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Make Anime, Not War: Itami, Abe, and GATE's take on modern Japanese militarism

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GATE & Japanese Military Build-up

[Ed. Note: Our newest contributor Yussif Osman begins his tenure at Japanator with a reflection on GATE, and this popular anime, light novel and manga's relationship to Japan's own attitudes towards military activity]

I'm a pacifist and a history enthusiast, so when I heard that an anime was being released about the Japanese military, I was both surprised and intrigued. I was worried in part that what I would find was a Michael Bay extravaganza of tanks and jets and yelling; I would have been particularly confounded by this as not only do I believe that would be in contrast to modern Japanese culture, but in contrast to modern Japanese history as well.

Instead, we're given Itami, mild-mannered, meek, and an Otaku. This is our hero, this is the character who will become the face of the Self-Defence Force, not a screaming commando or stern officer.

In the first episode, otherworldly forces from beyond the Gate attack Ginza and we see how our Self-Defence Force soldier reacts. Itami could have been written to take a primarily combat role in the ensuing chaos, taking on the invading knights and monsters. Instead, he turns his attention to the civilians, guides them to safety, makes sure they're okay and gives them comfort, makes them feel safe. And it's for this that he moves up in the ranks and takes centre stage in the world of GATE. Not for combat, but for disaster relief. Or at least, that's one way to look at it.

Japan's military history is a sensitive topic in East Asia, the Imperial Japanese Army was responsible for war crimes across Asia, forced labour and mass killings included. After the Second World War, pacifism became inscribed in schools and society, the hyper-militarism which once dominated the country was displaced with a progressive culture of democracy and empathy, I believe making possible the creative culture we love today. Constitutionally, Japan cannot really take an aggressive, or even a proactive stance in global military affairs, the modern constitution is a pacifist one.

The largely pacifistic mentality of the population meant for most of modern history, the SDF was not in high standing with public perception. Something worth remembering is not just how the imperial army of the Second World War did damage abroad, but that the military and its actions did damage at home too. Anyone who questioned the military or the war effort was punished severely whilst people were forced into becoming suicide attackers as kamikaze. The imperial army's aggression would be met with firebombing and famine, the consequences of which have been portrayed in such anime as Grave of the Fireflies and Rainbow. People never forgot this. That was at least until the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. The SDF played a vital role in disaster relief, rescuing people from waters and debris; for the first time, the SDF was seen as a positive force in Japan. Arguably, the focus on Itami helping civilians over fighting the enemy is in line with this.

Something that receives frequent attention in GATE, is the humanitarian streak of the SDF, rescuing civilians from fire dragons, providing refuge for refugees and engaging in dialogue with their enemy in the Empire beyond the Gate. There is a story arc in the anime where the SDF protect a village from insane bandits and after winning the battle, demand that their new allies whom they fought beside treat the defeated bandits with compassion and humanity. The anime portrays the SDF more as a humanitarian organisation for the most part, rather than an army. That's at least part of it.

Also and more disturbingly emphasised in GATE is the sheer overwhelming power of the SDF over the medieval Empire. Japanese soldiers slaughter the Empire's forces. Any confrontation between the SDF and an enemy beyond the Gate isn't a battle, but a massacre and in my view, if it is to glorify the SDF, it is in very bad taste. I'm encouraged by the humanitarian actions of the SDF in the show, but the frequent displays of overwhelming firepower and dominance, are a little unnerving and like the Empire itself, I hope that peace negotiations go well. So why does this worry me? Recently, Japan has been undergoing a military expansion under the direction of Prime Minister Abe. This has been controversial both in and out of Japan, with young people in particular and survivors from the Second World War era fearing a gradual return to military dominance over society. Not only has there been a drive for an inflation of military power, but Abe has been pushing for greater involvement in conflicts such as that in Syria, which commentators in Japan have actually denounced as unconstitutional. And with television commercials claiming that “all dreams can be achieved through the SDF”, in context, we've got to ask ourselves if we should actually be worried that Itami is so relatable.

Well, since we're back on to the topic of our main character, it's worth actually quoting him when he says if he had to choose between his Otaku hobbies or his job, he would choose his hobbies. Hardly the hyper-nationalist soldier of days gone by. And Itami is a genuinely compassionate character; recently in the second season, he pretended to be the father of a deluded and bereaved elf who was having trouble grieving. Though I actually disagree that this was the right thing to do, this says a lot about him as a character and most vitally, it said nothing about him as a soldier. I argue that the anime is not about the SDF, but rather about a man travelling to another world who happens to be in the SDF.

It may just be a coincidence that this anime emerges now, but in context, I believed it was worth exploring its implications and what it might mean. Itami is an interesting and empathetic character, and I believe rather than trying to portray the SDF as a glorified beacon of humanity or power, the creators of the light novel and by extension the show, are just trying to create a compelling story, exploring the morality of a man and what would happen if two very different worlds clashed and how we hope a modern society would react. With mercy, empathy and 21st Century humanity.   

In the first episode, otherworldly forces from beyond the Gate attack Ginza and we see how our Self-Defence Force soldier reacts. Itami could have been written to take a primarily combat role in the ensuing chaos, taking on the invading knights and monsters. Instead, he turns his attention to the civilians, guides them to safety, makes sure they're okay and gives them comfort, makes them feel safe. And it's for this that he moves up in the ranks and takes centre stage in the world of GATE. Not for combat, but for disaster relief. Or at least, that's one way to look at it.

Japan's military history is a sensitive topic in East Asia, the imperial army was responsible for war crimes across Asia, forced labour and mass killings included. After the Second World War, pacifism became inscribed in schools and society, the hyper-militarism which once dominated the country was displaced with a progressive culture of democracy and empathy, I believe making possible the creative culture we love today. Constitutionally, Japan cannot really take an aggressive, or even a proactive stance in global military affairs, the modern constitution is a pacifist one.

The largely pacifistic mentality of the population meant for most of modern history, the SDF was not in high standing with public perception. Something worth remembering is not just how the imperial army of the Second World War did damage abroad, but that the military and its actions did damage at home too. Anyone who questioned the military or the war effort was punished severely whilst people were forced into becoming suicide attackers as kamikaze. The imperial army's aggression would be met with firebombing and famine, the consequences of which have been portrayed in such anime as Grave of the Fireflies and Rainbow. People never forgot this. That was at least until the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. The SDF played a vital role in disaster relief, rescuing people from waters and debris; for the first time, the SDF was seen as a positive force in Japan. Arguably, the focus on Itami helping civilians over fighting the enemy is in line with this.

Something that receives frequent attention in GATE, is the humanitarian streak of the SDF, rescuing civilians from fire dragons, providing refuge for refugees and engaging in dialogue with their enemy in the Empire beyond the Gate. There is a story arc in the anime where the SDF protect a village from insane bandits and after winning the battle, demand that their new allies whom they fought beside treat the defeated bandits with compassion and humanity. The anime portrays the SDF more as a humanitarian organisation for the most part, rather than an army. That's at least part of it.

Also and more disturbingly emphasised in GATE is the sheer overwhelming power of the SDF over the medieval Empire. Japanese soldiers slaughter the Empire's forces. Any confrontation between the SDF and an enemy beyond the Gate isn't a battle, but a massacre and in my view, if it is to glorify the SDF, it is in very bad taste. I'm encouraged by the humanitarian actions of the SDF in the show, but the frequent displays of overwhelming firepower and dominance, are a little unnerving and like the Empire itself, I hope that peace negotiations go well. So why does this worry me? Recently, Japan has been undergoing a military expansion under the direction of Prime Minister Abe. This has been controversial both in and out of Japan, with young people in particular and survivors from the Second World War era fearing a gradual return to military dominance over society. Not only has there been a drive for an inflation of military power, but Abe has been pushing for greater involvement in conflicts such as that in Syria, which commentators in Japan have actually denounced as unconstitutional. And with television commercials claiming that “all dreams can be achieved through the SDF”, in context, we've got to ask ourselves if we should actually be worried that Itami is so relatable.

Well since we're back on to the topic of our main character, it's worth actually quoting him when he says if he had to choose between his Otaku hobbies or his job, he would choose his hobbies. Hardly the hyper-nationalist soldier of days gone by. And Itami is a genuinely compassionate character; recently in the second season, he pretended to be the father of a deluded and bereaved elf who was having trouble grieving. Though I actually disagree that this was the right thing to do, this says a lot about him as a character and most vitally, it said nothing about him as a soldier. I argue that the anime is not about the SDF, but rather about a man travelling to another world who happens to be in the SDF.

It may just be coincidence that this anime emerges now, but in context I believed it was worth exploring its implications and what it might mean. Itami is an interesting and empathetic character, and I believe rather than trying to portray the SDF as a glorified beacon of humanity or power, the creators of the light novel and by extension the show, are just trying to create a compelling story, exploring the morality of a man and what would happen if two very different worlds clashed and how we hope a modern society would react. With mercy, empathy and 21st Century humanity.   

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