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Don't Call Them Cartoons

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Exerting 'Soft Power'

In this era of globalization and technological advancement, the flow of cultural exchange between East and West has grown more continuous. This facilitates what is known as soft power, which Napier defines as "power that influences without the obvious use of force."

Anime and manga, among other Japanese media and art forms, are perfect examples of this. Napier says they often serve as a gateway for students to cultivate a broader interest in Asian culture.

"I think that's tremendously exciting that, because of technology, people can become more global citizens and more culturally aware."

— Susan Napier

"It's opening people's attitudes to the idea that one can learn from other cultures," she observes. "I think it's tremendously exciting that, because of technology, people can become more global citizens and more culturally aware."

Soft power was the recent topic of a conference organized by Tufts' Japanese Cultural Club, at which Napier gave a talk entitled "Can Soft Power Save the World?"

"I think ideas and images and approaches to life, if they are pervasive enough and appreciated enough and get out there enough, can really affect things," she says. "I think that can absolutely change the way we interact with other cultures."

Anime and manga, she says, have the potential to do this, since they focus more on thoughtfulness and introspection than action-dominated American cinema.

In her forthcoming book, "From Impressionism To Anime: Japan As Fantasy And Fan Cult In The Western Imagination," Napier discusses the impact of Japanese culture over the last 150 years with a particular focus on anime fandom. This, she says, wields a strong form of soft power by creating robust ,vibrant communities around common interests.

Susan Napier

Movie poster for "Princess Mononoke."

"There's a tendency to think of all East-West interaction with the West always as dominant and hegemonic, and if the West is interested in the East at all it's only in a way to keep them subjugated," says Napier. "My whole book is saying no, that's not necessarily the case."

And due in part to a greater capacity for leisure in modern-day life, the impact of Japanese culture around the world has been broadened even further, explains Napier.

"We're finally taking pleasure seriously," she says. "We have an affluent, materialistic society that has room to indulge itself in fantasy and pleasure, and Japan seems to provide that."

'This Is Our Culture'

While anime and manga are now fair game for both pop culture consumption and scholarly debate, the latter wasn't always true.

"When I started, it was terrible," admits Napier. "For a lot of people in my field, anime was vaguely embarrassing. It was pop culture, it was tawdry or vulgar."

"Like it or not, this is our culture and we need to know about it. And by the way, a lot of it is very good."

— Susan Napier

Now, however, Napier finally finds the body of academic work sufficient to teach a class on Japanese pop culture, along with her class entitled "Anime Auteurs." She contributed to the collection with her 2005 book, "Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation," a highly regarded volume that helped cement her role as an internationally renowned scholar in the field.

"What kept me going those very bad couple of years was [the knowledge that], like it or not, this is our culture and we need to know about it," she says. "And by the way, a lot of it is very good."

And yes, Napier isn't just a scholar of anime and manga; she's also a fan. While she may not dress up as her favorite character at annual conventions the way some fans do—a group of people she developed a strong appreciation for while researching for her upcoming book—she is a keen follower of these art forms off the clock.

"I would not have spent 10 years on this if I didn't find it interesting," she says. "Not everything is going to be brilliant, but some of it is still going to be fun."

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Homepage image by Doug Smith. Photos by Zara Tzanev for Tufts University.

This story originally ran on Apr. 30, 2007.