[We are obligated to point out that these are strictly Aquagaze’s opinions and not those of the Glorio Blog, but we do think having open discussion is important.]
You’ve probably seen them before, whether it’s on social networks, in fanart, as figures on online shops or in the seedier underbellies of the anime fandom. The kanmusu, or “ship daughters”, twee teenage girls dressed like fashionable sailors and armed to the teeth with equally cutesy heavy weaponry, are the heroines and mascots of Kantai Collection, the new cult phenomenon taking the Internet by storm. Like similar viral fads before it, however, a lot of mainstream geeks have little to no idea what Kantai Collection is even supposed to be. It’s everywhere, from the listings of most popular fanart on Pixiv to the newest figurines being put up for pre-order, to the point where Kantai Collection’s fandom, like Vocaloid and Touhou before it, seems to have overtaken the game it is based on. It’s hard not to see why. The wide variety of characters, their attractive designs and only minimally defined personalities allow for copious amounts of fan works and interpretations – ranging from countless yuri couplings, memes, doujinshi, anthologies and six official manga, each with their own presentations of the characters and their personalities.
The lack of an official, clear-cut canon heavily contributes to Kantai Collection’s surge in popularity, not only because it fans creativity, but also because no fan’s fantasies will ever be contradicted by the ‘truth’. For a fandom that cherishes its make-believe, it’s no wonder Kantai Collection is so popular. Furthermore, the game’s business model reflects a successful fine-tuning of a formula that’s strongly on the rise. Kantai Collection is a mobage, an online, browser-based collectible card game where players build up a ‘fleet’ of kanmusu, represented by cards. New cards can be won by random drops or through crafting, and while battles against the kanmusu’s nemeses, the malicious Abyssal Fleet, are fully automated, gameplay consists of customizing, repairing and upgrading your fleet, gathering resources, crafting equipment and gathering experience points. Though Kantai Collection is built on the dreaded free-to-play model, microtransactions are strictly limited to premium upgrades, making the game accessible to all. In stead, developer Kadokawa Games attempts to profit off the franchise through the sale of figurines, manga and other promotional gadgets.
With 1.9 million registered users as of this month, an anime in the pipeline, and the third biggest representation amongst doujin circles one year after its initial launch, Kantai Collection can be appropriately called a phenomenal success. It was the most-played online game in Japan during the winter of 2013, and its viral success is slowly creeping up to Touhou levels of underground hugeness. Nevertheless, it’s a bit upsetting to see Kantai Collection getting so big. The game hardly seems like a game, with frustrating difficulty, waiting times and a taxing focus on grinding being the order of the day. The random number generator is king in Kantai Collection, making it a game for exceptionally lucky people. Aside from its failings as a game, however, Kantai Collection is especially a vanguard of everything wrong with moe culture. Most kanmusu are eerily sexualized and address the player like doting servants, their clothes are ripped off when they are damaged in battle and in a recent update, players even got the opportunity to marry their ship girl(s) of choice, leading to Crunchyroll featuring the hilariously awkward headline “KanColle Now Lets You Marry Your Ship Daughter” (Green, 2014). Blatantly sexist power fantasies are nothing new in otaku culture, but there is one thing about Kantai Collection that I find a lot more worrying: The kanmusu, cute mascots played for maximum waifu appeal, are in fact anthropomorphised versions of Japanese war ships from World War II (Akkymoto, 2014). You know, that war in which Japan committed countless war crimes. Using these very ships.
For starters, several of the aircraft carriers featured in Kantai Collection, including the Akagi, the Kaga and the Sohryu (all three pictured above) were used in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, an unannounced declaration of war in violation of international war, in case you forgot. The I-8 submarine, personified in the game as a mischievous, well-endowed scamp (pictured below), is in reality infamous for bombing a neutral Dutch freighter, after which the remaining survivors were rounded up and executed. Countless warships featured in Kantai Collection were involved in Japan’s wicked conquest of the South Pacific, launching raids or housing convicted war criminals. The point is that the reputation of the cruisers and carriers you can collect in Kantai Collection have an all but squeaky clean image, which makes trivializing them like this a rather questionable matter, especially in light of Japan’s overall attitude towards its actions during World War II.
It’s hardly the first time otaku culture has teetered dangerously close to minimalizing the crimes committed by Japan in the 1930’s and 40’s. Hetalia portrays the Axis’ rise to power as a farcical sitcom, Strike Witches turns the Wehrmacht’s air force into an army of prepubescent girls without pants and recently, a semi-pornographic card game named Barbarossa, in which you play as the Nazis — of course, once again represented by sexualized girls — caused a stir when it got fully funded on Kickstarter in just three hours (Reimann, 2014). Justifiably so, as in the western world, making light of the events of World War II is a line veterans and victims won’t accept being crossed. That’s something we should respect. Yet oddly enough, the anime industry, and Japanese pop culture as a whole, doesn’t really seem to share that sentiment. In fact, this very blog started off with a picture of Adolf Hitler drawn in the style of a shoujo manga, a perfect indicator of the ‘oh, Japan, you’re so weird’ feeling many of us get when it comes to its portrayal of the Third Reich. It alienates us, because evidently, Nazis are a taboo to virtually all of western society. Unless you are one, it’s relatively normal to feel awkward – offended, even – when you see them being trivialized like this. For many, it’s a wound that – several generations later – has yet to heal, as evidenced by the controversy that arose in Germany when the Oscar-nominated film Downfall (Der Untergang) dared to humanize Adolf Hitler, masterfully portrayed by Bruno Ganz. People were afraid that by depicting the Fuhrer as anything other than completely diabolical, people would start to feel sympathy for him – and by extension, his political views (Denby, 2005). Similarly, in my native Belgium, an episode of a cooking show in which the host would prepare Hitler’s favourite dish – trout in butter sauce, in case you wanted to know – was taken off the air due to a similar controversy (Waterfield, 2008).
Japan, however, doesn’t seem to share this sentiment. For better or worse, trivializing the Nazis is something even Japanese children’s shows do on a regular basis – just look at the blatantly fascist Shocker organization from the Kamen Rider franchise for starters – yet it does not truly become a problem until its pop culture starts to turn towards applying this same casual attitude to its own war past. Kantai Collection doesn’t merely appropriate tools of war crime for entertainment purposes; it glorifies them, turning them into admirable heroines and sexualized trophies all at the same time. There is inherently nothing wrong with geeking out over weaponry. I know there are more than enough arms enthusiasts who’d never even dare to think of pointing their guns at another human being. Similarly, a healthy interest in World War II-era naval engineering will not hurt a fly. Yet it’s the context in which Kantai Collection exists that makes it so questionable. The game’s portrayal of anthropomorphised warships of the Japanese Imperial Navy, and more recently, Nazi ships as well, as forces of good, fighting back an alien invasion of tentacled – what did you expect? – monstrosities, reflects a larger problem in modern day Japanese politics that considerably blemishes its relationships with other countries. A good sixty years after the facts, Japan still refuses to take responsibility for its actions during World War II.
While the clear lack of outright hostility and the many formal apologies the country has made imply that it at the very least does want to contribute to horrors like that never happening again, the censorship of history textbooks, visits to cemeteries honouring convicted war criminals and government backed denials of certain atrocities – most controversially the forced prostitution of mostly Chinese and Korean women, the apologies for which the government recently considered revoking – reveals a very much ‘Wir haben es nicht gewusst’ attitude. Japan prefers to remember only the glory of its wartime efforts, not the horrors. Only earlier this April, it lashed out at the USA because President Obama continued to pressure Tokyo into showing more remorse for the human rights violations it committed during its occupation of Korea, stating the issue was not a ‘diplomatic’ or ‘political’ one (South China Morning Post, 2014). Yet while it would be inappropriate and incorrect to enforce our Western way of thinking onto nations with just as much right to have a coloured view on history as we do, the fact remains that Japan’s lenient attitude towards its imperialistic past still offends and hurts millions of people to this day. One only needs to look at the still on-going Fukushima debacle to know that any direct addressing of failure of negativity is a deeply rooted taboo in Japanese culture. Furthermore, under Japanese law, many of those who violated international rights are, in fact, not considered criminals. Current prime minister Shinzo Abe, known for denying the aforementioned forced prostitution, even stated that the ‘peace and humanity’ these men allegedly violated were concepts enshrined by the Allies, thereby implying that Japan did not necessarily needed to follow suite (The Japan Times, 2006).
History is indeed written by the victor, yet the objective fact remains that – demonized or not – Japan’s actions during the war caused harm to countless Chinese, Koreans, Malayans, Filipino, Singaporeans and others. No matter which way you look at it, it is unacceptable that the current Japanese government continues to offend these people’s descendants by honouring the perpetrators, denying their crimes and turning them into trivialities you can make a fun little game with cute girls about. Things like Kantai Collection, Strike Witches or Barbarossa – while in the bigger picture mostly harmless — can only exist because Japanese culture has evolved from such a persistent overlooking of the horrible context, it seems to have come to effectively believe that World War II was a gay old time for all the parties involved. And that’s a problem. It doesn’t necessarily imply that Kantai Collection was intended to be an explicit right-wing statement, as the South Korean newspaper Hankook Ilbo accused it of being, but it does raise several questions surrounding Japan’s attitude towards World War II. In the article, journalist Kim Bum-Soo implies that the game’s strong popularity is due to a conservative political shift amongst Japan’s youth (Kim, 2014), yet in reality, politics don’t seem to have much to do with it.
Kantai Collection is a success first of all because it has cute anime girls in it, and it’s fairly easy to see that amongst the game’s player base, only a small minority has any actual interest in naval engineering, let alone World War II. Kim Bun-Soo might be giving Kantai Collection just a bit too much credit, but the fact remains that his criticisms of the game are hugely important. If there’s anyone who gets to call Japan out for their attitudes towards the horrors that took place seventy years ago, it’s the Koreans, and it’s exactly because Kantai Collection is something so trivial and detached from any sort of political significance, that its problematic nature merits discussion. It’s little more than a silly browser game, yet for that precise reason it serves as a perfect example of how internalized and institutionalized public denial of Japan’s war crimes has become. From the highest echelons of the government to the lowest common denominators dwelling the Internet, Japan seems to be entirely isolated in its glorification of wartime efforts and refusal to discuss this attitude with other nations. It might just be their way of coping, but it’s one that – in an international context – simply doesn’t work. Denying the qualms others have with your attitude simply doesn’t work in a public forum – which, given the fact World War II was very much an international event, discussions about it will always be. Kantai Collection is not amoral, unacceptable or wrong, but the attitude it reflects – sexualizing and trivializing historical events that deserve anything but glorification – leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Enjoy it if you want, there’s nothing wrong with that. Yet do know that a critical mind gets much more out of life. It’s important that people understand the context surrounding Kantai Collection, before they entirely slide off the slippery slope and start drawing fanart of famous World War II battles with the allied forces personified by enemies from the game. That’s not problematic anymore, that’s outright ignorant.
Edit 2: I credited the sources I got the fanart from, but forgot to check if the artists in question allowed for their art to be reposted. As such, certain images have been removed conform the artists’ request. My sincere apologies.
- Akimoto, A. (February 20, 2014) “Kantai Collection: Social game of warships sets course for big money.” The Japan Times.
- Denby, D. (February 14, 2005). “Back In The Bunker”. The New Yorker.
- Green, S. (February 14, 2014). “KanColle Now Lets You Marry Your Ship Daughter.” Crunchyroll.
- Kim, B. (November 4, 2013). “일본우경화에대한단상”. Hankook Ilbo.
- Reimann, T. (March 26, 2014). “4 Reasons This One Kickstarter Proves Why Humanity is Doomed”. Cracked.
- Waterfield, B. (October 28, 2008). “Belgian cookery show cancelled after cooking up Adolf Hitler’s favourite meal.” The Daily Telegraph.
- “Under Japanese law, 14 at Yasukuni not criminals: Abe”. (October 7, 2006). The Japan Times.
- “Japan issues warning to Obama over ‘comfort women’ debate”. (April 26, 2014). South China Morning Post.