Manga Review – Nichimandoku

Matsuoka Waka, Christina Plaka and Dirk Schwieger.  Nichimandoku.  Collaborative online manga series.  Hosted by Goethe Institut Tokyo,  January-October, 2011.

Why Spellbound to Japan?  Communities Disarmed and Isolated in a Global Context

Toshiro Osawa

“Nichimandoku” is a neologism made up of three Japanese words, “nichi (Japan),” “man (manga)” and “doku (Germany).”  Translated roughly, it means something like “bridging Japan and Germany through manga.”   As an online project, it began in January 2011, about two months before the tremendous disaster that hit Japan on March 11th. Originally it had nothing to do with the disaster.  It was conceived to mark the 150th anniversary of the diplomatic exchange between Japan and Germany, and organised by the Goethe Institute, a non-profit German cultural institution promoting the study of the German language and cultural exchange worldwide. The project aimed to use manga collaboration between German and Japanese artists, first, to reflect on aspects of cultural exchange between the two countries, and second, to shed light on mutual knowledge and ignorance of and by both cultures. Accordingly, the project is addressed to German and Japanese readers interested in Japanese and German cultures, respectively. In this context the choice of manga is not surprising.  In my experience, it is an almost overwhelming tendency among German students beginning Japanese Studies to initiate themselves by means of manga,  Japan’s strongest cultural capital in the global marketplace.

One thing I find disappointing about Nichimandoku is that it does not take full artistic advantage of the function of exchange. It resembles renga, the form of poetic exchange from which haiku emerged in the Muromachi and Edo periods, in which poets take turns completing a longer work by paying close attention to rules of continuity and theme.  But in Nichimandoku, although the two German and one Japanese artists do respond to previous entries, their interaction is not extensive, remaining limited to the verbal, rather than the visual.  This limitation becomes more noticeable after Folge (German for “series” or “episode”) 22, when the language switches from German to Japanese, and the German translation is not as helpful as it might be.

Another thing I find disappointing about Nichimandoku is its treatment of the aftermath of March 11th. The project’s three artists, Matsuoka WakaDirk Schwieger, and Christina Plaka, are all in the early stages of careers as professional mangaka, having gotten their starts either during or after their respective study-abroad experiences.  At the time when I am writing this review, in late August 2011, the disaster is not yet under control because the future of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is still far from clear.  Matsuoka, Schwieger and Plaka have to date published a total of thirty episodes or Folge, adding about one per week since January.  Of these, Matsuoka has contributed fourteen episodes, Schwieger eight and Plaka six.  In the first three months after the disaster they mentioned the nuclear crisis relatively often.  But already by July they seemed to have stopped talking about it, with a brief mention only in Folge 24.  This tendency has been especially strong since Christina Plaka took over from Dirk Schwieger the German side of the exchange in June. My sense is that this neglect may stem from the fact that both Matsuoka and Plaka live in Kyoto, where most people have already lost a sense of danger because the city is supposed to be sufficiently far from the nuclear accident. Interestingly, it is only Schwieger, writing from Germany, who continues to exhibit a sense of danger.  This is typical of people in Germany, who are far better informed about the nuclear crisis than those in Japan.

As a person who lives neither in Japan nor in Germany at the moment, and as a person who can understand Japanese, German and English, I have attentively checked various forms of media in all three languages since the disaster. To me it is clear that there is conspicuous disparity. While German media reported intensively especially on the nuclear situation for three or four months, Japanese media had already stopped focusing on the crisis by the end of March. Unfortunately, we have to admit that some kind of media manipulation has been put into effect, or been strengthened since the disaster. This sheds light on the collusive relationship between government, industry, science and media in Japan.[1]  It has existed at least since the 1950s, when pro-nuclear policies were pursued by all four sectors in concert.  However, it has been hidden or carefully detached from people’s awareness. Meanwhile, English media (admittedly not a monolithic entity) tend to fall somewhere in between German and Japanese extremes.

It was at about the time when even the German media seemed to have forgotten what was happening in Japan that the two Kyoto-based Nichimandoku artists stopped mentioning the crisis.  While Schwieger continued to emphasize the contrast in recognition between people in Germany and in Japan (see for instance Folge10121416 and 18),  Plaka turned her attention to far less political aspects of life in both countries.  And this resulted in the relative weakening of critical perspective, which is a shame, because the crisis could have been used to shed light on various cultural problems in Japan, and made Nichimandoku much more interesting.

Because the project is meant to promote cultural exchange between Germany and Japan, most of the people involved are interested in Japan in their way.  In contrast, as a general tendency, most people in the world have little or no interest in Japan. The result is that communities constructed around interest in Japan tend to share its isolation. This tendency is strengthened by what I call a “spellbound” relation to Japan, the product of a kind of self-identification that emerges almost defensively as an alternative to the rest of the world’s indifference. This self-identification can be observed especially in Plaka’s work. She draws herself according to the style typical of Japanese manga, deforming her face with unnaturally large eyes and enlarging her face while reducing the size of her body (see for instance Folge 21). While this kind of deformation remains strange to people unfamiliar with manga, Plaka enjoys adopting it for her self-image. She seems to position herself within Japanese culture, upholding the conceit of privileged understanding.  In this way, she contributes to the constitution of a spellbound community bound by identification with Japan. In Folge 27, a person meant to be Plaka is almost indistinguishable from a soccer player from Japan’s national team.

I would contend that Japan is becoming all the more isolated in the face of the crisis, for three reasons.

First is the exacerbation of miscommunication between Japanese and overseas media. The simple difficulty of interpreting what is being said in Japanese media already hinders smooth communication.  But the types of discourse generated in Japan since March 11th have been particularly difficult for people who have non-Japanese backgrounds because they are directed exclusively to a Japanese-speaking public and structured in ways that make them difficult to translate into German or English, which require more logical consistency.

Second is the revelation that, for most Japanese people, living outside the country is completely inconceivable.  One might expect that the magnitude of the disaster would force people to consider it.  But what came into relief after March 11th were patterns, not just of affinity for birthplace and childhood home, which are universal, but of mutual restriction and ostracization.  It was often heard that people who left their hometowns deserved to be accused of disloyalty; that by not following obligatory social rules they were “no longer Japanese.”  In many cases, the fear of being excluded from (an allegedly homogeneous) Japanese society exceeded even the fear of loss of life from radiation exposure.  Subsequently, the public’s disavowal of the disaster’s ongoing magnitude and the government’s priority of economic over biological viability have both added to the problem of immobility.

Third, and most important for situating the Nichimandoku project, is the strange parallel between “foreigners” living in Japan and domestic people who have fewer choices about where they live. Why have these foreign people allowed themselves to be critically disarmed?  The nuclear situation has not improved at all since it began. Like domestic people who are socially, politically, and economically deprived of their criticism, these foreign people allow their spellbound relationship to immobilize them, physically and intellectually.  We see this tendency in both the German artists of Nichimandoku, but especially Plaka who has specially chosen to continue her Master’s study in Japan after the disaster, and, as if as a result, stops discussing the disaster after only one episode.  By Folge 21, her second contribution, she has already shifted her attention to various aspects of Japanese culture that she says are totally new to her, being absent in German culture. In Folge 23 she elaborates, writing “in Japan, I’m always surprised that many people are so polite and willing to help us.” Plaka adopts the biased image of Japanese politeness and patience that was reported repeatedly by overseas media after the disaster and later reappropriated by many Japanese.  What is troubling is that Plaka writes this on 1 July 2011, by which time the meltdown at Fukushima had finally been made public, despite lengthy efforts by the government and industrial sectors to keep it secret.  In the face of such duplicity and public endangerment, how is it possible for Plaka still to maintain that Japanese people are polite and helpful?  Yet she holds fast to her simplified characterisation, her oblivion mirrored by many ordinary domestic people in Japan who are also disarmed by media manipulation and, perhaps, by mental exhaustion.  I find it to be a complete paradox that the more people are interested in Japan, the less critical they become, and the more isolated in global contexts, irrespective of their original cultural backgrounds.

Ultimately, what is at stake in the Nichimandoku project is the very possibility of a cultural exchange not limited to those who are deprived of their criticism.  The task is made all the more urgent by the inconvenient truths revealed after March 11th:  people’s closed mentality obsessed with homogeneity, and their consequent political immaturity.  Is it acceptable to continue closing our eyes to the facts by re-mystifying Japan’s deformed images?  True, the propensity for what I am calling “deformity” is less extreme among the three Nichimandoku artists than among those who have less interest in Japan. But we see even Matsuoka, for instance, drawing Japanese faces with closed or small eyes, or even with no eyes, only glasses.  She does this especially when she intends to contrast them with “foreign” faces (see Folges 16192123242728 and 29).  Meanwhile, she draws herself with the exceedingly large eyes typical of Japanese manga.  If we want a cultural exchange that exceeds uncritical clichés, should Japanese manga artists not also avoid self-mystification?  Should they not avoid it especially in the medium to which we have come to believe it is best suited?

[1] See for instance Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, “Japanese Officials Ignored or Concealed Dangers,” New York Times website,