Writer Ken Akamatsu’s election win offers a peek into Japan’s artistic discourse
On July 26, famed manga writer Ken Akamatsu will take his place in Japan’s House of Councillors for the Liberal Democratic Party. In a country notorious for its apathy toward politics, Akamatsu is an unusually popular figure. He earned 528,029 votes, the most of any individual candidate on the national slate, guaranteeing his victory as Japan’s first manga writer-turned-legislator. His platform? The artistic freedom of comic books.
Whether you think this sounds like an earnest desire for free speech or a bigoted dog whistle might depend on whether you’ve ever heard of an American cultural movement called Comicsgate. All you really need to know is yes, it was similar to Gamergate and yes, it was likewise extremely stupid. Where Gamergate turned the idea of ethics in gaming journalism into an absurdist concern troll, Comicsgate, for certain sectors of popular culture, had the same effect on the idea of aesthetics trumping politics in comic writing.
In Japan the pop culture landscape is no different, with diehard fans of comic books unsurprisingly holding much stronger opinions on their existing artistic merit than the people who would like to change them. Enter Akamatsu.
His seminal work, Love Hina, revolutionized the harem-style comedy somewhat paradoxically by removing the high-concept science fiction and overarching narratives common in such works to present a story about a regular guy living with a bunch of girls in a dormitory as they prepare to take employment exams. As it happened, Love Hina was popular on the basis of characterization and fan service alone. But the fan service was unavoidably racy, given that nearly all of the characters were teenagers.
Harem comedies are mostly out of fashion now. Ideally, this would mark Japanese society as a whole turning against fan service and sexualizing teenagers. The reality is just that aesthetic trends have changed. These days the market is all about Isekai stories, in which a person from the real world transports to an alternate fantasy universe.
Which brings us back to Akamatsu’s ascendance to the Japanese House of Councillors. While Akamatsu’s work as an author is more important historically than in current pop culture, that history is of a Japanese political system that underwent massive economic changes in the ‘90s. Some of those shifts made it a lot harder for men to find partners and start families. Manga and anime took on an increasingly surrogate role for such young men. (Life in the United States is undergoing almost the exact same pop culture shift as we speak.)
Given that the LDP was directly responsible for many of these societal changes and stands by these policy decisions, Akamatsu running on their slate may sound a bit odd. But that’s only if you consider his career in political terms. Akamatsu thinks of himself and his fellow manga writers as artists. Consequently, Akamatsu sees nearly every political development of the last decade as relevant only to the extent that it threatens art.
Planks of the platform
Akamatsu fought against the LDP in his capacity as a reasonably well-known author when the LDP considered legislation that risked damaging artists. Proposals involved expanding definitions of copyright and pornography that meant artists working on the margins (which is most of them) couldn’t really work without risk of breaking the law. Japan’s manga industry is no free market, but it does have a long history of turning a blind eye to copyright infringement and is open enough about its pornographic elements that for the most part writers stick around where they’re sure they’re wanted instead of trying to cross-market tedium or smut to people who won’t appreciate it. Akamatsu joined the LDP in part to get a first crack at any such legislation so as to preemptively protect the other writers in his field.
Akamatsu is unique among celebrity politicians in that he doesn’t shy away from his past career, or claim that he’s using his platform to fight for everyone because it’s the right thing to do. He simply promises to protect the artistic sanctity of comics from influence that he describes as foreign. Translation: international standards that would be disastrous to Japan’s independent comic-focused subculture.
Much of the work Akamatsu champions could reasonably be described as borderline child pornography. Yet it’s also true that the byzantine production structure that creates Japanese comics is critical to its success. Manga and anime are household names worldwide in part because the industry is highly competitive. Big distributors don’t have the power to squash competition like they do in the United States, and it’s not coincidental that for decades now, Japanese comics have outsold American comics even in the United States, even as they now have blockbuster films working as advertisements for them.
Supporting the fan base
Akamatsu is, in this vein, the candidate for hobbyists. That Akamatsu joined the LDP instead of just trying to make his own political party is noteworthy, as Japan’s parliamentary election meant there’s a decent chance he could have won on his own platform. But Akamatsu doesn’t want to overhaul the system like most minor parties in Japan do. He just wants people to be able to indulge in their hobbies in peace.
Akamatsu’s promises may seem ridiculous, but for a certain portion of the population they’re both a big deal, and also likely all they can reasonably expect to get. A few days after the confirmation of his election win, Akamatsu promised legislation to confirm the playability of retro video games. This might not sound like much, but it’s a huge issue to hobbyists within those communities. For very old video and computer games tracing to the 80s and beyond, few copies exist, and collector often hoard the the ones that do and refuse to dump the data, risking it being lost forever. Akamatsu supports treating games as preservable on digital libraries.
It’s a small move, but it’s effectively saving the childhoods of people more used to thinking of them as being destroyed. Fandoms in Japan and elsewhere have come to see these pop culture institutions as the stewards of their collective identity. We can’t rely on our families, we can’t rely on our jobs, we can’t rely on the government, but at least we can rely on comic books.
Akamatsu is helping to restore faith in society by at least forcing the government to take comic books seriously. As absurd as that may sound, it’s also surprisingly mundane. There’s no real culture war opposition to his agenda in Japan like there is in the United States. Sure, Made In Abyss has some questionable creative choices made regarding its child characters. But anyone outside of its core fan group is highly unlikely to notice or care about that.
There’s a realism in understanding the limits of pop culture discourse. Akamatsu walked right up to that line and now he’s just standing on it, provoking surprisingly little controversy. There’s no conspiracy of his trying to boost his career or brainwash children. Akamatsu is the most boring celebrity candidate we’re ever likely to see — and really, that’s for the better.