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Japan: Hetalia Axis Powers and the limits of parody

Hetalia (a combination of the words “hetare”, lit. useless, and Italia), a satirical manga created by Hidekaz Himaruya (日丸屋秀和) [HH’s official blog, jp], set mainly during the Second World War and featuring national protagonists of that era, has drawn attention among both domestic and international audiences. Originally born as a webcomic [jp] out of the mind of a Japanese expatriate living in New York, Hetalia was published as a manga in 2008 by Gentosha Comics Inc. and was subsequently made into an animated series [eng. sub.] in January 2009, drawing more than 200.000 views on internet alone.


Hetalia-episode 01[RAW](Japanese only)

The story and the characters

Hetalia: Axis Powers [jp] (complete name) caricatures everyone without exception. Germany, Japan, France, U.K., U.S.A., Poland, Russia, the Baltic countries, Spain, Greece, Austria, Hungary, Poland, China, Korea and, above all, Italy, personified by boyish characters in the style typical of the Japanese manga, are portrayed exaggerating their (stereotypical) features, and are all pilloried with the same level of ironic intensity.

Yorozu Haki (万葉樹) suggests that this manga should be seen as a fictional product and as representative of a subcultural movement that, in recent times, has been spreading among the Japanese manga world, one in which many authors have started dealing with political or social themes, within the limitations of the artistic medium:

舞台は日本、イタリア、ドイツが同盟を組んだ第二次世界大戦あたりと思われます。ときおり、歴史的なうんちくが散りばめられているので、世界史マニアには興味深いかも。[…]
歴史認識が浅いという辛口の意見もあるのですが、しょせんはフィクション。ただ、現在マンガカルチャーの発言権は増しているだけに、偏見を植えつけかねないかも。日本人が国際社会で弱腰というのは、総体的にはそうかもしれないですが、いささか強調されすぎているきらいもありますよね。あと、こうした歴史文化的な興味というのは、往々にして、サブカルチャーを経由しているというのが、まさに現代的ですよね。
この漫画で描かれているように、おちゃらけ雰囲気で国際紛争もカタがつけばよろしいのでしょうけれど、現実問題、国家というのはおそろしいモンスターであって、けっしてひとりの人格に収斂させられるようなものではないのです。

The setting is the Second World War, and the alliance between Japan, Italy and Germany. [The manga] is filled with historical information, which makes it of great interest to world history enthusiasts. […]
Some have criticized the manga because of its superficial historical understanding, but it's just fiction after all. On the other hand, today's manga subculture is regaining its voice, and it may be that prejudices are setting in. It is generally true that Japanese people do not voice strong opinions in international social contexts, but it is also true that this fact has been somewhat overemphasized. Also, this kind of social-cultural interest, more and more frequently expressed through elements of subculture [such as manga], is a very modern [phenomenon].
It would be good if the international conflicts were settled as they are depicted in this manga, with its goofy atmosphere, but the problem is that nations are in reality dreadful monsters and they are not something that can be reduced to a single character.

Blogger Roko reflects on how such manga, despite not being meant to act as a historical reference, can nonetheless act as an opportunity to stimulate in the reader a curiosity to learn more about the world:

ウワサのヘタリア、読んでみました。国を擬人化した登場人物のからみは面白かったなぁ。
いつでも美味しいものを食べることしか考えていないヘタレなイタリア。ドイツの捕虜になって喜んでるソ連。何をするにも時間がかかるギリシャ。ケチケチなオーストリア。昔はかわいこちゃんだったのに、今じゃエラソーなアメリカ。真面目でいつも怒ってるドイツ。
 それぞれの国の個性が、思いっきり突っ込まれてます。結局はみんなヘタレなのかなぁ~?

I read the Hetalia people are talking about. The relationship between characters personifying different countries was pretty amusing.
Good-for-nothing Italy that can think about nothing but good food. The Soviet Union, happy to be Germany`s prisoner. Greece, who takes a very long time in everything he does. Cheapskate Austria. The United States, who was so cute when he was little but then grew up to be so arrogant. Forever angry and serious Germany.
The personality of each country is ridiculed without exception. Perhaps all of them in the end are just “good for nothing”, no?

[…]

おバカなコミックスですけど、こんなところから世界を知るのもアリかなと思います。だって、学校ではこういうこと教えてくれないもの。この頃、世界に興味のない人が増えてるでしょ。そういうのって危険だと思うんです。
 やみくもに外国がステキと思うのもいけないけど、知りもしないで否定するのはもっといけないことだと思うのです。
 世界を知れば日本のことも知りたくなります。一つ知ればそこから興味が広がります。でも、最初の一つを手にすることができないと、そこからは何も広がらないのです。1×2は2、2×2は4になるけれど、0には何をかけても0。無知は恐ろしいことであり、悲しいことなのです。

This may be a silly comic but I think it's one way to learn about world history. Because after all, they don`t teach us these kinds of things at school, do they? The number of people who are completely disinterested in the world is increasing nowadays, and this in my opinion is a dangerous [trend].
While it is wrong [for Japanese] to blindly consider foreign countries to be wonderful, it is a much more worse thing to deny [history] without even knowing anything about it.
The more I learn about world history, the more I want to learn about Japanese history. As soon as I learn a new thing I become interested in a world of other things. But if from the start you are not granted the possibility to access that first piece of new information, then that knowledge will not spread.
After all, 1 times 2 makes 2, and 2 times 2 makes 4, but whichever number you multiply by 0, the answer is always 0. Ignorance is a scary and sad thing.

As its title suggests, the most ill-treated country in Hetalia is Italy. Descending from a glorious stock (his grampa is the Roman Empire), Italy seems to have shown signs of weakness since his childhood, being bullied by his European friends. Both in the manga and the anime, Italy is represented as always whining, lazy, keen on catching girls, and a lover of good food. Although many Italian enthusiasts of Japanese anime are looking forward to watching the fansubbed version, some of them questioned the “good taste” of the subjects selected.

In a thread dedicated to Hetalia [it] in Shinforum, a forum of Japanese culture fans, Agarsen, for example, writes:

Dopo aver letto buona parte dei capitoli, posso dire che, sebbene abbia trovato parte del manga divertente, ho trovato anche parte del manga di cattivo gusto; non offensivo, ma di cattivo gusto, proprio per la superficialità con cui certe affermazioni sono proposte al lettore. Se noi prendessimo la cultura giapponese e decidessimo di sbeffeggiarla “per quello che ci sembra” io non credo che i giapponesi ne sarebbero divertiti…

After having read a great portion of the chapters, I can say that although I found the manga very funny on one hand, on the other I also found it of bad taste; not offensive but of bad taste, just for the superficiality of some statements as they are proposed to the reader. If we took the Japanese culture and decided to mock it “for what it looks like”, I don’t think that the Japanese people would be happy with that…

[…]

Ogni cosa può essere fatta sembrare idiota se letta superficialmente.
Il problema è che deve esistere anche una consapevolezza, una lettura più approfondita dei fatti che ti dice “Un momento, va bene riderci sopra, ma nella realtà dei fatti c'è poco da ridere”. Insomma, dovrebbe essere un riso amaro più che uno sbellicarsi. Io già m'immagino certa gente che penserà di capire la storia dopo avere letto Hetalia, esattamente come pensa di conoscere la società guardando la televisione…

Everything can be made to look idiotic if read superficially.
The problem is that there must be some awareness, a more deep reading of the facts that tells you “Wait a moment. Laughing at it is fine but, actually, there is not much to laugh about”. In short, it should be more of a bitter laugh than roaring with laughter.
I can already see some people thinking that they now understand history after having read Hetalia, in the same way that they think they know society just because they watch TV…

Trovo difficile ridere al pensiero di gente che scappa dal fronte o si arrende senza combattere; gente pescata da ogni dove, che voleva solo farsi gli affari propri e vivere tranquilla, mal equipaggiata, mandata a combattere nel deserto… si dovrebbe ridere di questa gente?
Che si ridi di Mussolini e dei fascisti, ma loro..

I find it very difficult to laugh when I think of people escaping from the front or surrendering without fighting; people randomly chosen from everywhere, whose only desire was to care for their own business and live a peaceful life, ill-equipped and sent to fight in the desert… should we laugh at these people?
Let's laugh at Mussolini and the fascists, but at them…

Polemics and protests

As mentioned above, the broadcast of the animated series inspired by the manga was scheduled for the 24th of January on Kids Station (a Japanese TV channel for kids), but it was officially suspended after 16.000 messages of protest arrived from Korean netizens, resulting in the anime being viewable only on the Internet and on mobile phones.


News about Hetalia in South Korea (English sub.)

That such a controversial subject as WW2, and the way in which countries were mocked and ridiculed, could result in some polemics, is not so surprising in itself. What struck many Japanese bloggers, however, was the fact that Korea, mentioned only in the comic and even there only as a minor character, considered its depiction a national insult, yet one more provocation from arrogant Japan.

In his analysis, Korean blogger no_tenki explains [jp] that the Korean reaction, which may seem extreme to many, is not in fact extreme but rather a consequence of anti-Korean messages constantly spread on the Japanese web, especially in some rightist bulletin boards or websites. These messages are what alarm Koreans living in their homeland as well as those living in Japan:

ヘタリアについて話しますと、[...]まあ、まともに読んでないので迂闊な評価はできませんが、人気があるということは、なかなかセンスのある方ではないかと思われます。ですけど韓国については、掘り下げが足りない…というより、単純に、ただのネタです。ボクもそう思いますが、韓国なんて登場しなくても構わないわけだし、どうでもいいとは思います。ですけど、韓国人としては、やっぱりこれは憂慮せざるを得ない。

Speaking of Hetalia, [...] I haven`t read it so I can't evaluate it, but the fact that it has become so popular means that it has been created with good sense.
However, regarding Korea [and how it is depicted in the manga], I do agree with those who say that, more than just being superficial, it is a mockery, and I also wouldn't mind if Korea wasn't depicted at all. As a Korean myself, however, I cannot help but feel concerned.

韓国のキャラ設定ですけど、ただ、ネット上においての韓国のイメージを、そのまま借用しているわけですよね。ネットの住人には納得できそうなキャラ像です。「ニダー」と違って顔も美形ですし、バカではあるけど悪気のあるやつとしては描かれていない。だからニダーとは違うのだ。むしろ好意的に捉えている。と思われるかもしれませんけど、その根本にある「韓国のイメージ」というのは「ニダー」も、この「韓国」さんも同じわけで、昔の「嫌韓」の常識(今はネットの住人の常識かな)を引っ張り出してきていて、それをアレンジしてるだけで、(絵は好きですけど、設定においての)材料は同じじゃないですか。「韓国とはこういう国だ」というイメージがここまで肥大したからこそ、別に嫌韓でない人でも、ヘタリアでの韓国のキャラに違和感を感じない。むしろ「事実どおりに描かれている」と思う。これはなかなか恐ろしいことだと思いますよ。「…」

The Korean character has been drawn according to the image of Korea as it appears on the Internet. It perfectly reflects the image that Japanese netizens have of Korea. Compared to Nidaa [a character that 2channelers came up with, drawn as ASCII art with the intent to disparage Korea and named after the Korean suffix -mnida], it is good-looking, silly but it doesn`t look malicious. So it is different from Nidaa because it is conceived of as a friendly character.
Or, at least, this is what they would say. However, the basic image of Korea, be it Nidaa or mr. Korea, is the same. They are arranging the anti-Korean sentiment shared among netizens in a different way, but the ingredients are the same (I mean the ideology, because I actually like the drawing).

[…]

だからどっちにしろ、韓国ではヘタリアは極右の嫌韓(的な見方から韓国をキャラ化した)アニメとして知らされ、これから韓国の一般人の日本に対する認識を悪くする要因の一つとして存在しつづけるかもしれない。ということを考えると、とても心配なわけだ。

Consequently, [in Korea] Hetalia has the reputation of a rightist anime in which Korea is depicted according to an anti-Korean point of view, and this may turn into a factor worsening the perception of the Japanese among Koreans. This worries me a great deal.
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  • http://bernyblog.wordpress.com bernardo parrella

    brava, scilla, another interesting story – especially for the italian-japan fan connection, and related stereotypes ;)

    it seems, however, that some of our fellow citizens didn’t see it as nice or approving – including the latter one…vabbe’!

  • AliceGoBoom

    I just watched that Korean video about Hetalia and they are waaay over reacting on the subject.
    I knew this would happen .___e
    People in different contries would watch Axis Powers Hetalia and go way over board, thinking it all as an insult.
    I think its funny, I’m not offended in any way!
    Its just a cute, funny Anime and I like it, thousands of people like, from all over the world.
    They need to get over it >:^

  • yuko

    As a Korean, I was at first very concerned about reading this series, but other than some very minor parts of the story, I am not offended in any way.

    Of course, the whole ‘Korea touching Japan’s breasts and claiming Dokdo is their land’ worries me in a sense. Dokdo has always been Korea’s land until Japan came and claimed it was their land. Another part that worried me is a picture of Korea holding Japan’s flag. During WWII, Korea was not under Japan’s control, and I see this as historically unaccurate. But these are very minor aspects.
    Other than that, we pictured quite interestingly and accurately. We come as people to love the internet and games, and we do. I shall confidently say that Korea is very advanced in the online gaming world, and many Koreans who can making a living out of just playing online games. We come as a character who is usually goofy, but full of manners in front of our elders. Yes, we are taught to be full of manners, and our society expects that from us. We come as some kind of character that tries to stay in good terms with America and we do (I don’t see why Koreans are so angered by this part). Other countries are descripted very harshly as well, so I don’t see why Korea is so angered about this. Maybe it’s because of the anger left from the time Korea was claimed by Japan?

  • Anonymous

    I feel like Korea over-reacted a bit. ._<

    I mean, I'm American. America [in Hetalia] is portrayed as gluttonous, arrogant, uncultured, and ignorant to other countries around him, always trying to be the hero. I think that's a lot worse, considering America is a major character, and yet Hetalia has a decent-sized fanbase in the USA [including me].

    All the countries are essentially bishies who's personalities are based on stereotypes about people from that country. Hetalia is a SATIRICAL manga. I'm not saying everyone should like it– I would never expect that. But I don't think it would hurt if people calmed down a little bit.

  • paolo

    What’s this shit? Oriental people trying to amuse themselves by making fun of mainly italy douring WWII?
    don’t japanese and korean people know that apart from minor btutal actions agaist our colonised people in Libya,Ethiopia and somalia, italian army never committed mass massacres against civilians or POW like Japanese and germans did? Is this a matter to lought about? Shame.

  • Lulubell

    I understand both sides…instead of cancelling they could have just blocked korea out ya know…
    I understand why they acted like that , because of the japanese invasion thing. Many people living outside of korea.. don’t know what REALLY happened to korea during the time of the invasion thingy it’s a pity hetalia got cancelled I really enjoyed it too..hahaha..i love italy so funny!

    • Paolo

      to Lulubell
      we in the west are not used to your “mangas”. How do you dare to describe a foreign power “so funny”? Did you study our 3000 old history,culture,art,language, and even military achievements, expept the unfortunate 20 years fascist era which thought us in the war as allied with germany? We has never been racist ,in fact today more than 10% of our 60 million population is made up of immigrants from outside europe. And stereotypes described in Hetalia are just worth of stereotypes describing in Italy korean people as tiny insects working 24h/7/365 to save money building products of lower quality than Japan, or hollywood stereotypes describing Italy as the mafia and pizza country (actually we are still the 6th industrial power in the world) and describing orientals as a hole as Hong Kong mafia members, and as a lower race compared to caucasians. So let’s try not to make idiot fun of each agaist the others but to be more friendly and to study deeply each others, not through the extremely superficial manga Hetalia which mismatch real japanese,italian,korean,german,and US history.
      Take care

      • Taki

        Not to beat dead horse. . . BUUUUT-

        Woah- stop there, don’t you think that kind of response is a bit extreme? Hetalia doesn’t claim to be deep at all- it supposed to be fun and uses fun facts and stereotypes to be more satirical than educational. It’s no use getting offended over art and totally trashing it. Especially if you’ve never read it.

        Plus- Lulubell was referring to the Northern Italy of HETALIA, a character, not the real country of Italy.

      • Ivan

        Hey, you. Calm down, eh.
        I’m italian and I love my country, but Italy in hetalia is funny. He is. And he’s sweet, and caring, but also weak and yeah, he’s afraid of everything. Well I’m not offended in anyway.
        My favourite nation is Russia and thanks to hetalia I love school now. Thanks to hetalia I enjoy history about anyone and it changed my life. So you can kiss my ass~
        I don’t usually say that, i’m not this rude, but i don’t think i like you~
        And i feel bitchy today~

  • sufuru

    wow stop fighting, hetalia is a good manga it doesn’t insult any country, on the contrary before reading the manga i used to hate both korea and france but now i really love them because it shows that despite their bloody history all the cuontry are kind inside (in their hearts) so you should see it positively,it’s really a good anime and by the way even if america’s character is stupid i think that everyone would agree that he’s a true HERO!

  • paolo

    Hey you all supporting this satirical anime and claiming you now love history,you know love Korea and France etc…don’t you ralize this is a quite superficial way of studying ral history (not to say a bad word)? My worry concerns about millions of people,not any more just eastern but also americans and italians,are watchin this…..and believing this is the real way the immense tragedy of World War two went by

    • Ash

      Yeah I have to agree with this post. Though I am rather addicted to Hetalia, I have to say it hasn’t taught me any history at all. You can’t learn history by studying Hetalia but you can learn Hetalia by studying history. ;)

      But yeah I don’t think people should get upset at the stereotype thing. After all, it’s a manga/anime personifying countries there’s bound to be some prejudice and if you don’t like that kinda thing, don’t watch it. After all, my countries depicted as tea-drinking, tsundre,nasty, Satanists!

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