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Japan: Hetalia Axis Powers and the limits of parody

Hetalia (a combination of the words “hetare”, lit. useless, and Italia), a satirical manga created by Hidekaz Himaruya (日丸屋秀和) [HH’s official blog, jp], set mainly during the Second World War and featuring national protagonists of that era, has drawn attention among both domestic and international audiences. Originally born as a webcomic [jp] out of the mind of a Japanese expatriate living in New York, Hetalia was published as a manga in 2008 by Gentosha Comics Inc. and was subsequently made into an animated series [eng. sub.] in January 2009, drawing more than 200.000 views on internet alone.


Hetalia-episode 01[RAW](Japanese only)

The story and the characters

Hetalia: Axis Powers [jp] (complete name) caricatures everyone without exception. Germany, Japan, France, U.K., U.S.A., Poland, Russia, the Baltic countries, Spain, Greece, Austria, Hungary, Poland, China, Korea and, above all, Italy, personified by boyish characters in the style typical of the Japanese manga, are portrayed exaggerating their (stereotypical) features, and are all pilloried with the same level of ironic intensity.

Yorozu Haki (万葉樹) suggests that this manga should be seen as a fictional product and as representative of a subcultural movement that, in recent times, has been spreading among the Japanese manga world, one in which many authors have started dealing with political or social themes, within the limitations of the artistic medium:

舞台は日本、イタリア、ドイツが同盟を組んだ第二次世界大戦あたりと思われます。ときおり、歴史的なうんちくが散りばめられているので、世界史マニアには興味深いかも。[…]
歴史認識が浅いという辛口の意見もあるのですが、しょせんはフィクション。ただ、現在マンガカルチャーの発言権は増しているだけに、偏見を植えつけかねないかも。日本人が国際社会で弱腰というのは、総体的にはそうかもしれないですが、いささか強調されすぎているきらいもありますよね。あと、こうした歴史文化的な興味というのは、往々にして、サブカルチャーを経由しているというのが、まさに現代的ですよね。
この漫画で描かれているように、おちゃらけ雰囲気で国際紛争もカタがつけばよろしいのでしょうけれど、現実問題、国家というのはおそろしいモンスターであって、けっしてひとりの人格に収斂させられるようなものではないのです。

The setting is the Second World War, and the alliance between Japan, Italy and Germany. [The manga] is filled with historical information, which makes it of great interest to world history enthusiasts. […]
Some have criticized the manga because of its superficial historical understanding, but it's just fiction after all. On the other hand, today's manga subculture is regaining its voice, and it may be that prejudices are setting in. It is generally true that Japanese people do not voice strong opinions in international social contexts, but it is also true that this fact has been somewhat overemphasized. Also, this kind of social-cultural interest, more and more frequently expressed through elements of subculture [such as manga], is a very modern [phenomenon].
It would be good if the international conflicts were settled as they are depicted in this manga, with its goofy atmosphere, but the problem is that nations are in reality dreadful monsters and they are not something that can be reduced to a single character.

Blogger Roko reflects on how such manga, despite not being meant to act as a historical reference, can nonetheless act as an opportunity to stimulate in the reader a curiosity to learn more about the world:

ウワサのヘタリア、読んでみました。国を擬人化した登場人物のからみは面白かったなぁ。
いつでも美味しいものを食べることしか考えていないヘタレなイタリア。ドイツの捕虜になって喜んでるソ連。何をするにも時間がかかるギリシャ。ケチケチなオーストリア。昔はかわいこちゃんだったのに、今じゃエラソーなアメリカ。真面目でいつも怒ってるドイツ。
 それぞれの国の個性が、思いっきり突っ込まれてます。結局はみんなヘタレなのかなぁ~?

I read the Hetalia people are talking about. The relationship between characters personifying different countries was pretty amusing.
Good-for-nothing Italy that can think about nothing but good food. The Soviet Union, happy to be Germany`s prisoner. Greece, who takes a very long time in everything he does. Cheapskate Austria. The United States, who was so cute when he was little but then grew up to be so arrogant. Forever angry and serious Germany.
The personality of each country is ridiculed without exception. Perhaps all of them in the end are just “good for nothing”, no?

[…]

おバカなコミックスですけど、こんなところから世界を知るのもアリかなと思います。だって、学校ではこういうこと教えてくれないもの。この頃、世界に興味のない人が増えてるでしょ。そういうのって危険だと思うんです。
 やみくもに外国がステキと思うのもいけないけど、知りもしないで否定するのはもっといけないことだと思うのです。
 世界を知れば日本のことも知りたくなります。一つ知ればそこから興味が広がります。でも、最初の一つを手にすることができないと、そこからは何も広がらないのです。1×2は2、2×2は4になるけれど、0には何をかけても0。無知は恐ろしいことであり、悲しいことなのです。

This may be a silly comic but I think it's one way to learn about world history. Because after all, they don`t teach us these kinds of things at school, do they? The number of people who are completely disinterested in the world is increasing nowadays, and this in my opinion is a dangerous [trend].
While it is wrong [for Japanese] to blindly consider foreign countries to be wonderful, it is a much more worse thing to deny [history] without even knowing anything about it.
The more I learn about world history, the more I want to learn about Japanese history. As soon as I learn a new thing I become interested in a world of other things. But if from the start you are not granted the possibility to access that first piece of new information, then that knowledge will not spread.
After all, 1 times 2 makes 2, and 2 times 2 makes 4, but whichever number you multiply by 0, the answer is always 0. Ignorance is a scary and sad thing.

As its title suggests, the most ill-treated country in Hetalia is Italy. Descending from a glorious stock (his grampa is the Roman Empire), Italy seems to have shown signs of weakness since his childhood, being bullied by his European friends. Both in the manga and the anime, Italy is represented as always whining, lazy, keen on catching girls, and a lover of good food. Although many Italian enthusiasts of Japanese anime are looking forward to watching the fansubbed version, some of them questioned the “good taste” of the subjects selected.

In a thread dedicated to Hetalia [it] in Shinforum, a forum of Japanese culture fans, Agarsen, for example, writes:

Dopo aver letto buona parte dei capitoli, posso dire che, sebbene abbia trovato parte del manga divertente, ho trovato anche parte del manga di cattivo gusto; non offensivo, ma di cattivo gusto, proprio per la superficialità con cui certe affermazioni sono proposte al lettore. Se noi prendessimo la cultura giapponese e decidessimo di sbeffeggiarla “per quello che ci sembra” io non credo che i giapponesi ne sarebbero divertiti…

After having read a great portion of the chapters, I can say that although I found the manga very funny on one hand, on the other I also found it of bad taste; not offensive but of bad taste, just for the superficiality of some statements as they are proposed to the reader. If we took the Japanese culture and decided to mock it “for what it looks like”, I don’t think that the Japanese people would be happy with that…

[…]

Ogni cosa può essere fatta sembrare idiota se letta superficialmente.
Il problema è che deve esistere anche una consapevolezza, una lettura più approfondita dei fatti che ti dice “Un momento, va bene riderci sopra, ma nella realtà dei fatti c'è poco da ridere”. Insomma, dovrebbe essere un riso amaro più che uno sbellicarsi. Io già m'immagino certa gente che penserà di capire la storia dopo avere letto Hetalia, esattamente come pensa di conoscere la società guardando la televisione…

Everything can be made to look idiotic if read superficially.
The problem is that there must be some awareness, a more deep reading of the facts that tells you “Wait a moment. Laughing at it is fine but, actually, there is not much to laugh about”. In short, it should be more of a bitter laugh than roaring with laughter.
I can already see some people thinking that they now understand history after having read Hetalia, in the same way that they think they know society just because they watch TV…

Trovo difficile ridere al pensiero di gente che scappa dal fronte o si arrende senza combattere; gente pescata da ogni dove, che voleva solo farsi gli affari propri e vivere tranquilla, mal equipaggiata, mandata a combattere nel deserto… si dovrebbe ridere di questa gente?
Che si ridi di Mussolini e dei fascisti, ma loro..

I find it very difficult to laugh when I think of people escaping from the front or surrendering without fighting; people randomly chosen from everywhere, whose only desire was to care for their own business and live a peaceful life, ill-equipped and sent to fight in the desert… should we laugh at these people?
Let's laugh at Mussolini and the fascists, but at them…

Polemics and protests

As mentioned above, the broadcast of the animated series inspired by the manga was scheduled for the 24th of January on Kids Station (a Japanese TV channel for kids), but it was officially suspended after 16.000 messages of protest arrived from Korean netizens, resulting in the anime being viewable only on the Internet and on mobile phones.


News about Hetalia in South Korea (English sub.)

That such a controversial subject as WW2, and the way in which countries were mocked and ridiculed, could result in some polemics, is not so surprising in itself. What struck many Japanese bloggers, however, was the fact that Korea, mentioned only in the comic and even there only as a minor character, considered its depiction a national insult, yet one more provocation from arrogant Japan.

In his analysis, Korean blogger no_tenki explains [jp] that the Korean reaction, which may seem extreme to many, is not in fact extreme but rather a consequence of anti-Korean messages constantly spread on the Japanese web, especially in some rightist bulletin boards or websites. These messages are what alarm Koreans living in their homeland as well as those living in Japan:

ヘタリアについて話しますと、[…]まあ、まともに読んでないので迂闊な評価はできませんが、人気があるということは、なかなかセンスのある方ではないかと思われます。ですけど韓国については、掘り下げが足りない…というより、単純に、ただのネタです。ボクもそう思いますが、韓国なんて登場しなくても構わないわけだし、どうでもいいとは思います。ですけど、韓国人としては、やっぱりこれは憂慮せざるを得ない。

Speaking of Hetalia, […] I haven`t read it so I can't evaluate it, but the fact that it has become so popular means that it has been created with good sense.
However, regarding Korea [and how it is depicted in the manga], I do agree with those who say that, more than just being superficial, it is a mockery, and I also wouldn't mind if Korea wasn't depicted at all. As a Korean myself, however, I cannot help but feel concerned.

韓国のキャラ設定ですけど、ただ、ネット上においての韓国のイメージを、そのまま借用しているわけですよね。ネットの住人には納得できそうなキャラ像です。「ニダー」と違って顔も美形ですし、バカではあるけど悪気のあるやつとしては描かれていない。だからニダーとは違うのだ。むしろ好意的に捉えている。と思われるかもしれませんけど、その根本にある「韓国のイメージ」というのは「ニダー」も、この「韓国」さんも同じわけで、昔の「嫌韓」の常識(今はネットの住人の常識かな)を引っ張り出してきていて、それをアレンジしてるだけで、(絵は好きですけど、設定においての)材料は同じじゃないですか。「韓国とはこういう国だ」というイメージがここまで肥大したからこそ、別に嫌韓でない人でも、ヘタリアでの韓国のキャラに違和感を感じない。むしろ「事実どおりに描かれている」と思う。これはなかなか恐ろしいことだと思いますよ。「…」

The Korean character has been drawn according to the image of Korea as it appears on the Internet. It perfectly reflects the image that Japanese netizens have of Korea. Compared to Nidaa [a character that 2channelers came up with, drawn as ASCII art with the intent to disparage Korea and named after the Korean suffix -mnida], it is good-looking, silly but it doesn`t look malicious. So it is different from Nidaa because it is conceived of as a friendly character.
Or, at least, this is what they would say. However, the basic image of Korea, be it Nidaa or mr. Korea, is the same. They are arranging the anti-Korean sentiment shared among netizens in a different way, but the ingredients are the same (I mean the ideology, because I actually like the drawing).

[…]

だからどっちにしろ、韓国ではヘタリアは極右の嫌韓(的な見方から韓国をキャラ化した)アニメとして知らされ、これから韓国の一般人の日本に対する認識を悪くする要因の一つとして存在しつづけるかもしれない。ということを考えると、とても心配なわけだ。

Consequently, [in Korea] Hetalia has the reputation of a rightist anime in which Korea is depicted according to an anti-Korean point of view, and this may turn into a factor worsening the perception of the Japanese among Koreans. This worries me a great deal.

23 comments

  • Taki

    P

    “Americans and Italians” Really? So THAT’S what you meant when you said “Westerners”? Actually, Americans are quite used to the whole anime/manga thing. It’s as popular here as MARVEL is, and it’s here to stay. It’s taken off in Germany, England, Italy, and France too- dunno about Spain or any countries in South America- but it is STILL read~

    But to my real point- You’ve never bothered to read the comic to find out things for yourself. If you DID you would know that no one, including the author, claims or believes that, that is how World War II went by- And what the others meant by saying that they now love history is that Hetalia made STUDYING ACTUAL HISTORY awesome I mean, a year ago, I had no clue about The Winter War.

    Now? I go out of my way to study it in BOOKS. And I LOVE my History classes- which is a new one for me. What’s wrong with a manga/anime inspiring people to go beyond what is presented to them?

  • Maria

    omg…
    hetalia is a manga meant for entertaiment!
    you wanna learn “real” history?
    go buy a history book.

    it’s like if i go grab some random jesus movie and say
    “hey! things didn’t go that way!”
    of course not!
    its a moovieeeeee
    they add, sustract, modify things cos its a moooviieeeee
    *sigh*

    you wanna learn about jesus?
    go read the bible.

  • Kathi

    Look- I think that everyone is taking this matter a bit TOO seriously. I mean, sure, it exaggerates the stereotypes for a Country’s people, but that’s it. They’re STEREOTYPES. I doubt that anyone would think that the character’s behaviour reflects on the actual citizens of that country. I am Canadian, and I’m pretty sure people can see me.

    Being a fan of Hetalia, I can speak from this point of view- We don’t watch Hetalia to find out about stereotypes, or to ridicule other countries. We watch it because it’s funny and enjoyable. I know that there is nothing funny about actual wars. People die, and lose their loved ones, and we know this for a fact. But by looking more on the historical and educational context, Hetalia helps us see the relationships between countries. Heck, I didn’t even know about the Baltics, nor could I name all the Nordics. I’ve never heard of Sealand, or even Belarus. After watching, I learned so much, and in my classes, I could clearly visualize the events clearer, and find Social Studies so much more enjoyable.

    So, everyone please calm down, and take a deep breath. Relax. Hetalia is supposed to be enjoyable, so enjoy it. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. Because this is seriously being blown to proportions that is way bigger than it should be.

  • SUMERAGI-MIKOTO

    No, it’s a normal reaction.
    Only bad things happen in Korea and involved with
    I do not prove that history. From ancient to contemporary.

    In 663 Battle of HAKUSUKINOE(白村江) → winner: China, Lose: Ancient Japan + Korea

    In 1274 and 1281 Battle of GENKOU(China+Korea attack to Japan)→ result winner: Japan Lose: China(元)+ Korea

    In 1894 Battle of Japan vs Russia→result→ Winner: Japan vs Lose: Russia + Korea

    In WW2 America vs japan + korea →result→ Winner:America Lose:japan and korea
    (Then why not think Korean won in Japan, the Japanese massacred tens of thousands.)
    ※One of the reasons why Koreans hate the Germans, “in spite Losing a member of the Axis countries, that the winner in the mood”

    This law, “the current consumer electronics, technology development race” is still alive and well

  • […] And people don’t really like it when you simplify their history and culture for a few jokes. Like the Koreans. Or the Italians, who get the brunt of Himayura’s jokes. The name Hetalia, in fact, is a […]

  • Alexander

    The roots of imagining italians as surrenders and cowards is funny (and quite distant from real history), because in UK or USA are the French depicted in that (false albeit and stereotipically) way. It’s simply : Japanese Empire, when the comrade Italy was invaded by huge allied forces (WWII) did an enormous broadcast that Italians was weak and coward and for this they was losing the War. Obviously with the aim of streighten the will of Japanese people to resist at all costs against the Allies that began to be victorious in about all pacific theathres. It was the royal dynasty of Italy that fled away from their duties leaving army and people without any command to the allied open arms that was coward, certainly not the Italians, that received, for example, very high aprreciation for a person like General Rommel (yes, him, the Desert Fox) for their courage and sacrifice in Africa. The Italians received also the Arm Honours even from the British! Instead Hetalian depicted fleeing italian in the desert… Study El Alamein battle… the Italians made themselves butchered instead to lose even a yard of position! That is interesting because demonstrates how the imperial Japanese propaganda of that past times influenced the stereotypes in current days.

  • Alexander

    “It was a terrific letdown by their German allies. They had fought a good fight. In the south, the famed Folgore
    parachute division fought to the last round of ammunition. Two armoured
    divisions and a motorised division, which had been interspersed among
    the German formations, thought they would be allowed to retire
    gracefully with Rommel’s 21st, 15th and 19th [sic][nb 17]
    light. But even that was denied them. When it became obvious to Rommel
    that there would be little chance to hold anything between El Daba and
    the frontier, his Panzers dissolved, disintegrated and turned tail, leaving the Italians to fight a rear-guard action.[85]” LOL this is a GERMAN report… The Italians in the desert saved the withrawal of the Germans! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Battle_of_El_Alamein maybe is less funny but History is this one, not Hetalia…

  • […] Japan: Hetalia Axis Powers and the limits of parody · Global Voices […]

  • Rage Against The Machine

    This ridicolous japan child know nothing of ww2 italian role, or the italians.
    Italians are coward “Mr.” Himaruya?. So Ask at El Alamein dead soldiers of “Brigata Folgore”, and how they sacrificed their lives to allow Rommel to retreat in the battle against Churchill.

    Rommel: “German soldiers amazed the whole world , the Italian soldiers astonished German soldiers.”

    Winston Churchill speaking at House of Commons in London: “We really have to bow before the remains of those who were the lions of the Folgore …”.

    So Himaruya, apologize to an entire people and its dead, because you’re just a vulture infamous, which speculates on cliches.

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