In 1960 an ultranationalist youth murdered the Japan Socialist Party chairman on live TV with a katana; before committing suicide in prison, he wrote a samurai poem on the wall. In 1970, novelist Mishima Yukio killed himself in ritual samurai fashion after failing to launch a coup. Both men openly admired Hitler. Throughout the 1960s, far-rightists attacked striking workers; samurai-loving sports teams fought protesting students; and mob-boss Kodama Yoshio moulded young anti-communists into militiamen. Despite historians’ perception of Japanese ‘fascism’ as contained to the 1930s, fascistic politics have survived ever since, but their gendered manifestation has shifted dramatically. Looking to a samurai past for masculinist inspiration, the 1960s far-right was a wholly masculine space. Today, things have changed. Japanese pop-culture, global in distribution, is replete with fascist tropes; yet now they are as likely to be expressed through schoolgirls as through samurai chauvinists. Extreme ideas are thereby outwardly pacified, but are in fact no less dangerous. Tracing the recent history of gender and far-right pop-culture in Japan can help us to recognise fascism in truly global media.
The 1990s saw fascism first presented in a mass format. After decades of prosperity, the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble had left a ‘precariat’ of young people in a perilous position, forced to work as part-time ‘freeters’ and lacking direction. The left offered few solutions – trade union literature attracted little interest, and leftist presence in the legislature was weak. The far-right, by contrast, offered solutions by looking to the past for a long-lost, communal spiritualism. Such ideas were spread to young Japanese through manga, including by manga artist Kobayashi Yoshinori.
Kobayashi shot to national notoriety when he began his Gomanizumu Sengen (A Declaration of Arrogance) series (1995-2003). Cheap, serialized, and taking full advantage of its accessible medium, Gomanizumu provided desperate Japanese an entry into politics. It railed against decadent materialism, idolising a past in which the nation was spiritually united. Successive issues of Gomanizumu increasingly excused Japan’s wartime actions; in one, Taiwan’s premier laments losing a ‘Japanese spirit’ gained under colonisation. Not only were war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine (a major site of rightist reverence) as heroes – they also inhabited a utopian Japanese afterlife, where the Chinese and Christian afterlives were chaotic. Kobayashi’s reverence for the noble samurai especially echoed his far-right predecessors; the difference was that, more than anyone before, Kobayashi distributed his ideas to a mass audience.
Despite its familiar masculinism, Gomanizumu achieved something new by appealing to a small number of young Japanese women, through its attractive visuals and wide circulation. One fan, artist and musician Amamiya Karin, hopeless and in search of solutions to her own dire position, was drawn into far-right spaces through Gomanizumu. She joined a punk band, Revolutionary Truth, who wore controversial Rising Sun headbands, sang the national anthem, and held loudspeaker protests. In the Gomanizumu fandom she found a comradery seemingly sorely missing from contemporary, materialist Japanese society. Unlike previous rightists, Kobayashi’s approach was, outwardly, nonviolent, rendering it palatable to Amamiya and other female fans. By using manga as a medium, Kobayashi had successfully pacified a fascist agenda. Over time, however, Gomanizumu came to endorse virulent masculinity and noble death. Amamiya has written that her male friends began to consider committing terrorism in the style of the sarin gas attacks, about dying in a kamikaze blaze of glory. She does not name specific people, but one, Itoh Hidehito, showcased their tendency for violence when he responded to a documentary criticising Emperor Hirohito by threatening to ‘slash the screen.’ At this point, disillusioned by the increasing violence of other rightists and seeing it as devoid of political value, Amamiya left the far-right for leftist commentary. Kobayashi, meanwhile, remains an important rightist.
Starring in the documentary The New Gods (1999), at gigs Amamiya dressed in men’s WW2 uniforms alongside her bandmates and adopted a gruff, masculine performance style, but offstage she wore her nails long, dyed her hair, and sometimes dressed in hyperfeminine Lolita fashion. Amamiya’s active involvement in the right as a woman was rare; her femininity stood in contrast to ultranationalism, so was obscured by a masculine persona. Conversely, since Kobayashi’s trailblazing use of manga to advocate fascistic politics, women and girls have become ubiquitous as symbols in right-wing pop-culture. Far from being hidden, harmless femininity is now used as a tool to advance violent ideals. Paraphernalia of Japan’s arguably fascist wartime military have shown up regularly alongside kawaiior moe girls. In the anime Arpeggio of Blue Steel: Ars Nova (2013), schoolgirls pilot warships; in Kantai Collection (2015), real wartime ships including the carrier Akagi are personified as cyborg girls. Adolescent schoolgirls have long been objects of fans’ sexual desire, so viewers are literally attracted to objects of death and destruction, their deadly capacity obscured by cute aesthetics. As before, right-wing fan cultures in the 2010s were highly masculine. New was the combination of violence with feminine sexuality onscreen. In contrast to the 1990s, when Amamiya’s femininity had to be hidden, women in the 2010s had a new place in the far-right – as fictional sex appeal.
Most popular, and arguably responsible for the proliferation of girls in far-right media,is Girls und Panzer, or Garupan (2013). In Garupan, schoolgirls pilot tanks in a school sport called sensha-dō. The dō suffix denotes the ‘traditional’ sports which the far-right has long seen as spaces of masculine strength; kendō sports clubs helped break university occupations in the 1960s, and the self-described fascist Sasakawa Ryōichi counted many sportsmen amongst his followers. Thus, sensha-dō demands respect as an inherently Japanese sport; the masculinity of traditional sports is combined with childish femininity. Alongside a global array of tanks, the protagonists pilot German Panzers, complete with Iron Crosses and other Nazi imagery. For some fans, these tanks are but stand-ins for modern, Japan Self-Defence Force tanks; for others, attraction to the schoolgirls combined with the ‘coolness’ of the tanks produces an actual, sexualised reverence for Nazi technology.
Garupan is one of many anime to display fascistic German aesthetics and motifs, sometimes interpreted positively by fans. Attack on Titan’s (manga, 2009-2021; anime, 2012-2023)protagonist, Eren Jaeger, whose very name exemplifies fans’ affinity for Nazi ‘coolness,’ embarks on a genocidal rampage. Whether the manga’s author intended to positively represent Nazi-style fascism is unclear; he employs the Eldians, a race who are ghettoised and marked by stars in a clear Holocaust allegory, to criticise prejudice. Yet, as the anime adaptation has become globally renowned, many fans have valorised Eren’s actions. Moreover, the fact that conspiracies that the Eldians can turn into enormous monsters come true in the series has led some fans to endorse antisemitic rhetoric. The Attack on Titan fandom has, in Japan and internationally, become something of a haven for thinly veiled online fascism.
AOT revives the masculinism of Kobayashi’s manga. Some of the most popular scenes depict samurai-style noble sacrifice; one heroic suicide charge has been compared by fans to the kamikaze. What AOT shares with Garupan is the sex appeal of its characters. Women in the show are regularly sexualised by fans (and by the animators), even in their monstrous Titan forms, but as the global anime fandom has diversified and female fans have become more present, sexualisation has started to go both ways. Fans of all genders express desire for Eren to the extent that one collectables company released a figure striking a sexual pose, dressed only in underwear with muscles on display. While some male fans have expressed desire for Eren, satirical or genuine, that producers place faith in such memorabilia suggests a significant female consumer base. Hetalia: Axis Powers further evidences the gender diversification of right-wing fans – its primarily feminine fanbase uses their attraction to human personifications of the Axis Powers as an outlet for Nazi appreciation.
German fascist aesthetics and militarism can now be found beyond the small screen in Japan. Garupan’s setting, the real Ōarai town, is a common tourist destination for fans, and since its devastation in the 2011 Triple Disaster, has forged a relationship with the Japan Self-Defence Forces. Cosplaying fans can come to marvel at the real weapons and vehicles of a steadily growing Japanese military, creating a link between the JSDF and Garupan’s Nazi tanks. In 2011, the JSDF revealed a helicopter adorned with a kawaii anime soldier, Aoi-chan. Though sometimes ridiculed, the helicopter (and others displaying Aoi-chan’s ‘sisters’) has also fostered sexualisation of the JSDF and its vehicles, particularly when military buffs get to meet real, beautiful women dressed as Aoi-chan. The JSDF has also latched onto the popularity of moe by publishing comics, including one where the US-Japan partnership is represented as the friendship of two schoolgirls and another where a scantily-dressed little girl teaches readers how to swear like a G.I. In familiar fashion, the violence inherent in an army uniform or curse word is made to appear harmless through innocent femininity. The fascistic politics under the surface are, however, readily apparent to fans who seek them.
Through anime, manga, and pop-culture, fascism and militarism are continually transmitted to a global fanbase, leading some fans to enter actual far-right spaces. Sometimes, masculine virulence encourages fans to respect fascistic characters. More often, childlike femininity is combined with violent, fascist aesthetics, rendering them outwardly harmless but actually no less dangerous for fans seeking radical solutions to economic stagnation and cultural atomisation. As the far-right resurges globally, popular media continues to be utilised to repackage fascist agendas for new audiences. The Anglophone far-right often idealises historic Japan as ethnically homogenous, spiritually noble, and harmoniously patriarchal – Japanese pop-culture, therefore, is an important factor in far-right politics internationally. Gender, and especially femininity, is central to its appeal.