The Cultural Background of “Attack on Titan”

I tried to stay away from political topics on this blog and tried to focus on the topic of writing. But I make an exception here because it ties in with all the things I have written in the past about writing across cultures. I have said that writing in English as a second language is hard to do. I have said that words that conjure certain imagery to one person can project a different image to another. I have said that a single word, such as “lemon“, can be an instrument of projecting different ideas because the literary, cultural, and physical history we have experienced growing up is totally different.

Take for example “Grave of the Fireflies”. Ever since it was first published in 1967, this short story, along with a whole catalogue of stories just like it, had been required reading for grade school children in Japan. Hayao Miyazaki turned it into an animated feature in 1988, but most Americans would never see it in theaters and only learned of it after various YouTube channels introduced it well into the 21st century. People in Japan have been flooded with a barrage of these depressing stories since early childhood through all of the post-WWII generations until it has become a part of our cultural psyche. Which makes us take home a very different message from the same stories as, say, an American would.

I am writing this in response to YouTuber Sage Hyden’s video essay on his channel “Just Write”, titled Attack on Titan and the Dangers of Allegory. Sage Hyden is a talented writer and his analysis on film scripts are usually very much on point. His videos are often educational and thought provoking. He is clearly well read and very thoughtful. I have shared and reposted his videos often. But his analysis of Attack on Titan is way sub par. In fact, I would characterize it as being willfully blind. Hyden is not an idiotic troll, nor is he an overly sensitive woke warrior, which makes it all the more ironic to see the prejudices and biases that are evident in this video.

But before we get into that, there is clearly an element of a cultural gap at work. You do not have to be actively biased, which Hyden is, to have a different understanding of a story. You can simply be ignorant of the mindset of the person who wrote it and the cultural backdrop of the people the story was written for. Attack on Titan is a manga comic written for the Japanese market. It is full of gory graphics and complicated subplots which suggests that it caters to the older audience. You must be at least twelve years old if your mother leaves you alone to read it. The chances are, you are already in college. If you are Japanese, by the time you are 12 years old you have read Grave of the Fireflies and probably seen one or more of the movie adaptations. You have had the heart wrenching Chiechan no Kageokuri read to you in kindergarten. You were probably assigned to read The Glass Rabbit in fifth grade. I might as well mention in passing that The Diary of Anne Frank is also mandatory reading in Japanese elementary schools. These are all stories about children. Japanese peace education was constructed after WWII by the generation of people who were too young to remember Japan before 1931, the year the war started in the Chinese continent. (Nosaka Akiyuki who wrote Grave of the Fireflies was born in 1930. Aman Kimiko who wrote Chiechan no Kageokuri was born in 1931. Takagi Toshiko who wrote The Glass Rabbit was born in 1932) People who were voting adults prior to the rise of the militarist government had at least some involvement in the making of the war, but the whole generation of children who grew up during the period between 1931 and 1945 had no idea why bombs were being dropped over their heads and had no understanding of what the world outside of the island nation was like. When the war ended, this was the generation that built the peace education culture. Practically everyone in Japan sees the concept of war, at least partly, through the eyes of the child protagonists of the stories they grew up with.

Not all of Japanese culture comes from schools and mandatory reading lists. One of the more influential writers is Shiba Ryotaro, a writer of historic novels who researches his topics like a scholar and yet is as prolific as Stephen King. (His anthology spans sixty-eight volumes.) Not only have his samurai epics and war sagas been adapted into numerous acclaimed movies and highly rated TV series (16 movies and 23 TV series at last count, plus some manga and stage adaptations), but his career spanning three decades inspired numerous creators and swayed the way they view Japanese history. His influence can be seen in high brow historical dramas of award winning authors to historical manga like Rurouni Kenshin. Shibata sees history being shaped by bold daring heroes, but individuals being helplessly tossed around by the random turbulences of fate. He sees wars as products of conflict between self-interest and moral dignity, opportunism and idealism, ego and fairness. He portrays noble people struggling to hold on to their moral principles in a world that compels them to be complicit to oppression, bloodshed, and profiteering. Shiba, in short, had a Nolanesque view of heroes before Christopher Nolan came on the scene. Hajime Isayama, author of Attack on Titan said that one of the minor characters in the story, Dot Pixis, was based on the Imperial Japanese General Akiyama Yoshifuru, an innovative strategist who lead the Japanese cavalry to victory against the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War, but also one of the officers who failed to prevent the the Port Arthur massacre, and incidentally one of the protagonists of Shiba’s best selling novel Clouds Above the Hill.

These are just some of the examples of background noise that might make the Japanese people respond to a story differently from people of other countries. They are essential parts of the daily conversation and the common ground over which a diverse range of people talk about the things they see. Fiction is not the only place such common ground comes from. Here is a little history lesson. In October 1944, the Japanese public radio reported a dispatch from the Imperial High Command. The Japanese navy had just destroyed two American aircraft carriers off the coast of Taiwan. Japanese listeners rejoiced at the news of the great victory. There was a slight wrinkle to that story though. It never happened. The Japanese navy was losing, not winning. At the time, the front page of Japanese newspapers were filled with photographs of smiling Chinese children in Japanese occupied China. The Japanese public, locked away in the island nation, had no way of knowing that reality was any different. The victory off the Taiwan coast was reported only weeks before allied fire bombs began raining down on civilian areas of Tokyo. Ten months and half a million civilian deaths later, Japan surrendered. And ever since then, the phrase “dispatch from high command” (大本営発表) became synonymous with “government lies”. If a government official tells you something that you find hard to believe, you dismiss it as just another dispatch from high command. And that is pretty much the basic attitude of the seemingly politically apathetic Japanese public. They know the world is full of lies, but they don’t waste time getting upset over it. It is beyond their control.

And now that I have given you a brief rundown on what the Japanese public think of wars, heroes, and governments, I have to venture into dangerous territory and tell you of the ideas Japanese have about other races, in particular, and relevant to the main topic of his post, the Jews. I have already said that The Dairy of Anne Frank is mandatory reading for Japanese school children. But that is just about the only cultural connection the Japanese have to the Jewish people. According to the Jewish Society of Japan, there are only about two thousand Jews in Japan at any given time. Which means that, walking down any random street anywhere in Japan, you are much more likely to walk into someone wearing a full body Hello Kitty outfit than someone who is Jewish. It is a particularly well read Japanese person who has ever even heard of Saul Bellow or Philip Roth or even Joseph Heller. Most Japanese people could not name a single Jewish celebrity, even when they say they love Stephen Spielberg or Ben Stiller. They are all just white foreigners to them. A Japanese cartoonist would have a hard time deliberately drawing a caricature of a Jewish person. They would not know how to distinguish them from other white people. But there was this one time when a man calling himself Isaiah Ben-Dasan published a book in 1970 titled “The Japanese and the Jews”. The book is primarily critical of the former and explains that the Japanese people, having been pure bred on a secluded island nation and without persecution from other people unlike, say, the Jews, have become less worldly. It points out the various similarities and differences between the two people. The book came at a time when the Japanese public was still reeling from the shock of having been so blatantly lied to, and simultaneously stunned at the Vietnamese War. It was a controversial yet best selling book in its time, but the author was actually a Japanese man named Yamamoto Shichihei, who denied for years that he was Isaiah Ben-Dasan. The book has many factual errors about both the Japanese and the Jewish people, and it twists the narrative for the benefit of the points it is trying to make, but it is generally well received by Jewish residents in Japan and has spawned a long conversation on the commonalities of the two peoples that has been ongoing for the past half century. Yamamoto, born in 1921, was ten years old when the war started, came of age in propaganda drenched Japan, was conscripted into the army and sent to fight in the Philippines barely a year before Japan’s surrender. He was on the older end of the generation of brainwashed children.

As I have said before, just the single word “lemon” projects a completely different story to people of different cultures. An entire series of stories will definitely project different impressions to people from different cultures. Now let us return to Attack on Titan.

For the uninitiated (not that I expect a lot of those reading this article), Attack on Titan is set in a fictional world where the world has been overrun by carnivorous titans and what is left of humanity has sheltered in an area protected by walls. Then one day, the wall is breached and the monstrous creatures invade the sanctuary. Eren Yeager, the protagonist who is still a little boy, witnesses his mother being eaten alive. Having been a thoroughly indoctrinated fan of the military before this point, the young boy pledges vengeance and swears he will rid the world of every single titan. From there he trains to be a soldier, overcomes obstacles, and joins the Survey Corps whose mission is to venture outside the protective walls in order to find ways to reclaim the world. Days before the initiation into the proper army, the titans attack again. The cadets are called upon to defend the city and many of the cadets are eaten and killed, including Eren Yeager.
Then comes the surprise twist. Eren shapeshifts into a titan, battle the incoming titans, then shapeshifts back again to his human form. Why this happens is not explained until later in the story. But there were small hints embedded into the story from the opening chapter that pay off much later as the story goes on. The story introduces new mysteries as older mysteries are slowly unraveled. Eventually (spoiler alert) the protagonists realize that their entire walled world is just a part of an island in a much larger world, and their government had been lying to them the whole time. The government is a monarchy with a powerless figurehead, ruled from the shadows by a group of bickering self-serving aristocrats, propped up by a military regime. The people on the island are called Eldians, and they all carry the genetic properties that will turn them into titans when a certain serum is injected into them. Most of the time, they become mindless killers devoid of free will. Only a select few can shapeshift at will and shapeshift back. The Eldians once used this power to build an empire to rule over the world. But they have taken the bow of peace and the bulk of them have secluded themselves on the island. A small minority who stayed on the continent are being oppressed by the now dominant Marleyans and are indoctrinated into feeling guilt and shame for what their ancestors did. In the battlefield, these Eldians are injected with transforming serum and are dropped over enemy fortifications like human bombs.

The allegory, if not the source material, is very obvious. In fact, almost too on the nose. We have an island nation composed almost entirely of a single race, secluded from the rest of the world, where children are fed military propaganda, where the government is headed by a powerless figurehead, whose inhabitants are lied to and are shocked to learn that the outside world is nothing like what they were lead to believe. These people are dropped over the enemy like bombs. This nation tried to build a world conquering empire generations ago, and is still being hated for it by its neighbors. And it is now under a pledge of peace. Does that remind you of any nation you know?

You can see that the creator Isayama is very much a product of his environment. Attack on Titan is a blend of the stories and viewpoints that had been fed to him over the years. His intended readers are easily immersed in the story because they have seen similar emotions projected to them many times before. They know the story of children convinced that the outside world is populated with demonic killers. They have heard the story of young men conscripted to become suicide pilots. They have already experienced the shocking story of finding out that the world was not what they had believed it to be. But how did the story land on an international audience who had not been prepped on the same cultural background?

Attack on Titan is an international hit, so something about the story must have resonated with the international audience. But did they feel the same story? That is questionable. And here I get back to Sage Hayden’s video essay. You can watch the video yourself, but long story short, he believes that Attack on Titan is an anti-Semitic propaganda piece or has carelessly turned out as such. He points out that in one scene in the series, the Eldian population that is left on the continent are being oppressed by the dominant Marleyans by being confined to a walled ghetto and forced to wear armbands that mark their race. This is clearly a reference to Jews in Nazi era Germany. So he extrapolates from this scene and makes the whole series about Jews and interprets it as a justification for anti-Semitism and that the series functioned as Japanese military propaganda. He understands that the text of the story is anti-fascist and anti-bigotry, and only alludes that the subtext is problematic. To this extent, Hayden’s interpretation, in all fairness, may be just a function of having been raised in a different culture and not a result of bias.

Hayden is not an idiot. All of his previous video essays were thoughtful and well constructed. He even mentions Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a reactionary politician who has stated that he wants to repeal Article 9 of the post-WWII constitution. And he explains in his video that the Japanese constitution bans the use of force to settle disputes with other countries. He even shows the entire passage of the constitution on the screen.

(1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

The problem of the post-war constitution is that the Americans who “helped” draft it did not understand Japanese legal jargon and insisted that the constitution be written in colloquial Japanese so that they could keep an eye on what was being included. As a consequence, many passages became open to broad interpretation including Article 9. Japan cannot have an “army” so it has what is called a “self defense force”. Although this constitution was practically forced on Japan by the American occupation forces, that did not deter the US from pressuring Japan to send military assistance to several conflicts including the Korean War and both Gulf Wars. And while the conservative party gathers support from the voters by promoting the idea of changing the constitution and the opposition parties gather voter support by opposing the amendment, Japan as a whole has been walking the fine line between not outright refusing America’s calls for military cooperation, but not outright violating Japan’s terms of surrender which would give Washington the pretext to, well, nuke Tokyo if they wanted to.

Hayden is probably smart enough to know this, but in his video he states outright that “when Attack on Titan was reaching the height of popularity, the nation it was being published in was militarizing”. That was in 2014. If Japan was militarizing, we haven’t seen the results yet. Abe did in fact circumvent the constitution temporarily and boosted the defense budget by 10%. Politically, this is a pretty big deal. It is not the sort of thing that happens often in post war Japan. But let’s face it, the United States raises its defense spending with every Republican administration. And this is where Hayden’s bias kicks in.

Japanese reactionary politicians have some seriously unrealistic agendas on the table. They want to reclaim the northern territories that have been held by Russia since the end of the Second World War. They want to re-legalize commercial whaling. And they want to repeal Article 9 of the constitution. None of these are even remotely attainable in the most vaguely foreseeable future. As surely as the glaciers are melting, these agendas will not be fulfilled anytime soon. But for argument’s sake, let me play the devil’s advocate for a minute and explain to you the reactionary position, which I DO NOT agree with.

In 1970, Willy Brandt who was then Chancellor of West Germany visited Poland and the visit coincided with the commemoration of Jewish victims of the Warsaw ghetto and knelt at the memorial. He did not utter a word during this gesture, but the apology was accepted. Germany also paid 3 billion marks to Israel over 14 years as reparations for the Holocaust. The German people have never been vilified since. Japan has, over the years, made 21 formal government apologies to its neighboring countries and paid over 7 trillion yen in voluntary reparations. Yet Japan is still being told to make more payments and make more apologies every year. Japan currently spends about 0.9% of its gross domestic product in military spending, compared to 3.4% in the US, 1.9% in China, 1.7% in the UK, 1.3% in Germany. Japan spends one fifteenth as much as the US, less than one fifth of China, and about two thirds of Russia. Japan is the only nation in the world that is bound by a constitutional article from fighting any wars ever again. So why is it that Japan’s apologies are never accepted and a 10% increase in Japan’s defense budget is seen as a goose stepping march into militarism? According to Japanese reactionaries, it is because the world sees Japanese people as a hair trigger away from turning into man eating monsters.

This is actually a tired old argument in Japan. It is such a consistent drone it is like the sound of the engines in a jet liner. Nobody really hears it, but we know it’s there. And there may be a grain of truth in it. At least some people in the world see Japan that way. We hope there are not too many of them. But racism is a funny thing. For example, when you have a lot of Jewish friends, and everyone you know have a lot of Jewish friends, you fall into the illusion that maybe anti-Semitism is a thing of the past. You begin to think people must have learned from the past and don’t hate the Jewish people like they used to. And then one day you walk into someone who talks just like Borat and you realize you were very wrong. And it’s the same way with any kind of bigotry.

Ironically though, Hayden, who sees Japan delving into militarism because of a 10% increase in defense spending, fails to notice the similarities between the Eldians and the Japanese, even after he has explained Article 9 and went on at length about the history of the Eldian pledge of peace. He wrote this before he recorded the video. He no doubt looked it over many times. Still, he completely ignores all the very obvious references to Japan during the Russo-Japanese war and the Second World War, and the references to Japan’s postwar history and makes it all about the Jewish people. And then he asks, “When and where exactly does this allegory end? Which situations does the show depict Eldians in which we are supposed to interpret it as allegorical and which of them are we supposed to infer aren’t allegorical?” That is a question that relies on completely ignoring the Japanese element of the allegory. And why did he so seemingly willfully ignore this very obvious allegory? After all, his video essay is about allegory.

It might be a testament to Isayama’s excellent writing that this “misunderstanding” (for lack of a better word) exists. He did not randomly choose German sounding names and German style architecture as verbal and visual cues for his fantastical world. He knew from the first chapter that he was going to tie Japanese allegory to Jewish allegory later on in the story. He would juxtapose unfounded hatred toward the Jewish people with the somewhat “logical” hatred for the Japanese people and would ask, where will this all conclude? Hayden says “The fact that there was this empire is the entire stated justification for why Marleyans hate Eldians. The story treats this like a mathematical equation. The Eldians hurt them in the past, therefore they hate them now. It treats racism like this completely logical rational conclusion. And what this misses about the persecution of the Jewish people under Nazi Germany is that anti-Semitism is fundamentally irrational. There is no justification for why vast wallops of the population decided to hate Jews rather than any other group of people.” True, so far as it goes, but in reality the Nazis did present convoluted reasonings why the Jewish people needed to be hated. They tried to make it sound logical. Hayden says “By implying that there is a rational reason for hating the Eldians, the allegory is implying that there is a rational reason for hating Jewish people.” I disagree. Haters always present a rational sounding pseudo logic. People who hate always have a logical sounding reason why they are right to hate the object of their hatred. The problem lies in the fact that sometimes people buy those reasonings. If Hayden hadn’t first thought of the Jews, and were told that this was an allegory for how the Japanese are hated today by her neighbors, he might have thought it justified.

Isayama shaves very close to the point where the viewer buys into the pseudo logic behind the irrational hatred. It is a necessity to get the point across. The justifications for the hatred unravels, first in Eren and later in Gabbi. But for the unraveling to have an impact, the pseudo logic must be built up strongly. Sage Hyden finally asks “Would it have been so difficult to tell the story without the armbands, the hooked noses, the government conspiracies, or the internment camps? Would that have been impossible?” I don’t know how Isayama would answer that question, but my answer is yes. If Isayama had started out with Asian names and Asian landscapes for his imaginary world, people like Hayden might have bought the Marleyan propaganda. The arm bands do not make an appearance until the forth arc of the story, and suddenly Hayden, usually an insightful and thoughtful person, sees anti-Semitists coming out of the woodwork putting his own biases into stark contrast. The Eldians turn into man eating monsters not because they wear armbands, but because they are the people who built the world conquering empire.

And speaking of subtext, what is the subtext behind Hayden’s video essay? By so insistently focusing his criticism in one direction, isn’t he implying that the direction should be the opposite? It is true that bigotry must be vigilantly nipped in the bud because it can pop up like a monster from the dark. But if you imply that a certain group of people are more prone to turning into man eating monsters, you are saying exactly the same thing you are, on the text level, critical of.

Of course there is still the possibility that both Sage Hyden and I are reading too much into a silly manga story. The Attack on Titan manga will conclude in the coming months, so let’s see how the story wraps up. Either way I stand by my position that stories project different meanings across different cultures.

One thought on “The Cultural Background of “Attack on Titan”

  1. I am not an avid anime fan. I watched this series in a vacuum, having seen part of it in 2014 then returning and finishing the series this winter. I have been LOSING MY MIND trying to figure out how my impression of the series could be so decisively opposed to those of my friends and family. It was a strange sensation to intuit that there were cultural touchstones I was lacking, without knowing what they may be. This article has put things into a new perspective, and I am grateful to you for taking the time to write it!


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