United States and Japan in Washington, D.C. on January 19, 1960.  Despite its express purpose to burnish the reputation of USFJ and appease critics of the alliance, the launch of this entirely new public relations effort was unfortunately timed.  Delayed by several months, it was released two days prior to the sixty-fifth anniversary of the dropping of Little Boy on August 6, 1945.  It also came shortly after the failure to create a new base to replace Futenma Marine Corps Air Station on Okinawa.  “In this politically and militarily charged environment,” explained Major Neil Fisher, the director of the Public Relations Office and a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, “every element in the manga suddenly meant something.”  Drafts of the manga had been vetted carefully by a slew of military and other officials beyond the Public Relations Office in Tokyo.  Apparently, all senior leadership within USFJ, representatives in the International Public Affairs Office of the Japanese Ministry of Defense, the North America desk of the Pacific Command in Hawai’i, as well as the Pentagon were consulted to weigh in on the final product before it became available on the USFJ webpage for free downloading and [was] promoted in a variety of locales.  At the same time, 100,000 copies were produced in hardcopy and distributed to people around U.S. military installations; to people who perhaps had not yet made up their minds about how they felt about the alliance, ranging from mid-teens up to mid-thirties; and to attendees at manga and anime fairs.

While the anniversary might have been an opportunity for a critical reflection on the history of the alliance, an “historical look at a successful and important relationship instead of a political commentary on the current moment” [was] desired.  Major Fisher described his office’s directives as follows:

We wanted to keep it as light as possible. We are not able to resolve the current political aspects [of the alliance; the author].  I have just been to a dinner reception at the embassy with one hundred university students.  One student asked, ‘How do Americans feel about the continuous state of war and how do they feel about Japan and its peaceful existence?’  This question paints the full picture.  Japan doesn’t know war, doesn’t know conflict.  We are trying to explain the relationship between the two militaries.  We couldn’t resolve the issue of how to bring up the contentious issues in this manga.

Hence, the manga playfully describes a carefree U.S.-Japan alliance and confirms the role that USFJ has played in this relationship.  The Public Relations Office of USFJ settled on a three-chapter model for all four issues.  In each issue, the first chapter provides a continuing story line; the second chapter explains the relationship between the U.S. service branch and its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) counterpart; and the third chapter maps military installations and activities.  Two characters dominate the narrative.  One is Arai Anzu or Ms. Alliance, an ordinary-looking Japanese girl with long dark hair who wears glasses and embodies Japan.  The other is USA-kun, a play on “USA” and “usagi,” the Japanese word for “bunny.”  He is a boy visiting from and embodying the United States who wears shorts and a bunny hoodie.  The two figures contemplate the role of USFJ and the usefulness of the U.S.-Japan alliance.  There are a number of other females who also appear in the manga, but Mr. USA is the only male character, a feature that caused some consternation in the Public Relations Office of USJF as well, according to Major Fisher:

I am trying to figure this out myself.  Why so many females?  I asked them.  I gave them a lot of leeway.  Our biggest concern was accuracy and content as long as the characters were not derogatory or risqué.  But there is only one guy.  In volume two we are going to have more characters.  I am learning more and more about manga.  The male audience seems to prefer female characters.  There is a lot of give and take with the audience.  We don’t want this to be an American product.  We need to keep our Western sensibilities out of the comic. The Marine Corps issue will have more male characters though.

Major Fisher describes the production of the manga as a learning process, but also as an attempt to speak Japan’s language, both literally and culturally….

Beyond the question of the success of the manga within the parameters of the Public Relations Office [of the USFJ], however, it is important to keep in mind that military organizations the world over put substantial effort into presenting certain fabricated images of themselves to their various audiences.  They condense the everyday unheroic boredom of most service members with much of military life to the adrenaline-driven moment of high-speed aircraft; they present the military as a social apparatus whose main goal is to make men of children; they assure parents that the careers they offer are predictable and safe bets for their sons and daughters; some try to be humorous.  On the homepage of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in South Carolina, for instance, a cartoon features a physically huge Marine hovering over a young recruit who writes to his mother mocking the immaturity of the recruit as well as the ambiguous role of the drill sergeant.

Similar to Our Alliance, such public relations efforts cautiously avoid the uglier sides of the military and the effects of its violent culture and charge.  And, perhaps more aggressively than public relations efforts elsewhere, the USFJ’s manga, Our Alliance (and the Self-Defense Forces’ Prince Pickles) highlight and illustrate the infantilizing character of military public relations materials.  The choice of two children as representatives of two of the most powerful nation states in the world further infantilizes these nations and their capabilities while also underestimating the experience and intelligence of their populace.

In terms of addressing the tensions between the two militaries, and a Japan that is divided concerning the continued presence of the U.S. military in the country, Our Alliance is a lost opportunity and as such in line with the political developments that it so vehemently refuses to directly address.  As Gavan McCormack so aptly put it with regards to the most contentious issue, the future of Futenma, today “there is less sign than ever of this “world’s most dangerous base” … being returned or liquidated any time soon, or a new base being constructed at Henoko.”

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