Visitors line up in front of billboards showing anime characters during the 14th Ani-Com and Games exhibition in Hong Kong on July 27, 2012.  (Philippe Lopez/AFP/GettyImages)
Visitors line up in front of billboards showing anime characters during the 14th Ani-Com and Games exhibition in Hong Kong on July 27, 2012. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/GettyImages)

Argument

Super-Patriotic Anime Youth Wars!

Can the mighty Communist Party win the hearts of China’s youth, or will the 2D world lure them into Japan's clutches?

Japanese anime has conquered China. In Chinese, the term “2D culture” (erciyuan wenhua) describes both the television shows, video games, anime (cartoons), manga (comic books), music, and movies inspired by Japanese pop culture and the millions of Chinese who consume these products every week. This “second dimension” is one of the fastest-growing industries in China—with more than 200 million consumers, the market is projected to reach more than $30 billion by 2020.

But the runaway success of Japanese pop culture among China’s youth has caused confusion, shock, and anger in a country still bitter over historical grievances. Many Chinese see this as a war for the hearts of their children—one they’re losing.

This conflict is being fought out in editorial pages, boardrooms, and government bureaus. The stakes couldn’t be higher: in the short term, tens of billions of dollars; in the long term, the future of Sino-Japanese relations. Japanese diplomats hope that the millions of young Chinese in the 2D world will push for a China friendlier to Japan and its people. The Chinese Communist Party has responded by developing its own anime and manga-based propaganda program. Below all this are the parents and grandparents, aware that their children and grandchildren are submerging themselves in a subculture designed to exclude them—one generated by the same country that inflicted two decades of horror on China. Some accept this as a natural expression of youth; for many others, it’s a terrible disaster.

Zhang Jie, a successful salesman working for a Beijing-based telecommunications start-up, bluntly explained the latter perspective over dinner last summer. “Anime is a type of cultural invasion. When I think about anime—anime and American movies—the only phrase I can use to describe it is this: ‘subtle and imperceptible brainwashing.’ That is the best way to describe what is happening to my daughter’s generation.” Like most Beijing parents, Zhang belongs to the “post-1970 generation” (their teenage children are in the “post-1990” or “post-2000” generations).

Cosplay fans representing new and old China attend the four-day 2012 Animation and Comics Fair in Beijing on Aug. 23, 2012. (Mark Ralston/AFP/GettyImages)

Zhang’s childhood memories are dominated by scenes of poverty and frustration. But the material comforts that his daughter and her classmates take for granted are only one part of the vast generation gap: “When we were small, we did not have televisions in our home. All of our ideas about the country came from our teachers, our parents, and traditional education. How could we have had any of my daughter’s wrong ideas? Who would have taught them to us?”

The contrast between the stable and restricting media environment these parents grew up in and the ever-changing, ever-growing universe of content available to their children is at the heart of much of China’s 2D-related angst. For many older Chinese, China’s extensive censorship doesn’t go far enough. They remember a China without glossy magazine stalls on every block, glowing ads inside subway stations, or a bewildering array of internet forums and livestreaming platforms broadcasting content created by normal people. Few of them long to return to that world, but elements of it are missed sorely. The media landscape of their youth was predictable and comprehensible. Today it is so complex that no parent can hope to even be aware of all its nooks and crannies.

In interviews, pornographic anime and manga products (hentai) were often cited by parents as an example of the Japanese “cultural invasion” at its most malicious. Hentai, like pornography in general, is banned by the government. Yet also like pornography in general, hentai is ridiculously easy to get a hold of. It is peddled both online and in print. During a 2D convention held in Beijing last January, I saw imported—and explicit—gay-themed “slash” manga booklets sold openly to conventiongoers, at least a quarter of whom were only in middle school.

If the subversive plotlines and explicit themes of the 2D world explain part of its allure to Chinese youth, it also explains the unease the Chinese Communist Party feels toward it. This unease is not just directed toward the 2D world. Over the last decade, worries that foreign media might undermine societal cohesion, traditional values, or the party’s own legitimacy have steadily grown. The alarm was first sounded in 2012 when then-President Hu Jintao warned in an article for Qiushi that “we must be soberly aware that there are hostile international powers that are now stepping up their plans to Westernize and divide this country, and the cultural and ideological domains are the areas most crucial to their long-term infiltration.”

But the West is not the only, or the main, threat the party sees. Under Xi Jinping, the party’s focus on cultural control has grown. During the 19th National Congress in October 2017 he declared that the party’s “ideology determines the direction a culture should take and the path it should follow as it develops,” and that the party has a responsibility to ensure that “China’s culture serves China’s people.” This focus on cultural control and contamination creates an atmosphere where it is easy for media figures and party editorialists to attack the 2D world for its Japanese origin. One of the most famous of these occurred in 2014, when Chengdu’s three largest papers published a series of editorials attacking the popular Japanese children’s character Doraemon. Under the headline “Our Countrymen Must Not Blindly Follow Doraemon,” one editorialist warned:

“The mischievous intent behind Doraemon is easy to see. More worrisome is a new phenomenon we are seeing within our society. There are now young girls being caught up in a wave of Japanophilia, going crazy over Japanese stars, and Japanese anime and video games have such a hold on their heart that they are starting to speak, write, and even sing with a Japanese accent or style. From the perspective of our traditional culture and our cultural self-confidence, this is not just regrettable—it is frightening.”

Two women wear cosplay outfits during the 8th annual China Digital Entertainment Expo and Conference (ChinaJoy), in Shanghai on July 29, 2010. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

This hostility to Japanese 2D products is reflected in many laws: Foreign animation has been banned from being played during prime-time television hours since 2006, and no more than 40 percent of any given television station’s animated broadcasts can come from abroad. In 2016, the Ministry of Culture announced rules banning any website from streaming or posting foreign media without approval and followed up by blacklisting a host of anime and manga series, including international hits such as Death Note, Attack on Titan, and Claymore.

The impact of these bans is questionable—several of the young Chinese I interviewed were not only familiar with Death Note but described it as one of their favorite anime series. The government seems to be aware of this. Increasingly, its response to the 2D world is not to try to ban or blacklist it but to co-opt it for their own ends.

No institution has done a better job of this than the Communist Youth League. In a 2017 post that declared “Where the youth of China are, we are also!” it announced that it was creating its own channel on Bilibili, the central online hub for all things 2D. It has remained an active presence on the site since. The videos produced by the Communist Youth League for Bilibili vary considerably. Some, like the seven-episode animated romance of the life of Karl Marx, produced by the league in conjunction with some of China’s premier animation studios, are lengthy and sophisticated productions. The usual uploads on the league’s channel, however, are lower-key. This is the case with the group’s most popular upload: a five-minute music video created for Luo Tianyi, a Chinese-speaking, computer-generated 2D singer (known as a “vocaloid” in the West). The video juxtaposes Luo’s nationalistic lyrics, peppered with allusions to poets of China’s past and quotations from Mao Zedong, with paintings and photos from the breadth of Chinese history, putting a 2D twist on national and party pride. Small propaganda videos intended to instruct the youth of China are another staple of the channel: five-to-six-minute cartoons with titles like “What is democracy, really?” and “How does China spend its military budget?” are released every month.

A surprising number of these instructional shorts deal with Japan. The title of one reads: “Japan adds Hitler’s autobiography to the national curriculum, Japanese netizens respond: Our government is crazy!” Another declares: “The Japanese Invasion of China: It Wasn’t Just About Killing.” User comments on these videos are about what one would expect. The highest-ranked comment on the latter video declares, “Here at B-Station [a nickname for Bilibili], we must not forget our roots and let Japan’s cultural invasion come to completion!”

It is hard to know how representative comments like these really are. Most young Chinese are savvy enough to realize that the comment threads of Communist Youth League videos are not the wisest place to post paeans to Japan. Occasionally, however, comments appear that hint at the difficulty of balancing cultural attraction and historical grievance. The most popular comment on a Youth League video titled “Do You Like Japan?” sums up this tension: “This is probably what it feels like when an enemy has one of those enchanting women used to seduce and ruin a kingdom.”

It is easy to smirk at the Communist Youth League’s quixotic 2D crusade to keep the youth of China from ever forgetting Japanese aggression. Yet the fear that 2D revolution is all a vast conspiracy to steal Chinese children away from the culture of their kin and country is not entirely detached from reality. The Japanese government is cheerfully explicit about its intent to use the 2D revolution to win over Chinese youth. Tokyo’s approach to the 2D world was crystalized in 2006, when then-Foreign Minister Taro Aso announced that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would take the lead in promoting pop culture diplomacy. “What we have now,” Aso declared in a speech that year to Japanese animators, “is an era in which diplomacy at the national level is affected dramatically by the climate of opinion arising from the average person. And that is exactly why we want pop culture, which is so effective in penetrating throughout the general public, to be our ally in diplomacy.”

Japanese posters hang on the window in a cosplay-themed restaurant in Sanlitun Soho in Beijing, a popular gathering place for young Chinese anime fans, on Aug. 4, 2015. (Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A bundle of bureaucratic initiatives soon followed his pronouncements. All were designed to harness the creative forces of the 2D world to buttress the reputation of Japan’s 3D government. Aso set the tone for these efforts by announcing the creation of a Foreign Ministry-sponsored International Manga Award, to be bestowed on promising comics artists from outside Japan. The goal—as Aso explained in his 2006 speech—was to impart upon the award’s annual winners “a feeling of association with Japan.” A decade later the contest still runs—and no country fields more entrants competing to unify their hearts and minds with Japan’s young at heart than China does.

The efficacy of government-sponsored 2D competitions is hard to measure. Public opinion changes slowly; it may be decades before the opinions and attitudes of today’s teenagers set the tone for national policy. Animators and businessmen in Japan who focus on smaller timescales than this are less sanguine about their industry’s eager embrace by 200 million Chinese. The sheer scale of the Chinese market makes over-dependence on consumers there a real possibility. In 2016 (the last year for which the Association of Japanese Animations has published data) the entire Japanese animation industry took in more than $18 billion—a 36 percent increase over the length of the preceding three years. These impressive figures rest almost entirely on the growth in contract sales to overseas markets. While revenue from domestic television and merchandising stagnated, revenue from overseas contracts almost tripled, increasing from $2.6 billion to $7 billion between 2013 and 2016. Most of that growth has come from sales in the Chinese market, whose distributors have purchased more anime broadcasting and internet distribution rights than any other country’s.

For Japanese animation shops, these numbers signal great profits. But they also reveal a disquieting vulnerability. Industry reports worry that if they become too dependent on the Chinese market, their 2D exports will become easy hostages to geopolitical tensions. This has happened before: In retaliation for the Japanese nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in 2012, censors barred Chinese movie theaters from screening Japanese anime. That ban was only lifted in 2015. But this only had a limited impact on Japanese businesses. It occurred before China’s 2D revolution had really taken off, and the ban was restricted to the box office. A more comprehensive ban in this more mature market would be catastrophic. Far from promising a brighter future for Sino-Japanese relations, the legions of Chinese teenagers obsessed with Japanese pop culture threaten to be a weapon pointed straight at a core Japanese industry.

Geopolitical calculations and industry statistics absorb the attention of financial analysts and party hacks. They seem remote to most fans of the second dimension. Many of the fans interviewed by Foreign Policy were insistent that their immersion in the two-dimensional world inspired by Japanese culture has had no effect on their opinion of Japan whatsoever. Sun Wei, a college freshman who spends her weekends volunteering at manga meetups, insisted on a common distinction between Japan as a country and Japan as a culture. “Many parents don’t like 2D media because of historical reasons. They are afraid it will give us unpatriotic sentiments. But this isn’t true—not for me at least. I won’t say I especially like Japan the country—I like the culture, that is all.” Sun’s comments were echoed by Ma Yiying, a senior in a prestigious Beijing high school: “Except for the manga, I neither like nor pay close attention to Japanese culture. Personally, I think Japanese culture is pretty abnormal. Japanese society is too high-pressure.”

Despite these reservations, it is difficult to find anyone involved in the 2D world ready to attack the Japanese government or the Japanese people with the same sort of visceral revulsion so easily mustered by Chinese from older generations. “Because of China’s patriotic education,” explained Wang Ziyue, another freshmen university student from Beijing, “I felt that the Japanese nation was extremely bellicose and unscrupulous.” But in a story that echoes the experience of many Chinese obsessed with things 2D, her earlier ideas began to change as she immersed himself in the culture. The turning point was a 2D-inspired trip to Japan itself. “After understanding Japan’s culture and core values, I felt that this nation was actually very moderate. It is not without problems—it has a lot of issues with how they treat women—but overall it is a pleasant society.”

Others were unabashed in their admiration for Japan: “My fascination with Japan began with anime and manga” confessed a 19-year-old cosplayer (a hobby where participants dress as favorite characters) named Maya on the sidelines of a 2D convention in Beijing. “But at this point it is not just 2D things I watch. I went from 2D to 3D movies, and then started singing their karaoke songs, and then started studying Japanese. Going to Japan would be my dream.” As for those who say that Japan has too strong of an influence on her generation?

“I am not saying all of Japanese history is beautiful,” she replied after a few moments of silence. “But this is what I believe: We should study what is good in other countries and reject what is bad. Those people who hate Japan are a little closed-minded. They reject the good things! And I know Japan has some good things, because well…”—with a flourish Maya spun around to gesture at the bustle of manga prints and cosplayers behind her—“look around! I know Japan has some good in it because the 2D world has a lot of good in it.”

Tanner Greer is a writer and strategist based in Taiwan. Twitter: @Scholars_Stage