A Soft Defense of Axis Powers: Hetalia from an Old Hetalia Fan

When the news broke that we’d be getting a new Hetalia animated series in 2021, I wanted to be happy. I wanted to celebrate and relive my glory days in a fandom that came to define so much of my life but I didn’t feel like I could. Over the years, the anime and the fandom that surrounds it has been a, to be honest, mostly deserved problematic mess due to the series’ subject matter and what some in the fandom do. But, some bad apples were never meant to spoil the bunch and thus, I write to you all, a small defense of Hetalia from one old fan who wants to taste glory again. 

It was college, my first year and my first time really being away from friends and family for an extended period of time. I was alone, struggling and felt overwhelmed and afraid. My mental health was in the trash bin and I mostly suffered quietly reassuring my aunts and mom that I was fine and making friends when in all honesty I mostly ate lunch alone in my dorm and had to wait for my two roommates to be out of the room to do anything that I actually liked doing. This was before the Glorianna of my junior and senior years running the anime club and was me at my worst: isolated, insecure and overwhelmed. I had given up a lot of my anime and manga in the transition to college, desperately hoping that the intense fandoms I held in my “youth” would be the phase my aunt asserted it would be. I went to college trying to pretend like that part of me didn’t exist and failed in the second part of the semester. I was back into anime due mostly to a slate of series that would end up becoming formative to me thanks to RP and my then best friend, Nicole. It was thanks to her that I was brought into a little series called Axis Powers: Hetalia. Hetalia is a play on words for the Japanese words for useless and Italia for Italy. The series features around personified countries during mostly World War II but also has some other periods of time mentioned throughout history and modernity. The series mostly centers around the Axis Powers: Northern Italy, Germany and Japan and their struggle against the Allied Powers: England, France, America, China, Russia and whoever else decides to join them for the sake of narrative. 

You can see the inherent issue, right? Japan has a long history with not seeing WWII so much as a bad thing but a strangely fun part of history. To this day you can see people in Waffen SS uniforms for the sake of style and clout just walking around. Japan’s problematic love-love relationship with Germany and Nazi paraphernalia is not something I have time to go into in full here, but needless to say; Hetalia suffers majorly from the bias of a Japanese man who wrote a comic as a racist joke while he was living in New York and continued on to impress upon the world his biased history of the world. Taken as writ, Hetalia is kawaii propaganda and I loved every second of it. 

The countries have dynamic character designs and personalities: the history is loose but hey, that’s not why I was there. I was sold from day one. I had characters I fell in love with, ships I wanted to sail and navigate and more importantly, it gave me something to do with my time. See, Hetalia, for having such a weak plot has a ton of trivia attached to it. Each country has a human name, a birthday, things they like and don’t like and complex relationships not just tied to history. There are character songs, drama CDs, each country has their own version of the ending theme song not to mention at least 2 character songs that can tell you so much about them and their history that you’ll never learn in the main series of manga. There were interactive flash games, the original webcomic and oh the fandom flourished.

Hetalia is the best kind of series for fangirls active in the shipping arts; it’s sort of a boy’s love by omission. Most of the female characters are so weakly written that they don’t matter and most of the countries are male and often enter marriages or alliances with each other or have very close bonds with each other due to shared history. You could, in theory, make an argument for any ship and likely there was historical, social or political context for it beyond just the show putting them in a scene together. Immediately, I was enraptured. I spent time learning human names and birthdays (many of which I still know to this day), learning and translating character songs and writing; oh the writing. I carved up the map with my friends, laying claim to countries and taking a masturbatory pride in whose flag we claimed. The flags I flew and still do fly to this day are: France and Austria but I laid claim to many other countries. The series was exactly what I needed to help me connect to others.

But immediately, upon entering the wider fandom outside of my friend group; I was met with a group of mostly young girls that…well, let’s just say weren’t always on their best behavior. Now, I’m not here to shame DFW Hetalia: but their tactics to abuse badges is why so many panelists have to go through hell now to get badges for their volunteers; not to mention their clichy nature and less than high regard for public spaces: they were sharks in bad wigs. The rest of the fandom…well, let’s just say that the stories, no matter how horrible, are often true. Many have kept the Nazi parts of their uniforms on screeching that it’s costume accurate. Some have posed in front of concentration camps…some have done other Nazi stuff. I can’t believe I’m writing this. Honestly, I was never shocked by this behavior mostly because most anime fans are already so culturally abandoned as Americans that we’d willingly side with literally any other country and the narrative as writ in Hetalia that Japan only joined the Axis Powers to make new friends. Hetalia also does a very smart narrative trick where it asserts that the countries as we see them are more representatives and they have “bosses” (the leader du jour) that really control their movements. So Germany didn’t do a Holocaust, Germany’s boss (Hitler) did. It’s a great narrative tool: it keeps the characters sympathetic: like a good German soldier, Germany was just following orders. 

To be clear, the bulk of the fandom isn’t running around as a bunch of cosplay fascists but the stories of bad behavior are hard to wipe away from the collective memory of the fandom and con world. Not to mention the real life consequences behind acting poorly. Think about the current angst that comes with being a fan of Harry Potter right now. It’s hard to distance yourself from the author’s objectively bad words and keep yourself steadily in the lane of fandom that doesn’t deny basic human rights to trans people. But now it feels almost dirty to be a Hetalia fan. The series has its own problematic elements if you ignore the less than perfect fandom and the less than perfect fandom is fed because the series is built on a problematic base. The rest of Hetalia centers around other world events and the movie doesn’t even talk about WWII. There is more to the series than its problematic base, but that will always be its foundation. It will always be a webcomic created by a man who clearly loves WWII and not so subtle casual racism and xenophobia.

But I’m still excited. I have made so many friends and made so many memories and got so much joy from this series. I was, and am, still a very proud Francis Bonnefoy and proud of the ships I sail. I’m proud of the headcanons and spirited conversations I’ve had. I’m proud of the nights I’ve spent up translating drama CDs and the pieces of trivia that are still in my mind a decade later. I’m still proud to be a fan of Hetalia but I am also so very aware of how very damaged this beautiful world I call home is. 

A Culture of Her Own

“Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.”

I’m not Japanese. Despite my efforts and severe cultural abandonment, I am a not a Japanese national. The Nihon my heart sings for would see me as a dirty gaijin. My bowing, my use of suffixes all of them are from a culture that simply isn’t my own. My squealing over manga, the slips of Japanese that dot my English speech: all of those are from a land that would see me as a foreigner.

So why am I doing this? Why bring this up? Haven’t I served my 40 cultural lashes for being an abandoned American? I recently got to attend the Asian New Year Festival here in San Antonio run by the various Asian-American societies and The Institute of Texan Cultures. I had found the event as Japanese Culture Club president and took my group there as a means to show them how various Asian cultures celebrated New Years. I’ve attended this event for years now and I’ve seen a clear distinct change: recently there have been more and more cosplayers there.

Normally I am thrilled to see fellow cosplayers but it struck me as somewhat rude. This is a New Years festival and anime is not the only thing Japan has given us. The steady number of anime and manga vendors has increased at the festival and while a few have always been fine in my opinion to me this event is sacred: it is culture not fandom. It hit me especially hard because the day of this year’s festival I actually changed clothes: I was going to wear a shirt from a beloved anime and I decided to stick to simply red for good luck. I dressed up in the way I would if I were going to church and seeing cosplayers there offended me. This isn’t their culture. This isn’t my culture. Why am I up in arms? No one else seemed so ruffled by the matter. And isn’t it more than offensive that I as a gaijin was more protected of the Japanese flag than any of the Japanese natives who were more than content with the cosplay and anime fans flocking around buying onigiri in their very own otaku poorly spoken Japanese and broken Engrish.

I let the festival go: it was just a festival but thought about it again with the presence of two Asian markets here. We have one that’s a more traditional establishment: while the occasional otaku or lover of Asian culture will saunter in for the most part it’s filled with restaurant professionals or Asian-Americans looking to find the food and flavors of their homeland. The other is Minnano: a Japanese grocery store run by a lovely Japanese-American family and is very authentic. Almost every time I have been there it is usually shopped by some Asian-Americans looking for the flavors of home but it mostly overrun by otakus like me. I shuffle through, the occasional sumimasen leaves my lips and the bowing that has made its way into my life as I try to find the best instant miso ramen and the finest UCC canned coffee.  I felt like an outsider despite my pronunciation being more than fine. The owners have never questioned why as a tiny chocolate Westerner was there and spoke more Japanese than even they did at times. But for whatever reason I was less judgemental of the other otakus there looking for Ramune because to me when you lead with Japanese Grocery Store: you embrace that you are opening the door for otakus like me. While the other Asian market is not marketed to otakus like me and despite our appearance most treat it like any other grocery store but with a way better instant noodles selection and a great amassment of sake.

I bring this up because there’s a new wave of otaku out there very different than my own. I was part of the anime generation that advocated “otaku citizenship.” As the first and second wave of anime fans many of us (I included) used anime and manga to abandon our American culture. I found strength in Japanese morals, power in calligraphy and solidarity in ideals of honor, personal responsibility and care for the family: they were very much like the ideals I was raised with as a Southern woman. Anime became our citizenship test, manga our passport books. Bowing, suffixes and casual Japanese became part of my life and many other anime fans I knew. The newest wave of anime fans…not so much. That’s more than fine and the new wave of fans have their own special quirks and that’s perfectly alright. They see anime as more of a thing of its own and not so much a means to Nihon.

Because I gave up my “Americanness” to be effectively in spirit Japanese I feel even more at odds with the fact that in all actuality: this isn’t my native culture. Cultural appropriation is a hot topic and I think it’s entirely overblown and often misused but there is something to be said about a small black young woman who speaks more Japanese than American slang and knows more about some manga than some Japanese students. But there’s also something to be said about seeing only anime and manga as culture. Anime and manga are just parts of the entire Japanese mythos.

There is history: good and bad and having to take the bad makes sometimes mythologizing Japan very uncomfortable. There were absolutely negative aspects of Japanese culture and there are still huge issues of sexism, racism and inequality. That honor, power and strength applied only to men of a certain type and absolutely wouldn’t apply to me not just as a black woman but as a woman. There was a war: a terrible war, awful things happened. There were war crimes. There is poverty, government issues, a real yakuza that needn’t be romanticized as anti-heroes.

It’s unfair and ridiculous to take and piece Japan together from manga stills and drama CDs. Japan is not just wallpapers taken from paused stills from InuYasha set to a Yoko Kanno soundtrack while Mai Yamane sings in between samisen chords. Japan is a real place, with real concerns, with real history that didn’t just start with Astro Boy.

It’s important to keep this in mind when we look for a culture outside of our own. Thanks for listening to this tiny rant from an equally tiny otaku.

The Dual Conciousness of the African-American Otaku

“An American, a Negro… two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” W. E. B. Du Bois

It’s Black History Month I started thinking: I am painfully sometimes detached from my heritage as an African-American.

I grew up in a mostly white part of Texas. The few other black kids I remember growing up with were like me: mostly in white neighborhoods and were fairly “white” in speech and action. We watched cartoons, read comic books and even a few of us growing up were into anime and this was true for most of my childhood years and really up until middle school. We were all a pretty color-blind group of kids: a luxury of somewhat opulence and an upper-middle class upbringing.

The Barbies and dolls I owned were mostly white or Asian because I didn’t like the orange and yellow most of the African American dolls came in. I didn’t mind because I wasn’t looking for a simulation of me as a child I was looking for a totem;  a more solid way to manipulate and express my vivid childhood imagination. My imagination had somewhat transcended skin tone as well and despite the skin tone of my dolls not matching mine, I could easily slip into their world. The same goes for the books I read and the games I played: the same can still be said up to now.

High school was the first time I realized that I wasn’t quite like most of the other black kids at my school. Many times I was told that I “talked so white” to which I realized that when people said that they meant properly. This distressed me greatly. I didn’t much relate or connect to popular aspects of black culture. Hip-hop and rap confused me and I didn’t much care for sagging. My hair stays flat, relaxed and short. My music stays indie or punk and my dress is conservative and preppy.

I wasn’t particularly close to all of my dad’s side of the family: mostly citizens of Crockett and Palestine and the drudgery of the trip out there to visit them fed my somewhat disconnection to my heritage. It was easy to distance myself and continue to focus on the French Revolution, Poe’s poetry and my Japanese calligraphy.

My mother’s side of the family is incredibly proud of their heritage. Many are movers and shakers in Tuskegee. I come from a long line of airmen and distinguished Tuskegee University alum. Many attended Historically Black Colleges and are fantastic examples of what it means to be African-American. I found their goals and aspirations to be nearly too lofty and therefore it was easier to distance myself and continue to focus on the French Revolution, Poe’s poetry and my Japanese calligraphy.

In college I found other mostly culturally abandoned folks. Most had renounced their family lines to essentially become Japanese: adopting bowing, suffixes and the language. I surrounded myself with other people like me and the friends that I had that were also of color were in a similar boat: culturally abandoned and “talked white”. I was content to speak French throughout college but couldn’t tell you too much about my family and how its lines were drawn.

Being a cosplayer and anime fan especially made me realize that I had distanced myself from the color of my skin. I was never one hunting for representation in comics, anime, manga or video games. I was okay with Superman being white; I would rather him be white than a gross caricature. I delighted when powerful black superheroes arose like Green Lantern John Stewart and in Pokemon Y when I could make an avatar that looked like me I was thrilled. But I always accepted that the characters I cosplayed as were on screen or page white and I can count the times on my hand where I felt like my race has held me back from attempting a costume. Anime especially made me aware that representation would be a rare and treasured find but it didn’t take away from my experience realizing that it would be difficult to write for someone like me.

Now, I’m not culturally ignorant. I’m aware that I’m African-American and aware of much of the collective history of my people. My mother’s side of the family came up from sharecroppers to the status they are now. But the talk of slavery, reconstruction and Civil Rights were all far afield for me living in the 90s and 2000s; it was relevant historically but not to me in my daily life. The pictures from history books of slaves being tortured were numbing and damning but it wasn’t me. It wasn’t happening in my lifetime. The struggles of racism were somewhat beyond me. I have personally not struggled much as a black woman so stories of systemic racism have always made me feel somewhat uncomfortable.

The event that came to change my opinion and really force me to look at how far removed I was from my heritage was a family reunion trip. I had seen Tuskegee U. I had heard all the legends but it was when we visited the memorial to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study that I had to confront my family line. If you’ve never heard of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study…it’s a lot, to be conservative and to be liberal: it’s just a damn shame; so here’s some context. Back in the early days of unregulated medical testing a group of doctors used less than sound practices to test the effects of syphilis on the body. They used mostly poor black men and infected somewhat the diseases saying they were trying out new vitamin supplements. Many men died. Many more survived but with serious medical conditions after the study. When the truth of the study finally came out many of the men because they were mostly poor and black were not given the right to sue the doctors and it mostly went down as a negative footnote in American history. In the 90s, then president Clinton set up a memorial and memorial fund for those that gave up their lives and health under less than noble practices. To learn more about this terrible aspect of American history check out this link: it’s very informative.

The memorial was a pit stop for the family reunion and I learned something: I had family in the study. I can’t quite put into words what I felt. I suppose it was all the anger and rage I should have felt over the graphic images of slavery in my old history text books. I felt angry; Django Unchained angry. I felt sad. I felt awful.

I also in that moment felt strongly African-American and proud to know that despite the horrors of the study that my family survived and then went on to thrive. But feeling connected to my heritage didn’t change the fact that I hadn’t up until that moment felt connected to it. I didn’t opt to go to a historically black college. Japanese and French are still my main languages and not modern Ebonics and I still keep my hair very straight and very flat. My education and my upbringing are part of my life but my personality and likes influence how I deal with things. I’m proud of my family, my heritage and my legacy: but I’m still culturally abandoned as not just an African-American but as an American in general.

I’ll probably always struggle with the parts of that are abandoned from being an American as much as I’ll struggle with the parts of me that are abandoned from being African-American. I think a few otakus struggle with this: loving a culture that isn’t exactly known for it’s tolerance of gaijin or foreigners. The great irony of being an otaku is embracing a culture that likely would not embrace many of the individuals that call Nihon home in spirit. So while I’m culturally and mentally very much Japanese, I’m aware that there are cities in Japan that would see me as nothing more than a Westerner. And even when it comes to prejudice, when travelling overseas, I struggled more with being an American in Europe than an African-American in Europe. Many I spoke with were more fine with me being of British-origin and black than being black and from the US specifically Texas.

Just remember that the narrative of history is ongoing and though some are fortunate enough not to struggle there are others that are not as fortunate. I’m lucky to have the education that I do, the family that I do and the heritage that I do. The opening quote of this blog is about dual consciousness and it’s very true for most African-Americans: there’s a pride to us and side to us that many aren’t eager to show to others. A set of social cues and lines we just don’t break. The quote above was first mentioned to me while reading To Kill a Mockingbird when Calpurnia mentions to Scout that there were two ways black people talked: the way they did in front of white people and the way they did in private with other black people and that each one must be separated and kept away from each other: the two halves of the average African-American person should be separate but equal. There’s more than one spirit inside every person of color: it’s just a question of how many spirits that is.