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An Open Letter to Western Otaku on Influence and Belief


"When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you" - Friedrich Nietzsche

Psycho-Pass used that quote in a recent episode so it's totally cool if I kick off a blog about western minds consuming Japanese things with it right? The way the human mind develops based off what a person is exposed to is something I've had an interest in a for a long time. I'm not any sort of expert on philosophy, but It's something I once enjoyed reading quite a bit, and have very recently been reacquainting myself with.

For several years now I've been in the habit of writing letters to myself whenever I am conflicted on something, and want to sort my thoughts. By writing it down I can go back over my own thoughts objectively, and see if they measure up the way I think they do in my head. For this Bloggers Wanted I've decided to share one with the Jtor community. This particular letter is one that I've been trying to write for years, but only recently have I felt like I have all the pieces needed to actually write it. This is going to be a bit of an experiment on my part so I apologize in advance for being verbose, and honestly only marginally related to Japan by the context of who I am; however, with the amount of time I spend on Japanese fiction I believe this is still relevant here. Also, just a quick warning there are spoilers for Guilty Crown, My Hime, Casshern Sin's, Sword Art Online, and possibly more inside this post.

In trying to debate various idea's and beliefs I hold on the internet, mostly with people I consider friends, I've frequently found myself on the receiving end of some heavy patronizing which has provided motivation to investigate my own beliefs and their origins, many of which can be credited to Japanese fiction. I want to write about this here even if Japan it is not directly related with what I am writing about. Also, I will say this about the philosophy of Freidrich Nietzsche, and be done with it here: I think he ran the spectrum from totally brilliant to completely insane, but managed to write some very interesting truths in the process.

The modern world we live in is one based around information. The days where a man or woman could live their lives in private is quickly vanishing to the convenience of being able to quickly share and find information. This is a great thing in some ways, but the implications for the future are also quite frightening. The internet is an amazingly easy medium for information misuse, abuse, and loss of context.

More than ever before the importance of being able to defend yourself, your beliefs, and your hobbies is on the rise, and all this is happening in an environment where anything goes. People preach both political and religious tolerance without understanding that many powerful political and religious groups in the world are not in and of themselves tolerant in many ways. People are persecuted by those who do not understand them, and do not wish to understand them. With the rise of information comes a rise in people realizing just how different other people can be and are. Cultural boundaries clash with each other, and instead of a mentality of unity what we really get is a dark dirty secret no one want's to admit: Tolerance is unnatural without genuine understanding.

I won't tell someone what to believe, and I won't even tell them that belief in a religious or political group is something they should consider. In fact I am not even going to tell you what my own religious beliefs are unless someone asks because it is not directly relevant. I believe it is very important to understand what you believe and why, but even that is not at the core of why I am writing this. What I want to accomplish here is awareness of the importance fiction plays for humanity as I see it.

Why anime? Why manga? Why visual novels? Why Japan? What is it about these things that draws us in? These are questions I've pondered ever since I started digging into the fandom. Perhaps I am just an introspective sort, but I like to stop and inspect my lifestyle choices in an attempt to understand why; however, before I can write about those things I need to stop, and take a moment to ask why fiction?

For me fiction has had a large influence on the way I think, and even on the way I behave in the real world. It has been, and continues to be a way to experience things in a world removed from our own world. I believe that I am hardly alone in that, and that fiction serves an important role in society that allows the human mind to expand and learn based off imaginary experiences.

J. R. R. Tolkien coined the term Secondary Belief in a famous essay of his in defense of and definition of fairy tales. His reason for doing so was to contrast intentional suspension of disbelief with another form, and that is not the reason why I am bringing it up, but he makes a statement I believe to be of incredible value about fictional works in the process.

"Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker's art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside." - J. R. R. Tolkien

What Tolkien is writing about here is the creation of a secondary world where an illusion of thoughts becomes believable inside the human mind, and the way that is lost when disbelief arises.

Recently I've been introduced to the term Chuunibyou, thanks to the anime which has this term in the title, and I've begun to find ways to put into worlds concepts that have been floating about in my head for years. It's incredible what something as simple as finding a new slang word to express a concept can do for defining context and perspective. In this case I've found a way to express my belief that the human mind is capable of indulging in fantasy while also realizing they are doing so outside of the normal constraints of the real world. It is something so simple that any child exposed to fantasy should learn to understand this difference in rationality between fiction and reality automatically as they grow up, and are forced into reality, and yet so easily misunderstood when taken out of context.

My imagination is poor, so I can't make myself believe in God as well as other people do.

I never did believe in Santa Clause myself so this is a somewhat arbitrary example, but I think most children will realize on their own that Santa is not real without being told. Sometimes you meet an older child who is in denial about the whole thing, and wants to believe in something they know is not really true. Illusions from a secondary world collapse under the pressure of the real one. Even a child who may not be able to adequately express why learns to understand this process.

Going back to Tolkien, he expressed his concept of secondary belief to draw a contrast between a situation where the reader willingly suspends their own disbelief, and one where the writer suspends it for them by creating a consistently believable secondary world. Now as I said above he did this to make a distinction between literary technique's and not a statement that encompasses all fictional settings, but in the process also created an illustration for I what I believe to do the two states of being someone takes on while participating in any fantasy. One where you willingly suspend your own disbelief, and one where it is suspended for you.

Frankly any particular piece of fiction can be taken on as a willing suspension of disbelief depending on the particular consumer and their own mentality, but occasionally we can find fiction that manages to create a second world believable enough that it can serve as a coat hanger for our suspension of disbelief. Inside this ability to have our disbelief suspended for us lies a potentially dangerous prospect. What if the fictional world becomes more believable to us than the real one?

Tolkien's words which he original uses to draw a contrast between storytelling techniques becomes a bit more profound when he expresses his belief in christian faith using an analogy of his secondary belief to connect it to his faith in the christian gospel.

"I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused." - J. R. R. Tolkien

I've struggled with the concept that a fictional settings can become more important to an individual than a real one because I can't deny that it doesn't happen. I've been there myself many times in fact. Unwilling to accept it as something that is only dangerous I've been looking for a way to define what I see as the process by which we learn the difference between reality and fiction, and how even those who absorb themselves in fiction entirely are still capable of recognizing a healthy difference between what is real, and what is learned from experiences though secondary belief. In the process of all this I've realized something: My approach was wrong. Instead of looking for a way to defend against something I no longer believe to be true I've instead decided to look into the significance and value of what secondary belief brings to reality, and how it influences us.

With Tolkien Joy is the ultimate goal of his secondary world, but the goal's and beliefs of any particular writer is going to be different, and this type of secondary belief can be found in far more than fairy tails, and children's stories.

Let's look at Fate/Stay Night for example, it is a universe that is both obviously taking place in the real world, and obviously not. Tolkien's principle literary techniques of a secondary world do not entirely apply, but his principle of secondary belief is easily found inside the universe of Fate/Stay Night. I can even draw an analogy out of the magic behind Nasu's reality marble, and the way secondary belief crumbles before the real world leaving only it's influence behind.

In Fate/Stay Night the reality marble is not particularly well defined, but we can still easily accept the way it works. Fictional creations of the mind giving way to reality is a natural thing that does not need to be questioned. Inside a reality marble the power of reality is actively denied, but once the reality marble is gone all the remains is the influence it had on the real one.

The value of fiction can be found in one simple concept: Humanity learns by experience. Experience is the natural way a person comes to truly believe something. I personally believe that it is impossible to believe something simply by hearing it spoken. As children it is something we are capable of, but as we age, and become adults that ability dies. The sense of wonder we have about Santa goes away with time, and even the most aloof of people will come to understand that Santa didn't fly down from the north pole to give gifts, and that someone else put them there.

As a kid my dad was my best history teacher. I loved history as a kid, and I still love it as an adult; however, my siblings never really have. I've only recently realized why I love history while they all hate it: My dad is a storyteller. Growing up he would often read stories to me, or turn history into a story, or have me read stories. My dad is a much busier person now, but sometimes one of my siblings will talk to my dad, and receive one of his history lessons only to wonder why their teachers don't do history the same way he does.

My dad is pretty cool, he took something that can be boring and dry, and in the process of making it fun by turning into a story he turned it into an experience; because it became an experience I learned to believe in the power of history, and in turn out of that belief in the power of history I learned the power of a story.

There is a stark difference between learning answers to a text book, and experiencing a story. Stories both fictional and historical have the ability to share experience in a way that a text book cannot. Fictional stories have the added ability to share an experience from imagination. To allow you to experience things that you cannot otherwise experience in the real world.

Preaching and teaching straight information is a very bad way to communicate belief, challenge faith, and inspire guilt. Instead of real belief what is often created is a nasty sense of apathy, or worse an emotional high followed by a nasty sense of apathy. The power of experience is something that even some text book teachers and preachers understand. Emotional manipulation is the best way to make a ton of people come forward, and accept religious revival during a public event. Conversely anger and frustration can be a great motivator for political activists of all sorts. Have you ever seen a calm level headed person leading a successful political movement? Of course not, it's all about the experience because as people right or wrong what we believe is not based off facts or information it's based off experience.

Fiction allows the human mind to process things it does not have access to otherwise. In other words it creates a platform for experiencing things in a way that cannot be realized without the art that is fiction. I think in general this is an accepted thing as far as things we enjoy in fiction go, but people start to ignore context when it's not. Which brings me full circle back to the reason I wanted to write this in the first place.

Often enough there is a piece of fiction that is considered by someone harmful to society, and instead of looking at the benefits such a thing might have the only thing that is put on the table is real world disgust at the depictions presented. The real world implications become an out of context, and easily misunderstood thing before a point of moral judge that is itself lacking in understanding.

I am sure many remember Tokyo's Youth Ordinance Bill which passed back in 2010, or the Christopher Handley case which saw the man in jail for 6 months thanks to the 2003 Protect Act in the US. These instances of treating fiction as reality may not be every day occurrences, but it's not hard to find them either. Both inside the US, and in Japan there are examples of freedom of expression being squashed by fear and intolerance.

Another belief of mine is that fiction always has value merely by being fictional. Fiction has a very distinct meaning. Everything under the label of fictional has one thing in common: Fiction is established as taking place within a certain level of secondary belief. In this context the difference between Marvel Comics and the Christian Bible is that no one was ever intended to believe that Marvel characters are real. This context is clear and understood by fans of marvel comics, but not necessarily understood by those who do not wish to understand.

Light and darkness become reversed inside a story. The more broken a character the more room for redemption, the more evil a villain the more justified the hero, the more twisted the story, the more value in the experience. In this sense just as light illuminates the real world darkness illuminates a story. The same goes for the mentality and direction of a writer as it is in the way a writer's experience is twisted by their own imagination that allows fiction to exist in the first place. It is because conflict between light and dark is born of human dilemma that fiction is both so valuable, and also so easily misunderstood. Urobuchi put it really well in his defiance of Tokyo's Youth Ordinance Bill upon receiving an award for best script writer from the Tokyo Anime Awards.

"I feel greatly honored to have received this award. A society which considers cleanliness to be a virtue may feel that the adult game industry is like sludge. However, the scripts for this work came from the sensibility that I nurtured in that industry.

I am renewed with joy that the people who praised me realize that even this “lotus flower,” which first found nourishment in sludge, blooms.

I will not stop praying for a society where all creators, who believe steadfastly in the freedom of expression guaranteed by the constitution, need not hesitate to spread their wings of creative endeavors." - Urobuchi Gen

I think most of the principles I am portraying here are probably things that most fans of fiction will be able to understand, and probably have a hard time arguing against; however, tolerance is often lost the moment something is made that a person is not a fan of. The same sadness, and rage that Tolkien described at the rejection of christian scripture can also be found be found among fans of SAO who didn't like the way Asuna survived the end of Aincrad, or the way Inori dies, and Shu becomes blind at the end Guilty Crown. For an example of an anime event I don't like the ending of My Hime comes to mind. I still rage about that ending in fact.

Some may argue that artistic value is something that can be quantified, but I do not believe that to be the case. I do not think that artistic or scientific value can be placed upon any piece of art because art is beholden to the mind that processes it. The beliefs of each and ever human mind are built from a different framework. Sure lots of us have similarities, but it's our differences that allow a person to be defined as an individual. To quite Friedrich Nietzsche again. "The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently."

Friedrich Nietzsche had some interesting things to say about art and belief. I think these help frame the point I am trying to get at as they have helped to frame my own thoughts in the process of getting here so I will include a few more.

"Young people love what is interesting and odd, no matter how true or false it is. More mature minds love what is interesting and odd about truth. Fully mature intellects, finally, love truth, even when it appears plain and simple, boring to the ordinary person; for they have noticed that truth tends to reveal its highest wisdom in the guise of simplicity." Friedrich Nietzsche

“For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity or perception to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication” - Friedrich Nietzsche

"The man who is responsive to artistic stimuli reacts to the reality of dreams as does the philosopher to the reality of existence; he observes closely, and he enjoys his observation: for it is out of these images that he interprets life, out of these processes that he trains himself for life." - Friedrich Nietzsche

"Without art we would be nothing but foreground and live entirely in the spell of that perspective which makes what is closest at hand and most vulgar appear as if it were vast, and reality itself." - Friedrich Nietzsche

If the point hasn't been harmed home yet then perhaps quoting Hitler will help drive it there.

"How fortunate for governments that the people they administer don't think." - Adolf Hitler

"I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few." - Adolf Hitler

"It is always more difficult to fight against faith than against knowledge." - Adolf Hitler

"If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed." - Adolf Hitler

"It is not truth that matters, but victory." - Adolf Hitler

"All propaganda has to be popular and has to accommodate itself to the comprehension of the least intelligent of those whom it seeks to reach." - Adolf Hitler

"All great movements are popular movements. They are the volcanic eruptions of human passions and emotions, stirred into activity by the ruthless Goddess of Distress or by the torch of the spoken word cast into the midst of the people." - Adolf Hitler

“Anyone who sees and paints a sky green and fields blue ought to be sterilized.” - Adolf Hitler

"As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice." - Adolf Hitler

Hitler is in many ways one of the most powerful storytellers the world has even known. His propaganda was both vile, and quite obviously dangerous to the minds of German youths. In defeat Hitler's story has had a profound effect on human history, but I have something for you to ponder. What if someone had dreamed up the story of Germany's Nazi Party before World War 2 happened? What if that story in all it's grisly gory detail had been required reading for German youth's in school. In that scenario would Hitler still have been capable of the things he did?

Now I obviously can't give you an answer for the above scenario as it is not an experiment that can be carried out, but I still see value in pondering it. Also, someone is surely wondering why I am drawing contrast between the idea's of Hitler, and Friedrich Nietzsche. The idea that the two shared a common philosophy is myth. For one Hitler was a Christian, and Friedrich Nietzsche an Atheist; however, and more importantly Friedrich Nietzsche was something of an anarchist, while Hitler was clearly a statist. The two are like oil, and water. In this case they got mixed because they were both German, but if you investigate the philosophy each held were clearly not even close to being on the same page.

With the above idea's in mind let me ask this: Which is more dangerous? The lie of fiction, or the lie of truth? I extend this question to the many darker subjects of Japanese fiction as well. There are many fictional stories in which awful things happen. These awful things are sometimes done in a way that glorifies the awful things being done. I want to make a few examples, and I ask that you keep an open mind about the extent of the concept that I want to present to you.

Rape fantasizes, story of revenge and murder, stories where the protagonist is evil, and the good guy loses, stories of glorified crime and injustice, stories where the slaver wins, and the slaves are broken, and stories of sexual deviancy. I think that list reflects the darker side of Japanese fiction pretty well. Can this sludge still be of value? Can fiction be propaganda? Can fiction be dangerous? I've fought against these questions in the past, but have come to believe the answer to all of these questions is a very clear yes.

Personally I believe there is value in being able to experience the perspective of a wrong doer not only through the eyes of a hero, but through the eyes of a would be villain. How valuable can it be for a cop to understand the mentality of a brilliant criminal? This is a common theme in cop and robber stories one Pyscho-Pass has been using. I'm not suggesting these things to be absolute, but rather something that we should be open to pondering instead of a thing we shy away from understanding.

There is a case to be made for the value of sludge, and it is rarely heard. The beautiful thing about fiction is the context that it didn't really happen. In a fictional story the only victim is the human mind. The beautiful thing about the sins of fiction is that they are in and of themselves fictional so long as fictional context is understood. I will admit my truest concern is that in binding fiction with the constraints of censorship we damage the ability of society to experience tragedy.

Before I finish this all up what about the experience of a would be criminal on their own? Could reading a rape fantasy help a would be rapist to understand what it is he would be doing if he carried out such a crime? What about a would be murder? Could a murder fantasy help to understand the weight of such a crime? My personal belief is that yes it could. Just as light becomes something dull inside fiction darkness and conflict becomes an illumination. Would this stop awful things from happening? I don't know, but I think this is something that should be pondered.

I do believe this: humanity shares emotion by experience, and through that experience we believe. Primary belief can be challenged by secondary belief, but secondary belief is bound to the constraints of reality, and even children learn to easily differentiate between the two. In a world that seems to encourage conformity I have a genuine fear for the direction the future of human history will take. There is value in learning the cultures of others, and that extends beyond the things a culture is proud of. If we were to eliminate the dirt would we still have flowers? I will leave you all this question once more: Which is more dangerous? The lie of fiction, or the lie of truth?
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About Lifesongone of us since 12:32 PM on 01.12.2010

Anime nerd, occasional gamer and Japanese figure collector. Recently I've been digging into visual novels, and using that as an excuse to blog. I will read and blog English language visual novels for my feature on request; hit me up on theglorioblog.com(or here on Jtor) if you have something you think I should read.