animefringe september 2003 / editorial
An Unfair Storytelling Advantage

This month's column is quite a departure from my usual mercantile perspective. I apologize if it doesn't seem to have any relevance to anything, but sometimes, one must allow the mind to wander. Otherwise, it'll run away when you least expect it.

Have you ever really thought about how many Japanese stories focus upon one of the many civil wars they had to endure to complete unification of their nation? There are probably more books, manga, movies, and anime series devoted to some minor samurai warrior than any given president of the United States. Heck, there's probably more media available featuring a minor Japanese historical figure than even the most popular domestic heroes.

It really isn't fair.

I was reading the newest manga at work when I began to wonder why historical fiction isn't as popular here in the States as it is in Japan. We have plenty of it, and while most of it focuses on the settling of the West (such as books from Louis L'Amour, Zane Gray, and Ralph Compton or Clint Eastwood movies and other famous Westerns), some does touch upon colonial times (check out the non-fantasy works of Robert Jordan, for example), and also our own Civil War.

So, this stuff is out there, but why don't we have more popular media based upon it? From my perspective, there are two main reasons.

First of all, for most Americans, history is boring. Who cares about the Old West anymore? That's something for our parents and grandparents to romanticize over, not us. The only ideas I get from watching a Western involve dirty water, dusty roads, and the perpetual smell of horse rumps permeating the air.

It's not all that grand.

The Civil War wasn't too much better, with armies marching here and there and then standing in line to shoot each other. Sounds great! And don't even get me started on the Revolutionary War, which was like the Civil War, only there were more flutes and drums and the weapons weren't as interesting.

Okay, so I'm exaggerating. Personally, I find history not only fascinating but also of supreme importance to anyone who wishes to understand the present, but that's just me. I know I'm weird, after all.

The other reason, and perhaps the biggest factor explaining our distaste for our past, is the simple fact that we're embarrassed by it. Bringing up memories of the Revolutionary War reminds us of how much we hated the British (and how much they despised us smelly Americans, as we were at the time). The Civil War can't really be mentioned without dredging up the untouchable issue of slavery along with the fact that we were killing each other over something we know today to be so obviously wrong. Also, throughout our history, we steadily ground the native inhabitants of "our" land into a depressing submission, giving them some beads, a dustbowl, and a pat on the rear for good luck as we stole their domain out from under them. There are even the aftereffects of World War II to contend with, where we wiped out hundreds of thousands of lives instantly, gained new countries as allies, and new countries as enemies.

Simply put, we have a lot to be ashamed of.

So then, why is Japanese history so fascinating?

Well, it gets an initial boost merely because it's not our history. Anything that doesn't remind us of ourselves is a step in the right direction. Really, the most popular Japanese historical fiction deals with the age of the samurai, and for Americans, that's not truly history - it's fantasy. Feudal Japan is a whole other reality as far as we're concerned. It's a place that we can barely conceive nowadays, and thus it may be easier to envision the dramatic good sides of such an age rather than the bloody downsides of the era.

And boy was it bloody. America is not the only country to tear itself apart with a civil war, and many of the best stories are centered around the worst battles in Japanese history, including the Battle of Sekigahara.

Perhaps the relative proximity of our history makes the events that much more painful to us than the Japanese people's embarrassing moments. Our Civil War was only a century and a half ago, whereas Japan's last major pre-unification Civil War occurred in the 1600's. Perhaps time has dulled the pain of such events for the Japanese people.

I feel that another reason the Japanese people are able to examine their own past and show it for what it was is because they are a relatively homogenous race. Unlike America, which still hosts representatives of each race we've screwed in the past in some way or another, the Japan of today is filled mostly with one race - Japanese. In this nation, it's a challenge to hum a song that doesn't offend some group, and if you're brave enough to try telling a joke, you'd better watch your back - especially in this age of daintily-stepping political correctness.

Additionally, I doubt that there remain many in Japan that fly flags that once opposed one another, but here in the American Midwest, you needn't go far to find a Confederate flag. How awkward is that?

I'm not trying to suggest that we start an American animated series set some time in our past (like Legendary Armor Civil War Troopers). However, perhaps we would do well to see the Japanese as a good example of how a nation can embrace its own history. Before we can begin to care about our past, and far before we might start to accept it, we're going to have to look at it sooner or later. Ignoring our forefathers' mistakes of bygone days only increases the chance that we might one day repeat them.

With some of the horrible stuff we've done in the past, the world might not survive such a repetition.