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Japan: Hetalia Axis Powers and the limits of parody

Categories: East Asia, Eastern & Central Europe, North America, Western Europe, Austria, China, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, South Korea, Spain, U.S.A., United Kingdom, Arts & Culture, Citizen Media, Digital Activism, Film, Humor, Ideas, International Relations, Protest

Hetalia [1] (a combination of the words “hetare”, lit. useless, and Italia), a satirical manga created by Hidekaz Himaruya [2] (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 [3] [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 [4] [eng. sub.] in January 2009, drawing more than 200.000 views on internet alone [5].

Hetalia-episode 01[RAW] [6](Japanese only)

The story and the characters

Hetalia: Axis Powers [7] [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 [8] 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:


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 [9] 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:


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?



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 [10] [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 [11] 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 [12], 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 [13] [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:


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.


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 [14] [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).



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.