Fanning the Flames:
Narrative-Baiting and Flame-Ups as a Means of Raising Visibility in an Over-Saturated Media Market
Volume 21, Issue 1 (Article 1 in 2021). First published in ejcjs on 14 April 2021.
Abstract: Controversies over overtly right-wing manga have been a recurring issue in Japan over the last quarter-century. It seems that modern artists may have noted the high sales of Right-wing artists, such as Kobayashi Yoshinori and Yamano Sharin, and have learned how controversy can serve their careers and have begun to incorporate debatably xenophobic or far-right imagery in their narrative while keeping their political views obscure. “Narrative-baiting” can serve as a means of garnering attention when done well and through this strategy creators make themselves more visible and increase their sales without the ill repute that could limit their future careers. However, if there is cause to believe that a creator truly holds controversial beliefs then this strategy may backfire. This paper explores not only narrative-baiting, but also the ways in which this strategy may fail if a creator does not competently curate their image online.
Keywords: Ultra-Right, Manga, Attack on Titan, New Life+: Young Again in Another World, Highschool of the Dead, narrative-baiting
Controversies over overtly right-wing manga have been a recurring issue in Japan over the last quarter-century. It seems that modern artists may have noted the high sales of Right-wing artists and have learned how controversy can serve their careers. Many artists have courted controversy in the last fifteen years by using debatably xenophobic or far-right imagery in their narrative while keeping their political views obscure. Highschool of the Dead, created by Satō Shoji and Daisuke, is an early example. It contains imagery that many online fans claimed was ultra-nationalist or anti-Korean, but which was also arguably ironic and not malicious (Greene 2018). This imagery is similar to how, in the 1980s, Maruo Suehiro’s Planet of the Jap also used hyper-nationalistic imagery without an explicit political motivation (Lubke & DiNitto 2011). So why did “narrative-baiting,” the use of controversially nationalistic imagery and rightist dog-whistles in manga, increase nearly 30 years after Maruo had first explored its use in the 1980s? It may be that the Satōs drew inspiration from the success of Kobayashi Yoshinori’s Gōmanism Sengen and Yamano Sharin’s Manga Kenkaryu. Both of these right-wing artists have had their works soar on the bestseller lists, often topping charts for weeks at a time, and launched the artists into notoriety, if not fame, due their works being widely condemned. With the oversaturated media market and the dramatic shifts in the manga industry at large caused by the Internet’s growth, manga artists need a means of standing out in the marketplace. Narrative-baiting is a means of garnering attention when done well. By courting controversy, and remaining politically neutral, unlike Kobayashi and Yoshino, creators make themselves more visible and increase their sales without the ill repute that limits their future careers.
The series selected use imagery associated either with the Japanese Ultra-Right or with Imperial Japan within stories that many fans argue are directly inspired by Japan’s wartime past and its current tensions with the People’s Republic of China and South Korea. As fan communities for manga are now global, these series often spark protest and criticism from fans in South Korea or the PRC. Overseas fans believe that the artists in question are deliberately creating offensive works out of deep-seated nationalistic belief as a form of back-door propaganda. In turn, these criticisms are translated into Japanese, where the fan community is divided into those who believe that the criticism leveled by their Korean and Chinese counterparts has merit and those who simply believe that a globally popular aspect of Japanese culture is unfairly targeted due to anti-Japanese sentiment. It is likely true that at least one of the authors selected for this work holds sympathetic views towards the Japanese Ultra-Right. However, during the duration of Highschool of the Dead’s run, the Satōs retained a politically ambiguous position. Isayama Hajime appears to use a similar approach in his work Attack on Titan, which has been the centre of several international controversies (Ashcraft 2013). Arguably apolitical debate is also a reasonable strategy for cultivating a robust and online fanbase as many heavy Internet users have begun to skew towards the Right politically. This gives artists who are ostensibly politically neutral not only deniability but also a base of supporters that will come to their defense against the Korean and Chinese fan community when the artists are inevitably criticised for their narrative-baiting.
The three works selected for this analysis have relied heavily on storylines and imagery directly related to revisionist historical narratives or Ultra-Rightist canards and were also bestselling works with multiple adaptations. Titles that are similar but did not have the sales to warrant multi-platform adaptations have been excluded. They do not generate a flame-up, an Internet phenomenon discussed in greater detail later. Two of the series, New Life+: Young Again in Another World and Attack on Titan, garnered controversy as both directly referenced Japan’s imperial past. Highschool of the Dead, the earliest of the works selected, drew little from Japan’s wartime history but rather from Japan’s strained relationship with South Korea and the PRC. However, the creators of Attack on Titan and Highschool of the Dead explicitly avoided directly addressing fan criticisms. They carefully curated their online presence to avoid any commentary that would demonstrate their political leanings. This fastidious control over their digital image allowed the writers of these two titles, Satō Daisuke and Isayama Hajime, to weather the inevitable flame-up that naturally arose during the controversy.
Furthermore, this strategy appears to be highly effective as each title received a boost in sales and visibility in the aftermath of the digital disputes. However, less careful artists, such as MINE, the writer of New Life+: Young Again on Another World, who had neglected to delete anti-Chinese Twitter posts from the period before they had launched their series, had less success with the strategy. While sales of the printed medium series did experience a rise, the planned anime adaptation was swiftly canceled.
Maintaining deniability of nationalistic intent allows the audience to debate the work fiercely online, which acts as both a form of free advertisement and an additional lure for digital fan communities (Greene 2017, 36-37). Furthermore, this deniability seems to allow for these works’ continued appeal, as artists, such as MINE, who have made more explicit political statements on social media have had their careers hindered by flame-ups (Ashcraft 2018). There appears to be a razor-edge on which narrative-baiting artists can walk, where they can gain the notoriety that past nationalistic or Rightist artists have obtained but remain solidly within the mainstream. Artists who fail to maintain this balance will often find their works ghettoised into the Ultra-Right or revisionist subgenre of manga, where they have much more limited appeal and potential career advancement. By becoming a “Schrödinger’s Rightist”—a creator who is perceived simultaneously as an Ultra-Rightist and an apolitical artist, contemporary creators have discovered a potent, but risky means of self-promotion.
The Online Environment
Several factors exist that draw a creator onto the tightrope between covert and overt nationalistic writing. Many of these are due to the changes wrought by the Internet on the manga publishing industry and its fan culture. Fully to understand the creators’ decisions and the reactions to these choices by their fans, one must first understand the digital environment in which these events unfold. The Internet is a tempting means of cultivating social connection, as it allows for a level of anonymity that other forms of socialising do not. Counterintuitively, those who seek social connection online will often proffer information about themselves to others, not only their opinion on the topic at hand but possibly identifying information as well (Xiao et. al. 2012; 7). This ability to manipulate one’s self-presentation allows users to construct an idealised, idolised image or persona of themselves that is also tailored to expectations of the digital communities of their choosing.
Like those in the rest of the world, online communities in Japan are diverse in both focus and culture and typically coalesce around a shared interest or hobby. Persons who may not otherwise be a part of a larger community due to geographic isolation or due to a highly specific or taboo interest can find their subculture online (Lehdonvirta & Hasanen 2011; 94-95). This may be the motivation behind some of the manga artists’ digital missteps; by sharing potentially damaging statements online they sought to create a closer connection to not only their fans but also with a digital community to which they may have wanted to foster a deeper connection, as both a creator and as a member.
Many manga creators identify themselves as fans of more established artists and as members of the fan community. Therefore, younger creators, such as Isayama, often take an active part within the larger digital fan community. Japanese fan culture may also encourage this pseudo-closeness. More often seen with musicians who regularly participate in meet and greets, manga artists will often include disclosures and notes to their fans at the end of their manga chapters and keep active blogs or Twitter feeds. This does not mean that these relationships mirror the parasocial relationships found in other fan communities, as the relationship is less with the individual creators and more closely tied to the larger community of fans (Horton and Wohl, 1956). However, a savvy creator will actively engage with these communities via blogs or platforms such as Twitter, which fosters a sense of closeness that keeps fans returning to an artist even if there are long breaks between chapters as seen with Isayama Hajime. But this interaction increases the risk of potentially impolitic statements.
Creators have to be hyper-aware that their imagined audience and be careful to tailor their self-presentation online for both their expected and potentially wider audience (Marwick & boyd 2010, 115). Notably, the period of greatest risk for narrative-baiting artists is when their work is adapted into an anime. Before this point, the majority of the creators selected for this paper had relatively small Internet followings. Marwick and Boyd noted that Twitter users with a small number of followers tended to view these subscribers less as an audience and more as a gathering of friends, meaning that they may construct a meta-narrative of themselves that they view as more ‘authentic’ (2010, 118-119). Creators who elect the strategy of narrative-baiting have to be sympathetic on some level with the discourse they are exploiting fully to utilise it within their narrative. This can leak out into their social media identity in an attempt to foster this greater authenticity. When the creators’ audiences expand with the announcement or release of an anime adaptation, these impolitic statements may limit their online audience that would come to their defense during a flame-up—meaning that the narrative-baiting strategy would fail as they lacked the necessary line of Japanese-fans who would come to a creator’s defense.
However, creators that use narrative-baiting have an advantage thanks to how many in the Japanese fan community treat manga as what Kayama Rika would describe as a form of puchi-nationalism. This form of nationalism, focused on national popular cultural productions such as sports or entertainment, is expanding within Japan’s youth (Kayama 2002). For many, manga’s global success has been a source of national pride. Criticism leveled against Japanese artists by foreign fans, particularly those from the PRC or South Korea, is viewed as an ontological threat to this pride. For creators like Satō or Isayama, the controversies that swirled around their work overseas were met with hostility by most online fan communities in the Japanese language Web. But, this is predicated on the artists having deniability that they hold Ultra-Rightist beliefs. If an artist, like MINE, made damning statements, this support dissipates—although the more right-wing elements of the Japanese Web-o-sphere continue to defend the target. This adheres with the expectations concerning online echo-chambers described by Tsuji and Kitamura, as the fan community will paint detractors as either unhinged or politically motivated when there is no definitive proof of political belief and biased against Japan (2018).
The Japanese Internet community is home to a phenomenon known as “flame-ups” (炎上) or “festivals” (祭り) online (from here on the term “flame-up” will be used). Flame-ups occur when the online community becomes negatively fascinated with a person or event. This is an outburst of collective anger or indignation that can be triggered by any number of actions. Many of these begin on 2chan, often on the breaking news boards that are often a congregation area for the online Ultra-Right but can swiftly move to other sites or even offline (Yoshino 2017; 64-65).
Figure 1. A Matome Saito That Aggregates Flame-Ups 
Flame-ups have increased dramatically since 2000, when both homes and cellphones began to have wider access to the Internet, and peaked in 2012. The possible cause behind the decline in flame-ups since 2012 may be due to corporations and public figures being more careful in curating their online image (Yamaguchi 2015; 57). Notably, of the cases discussed, only one pre-dates 2012. The typical life-cycle of a flame-up usually begins with some type of affront, picked up and spread person to person by SMS, Twitter, or posted on a BBS such as 2chan. These are then pick-up and propagated by aggregators sites such as Matome Saito, where it can then be easily picked up by traditional news media (Kojima & Furusawa 2017; 114). For the manga artists in this paper who have run afoul of flame-ups, these are typically now caused by Tweets or blog posts; however, these have historically been triggered by material contained within their manga. This may be due to the shifting nature of artist/reader relations. Before the Internet’s saturation, most artists would have a relationship distanced from their readers by the nature of the publishing industry. Readers would not have a ready means of communicating with their favourite artists and would often be placed in a relatively passive position. However, current artists almost always have a digital presence as part of their fan outreach.
Japan is no stranger to the seemingly global rise in overtly nationalistic movements seen across the globe in the last decade. From 2006, online activities by individuals who identify as digital Ultra-Rightists, better known as netto-uyoku (ネット右翼), have increased steadily (Tsuji & Kitamura 2018; 100). This was concurrent with the expansion of online communities and digital fan culture and these phenomena appear to have significant overlap in both causation and membership. Netto-uyoku typically favour historical revisionism regarding Japanese actions in colonial Korea and China, support for Yasukuni Shrine, and a desire to amend Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution that prevents Japan from creating an offensive military (Kaigo 2013; 61). However, while the traditional Ultra-Right works towards a specific goal, the netto-uyoku are more inchoate and abstract in action. Unsurprisingly, netto-uyoku also hold puchi-nationalistic sentiments towards manga (Hack 2016; 35-43). This means that the netto-uyoku community is highly responsive to perceived slights from overseas detractors. Their active online presence allows them to come to the defense of a creator they believe is unfairly targeted for views that the netto-uyoku community shares. Additionally, without a clear political position for the creator, the general audience is willing to humour the arguments posed by netto-uyoku. This buffer gives narrative-baiting creators the ability to weather controversy without harming the sales of their multi-platform franchises or limiting their career.
Studies performed a few years after the growth of the netto-uyoku community by Tsuji found that only around 2% of the online population could be considered active netto-uyoku, who post and participate in digital debates (2008a/b). Follow-up surveys performed by Tsuji in 2014 found that, while the netto-uyoku population had no significant increase, individuals who are in agreement with the ultra-right did increase by 5%, to just over 7% of the surveyed population. This layer of Internet users do not identify themselves as netto-uyoku but act as fellow travelers that represent the growing population of right-leaning youth in Japan. (Tsuji 2017; 214-215). Additionally, a survey conducted by the Cabinet Ministry found that 68.3% of youths state that relations between Japan and Korea are poor and 42.7% state that they do not feel close to or understand South Korea (“外交” 2013). When combined, this means that as of 2014 around 10% of Internet users in Japan are hostile towards Koreans and other Ultra-Right tropes. As this was a 5% increase over seven years, this layer’s growth may have contributed to the flame-ups discussed in this paper as a reactionary group exacerbating the moral indignation experienced by those initially engaging in the flame-up. This can be seen in the reaction post to the MINE flame-up discussed below, in which several commenters came to the creator’s defense or took the opportunity to malign China or advance revisionist talking points. However, outside of netto-uyoku, MINE’s comments caused a backlash as deniability is key.
Furthermore, 60.5% of netto-uyoku have reported actively commenting on or participating in online movements, such as flame-ups, especially when they feel that their positions are under criticism (Tsuji 2017; 216). This is exacerbated, as news coverage of flame-ups have resulted in an international response and, in the cases discussed below, from critical Korean commentators (Tsuji 2017; 211). Domestic enemies can include those who participate in flame-ups that deride creators whose potentially right-leaning sympathies have been exposed, such as with MINE or Isayama and their interest in Japan’s colonial or wartime history or Satō Shoji and Daisuke and their depictions of major foreign figures. While netto-uyoku and their potential sympathisers are only around 10% of all Japanese online users, they can have a disproportionate presence online as they respond swiftly and aggressively towards those perceived as critics or opponents.
Nor is this perceived criticism to their worldview the only reason behind netto-uyoku and their fellow-travelers’ response to flame-ups concerning manga artists and writers. This population also overlaps with the larger otaku subculture, as both are drawn to an ideal, although yet unrealised, world (Hack 2016; 43). However, within otaku culture, there is limited acceptance of netto-uyoku. Despite sharing similar Internet habits and frequent overlap of both media interest and digital communities, otaku are more likely to view netto-uyoku as interlopers on their territory than as fellow fans (Hack 2016; 35). This is despite efforts made by both the traditional Ultra-Right and netto-uyoku to share a common medium, that of manga, to share their ideology and communicate on a common level (Hack 2016; 43). Otaku communities have responded to this attempted outreach with parody, replying to probable netto-uyoku posts on 2chan with ironic commentary, and even posting an elaborate Website that combines the popular series The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya with an apologia for the Nanking Massacre (Hack 2016; 49-52).
This results in a tension within the online manga fan community, where the vast majority are either indifferent or hostile to the right-leaning arguments; however, a sizable minority is not only in support of these but also heavy and active Internet users. This is why political neutrality is key. Creators whose political stance is proven to be right-leaning, like MINE, are rejected by the otaku community. In contrast, those who retain their political ambiguity, like the Satōs and Isayama, are defended by the broader fan collective rather than solely the netto-uyoku. Furthermore, many of the creators discussed are seemingly heavy Internet users, with Isayama maintaining a long-running Livedoor blog and MINE initially self-publishing their work online. Satō Daisuke and Shoji also seemingly self-advertised themselves as otaku, particularly focused on military history and weaponry. As heavy Internet users tend to skew rightwards politically, these creators may be sympathetic to netto-uyoku despite later denials. However, it is also possible that they have no rightward political views, but as savvy Internet users noted the rightward shift and the high-sales of Ultra-Right manga and strategically elected to spin their online persona to cultivate this seemingly devoted right-leaning fanbase.
Case One—Satō Daisuke and Satō Shoji Highschool of the Dead (Flame-Up 2009-2010)
Highschool of the Dead is the work of two manga creators who shared a last name, but were of no relation. The writer, Satō Daisuke, was known for his work in military-history inspired fiction and the artist, Satō Shoji, is well-known for his semi-erotic works; he has a background in self-published erotic works. Highschool of the Dead was a modest success at first, noted for its heavy use of “fan-service”, particularly its highly sexualised depictions of its female characters, and then a novel interpretation of the zombie genre which was then only beginning to reach its peak in the Japanese market. However, several narrative choices within the series caused fans both within Japan and internationally to speculate that the authors, especially military-history fan Satō Daisuke, may hold Ultra-Nationalist leanings. In particular, the fifth chapter of the series caused a flame-up as a zombie who strongly resembled then popular South Korean actor Bae Yong-joon was executed by a Japanese Self-Defense Force sniper. This actor was the male lead in the popular Korean TV drama Winter Sonata, that became a massive success in Japan as an early example of the Korean Wave. This spike in interest in Korean entertainment in Japan resulted in Yamano Sharin’s Manga Menkanryu’s publication shortly before the premiere of Highschool of the Dead—and the decision to include this zombie was viewed as incendiary. As shown in Figures Two and Three, interest in both the writer Satō Daisuke and the series spiked when the flame-up occurred—notably after a decline in searches for either term.
As this is the first series to attempt to use narrative-baiting after the success of Yoshino Sharin’s anti-Korean wave manga one can see the strategy develop of narrative-baiting and manipulation of Japan’s digital sub-culture, notably the puchi-nationalism already present within the fan community, to act as a defense against the inevitable criticism narrative-baiting would draw. Notably, neither of the Satōs made any comment concerning the flame-up and limited their response to the international fan community to a message in the back of the collected volume containing the controversial chapter that politely asked that international fans purchase the licensed release of the manga and anime rather than relying on pirated edition (Sato 2007). This reflects the Japanese fan community’s frequent response to overseas criticism in this situation—that Korean fans in particular had been relying on pirated editions of both the manga and anime series. This message from the Satōs fortified the online echo-chamber effect as, to many Japanese fans, this simply proved that their speculation must have been correct. Furthermore, this silence has continued through the series’ multi-year hiatus and past the death of Satō Daisuke. Satō Shoji announced in an interview that, despite pressure from international fans wishing for the series to continue, there were no plans to continue the series after his co-author’s death (Natasha, Inc). However, online rumours and speculation that Satō Daisuke was likely a closeted Ultra-Rightist would continue even past his death, but are disregarded by the fan community as pure speculation (See Figure Four). This is not to say that the Satōs were prepared for such a flame-up, but simply that they had possessed a layer of protection due to having a limited digital footprint and had elected to have a strategy of silence instead of directly responding to criticism. While the Satōs no doubt viewed the high sales of Kobayashi Yoshinori’s manga in the decade prior and the then-recent success of Yoshino Sharin’s work as demonstrating a high level of receptiveness to narrative-baiting, they in turn modeled the strategy later used by Isayama—the maintenance of strict silence concerning his political leanings during a flame-up.
Figure 2. Google Search Results For Satō Daisuke
Figure 3. Google Search Results for Highschool of the Dead
Figure 4. A Comment Made on Hatena on Rightist Manga Artists 
Japanese reactions to the controversy were mixed; one Nikoniko comment board had posters note that the series also contained a scene in which a zombie on Air Force One who bore a strong resemblance to then Secretary of State soldiers also executed Condoleezza Rice with little to no commentary from offended American fans. Other commenters stated that the use of Bae Yong-joon was simply a form of black humour and therefore was not an anti-Korean sentiment, with some going further and claiming that Koreans were simply seeking out excuses to be enraged (“学園黙示録” 2010). Commentators on a news article concerning the anime adaptation on Moeplus that reported that the controversial scene would be included in the anime adaptation largely supported the decision to include the scene, with one commentator simply stating that the real problem was that Korea simply hated Japan   and another commenter claiming that “that country” (i.e. Korea) was sick   (あやめφ 2010). Another board called Tokyo ethno-graffiti that had a post on the topic had several commentators noting that it was surprising that the controversy existed, as the episode in question had not yet received its official Korean release—implying that the offended Korean fans had been watching pirated copies of the episode rather than waiting for the legal broadcast (TOFU75Z77Q 2010). Nor was this the only board to note this, as a Livedoor blog’s comment section also had posts with the same observation that Korean fans could not have been watching the episode legally. Furthermore, the Livedoor blog also contained anti-Korean comments, with one poster stating that Koreans had “rape zombies”   (アニメパーク 2010).
Due to the now global nature of anime and manga fan communities, there is a market for Japanese language blogs that aggregate international responses to a particular episode or series and translate these so that Japanese fans can monitor and respond to international perceptions. These translations are often linked to matome saito. Notably, when the fifth episode of Highschool of the Dead, which contained the controversial image of a zombie with the face of Bae Yong-joon being shot by a Japanese Self-Defense Force sniper, was released internationally there was little note taken by international fans—or those who collected the responses for the aggregator had elected to leave out such commentary. In one aggregator the majority of responses posted focused on the action or sexiness of a particular scene; however, one post did mention the show’s inclusion of the Yong-joon shooting. Remarkedly, unlike many of the responses on that page, neither gender nor nationality was included and the commentary was neutral—simply noting the scene and hypothesising that the authors may not have personally liked the actor (see Figure Five). However, this aggregator did include screenshots of the scene at the top of their episode summary page demonstrating that the aggregator was well-aware of the flame-up and electing to avoid addressing it in any depth (“海外” 2014).
Figure 5. Comment on the Anime Adaptation of the Controversial Scene  
However, the controversy and the lack of response from the creative team did not harm the series’ sales. Before the image of the Bae Jong-yoon zombie, Highschool of the Dead had not placed on the Oricon charts—the bestseller list for manga. However, after the flame-up rekindled with the release of chapter nine’s adaption that included the now-notorious zombie execution, Highschool of the Dead began to experience increased sales. The seventh volume reached the #2 position on the Oricon chart, along with major titles such as One Piece (Loo 2011). This success was replicated abroad, as the English translation of the two volumes released in the United States both reached the New York Times bestseller lists as well (Hogkins 2012ab). This is the first case in which a manga creator successfully leveraged a digital flame-up caused by narrative-baiting into increased sales. Additionally, this series premiered as the following artists began their careers, so it is likely that, as persons interested not only in the industry but in the fantasy-horror subgenre in particular, Isayama and MINE were aware of this flame-up and the resultant increase in sales. As one commenter explicitly noted: this controversy was an excellent source of free advertisement   (TOFU75Z77Q 2010). However, the series itself had been altered from its manga original, as an openly Ultra-Rightist character had been cosmetically changed so that his affiliation was slightly obscured.
Six years after the initial flame-up, Highschool of the Dead returned to international media attention when it was one of around two dozen anime series targeted by the PRC for an online ban of videos considered to be too violent or sexual in nature. Highschool of the Dead in particular was noted as being highly suggestive and sexual for a series whose characters were of school age. This ban was met with criticism from within China; however, Highschool of the Dead did not receive any particular defense (Kellion 2015). The law required that online streaming services receive permission from authorities prior to posting any foreign-created content. Additionally, the series Attack of Titan was banned as well; however, this was due to its violent imagery (“China” 2015). This recycling of the series as a source of controversy allowed for the series to remain active in the public mind, so when the creators restarted the series after a two-year hiatus in 2014 there was still fan interest. As stated above, even after the death of his co-creator, Satō Shoji is still asked by both fans and interviewers if the series may continue in some form nearly a decade after its initial release and five years since the last chapter was printed.
It is important to note one several key differences between this series and its creators and the two following cases. Both of the Satōs are much older than either Isayama, or MINE most likely, and lived in a time in which social media was less prevalent in Japan. At the time, most creators and artists did not maintain blogs or social media accounts and most that did were younger than either of the Satōs. While both Satōs had official Websites, these were highly curated and offered limited space for either to post controversial opinions. This gave the Satōs a buffer as they simply had to limit their speech in interviews and professionally related posts. However, this paper posits that the strategy used by the Satōs, rightist narrative-baiting without an overt political agenda in order to stand-out in an over-saturated media market, was perfected by later creators like Isayama and mishandled by less careful creators like MINE. The key to this strategy is avoiding making controversial statements that directly relate to personal belief so that resulting flame-ups are mitigated by the echo-chamber effect, and fans, particularly those who already lean towards the right of the political spectrum, can mount an effective online defense of a creator.
Case Two—MINE New Life +: Young Again in Another World (Flame-Up 2018)
MINE (まいん) is the pen-name of an author who began to self-publish their novel, titled New Life +: Young Again in Another World in English (二度目の人生を異世界で in the original Japanese), online on the Website Shosetsuka ni Narou (小説家になろう) in early 2014. This Website is intended for amateur authors to self-publish online, with the works available free to any readers. Self-publishing in Japan is a well-established part of the fan community even prior to the growth of the Internet in the early 2000s, with a number of manga authors moving from the self- publishing market (also called doujinshi) into traditional publishing. The Internet has allowed for this market to expand, although much of it remains an essentially non-profit enterprise. MINE’s work became massively popular on the site and attracted the attention of traditional publishers, initially receiving a light novel and then a manga adaptation (黒木 2018).
Despite the series being picked up for traditional publication, MINE continued to post new chapters online and eventually had over 68 million visitors to the story’s Webpage on Shosetsuka ni Narou (“作者” 2018 ). Light novels are works geared towards a young teen or pre-teen audience, mixing text with heavy use of illustration in order to heighten the emotional impact or world-building of the series. This use of multi-platform adaptation is common within the publishing industry in Japan, with a single text being quickly adapted with relatively little alteration to the narrative into novels, light novels, video games, as well as anime series or films. This allows a single work to become massively popular across a variety of audiences, with fans either selecting the medium of their choice or consuming all forms of a single narrative as it is released. MINE’s series was not only a success online as a novel, but the adaptations were popular as well, with the light novel sales exceeding over 700,000 copies by late 2017 (“二度目“ 2017) and the tankobon edition of the manga reaching the top ten of the sales charts in early 2018 (Natasha, 2018). It is interesting to note that search results for MINE fluctuated more wildly than searches for the series’ title. Part of this is likely due to MINE’s choice to use a pseudonym that is used by others; however, the spikes do correlate to major events in MINE’s career. It was also likely the decision to use a pseudonym that partially led to MINE’s missteps along with the belief that MINE’s posts were only seen by a small community on Twitter, as MINE imagined a bounded and small audience with a shared viewpoint (Marwick & boyd 2010, 130). Without the personal and reputation risk that MINE would have had if they had used their true name, MINE was more willing to be more overt with their personal beliefs.
Figure 7. Google Search Results for MINE
Figure 8. Google Search Results for New Life: Young Again in Another World
The work is high fantasy, with the main character dying of old age in this world and being suddenly reborn in a younger body in another world, at the behest of a seemingly young, female deity. The manga and anime adaptation are considered to be semi-adult in content, with highly sexualised female characters. This is not unusual, as the Satōs had also made use a hyper-sexualised and underage female characters in their series. However, this aspect of the narrative was not the main source of controversy concerning the work prior to the 2018 flame-up that caused the anime and light novel cancellation, as the lead character was part of the Imperial Japanese Forces during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Furthermore, this character was a swordsman who was credited with the executions or deaths of 3,000 enemy combatants via his skill at swordplay. This has a parallel with the hyakunin-giri kyoso (百人斬り競争) incident of 1937, in which two Japanese Imperial Army officers engaged in a contest just prior to the Nanking Massacre to see who could execute 100 prisoners first, that was reported in both Japanese and international press. This addition to the narrative, which could have been dropped from later adaptations, but was not, drew the attention of potential critics who began to investigate the otherwise cipher that is MINE.
It was the announcement of the anime adaptation that drew the attention that resulted in the flame-up, as word began to spread online that persons who had found and gone through MINE’s Twitter feed discovered multiple Tweets, ranging from 2010 to 2015, that were anti-Korean or anti-Chinese (Ashcroft 2018). Some of these Tweets were preserved as screenshots and spread online via social networking sites and matome saito, with one blog posted several of the most offensive Tweets that derided seemingly pro-China news articles, supported netto-uyoku talking points concerning war history and memory, and maligned Korea (【炎上】2018). Additionally, MINE appeared to confirm in a positive way within these Tweets that the lead character engaged in what many would call war crimes in China during the Second-Sino Japanese War (【炎上】2018). To many commenters it was this Tweet over all others that caused the series to be pulled from publication (Kyodo 2018). This discovery of older Tweets began the flame-up that would spin out of control. Notably, during this period MINE continued to post chapters on Shosetsu ni Narou and there did not appear to be calls for the series itself to be scrubbed from the Web. However, other adaptations of the work did not survive the flame-up, largely due to the online response of not only fans but also the voice actors of the manga series.
Figure 9. One of MINE’s Apology Tweets
MINE did attempt to tamper the flame-up through an apology on Twitter, the platform that was the source of the fracas, that took multiple Tweets. However, five of the voice actors for the series had already made public announcements, on Twitter as well, stating that, due to the information uncovered in the flame-up, they would be resigning from the series (黒木 2018). This act followed traditional means of addressing social outrage in Japan, where apology can be used to reconcile a transgressive celebrity with the fan community, described by Prusa as the “apologetic strategy” (Prusa 2019; 6-7). However, online flame-ups have a different life-cycle than real life social drama and this act did not end the barrage of online criticism. The day following MINE’s public apology, the studio producing the anime adaptation announced on the series’ dedicated Webpage that the series itself was canceled (Komatsu 2018). Nor was the anime the only casualty. The light novel adaptation, which was the first of the traditional publishing media to adapt the work, was also canceled (Ashcroft 2018). Following these cancellations, MINE then announced that the background of the character would be amended to a more acceptable narrative in later editions of the work (Teffen 2018). However, the manga adaptation was not canceled. This may be due to a number of factors; manga readers tend to be more accepting of controversial or offensive narratives—which is one of the reasons why the Ultra-Right has found some success in publishing in this medium over others. Some of this is due to curiosity, readers who want to see with their own eyes what the flame-up was over and will purchase new volumes in order to see themselves what the fuss was about as in the cases of Kobayashi Yoshinori and Yamano Sharin. Additionally, manga has less risk than light novels, and much less than anime, so publishers are more willing to take risks with a series—particularly one with otherwise solid sales such as New Life +: Young Again in Another World. This may have also been a seemingly safe risk, due to the division within the flame-up itself.
Figure 10. A Comment on a Blog Post on the MINE Flame-Up
Reactions within the flame-up were mixed, not only on the Japanese language Web but also on the English-speaking Internet as well. English language comments on a CrunchyRoll, a major American based online anime streaming service and news outlet, varied between posters claiming that this was simply an international itineration of “snowflake” culture, that authors’ private lives should not affect their work, and others who claimed that bigots have no place in the public sphere, and those that supported the publisher’s decision to pull the work (Komatsu 2018). A Japanese blogger said that this was part of a larger reaction against right-leaning celebrities, noting that the actress Roseanne Barr had been also pushed off the air due to controversial statements (Saeki 2018). Another blogger claimed that those who began the flame-up were likely Chinese and had not actually bothered to read the series. This blogger then joked that the Chinese have a habit of stealing and eating pet dogs (“火上問題” 2018). However, the comments on a Matome Saito on the incident were in favour of the cancellation, with one commenter stating that netto-uyoku talk big game online but are in actuality passive (“アニメ化” 2018). Another commenter on a Matome Saito posted a parody image of a Korean man chanting ‘netto-uyoku’ in that supported MINE on the same board claimed that the fictional violence of the series was being done in real life against MINE’s image and series and that Chinese are invariably biased against any Japanese drama (“アニメ” 2018).
This division may have allowed for the manga publisher to continue with publication, as fan reaction both in the domestic market as well as the lucrative US market was mixed. Additionally, few to none of the comments on the pages threatened to boycott the series. Rather, it was the higher-risk/higher-investment media that were cancelled—and only after the formal apology issued by MINE. Other creators who elected instead to ride out controversy have had greater success in sustaining their series. This demonstrates that the netto-uyoku will come to the defense of a narrative-baiting, Japanese creator; however this is ineffective if the creator in question does not have the necessary deniability on their political leanings to allow the more mainstream audience also to participate in the defense of a Japanese creator over a flame-up originating from the overseas fan community. While the series is still in print, the more lucrative anime adaptation that could have led to more media franchising has been canceled and MINE’s career, at least under that pseudonym, is tainted.
Case Three—Isayama Hajime Attack on Titan (Flame-Up 2013, 2018, & 2019)
Attack on Titan premiered in Bessatsu Shonen Magazine in late 2009. Set in a fantasy world in which titans, giants with semi-human forms, roamed freely outside of a walled community where the remnant of the human population clung to survival, this series was an early, moderate success. Unlike its contemporary Highschool of the Dead, Attack on Titan has had a largely uninterrupted run with limited hiatus and the series creator, Isayama Hajime, will likely continue to produce new chapters into the near future. Additionally, like New Life +: Young Again in Another World, Highschool of the Dead, Attack on Titan is a multi-platform work with both officially licensed parody series, an anime adaption faithful to the manga run, live-action films, and prequel manga being released along with the original manga series. As seen in Figures Eleven and Twelve, there are a number of spikes in both searches for Isayama Hajime and Attack on Titan. Many of these spikes are due to the series’ many adaptations, with jumps in numbers corresponding to releases of anime series, live-action film premieres, and major plot revelations. However, it is interesting that interest remained low and steady throughout the series’ initial runs, only cresting when the flame-up began after the release of the original anime adaption. Isayama, with his tightly maintained political neutrality, seemed to be well aware that this would occur—no doubt from observing what had occurred with Highschool of the Dead just two years prior. Like the Satōs, Isayama claimed that he was a mere fan of Japan’s military history. Unluckily for MINE, this is key to surviving the resulting flame-up from narrative-baiting works with multi-media adaptations intact.
Figure 11. Google Search Results for Isayama Hajime
Figure 12. Google Search Results for Attack on Titan
Like Satō Daisuke, Isayama is openly a fan of Japanese military history and discusses this interest online, incorporating it as a source of inspiration in his work. It was this interest in history that sparked the 2013 flame-up, caused by a series of threatening comments posted repeatedly on Isayama’s Livedoor blog (See Figure Thirteen below). This comment was posted in response to a post made in 2010 by Isayama that stated that the character Dot Pixis was inspired by the historical figure Admiral Akiyama Yoshifuru, who was a ranking officer in the Russo-Japanese War and tied to the Japanese colonial government over Korea (Ashcroft 2013). This comment was quickly noted by Attack on Titan fans and spread quickly online through social networks, eventually being reported in anime and manga-focused media.
Figure 13. Threatening Comment Left on Isayama Hajime’s Livedoor Blog
While this comment sparked a wider debate within the international fan community whether Isayama may be either right-leaning or revisionist in outlook, within Japan the flame-up focused less on the potential sympathies but rather on the nationality of the likely poster of the death threats—hypothesised by many to be Korean due to the syntax of the post and its content (Ashcroft 2013). One blogger wrote a post in which the blogger noted that this was one in a long line of Korean criticisms of Japanese anime and manga that had also targeted popular series such as Detective Conan and One Piece, summating the piece by stating that Korean Japan-bashing was spreading globally (かさっこ地蔵 2013). Another commenter on J-Cast argued that the death threats on Isayama’s blog were only posted after a Korean news article speculated that the series was a metaphor for Japanese-Korean relations—although the original article was not cited. The article noted that while, by its posting, the death threats on Isayama’s page had totaled over 3,000 in number, Isayama had barely responded to the fracas and merely noted that his blog had increased traffic. Additionally, comments on the article supported Isayama, with commenters either stating that such militaristic narratives were simply interesting storytelling and had no deeper meaning, to others claiming that Korean fans were simply enamoured with Japan-bashing. Furthermore, anti-Korean statements were also posted with no counter-argument forwarded (See Figure Fourteen below “進撃の巨人” 2013). Nor was this the final flame-up, however; the most recent flame-up concerning Attack on Titan was targeted against a Korean idol singer in 2018 who, having stated in a televised interview that she was a fan of the series, experienced a backlash in her home country but was portrayed sympathetically in Japanese media (サーチナ 2018).
Figure 14. Anti-Korean Statement Posted on a J-Cast Article on the Flame-up
However, post flame-up Attack on Titan experienced a burst in sales both within Japan and overseas. Within Japan, the start of the anime adaption that year had already been polled as one of the most awaited new series (“進撃の巨人” 2013); however sales of the manga had been relatively steady. But, after the flame-up sales of the collected volume began to break sales records, with the thirteenth collected edition selling almost 70 times the number of the first collected volume from 2010 and breaking a 26 six-year-old sales record (Komatsu 2014). Two years after the flame-up, the series had over 60 million copies in circulation (Haley-Banez 2016). Internationally, post-flame-up sales had also increased dramatically with the immediate post-flame-up collected volume lingering on the New York Times bestseller list for 107 weeks (Ressler 2015). This sudden burst in sales allowed Attack on Titan finally to push the long-running hit and the series’ main competitor One Piece out of the top sales position in Japan (Tamayo 2014). On the Oricon weekly bestseller charts for 2012, Attack on Titan only managed to hold the number one spot for one week while One Piece held the top position for ten weeks in total with three collected volume releases. Prior to the flame-up in mid-June of 2013, Attack on Titan held the top position only once, while One Piece held the top position for five weeks in total. However, after the flame-up Attack on Titan held the top position for three weeks, with volume 11 holding steady for two consecutive weeks. This matched One Piece, which also only held the top spot for three weeks as well in the same period. In 2014 and 2015, Attack on Titan held the top spot longer than One Piece.
One may speculate that the sudden occurrence of the flame-up right before the release of the anime adaption was triggered by its move to another medium, which is what appears to have happened with New Life +: Young Again in Another World. However, a person with a more paranoid mindset might hypothesise that this was perhaps a managed or crisis. Additionally, Isayama’s cool response appeared to limit the damage done to the series. MINE’s decision to apologize for the offensive Tweets and remove them from the Internet, while following the apology ritual describe by Prusa, may have resulted in greater repercussions than if MINE had followed Isayama and the Satō’s non-response to flames. This does not mean that MINE is forever excluded from being an active content creator, as after a period of exclusion celebrities often experience a career revival, although often with new management (Prusa 2019; 11-12).
The most recent flame-up, which began in early 2019, concerned the use of imagery that referenced Nazi-era history—notably the use of ghettoes and armbands that targeted a minority group. Flashbacks in the series show that in Marley the Eldian population, which are the ethnic group that the series’ protagonists largely consist of, are required to wear arm-bands with a nine-pointed star and live in designated, walled-communities. International fans accused Isayama of anti-Semitism, noting that the established history of the Eldians involved them previously mercilessly colonising neighbouring countries, creating the titular giants via human-experimentation, and engaging in myriad, world-altering, and often harmful conspiracies against others. Many noted that the names and imagery within the series were derived from German culture and, when considering the past flame-up concerning allusions to Imperial Japan, that Isayama may be the fascist that past critics had accused him of being (Spencer 2019). Here again, Isayama trod carefully—only posting twice on his blog during 2019. It is important to note that both posts were fluff pieces, one concerning the recent end of the TV drama Game of Thrones, and a small “thank-you” sketch. Both were posted several months after the flame-up and attracted limited attention—none of which was negative. It is clear that Isayama had learned an additional lesson after his blog post had been targeted by death threats during the first flame-up, which is to provide little ground for direct response. But holding off on posts and keeping them sporadic, hostile posters could not generate the news reports the first flame-up received.
However, this flame-up was less heated in the Japanese-language fan community. Again, the Japanese language fan community largely rallied to Isayama’s defense, some even posting tongue-in-cheek responses such as claiming that the character Historia is perhaps a Hitler analogue (See Figure Sixteen). The blog animemiru.jp’s post on the issue was typical as it largely noted that the imagery appeared to be a reference to the Holocaust, but placed this within the broader context of the series as being simply inspired by German culture and history and instead largely focused on the potential implications that this may hold for the story going forward (“この” 2019). Another blogger noted that the Tybur Family, an Eldian family who secretly control Eldia’s rival state Marley that many in the English language fan community viewed as an expression of anti-Semitism, may be a hint that Marley will collapse in a way similar to that of Nazi Germany and that the Eldian population will be able to construct an independent homeland similar to that of Israel (“考察師” 2019). Several Japanese-language bloggers viewed the arm-bands as such a historically obscure reference that they created posts that explained the historical significance and tied the existence of Mikasa, the only individual remaining of an ethnic group similar to Japan, within the Eldian community as Isayama referencing the conspiracy theory Nihon-Yu Dojo that posits that the current population of Japan is partially derived from one of the missing ten tribes of Israel (Akimi 2019). This muted response to allegations that Isayama had included anti-Semitic motifs in his work demonstrates the viability of silence as the proper approach to flame-ups over narrative-baiting controversies. Some commentors claimed that Isayama, due to his seeming lack of political expression, was most likely a leftist. Figure Seventeen is one such post, the author of which argued against an older post that claimed that the overseas fan community may be correct in claiming that Isayama has fascist or right-wing beliefs. Without explicit evidence, such as in the case of MINE, it is clear that the Japanese language fan community will largely come to the defense of narrative-baiting creators and view flame-ups as merely an arena further to discuss fan theories.
When used strategically, manga creators can harness narrative-baiting and the resultant online flame-ups in order to boost the profile and sales of their works. Counterintuitively, this requires creators who are targeted by these flame-ups to eschew the traditional apology ritual delineated by Prusa, but rather to avoid direct commentary on the controversy. Additionally, this is more effective when plausible deniability is maintained, but “dog-whistles” are seemingly used by the creator, as this creates the potential for fan instigated debates that could spark a flame-up—particularly when a series is successful enough to warrant an anime adaptation. Considering the nature of online communities that have sparked an increased sympathy with Ultra-Rightist talking points among Japanese youths and, as manga as a focal point for puchi-nationalism, narrative-baiting artists are able to harness this through the echo-chamber effect as a buffer against an inevitable flame-up. This is exacerbated by the relatively insular nature of the Japanese digital fan community, which not only has a relatively vocal digital ultra-right community, but is also limited by the small number of non-native Japanese speakers involved in online groups and boards. This can result in posters who appear to be non-Japanese to be viewed as interlopers—as seen in at least one of the boards highlighted above where a commentor is lambasted as an outsider whose opinion could be readily disregarded. In turn, Japanese fans receive the impression that works produced by Japanese artists are being unfairly criticised due to political considerations. This perception, that much loved works and authors, who have complete deniability concerning their own personal political considerations, are being targeted due to their national identity, in turn fosters a defensive reaction in Japanese fan communities when flame-ups concerning plot decisions within a series occur. Fan-identity is thereby merged with national and personal identity. These practices allow for even the most obvious forms of narrative-baiting, from clear historical parallels to offensive imagery, to succeed as the aggrieved overseas fan response triggers a defensive reaction within the online fan community—provided that a superficial political neutrality in maintained by the artist. In turn, narrative-baiting creates a tension within the global fan community that are exacerbated by flame-ups which hinders the development of a global fan community.
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Article copyright Barbara Greene.