There is a popular perception, perhaps reinforced both by the Japanese and the Japanese media, that views Japan as a fundamentally harmonious society that places a strong emphasis on ‘social harmony’ – that is, full agreement on political and social issues. People don’t really protest, nor hold (publicly) opinions against the mainstream, this view goes. Even if they do hold such opinions, people do not voice them actively; protest is all but dead in the public sphere. Wa is paramount, and people value harmony over all things (including protest and individuality) to the point where even things that are wildly unpopular are just accepted, and people follow to the letter things that are “mainstream” without thinking about it.

The fact that this Kanji is now used to represent Japan does not help clear this misconception

To focus on this, however, would be to overlook several major things. Firstly, the concept of Wa, while forming the foundation of Japanese morality and social etiquette, is not unique to this part of Asia alone: in fact variants of social harmony and absolute loyalty being the basis for all action is perhaps found in all parts of what is called in English the “Sinosphere”. Secondly, a cursory glance at modern Japanese history – particularly that period directly before and following World War II – would show that this current status quo has not always been the case. Finally, a look at the trends in entertainment would show that perhaps that the consumer base is now gravitating towards a very different view of society that does not include in it the concept of harmony.

There is almost a categoric and almost seemingly myopic focus on Wa being a driving force behind Japanese culture. While this is not particularly misguided – it is, after all, a very large part of what makes the culture, well, Japanese – to say that this is uniquely Japanese or even a good reason for the lack of protest today would be fundamentally wrong. As “harmony”, “social harmony” and “loyalty” (that is, piety) feature so strongly in Confucianism (to say nothing of the other two religions of the Sanjiao), it would not be incorrect to consider all three parts integral components of both contemporary common religiosity and social norms throughout the Sinosphere. And, given the protests that are almost endemic throughout Korea and China, it is safe to say that the proposition of such beliefs being the main cause of both a lack of activism and protest is probably considerably off its mark.

A “harmonious” society not being so harmonious

In addition to other so-called “harmony focused” societies being almost categorically (not) quiet or particularly homogenous in thought and action, Japan itself is characterized by almost critical levels of protest for a self-characterized ‘harmonious’ society. Starting from the very beginning of the 20th century wherein there was a wave of violent protest now commonly called the Era of Popular Violence (民衆騒擾期, minju sojo ki) to the massive wave of political purges and protests (most commonly featured in public memory through both massive student organization and anti-US riots, but also through public memory of the occasional Communist purges in the pre- and post-WWII era). This is not even commenting on the various tumultuous centuries prior to the modern era. It may, therefore, be better to say that we are experiencing an unusually peaceful period of time as opposed to this ‘harmonious society’ being the norm.

Not very harmonious.

And finally, we have the world of today. It is absolutely true to emphasize the fact that we haven’t seen major protests in Japan lately, and those that have caught media attention by and large are much smaller in scale than their historical counterparts. But it would also be wrong to state that society today is in any way shape or form similar to the society of yesteryear that fetishized Wa (especially in the workplace) and the idea of gaman or ‘hard work’. This should not surprise anyone at all; decades of ‘lost generations’ would and should necessarily lead to some sort of social unrest, and this has now come into fruition through what is currently trending in various types of entertainment. The movies that do particularly well highlight the mismatch between the idea of complete social harmony versus the realities of today, such as Shin Godzilla.

The bands and groups that seem to come to the forefront are those that emphasize themes that are considered almost fundamentally chuunibyou – embarrassingly teenage in how they present themselves, their biggest selling point is probably that they proudly proclaim they are not like the ‘adults’, which explains entirely why Keyakizaka46 was able to do so well from their debut. After all, an idol group that epitomizes the current zeitgeist should have a lot of listeners more than able to empathize with the lyrics.

This new way of visualizing society as one that is both cruel and to be despised is depicted most strongly within the world of otaku entertainment, particularly in light novels. While light novels as a genre are nothing new, many of the largest publishers only really started their light novel printing divisions starting from the late 1980s onward, and most academics would highlight 1990 as the primary start of the boom with Slayers being at the front of what would be the craze for years to come.

Crucial to this genre is the idea of characterization being at the forefront, where the characters drive the plot of the story, as opposed to any sort of plot being the main focus. Within the past couple of years light novel publishers have increasingly borrowed from or serialize web serials, which include not just all the major features of light novels, but also tend to include one additional central idea: that the system is broken, and that the rules of the “world” the novel is set in can be subverted to grant the characters a crucial advantage over their opponents.

Many of these works tend also to be self-insertion, and therefore gloss over what is called the “middle ground” in fiction (friends, family, etc.), highlighting the crucial brokenness of society versus the relationships between the characters. Given that this is perhaps the largest segment of the Japanese book market (as shown in 2016 Oricon Book sales), the data alone shows a large portion of the consumer base that regularly sympathizes with a view of society as being disharmonious and fundamentally broken.

Social harmony this is not, and the fact that this area of fiction is rapidly spreading across the East Asian region shows its popularity not just in Japan but throughout the world. Whether or not this will come to fruition in actual protest is something only time will tell – who knows, maybe the millions of people otaku who flock to this particular part of the market will continue to stay in their fantasy worlds.