Mahou Shounen Breakfast Club and “the toxic ever present white gaze.”

39
72

There’s no question but that in American culture the predominant view is one that is rich, white, male, straight and Christian. And while “The male gaze” is pretty well known, we’re getting to learn about the “white gaze” as well. Have you ever wondered what it looks like? Now we know. Except it’s from New Zealand AND America.
Ep1_Cover
Shocking isn’t it? Here is some more of that toxic white gaze:

E1Act1_003_colour.png
The gaze in question is Mahou Shounen Breakfast Club a newish webcomic by New Zealander Katie O’Neill and American Toril Orlesky. Or rather it WAS, because despite praise and anticipation, the duo pulled the plug on the comic after a mere 13 pages after it was accused of cultural appropriation because it was a comic set in Japan with Japanese story lines that was by two white kids from across the globe. And also because one of them responded to a troll on Tumblr in a way that the Tumblr police deemed inappropriate. Here’s that crime again.

E1Act1_012_colour.png
Deb Aoki has heroically (and I mean it HEROICALLY) compiled the entire saga, which played out on Twitter, in one epic epic Storify. Normally I would embed it, but it’s so huge and epic it would crash your browser. Anyway I cannot recommend enough that you read the whole thing because the wise Aoki takes this molehill and tackles an entire mountain of the question “Do You Have to Be Japanese to Make Manga?” which is a huge one that this Storify doesn’t answer…but it does raise more and more questions.

For the digest version, shortly after MSBC began running, an ANONYMOUS questioner on Tumblr asked on O’Neill’s tumblr:

Anonymous asked: God damn this is why I hate it when ignorant white people like you try to make stuff about Japan just because it’s trendy. Learn how to write kanji that isn’t so awkward before you even think about making a story set in the place the language is from. 嫌なら自分の文化を使え それとも世界で他の文化が色々があるんだろう。

Hey! I actually have a BA in Japanese and speak it with some fluency (though it’s been a few years since I graduated), and the kanji in the logo is based off a font I got from a Japanese website! Thanks for your concern, but if you’re basically saying that white people should only write about white people that’s kind of messed up. We’re always going to be open to criticism and concerns, so if we get something wrong let us know!

O’Neill’s answer was deemed to be flippant and somehow racist (even when other people pointed out that ANONYMOUS wasn’t that great with Kanji either.)

Things intensified on the twitter and tumblr of cartoonist Iasmin Omar Ata, theirself the author of a well-received webcomic Mis(H)adra:

Anonymous asked: oh my god thank you for calling out msbc i’ve been side-eying that project since forever….

 

hey! i’m glad you’ve noticed the issue, too. honestly, i’m shocked at how people haven’t really called out the creators for a) their blatant cultural appropriation, and b) the awful “it’s fine” response to that ask. the whole thing is garbage and unfortunately is just another reminder of how toxic the ever-present white gaze is. i hope that soon we can do away with this kind of thing in comics because i for one am up tohere with it.

Orlesky and Ata also hashed it out on twitter:


And even if they had a point, Ata was definitely being a jerk about it. The response did not fit the crime.

UPDATE: When I wrote the above I was unaware that Ata was responding to these now deleted tweets by Orlesky:

Given that Ata’s rather forceful response was to a different matter, I apologize for the “jerk” comment.

While some people—even Japanese people—said they saw nothing wrong with MSBC, unfortunately, O’Neill and Orlesky decided to pull the plug on the comic even though it is not clear from anyone anywhere aside from anonymous trolls what they did wrong:

Note on Mahou Shounen Breakfast Club
As I’m sure you’ll know, last month we launched our webcomic, Mahou Shounen Breakfast Club! We were very excited about it, however we absolutely do not want to hurt anyone with it and we are concerned that this is unavoidable. From the outset we tried to be aware of issues such as cultural appropriation, fetishization and stereotyping and did our best to avoid them and write in a nuanced manner. We hoped that extensive research and experience living and working in Japan would be enough to make a portrayal that wasn’t hurtful. We can see now this was incorrect and not possible, and we don’t wish to create a comic that will hurt people, so it seems the solution is to simply stop. We sincerely apologise to anyone who was upset by it.

Thank you everyone who had faith in our comic skills before we even started, and who has given us kind feedback about the art especially! It means a lot to us that people feel this strongly about us as creators, and we will absolutely be working together again in future! Feel free to keep following the strangestarcomics blog if you’re interested in our other projects!

Now I’m willing to write part of this off as young, insecure cartoonists who are still figuring things out and not really being able to take possibly faulty criticism well. There are lots of tweets around that subject on the Storify above. I know we live in a time of identify politics where cultural appropriation is a terrible crime. Of course that didn’t stop Osamu Tezuka from culturally appropriating Walt Disney and Robert Louis Stevenson to invent manga in the first place, or Naoki Urasawa from drawing a manga about half English half Japanese insurance inspector, or any of a thousand other example of the cross pollination that makes cultural exchange a wonderful thing. Culture isn’t a bag of potato chips —you don’t chomp it up and then it’s gone. It’s an ocean that flows and ebbs and freezes and evaporates and becomes different things everywhere.

Which isn’t to say that, YEAH, people from one culture can misunderstand and fetishize people from other cultures. And it’s good to point that out.

But did Mahou Shounen Breakfast Club ACTUALLY DO THAT???? Japanese-New Zealand Cartoonist Jem Yoshioka wrote about this and this is possibly the most well meaning and infuriating document I’ve read this month.

Yoshioka runs down a FAQ of why she agrees with O’Neill and Orlesky shutting down the strip, but fails to explain any reason why the critics were correct. For instance.

In the case of MSBC too much hinged on the Japanese setting, so they have decided it’s best to stop making it.

WHAT NOW? Because a story is set in Japan and that setting effects the story it is bad? God forbid she ever watch Lost in Translation.

Also, here’s a great straw man:

Isn’t this exactly the same as when Japanese people write about western countries or white people?

 

No. Western countries and white people occupy a significant place of power within our global world, economically and culturally. To put it simply, the whole world is drowning in white culture, so it’s not culturally appropriative to write a story about white people or set in a western country. There’s a strong power imbalance in favour of western countries and white culture(s).

If anything I find this attitude MORE dismissive of Japanese culture than a wee tribute. Hundreds of millions if not billions of people are influenced by Japanese culture, billions more by other Asian cultures which are strong and thriving and, yeah, ignored by Westerners who think that US culture is the be all and end all of world culture. That just isn’t true. Posing Japanese culture as a timid weak hothouse flower before American aggression is just an insult to Japan, as American children clutch their Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers cereal spoons while playing with their Transformers.

But then we get to the meat of the matter:

What are the issues with MSBC specifically? It seemed fine to me. I’ve seen way worse stuff get made.

 

MSBC doesn’t necessarily look like cultural appropriation. The kanji is correct, the landscapes are representative of real Tokyo landscapes, and while there were a couple of inaccuracies around the reality of the voice acting industry, that’s an acceptable leap to make for the sake of storytelling purposes (see all movies ever that feature computers, science, engineering or hacking as plot points).

OK so aside from being an actually awkward story, nothing wrong here.

E1Act1_005.png

However, even though it was respectfully well-researched and executed, MSBC did personally make me feel a bit weird. MSBC intentionally draws on anime and manga tropes, which can be problematic and reductive in their representation of women, gay men and often focus on specific elements of Japanese culture. There is also a lot of white western readers of this material who are still early on their journey of understanding the difference between respect and appropriation, often with a heavy side of racial fetishisation and overly romanticised ideas of Japan.

Now what tropes would those be that were revealed in the 13 pages of Masou Shounen Breakfast Club? The TROPES that CAN BE problematic and reductive.

CAN BE

Not were. It isn’t shown that MSBC used these tropes in any problematic and reductive way. Just that they COULD HAVE BEEN.

It’s fine to use these tropes, but it’s important to take the overall environment into account when writing them as a white westerner. While Katie and Toril were obviously aware of this when working on MSBC and worked hard to make sure they didn’t fetishise or stereotype, the genre itself and the wider effect it has within the community makes it difficult to achieve that.

Get that now? Because other people fucked it up, Katie and Toril probably would too, so they had to shut things down after just 13 pages before they did it. Once again, no actual crime, we’re talking total pre-cog here.

For a lot of people MSBC won’t be considered anywhere near appropriative or fetishistic, and that’s just where you are on your own journey. For me personally it does approach a line that makes me uncomfortable. I would have kept reading anyway because I enjoy the storytelling and illustrative style, but I think that feeling would have stayed with me the whole way through. The weird thing is that if they had kept going I likely would never have said anything about how I felt, because I would have been too scared of being instantly shot down about it, feared I was being silly and felt I’d never be able to properly articulate my issues. I am overjoyed to know that Katie and Toril are the kind of creators who are respectful and listen to this kind of feedback this seriously.

Yoshioka seems like a very nice, reasonable person, and I totally dig her art, but…what exactly is the crime here? The comic made Yoshioka feel uncomfortable because…feelings.

And eventually someday she would have been upset by it.

Got that? She was sure that someday she would get upset by the way that these two were sure to fuck things up. Two non-Japanese people—even with knowledge of Japan—doing a comic set in Japan was fetishistic no matter what the context or content. Just the concept was enough to ensure that lines would be crossed.
If O’Neill and Orlesky decided to pull their comic because they didn’t want to hurt even one person’s feelings, well then, okay. I get it. Hurting feelings is bad. I also suggest that they get out of any creative endeavor in the future because all great art hurts feelings, causes feelings and in general shakes things up. It isn’t safe and it isn’t afraid. Under these rules that Yoshioka lays out, no great comic would ever have been completed because some element of its creation MIGHT have been used incorrectly in the past.
If you have been reading my writings for any amount of time, you know that I’m a fan of multicultural diversity, and of multiple viewpoints and creators of every sex, religion, creed, race and sexual orientation getting a chance to tell their stories.
I’m also a huge fan of cultural context for stories that examine how the preconceptions of a work of art are reflected in the execution. But I never want to see these criticisms used to PROACTIVELY SILENCE ART.
The problem with a lot of the sociological criticism that we’re seeing now is that it sets up a Zeno’s Paradox race against some kind of Platonic ideal that has never been proved to exist. Nearly all art has a cultural context that insults SOMEONE. If I take all the anti-MSBC arguments above and reduce them to a fine gravy, it DOES come out that no one should ever write or draw a story about a culture or place other than their own because they might get it wrong. White people should stick to white people (aka the status quo), black people should stick to black people and Japan should never write a story that takes place in another culture (because I’ve read plenty of manga that fetishized some bizarre element of American culture.)
Fetishishing is wrong, orientalism is wrong, appropriation for cool points (Hey Iggy) is wrong. But absorbing the rich cultural stew of the entire world and trying to express it in your own art and comics is not wrong. And as far as I can tell, that’s the crime that O’Neill and Orlesky were convicted of in tumblr court, and that’s a shame.
tumblr_nd1uhvDCGH1tflugio4_1280.png

Concept art for Mahou Shounen Breakfast Club.

Update: Shea Hennum has a further commentary to all this,  and suggests (as many on Twitter have) that my own white gaze does not allow me to criticize those who were offended or hurt by the problems with MSBC. Fair enough. Whatever hurtful element is in this webcomic is something that my cultural upbringing has rendered me immune to, and no one has communicated the exact nature of the offense so that I can share the outrage. It was also suggested that I was reinforcing a culture of oppressing non-white opinions by arguing with people of color over their perceptions of racism. While I would LIKE to live in a world where people can discuss different viewpoints on matters of cultural appropriation without validating repression, I am sadly aware that we don’t live in a world where that is the case. It is easy for me to pretend otherwise, and much more difficult for people of color, and I do want to acknowledge that.

In the end the creators of Mahou Shounen Breakfast Club decided that they could not tell this story in a way that wasn’t hurtful, and that’s their decision. Hopefully they’ll go on to create more comics that gain notoriety only for their excellence.

[The first version of this post misidentified Toril Orlesky as being from NZ rather than from the US,  and Iasmin Omar Ata as male. I regret the errors but it doesn’t change a thing I think because I judge people on their behavior not their identity.]

39 COMMENTS

  1. I’m pretty sure Iasmin would prefer “she” to “he.” Maybe you’re confused because the main character of her comic Mis(h)adra is male.

  2. Being inspired by Japanese art and drawing Japanese people– isn’t this the thing someone who likes other cultures would want!?

    People just like getting upset. This is incredibly stupid and all that’s going to happen is no one will be able to discuss race and culture in an open and intelligent way because someone somewhere might be slightly upset and never consider that maybe the problem is with them.

    Not everything has to be for everyone. As much as people want to claim they’re fighting for some lofty ideals in the end it’s about their their their their their sensibilities being– not even hurt, just annoyed. Go read anything else! If white people being inspired by manga bugs you go promote three Asian artists to outdo the two! Yeesh!

    Everyone is inspired by other cultures. It keeps us a melting pot instead of a big caucasian mess, if you want to talk white gaze.

    This comic is great. They should keep drawing it and everyone annoyed by this comic should be ashamed of themselves very very deeply.

  3. I don’t like “Social Justice Warrior” as a term of opprobrium because it’s favored by reactionary types and makes light of laudable progressive activism on the internet.

    But we need a term for this type of phenomenon. For lack of a better one, I propose “Social Justice Bully.”

    This isn’t about progressivism, it’s about power. It’s asserting a proprietary claim to an entire category of subject matter and inflating sensitivities to the point that the level of romanticizing, genre tropes, fetishizing, stereotypes and stock figures that are the substance of human storytelling are disallowed. If your creative endeavor “could be problematic,” that’s a sign you’re making art. Art is problematic.

    Some people on the internet are just looking for ways to wield power, get a crowd behind them and pressure vulnerable individuals to dance to their tune. It’s plenty satisfying—you made a change out there!—and not as risky as making art, or even really responding to art.

    Don’t cave to bullies.

  4. I think that the Strangestar comic looked like a respectful homage that was doing no harm-
    but, looking through that epic storify, I think the overall discussion is missing that if you create a sexist or racist portrayal, it sticks around for a long time. Song of the South, Gone with the Wind. Psycho, Mrs Doubtfire. Tonto. the bucktooth cat in Aristocats playing the piano with chopsticks. That stuff is harmful because it’s so deeply memorable and so very entertaining.

    like, the whole entire history of superhero comics, newspaper comics, indie comics and political cartoons is littered with countless countless examples of yellowface, redface, blackface. People still pass around edits of Mammy Bugs Bunny on 4chan.

    So while I wouldnt argue a white artist should categorically avoid non-white characters or non-western settings, there are stakes, there is a real potential danger to screwing up as a white artist because we have more cultural clout. A Japanese artist screwing up a portrayal of America isnt going to have the same effect. So I think it’s too way hasty to brush off criticism so dismissively.

  5. Also by this rule Scott Pilgrim and the early work of Frank Miller should cease to be. Again, cultural influence is great. If the complaint is about cultural influence all that happens is that the guys whose cultural influence is considered mainstream just keep getting pushed forward by the shmucks who think they’re helping.

    As for harmful stuff– harmful stereotypes are clearly troublesome. But this ain’t it.

  6. I have lived in Japan over a decade, and as a result, a lot of my comics from the last few years were related to Japan. So, I have been called a racist white guy on Tumblr more than once, simply for discussing where I live (i.e. cultural norms are different in different countries, racist stuff like that). The solution? No more anonymous asks on Tumblr. Problem solved. The only people who have taken issue with my work are people raised in the West. This is the current culture of the West to have this sort of knee jerk reaction to straight or white or men writing about anything not them (and often there is a reverse knee jerk reaction to dismiss these complaints as well, but I’m speaking from my perspective right now). Japanese certainly don’t care. Japanese culture appropriates with zero care for any other culture, because the country is 98.5% Japanese. Generally, the attitude about foreign people making stuff Japan-related is “Great, you appreciate my country!” though they might value it less than a native’s product, a knock-off if you will. You will see black face here, or even ‘white face’ (blond wig and comically pointed nose), and there is a store downtown selling Nazi paraphernalia in the front window which no Japanese seems to think is in any way strange. The world is entertainment for them. It was a lot to get accustomed to, but I try not to judge another culture for what is normal for them. Because that would actually be racist, to judge them with Western standards. They have their own. But adopting this mentality (appropriating?) has given me more freedom to write.

    I really have taken a good hard look at questions of appropriation as they come up over the last 20 years (ever since I went to an excessively liberal art school and started to have my eyes open that straight white man did not equal), and sometimes there is a lot of validity to complaints. Sometimes, there isn’t. You have to make the call. It’s not a hard rule. But the world is not America, and every country has its own values, so the Tumblr social justice warrior mentality cannot be layered over every human on the planet, and people have a right to opt-out of or ignore these beliefs. I have opted out of the belief that white men should only write about white men (70% is autobiographical, so it’s still fairly white).

    I chose to live in a foreign country where I wouldn’t be 100% fluent, I would be the minority, and I could get a more ‘human’ experience than being the part of the ruling class. It’s been good, and it’s helped me shake off white guilt by being more genuinely sympathetic to other groups. It’s how I want to be as an artist. If people refuse to give your art the benefit of the doubt because of your race/gender/whatever, regardless of content, screw them. They are not willing to have a dialogue. The anonymous asks are permanently off.

    @Avi
    “So while I wouldnt argue a white artist should categorically avoid non-white characters or non-western settings, there are stakes, there is a real potential danger to screwing up as a white artist because we have more cultural clout. A Japanese artist screwing up a portrayal of America isnt going to have the same effect. So I think it’s too way hasty to brush off criticism so dismissively.”
    You think a web comic by white people automatically has more clout than a Japanese artist? No. Categorically, no. I just read this article, and I have forgotten the artists names. I could list off dozens of Japanese artists with more clout, and I’m sure most readers could too.

  7. If all you got out of my (admittedly a little scatter-brained) post was “social justice warrior,” I will withdraw from contributing here in the future to save you the frustration.

  8. I think what isn’t being addressed here is that Jem’s piece was taking the position that the creator’s had a lot more comic completed that wasn’t yet online that they were looking at when they decided some of the criticism of the first 13 pages was valid.

  9. One of the best movies about the American western movies ever was made by an Italian man, based on a Japanese movie, and shot in Spain.

    The entirety of human history is based on trade of not only goods but ideas between different cultures.

  10. Are the Japanese not allowed to write about the atomic bomb since it was made in America? Everyone involved in this “discussion” is a complete waste of genes. Art should be about sharing, not “identity politics.”

  11. A lot of the commentary I see around this seems to be a lot of head scratching and bewilderment over why such a tiny amount of criticism would lead to the comic getting axed, seemingly out of the blue.

    I suggest people read franklytriggering’s post http://franklytriggering.tumblr.com/post/111061950992/tumblr-has-a-problem-with-diverse-media

    Orlesky’s commentary on that post on Twitter, and then Orlesky’s tone-deaf interaction with Iasmin Omar Ata on Twitter, and you will start to see the submerged bit of this iceberg.

    I think some of the confusion, anger and indignation in the backlash from MSBC’s fans & other comic artists could have been blunted if in their cancellation announcement, O’Neill and Orlesky had pointed to the franklytriggering post and to Orlesky’s Twitter row with Omar Ata and then been up front admitting that they were initially angry/defensive about being called out – largely as a result of that franklytriggering piece urging creatives to combat “tumblr call out culture”.

    http://queen-annes-lace-undies.tumblr.com/post/112805427034/mahou-shounen-breakfast-club-round-up-post

  12. And these guys were protesting every time Hayao Miyazaki “appropriated” the quaint romanticized view of Europe for his films, right?

  13. Also I think “this makes me uncomfortable, but I cant quite put my finger on it” is a valid critique even if it doesnt seem immediately actionable. Who’s to say that writer wont eventually find the words to clarify that feeling

  14. marigold, Iasmin was definitely not arguing in good faith. They were trying to provoke Toril into saying something that could then be twisted and used against her, and they succeeded. Iasmin was being manipulative, not sincere, and Toril had no obligation to respond to bad-faith arguments with good-faith arguments.
    I see a lot of people who are feeling very real pain lashing out at the only targets they can find: female indie creators. Just because you’re hurt doesn’t mean you have the right to treat someone else like dirt.

  15. Hm. Wow. Okay. So. For starters I will say I share your frustration about the prejudice surrounding the comic because, I agree, it was too soon to tell. Yes, the comic might have gone the way of fetishizing Japan or it might have been insightful and honest, who knows? Well, the creators do, and their decision to cancel shows that they have no confidence that it was the latter and not the former. (And for the record, it doesn’t look like an actual recording studio, so there’s that level of “research” already showing.) But (irony time!) the prejudice part does in fact suck. Just because a comic is made by white people and is set in Japan and involves Japanese characters does not mean it will necessarily treat Japan as an exotic, getaway fantasy land where everything is just cooler and sexier; there’s just a high expectation it will because it’s done so very, very often. Naturally the people most affected by this will be on guard the moment they see it.

    The real problem here, as I see it, is you have a very underdeveloped concept of cultural appropriation. You seem to see no difference between Japanese “appropriation” of Western content and Western appropriation of the entire East. I emphatically encourage you to read up on what exactly happened in Japan after Matthew Perry landed in Tokyo 1853 (aboard a ship named the Powhatan, which I can only read as intentional), and more importantly, what happened during the American occupation of Japan (1945-1952 – I highly recommend Embracing Defeat by John Dower). When one culture has enforced itself upon the other, the other mostly just has to adopt the content of the former, while the enforcing culture can appropriate whatever it wishes for whatever purposes (consider the differences in what “geisha” means for both cultures). You can argue that present day culture is a more equal exchange, but this is after the US reshaped Japan in its own image. This imbalance of power should not be forgotten.

    Which brings us to the real sticker- the problem with English-made comics set in Japan isn’t about offending Japan; why would it be? They’re not the target audience. The problem is what they’re doing to _us_, the English speaking audience, sitting in our echo chambers reinforcing fetishes and stereotypes, and how it makes us treat the Asian immigrants and descendants in our communities. The problem is our self-reinforced fantasy ideas of Japanese people affects how we treat our fellow human beings, the Asian Americans among us, and the way you’re treating Jem Yoshioka now. You’re right, you don’t have to be considerate of her feelings. You don’t even have to pay any mind to the systemic prejudice she faces on a daily basis that feeds her discomfort when she sees a comic like MSBC. You know it; she knows it. It’s the same goddamn power imbalance.

    And I think it’s really important, and not just on a person to person basis, to always keep that in mind. Whenever I hear East Asians described as the “Model Minority,” I believe it ties in closely to the “success” US Foreign Policy met with Japan in (and relatedly South Korea for that matter), so much so that the policy persists to this day, despite the long string of failed attempts to occupy and remake other nations in our image. It’s a mentality we have absolutely got to challenge, but so many people in this country are not even cognizant that they have it. And maybe that seems like some big shit to bring to something that was meant to be just a fun comic, but the little things really do add up.

    In closing, I do not believe in bullying people who make mistakes and agree that callout culture is a scary and counterproductive part of the internet today, but I do not believe MSBC was a victim of this. If anything, it was cowardly of Toril to remove his tweets and leave Iasmin to the mercy of backlash from his own fans.

  16. You need to learn about the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Then learn about Unit 731. You also need to learn why the Chinese and the Koreans still hold a grudge against the Japanese. Then ask yourself why Japan bans immigration. Your store-bought victimology is way off here, Snowflake.

  17. I think “cultural appropriation” is a red herring here. The majority of the comic as published is a story within a story: a scene from an anime in a story about voice actors for anime. So when a character makes a dramatic entrance with flower petals floating in the wind, yes, that’s an Asian media thing, but it’s part of a portrayal of Asian media. So I wonder if the hostility wasn’t really driven by the potential for this story to develop into a critical, skeptical take on anime tropes and cliches. It’s hard to imagine that such a story wouldn’t be a critique of anime to some extent. And so the tension over the creators being outsiders to the culture is about their ability or right to critique the anime genre, not to imitate it—if the problem was really imitation or “cultural appropriation,” why start with this comic and not all the other manga/anime style American comics out there? Or Daredevil?

    It’s always seemed to me that anime/manga fandom is extremely sensitive to criticism.

  18. Doctor Comix, I am going to assume you’re talking to me, wonder why you assume I don’t know about those things, and then wonder why you’re putting words in my mouth. I never said Japan was wonderful and perfect in every way, or is to be pitied and coddled, or any such bullshit. I think you’re trying to start a fight and derail the conversation.

  19. Naomi, I’ll bite on your post. I would like to know your own experience with Japan, as in how much you know from experience, and how much is from textbooks. I really don’t think an argument against Westerners making manga can be sustained with any mention of Commodore Perry. Japan has been influenced by the West more than any other Asian country, but Japan has clearly defined itself since the bubble era. It picks and chooses its influences. Some stay, some fade away. To think of it as the occupied country of 1945 is really disrespectful to the character of the country.

    “Which brings us to the real sticker- the problem with English-made comics set in Japan isn’t about offending Japan; why would it be? They’re not the target audience. The problem is what they’re doing to _us_, the English speaking audience, sitting in our echo chambers reinforcing fetishes and stereotypes, and how it makes us treat the Asian immigrants and descendants in our communities. The problem is our self-reinforced fantasy ideas of Japanese people affects how we treat our fellow human beings, the Asian Americans among us, and the way you’re treating Jem Yoshioka now. You’re right, you don’t have to be considerate of her feelings. You don’t even have to pay any mind to the systemic prejudice she faces on a daily basis that feeds her discomfort when she sees a comic like MSBC. You know it; she knows it. It’s the same goddamn power imbalance.”
    This is a very problematic argument. Fetishisation of Japan (and other places) is a problem. To this day, I am disturbed by the continued attitude of Western media to care nothing for Japanese daily life, while giving excessive attention to incredibly fringe topics in Japan, for example, the panty vending machine, which way too many Westerners think is normal in Japan (I have been asked about it too many times), but really was a small blip in the country that few natives know. Westerners create uneven images of non-Western countries. Of course, every country in the world does similar things to everyone else and that is part of human nature. And of course we should combat ignorance.

    That said, your argument is claiming that the work in question reinforces some fantasy image of Japan. Was that actually the case? The artists claim to have worked and lived in Japan. If anything can remove the rose-coloured glasses of the Japanese image, living here does the job rather quick. Is it actually implausible that the artists had genuine understanding and experience in the country and that they were using the setting to broaden their narrative abilities rather than promote a fantasy of the country? I haven’t read their work, so I won’t pass judgement either way, but I won’t invoke Commodore Perry as evidence that they were abusing their position as white people.

    Can you give some clear examples of the work in question creating ” self-reinforced fantasy ideas of Japanese people”? If you can, I am willing to listen.

  20. I just tried to explain this to my Japanese wife, no small feat since she doesn’t speak English and I’m not well versed in talking about discrimination in Japanese (not in the textbooks and not a topic of daily conversation that much). So, I told her that the comics were called a kind of racist since white people were writing about Japanese. And she asked if it was because of the pictures were insulting, and I said no, it’s because the authors are white and not Japanese so they can’t write something with Japanese in a manga style. Then I showed her the original Tumblr complaint, and she read the Japanese, and her response was, loosely translated, “What a dick,” (最悪な人) and that things are so difficult all the time in America.

    Her opinion. Worth sharing I thought.

  21. @Wayne Harder: I’ve wondered about that too. Many people seem to concentrate on how the creators responded to the criticism, but Iasmin was being overly aggressive too. I’ve tried to understand what exactly has happened, and I’m still really confused… the conversation afterwards has been really interesting, though, especially because I live in a small European country and wasn’t really sure about the current state of manga influenced comics and artists in the “big world”.

    And it has brought out points that sound a bit worrying, too, whether you’re a manga influenced artist who tries to start a career (there’s still so much prejudices and not many chances to get published.) Or any kind of artist starting a webcomic (internet is full of rage, which is a real problem and needs to be fixed).

    Many say that the creators´s decision to axe the comic was a proof that they didn’t have faith in it either. That may be true, but I think I would’ve made the same decision. After all, the message from internet has been that as a white person you are not even allowed to have any opinion about what might be hurtful to someone. How could you even know then what is okay and what is not? I guess it was the most safe option to quit the comic, because it was after all set in Japan, and people are not going to view it as mercifully as a manga with lots of mistakes set in Europe by a Japanese person, because it’s viewed as something completely different.

    Personally, I think that the best option would’ve been to fix everything which needed fixing – if there was something to fix, we don’t really know – and then continue. After all, there was only the first chapter, and it really didn’t tell us much about the direction the comic was going to take.

  22. Def, I think it’s beside the point, but I’ll answer your question to satisfy your curiosity: No, I’ve never been to Japan; I’m just a massive history and anthropology nerd. I have read about and consumed a lot more Japanese culture and history than other cultures, something I am working on rectifying.

    But I think you’re really misunderstanding me because you’re asking me to back up two things I never said in the first place. Firstly, I never said Westerners shouldn’t make manga or manga-influenced work. I was saying white creators have an obligation to be mindful to not reinforce stereotypes and buy into the fetishization of Japan and Orientalism.

    Secondly, no–and I thought I said this–I don’t see any real indication that MSBC was guilty of it. I initially shared my fellow white creators’ confusion and distress that this comic was perceived as offensive enough that it had been pressured into cancellation, but I also don’t see any indication that that is what happened. I think that the announcement took fans by surprise and that they took to sleuthing the social network and mistakenly took the month-old tumblr ask as the culprit. Katie’s response was tone-deaf, which she later realized and apologized for. The only recent history to the announcement is Toril saying minority creators are to blame for minority problems and then reframing Iasmin’s attempt to call him on it. Maybe that led to Toril self-reflecting, or maybe it caused a loss of trust with some Asian American fans who then reached out to the team privately; we don’t know. What we do know is that they chose to cancel the project in a way that speaks to me that they have no confidence that the work was NOT fetishisizing.

    The majority of my comment was about this post here, with Heidi’s very defensive response to Jem Yoshioka’s blog post. She apparently doesn’t see the difference between cultures that were forcably Westernized making Western-derived things and whites making non-white-culture-derived things. The white attitude of patting the non-white on the head like “there’s a good poppet; see? They can be domesticated!” while then chuckling amongst themselves at the novelties they discovered in the culture they domesticated is decried and outdated, and yet insidiously pervasive. Non-whites try to speak out against their co-opted identities and are told “come back when you can talk and reason like a white person.” It’s all well and good to say you judge by behavior rather than identity, but Toril’s behavior during the argument with Iasmin was very white, while Iasmin’s was not, and which of them got the benefit of the doubt bias? Systemically, non-whites are forced to come to where the whites are to participate in global society, but instead of honoring that, too many of us get defensive at the idea of being held accountable for white behavior, all the while holding non-whites accountable not only for things many of their “kind” does but also for things _their “kind” only do in our imaginations_. And because our art comes from our imaginations, non-whites are understandably on guard when we make art about them. (Your wife, living among her own majority, is not as affected like non-whites living in white-dominated societies are.)

    So can creators write about cultures not theirs? Yes, I think we can and should. But with the understanding that it’s not going to be as authentic, no matter how much effort we put in, and the willingness to listen to those affected by the mistakes we’ll make along the way. All to often the response is “stop being so ungrateful for the bones I’m throwing you.”

  23. I understand your point and agree with you for the most part, Naomi. There was a feeling in your first post that all such works were guilty, but I see what you meant now.

  24. I wonder whether the whole thing just spiralled out of control from a default attitude of “Oh, yet another story set in Japan made by westerners. This is going to suck!” Because that’s normally the case.

    There are exceptions, but the track record isn’t that great. (See “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” for a recentish example.)

  25. I feel like your response to Yoshioka is emblematic of the response to cultural appropriation/social justice arguments. Being told you shouldn’t do something because it offends someone somewhere in ways you don’t comprehend IS frustrating. “The comic made Yoshioka feel uncomfortable because…feelings” is a perfectly legitimate argument. Humans are complicated creatures and our feelings can’t be summarized in neatly written internet blog posts. And that SUCKS, I know, but respecting that is the first step towards greater empathy for each other.

  26. “The comic made Yoshioka feel uncomfortable because…feelings” is a perfectly legitimate thing for Yoshioka to say. But it’s also legitimate for me or others, reading that, to not find her feelings a persuasive argument that MSBC has a cultural appropriation problem.

  27. I don’t like the part where people say it’s blatantly appropriation, like here “MSBC intentionally draws on anime and manga tropes”
    When I just read the comic and the majority of the first part wasn’t even real . It was in a fiction . No one knows anything about the comic other than the creator and people are already pointing fingers

    Anyway even though I’m a little upset at the comic closing , and it was unjustified , There is nothing preventing the creators from taking the characters and , remaking them for an American or European setting because apparently that’s the only setting white people are allowed to write in . There’s no problem changing these things if the creators want to continue on with the story .

    The only thing I don’t understand , is why are people complaining about a lack of diversity , when they do these things ? Can only people of Japanese write Japanese characters ? If we were listening to the logic of these people then there would be no culture diversity at all on television because most of the media writers are white .

  28. @Stella “There is nothing preventing the creators from taking the characters and , remaking them for an American or European setting” That would be a great idea, actually, and I hope that the creators have thought about that. That way they wouldn’t have to abandon them if they want to continue with the characters but don’t dare to set it in another country again. It could be that the story would need just a little bit fixing, unless they had 1000 pages ready…

    And too bad that the whole thing ended up in a big fight. That’s far too easy in Internet. I’m quite sure that if the discussion had been somewhere else than Twitter, it wouldn’t have turned out that way? I was a bit surprised, the creators had a really apologetic approach at the start, but it still ended up in a fight.

    Yes, it’s difficult… I thought that “Handle the characters like people”-approach was ok, but after seeing the discussion it doesn’t seem to be safe enough. So how is it even possible to make characters who are different nationalities? I’ve gotten the impression that it’s a highly dangerous area to even try to write something you’re not 100% familiar with, if it involves anything else than western white people – because you can’t think that you know what’s in other ethnic people’s heads. But there should also be more diversity. And if you’re unlucky, you’ll end up in the middle of Internet Drama. If you draw web comics, there is a higher probability for fights and hate than outside internet.

    But as a western white person, can you really truly understand even other western white persons? If you live in the US can you draw a character from any European country if you don’t know what it’s like to live in Europe? Do you imagine Scandinavian people as blonde? If you did, that was a stereotype, but luckily not a harmful one. I understand other Europeans better than people from US, but I still don’t know what it’s like to be French. Or Canadian. Or Japanese. Or Chinese. Or anything other than my own group from this particular country, and even then I wouldn’t know what it’s like to be poorer or living in a street. Someone can always say that “you don’t know nothing about this”, and I could always hurt someone without meaning it or create a stereotypical character.

    But then people could literally tell stories only about their own neighborhood, and they’d never know how to portray anyone else than themselves. There would never be a variety of characters. Is that really how creativity should be? It’s always good to study the area you’re going to tell the story about, but different stories need different amounts of groundwork. It’s quite different to tell a story about a North Korean refugee than draw a guy who works as a voice actor – and even with the latter it depends: is the story about voice acting and anime industry, or is the job just something at the background? It depends on so many things how authentic the settings need to be.

    And also about the fetish thing… I don’t really like the idea of sexualizing stereotypes or gay people or persons in general either, and I twitched when someone said that they wanted Asian girlfriend just because of the ethnic face… but I also feel that sometimes people react too strongly… because you can’t really avoid it completely, especially when writing romance stories and especially when the said story needs to get some feelings out of readers. There’s a really gray area between harmful fetish-things and characters who are beautiful/handsome/etc. I don’t like over sexualizing without purpose (like those certain scenes in Game of Thrones), but what would happen if no one was allowed to do anything which would be considered either fetishes or portraying characters so that readers will find them attractive?

    But what actually kind of bugs me in comments I’ve stumbled upon is that people tend to divide world into “white people” and “colored people”, when if you think about it more closely, you can’t actually even make that kind of separation. How can a person in Africa know what’s okay for a Japanese person any better than someone in Japan or even USA knows what it’s like to be Swedish? People living in minorities know what it’s like to be a minority, but if one comment above is correct, that’s also something a white person living as a minority can’t know anything about.

    Also, while where I live we have here the same debates about what is racist and what is not, a “white person” in the discussions seem to mean mostly a “white American person”, and “entertainment made by white people” seems to be “entertainment made by white people in the US”. American TV shows, food etc have pretty much taken over the world, but they’re not the only kind of entertainment white people make. There’s lots of stuff in Europe which will never end up in USA. I’ve heard that it’s considered to be too weird.

    I know that as a white person I can’t really say this, but I think it’s important to remember that we’re all just people, and because I’ve heard that can be considered racist too, I must emphasize that we’re all DIFFERENT kinds of people. First thing towards understanding others is that we must not attack everyone else so easily because they’re from “that other group and I know what they think”, which seems to happen a lot.

    Sorry for the long post, and very sorry if I in turn offended someone. I just still wonder about these things.

  29. Why don’t we ban the word “problematic” while we’re at it, because in the context it tends to be used on the internet, it has turned into parody language to me.

    By the Tumblr Rules (TM) nearly every damn book that’s ever been mentioned on this site should cease publication, because there’s a lot of white people writing about non-white culture, or straights writing gay culture, etc. Or terrans writing about aliens! How dare you, Earthlings?

    For serious, this is what we are worried about in the social sphere? A webcomic? I think we’re doing good if this is all. Well, don’t get creative, White Devil, or you’re going to get rocks thrown at you.

  30. This is a brilliant post and Deb’s Storify is well worth reading. The most hurtful thing about it all is that two artists have been made to feel they had to shut up and stop work because others thought they might possibly go bad because of their racial and cultural origins. If you think about that, everybody who campaigned to shut them down is doing exactly what they fear the artists will do…

    Cultural appropriation and expropriation isn’t a “white” invention. It has gone on throughout human history. The current incarnation, white male American cultural colonisation, is the focus of so much contemporaneous angst and anger only because it happens to have occurred at a time when many of those who feel guilt at perperating it and resenment over it are rich enough to have access to mass communication media.

    Sometimes art offends and artists offend. That’s tough on the people they offend but it happens. And sometimes artists find it’s tough on them too, but they either have to give up on their work or learn to accept the (only sometimes justifiable) anger directed at them. It’s only sometimes justifiable because these artists are usually not in themselves bad or damaging – they become, for a short time, symbols of everything that has hurt the people raging at them. It’s easier to take down a person than an idea.

    Moral? It’s messy. In an ideal world, people would be open and accepting and ind and artists wouldn’t need to be tough. In the one we have, artists have to grown the hide of a rhino and accept that they may be hated because of who they are even before people have considered what they do. Because the only alternative is giving up on your work.

    Oh, and by the way, women – of all races and cultures- are still the most discriminated against group in the world. But that’s a whole other parcel of hatred.

  31. This could have been resolved and instantly resolved by setting the story in a universe similar to ours with a different name for the island this takes place on that looks eerily similar to a romantizied and fantasied nihon/nippon.

    Everytime I read or hear someone tearing into someone about “Japanese” fetishism, cultural appropriation, etc I just role my eyes, since they are NOT using the correct term for the country, people, etc, they are using the white/westernworld word for (just some) of the people and culture, which is already blatant racisim and stereotyping and shows all the lack of knowledge the reviler has about what they are chewing the author out about in the first place, CLEARLY showing they themselves have no idea about the matter.

    But contraywise, most cultures get VERY upset when someone from an outgroup innaccurately portrays their culture in a light (that they don’t personally see beneficial), just bring up american sterotypes, romantacism, or fetishism, from other countries to an american, i mean hell, in country its taken pretty poorly as well between states or even local neighboring towns.

    Yet on another hand, none of that fucking matters in art because art is about expressing one’s feelings in a visual medium, about whatever you damn well feel like, damn the conesquences. MSBC then are cowardly pussys running away like a puss startled by the slightest twig hitting the ground 1000 meters away. Though to be fair this usually happens when an artist tries to EXPLAIN their craft or works with words instead of with art, it explains itself to each person that looks upon it easily and you simply ignore non artistic inquisitions into your art (but answer a picture expressing a question with a picture giving expressing a response, in example.)!

  32. What I don’t get is that ask specifically said the kanji was wrong and the person responded “I studied this, its not wrong” and then a bunch of Ppl on tumblr made posts and tweets about how “omg she said she studied Japanese in college so its not a racist comic fhfhjffj white people!”

    Meanwhile, no, she responded to a specific comment specifically saying that kanji was wrong with saying its not wrong and she studied the language and presumably, kanji! So people yelling at her that she is excusing the entire thing with “I took Japanese in college” seem to be 1) misinterpretting the post or 2)willfully misinterpretting the post.

    I don’t understand why I have seen neither side pointing this out either, did you all just get swept up in the momentum?

    Some of the other criticisms might be on point but that one is the one I see bantered about it everywhere as I read about this kerfuffle and no one noticed?

    Like take a step back and look again.

    You got every right to be mad about the situation in general so there is no need to misrepresent that comment. I don’t know if she ever tried to clear that up but I have no doubt someone would just willfully, or accidentally,misinterpret her again if she did by saying she was trying to minimise or deflect or something. Meanwhile no ur just wrong on this one point! Please realize that.

    One of the big incendiary points in a lot of these situations I see hinging on stuff like this, Ppl will say “I didint care until she said that” meanwhile the thing said is only incendiary when taken far outta context. And its just like. SIGH.

Comments are closed.