KanColle, Homage to the Empire?


The first time I came into contact with KanColle was when I was writing my final paper during my 8th semester in college for my Maritime Security class. I was doing some research on Japan’s naval strategy since World War II and suddenly, KanColle popped into my mind. I mentioned KanColle for a bit in my introduction and stated that it has very little relevance to current Japanese foreign policy.
But that was a year ago. Now, KanColle has evolved from being the biggest gaming phenomenon of 2013 to the biggest Japanese pop culture phenomenon of 2014. Even people outside of Japan are getting hooked on KanColle. They cannot resist the cute girls who are basically anthropomorphized ships from the Imperial Japanese Navy and other prominent navies of WW2, like Germany. KanColle’s rapid expansion has got me wondering: is KanColle a glorification of Japan’s military past?

There is no doubt that cultural products sometimes have subliminal agendas. Check out the Marvel universe. You can find a lot of American glorification of war and its foreign policy hidden between lines of dialogue. In Call of Duty, it’s all about guns and preserving the American way. Could it be the same be for KanColle? Is KanColle trying to promote a nationalistic agenda and getting the Japanese to favour war? Is it a prelude to the revival of Imperial Japan? Or am I just overthinking shit?

KanColle’s Awkward Timing

KanColle’s rise to “largest gaming phenomenon of the year” could not have come at a more awkward time.

KanColle has been criticized as glorifying Japan’s wartime past. In an editorial published in a South Korean daily, the Hankook Ilbo, Kim Bum-soo suspected KanColle’s large surge in popularity as a result of a conservative political shift in Japanese youth. Furthermore, Kim criticizes KanColle for glorifying the Imperial Japanese Navy. However, Akimoto from The Japan Times dismissed Kim’s critique, stating that Battleship Yamato also garnered similar criticism, but had little effect on Japanese foreign policy. Akimoto insists that KanColle’s success was coincidental and has nothing to do with glorification of war.

South Korea is particularly hot-headed about KanColle and any intention of Japan glorifying its wartime past. This is understandable, since Korea has had a long tumultuous history of being Japan’s bitch. The Korean peninsula was annexed by Japan in around 1910 and Japan did everything it could to Japan-ize the peninsula, including overriding Korean culture with Japanese indoctrination. These historical scars have remained unhealed for decades and Korea (including South and North) would stop at nothing to keep Japan in check for their wartime sins.

"JS Izumo (DDH-183) just after her launch" by Dragoner JP
“JS Izumo (DDH-183) just after her launch” by Dragoner JP

To put the critique in context, the time was near the end of 2013. At that time, the Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) had just launched the JDS Izumo, a new helicopter carrier. The Izumo is now the largest ship in Japan’s fleet and also a great source of controversy in East Asia. The media in China and South Korea report the Izumo as a “semi-aircraft carrier” considering the sheer size of the vessel, while the Japanese insist that the Izumo is just a “destroyer than can carry helicopters” (AJW, 7 Jan 2014). The Japanese also insist that the Izumo would not be used offensively and will only be used in military operations other than war (MOOTW). Of course, because KanColle equals ships and ships equal the IJN, it’s quite easy to understand the misunderstanding between these three countries, especially South Korea.

To make things more awkward, a quick review of Ministry of Defense documents (easily accessed on their website) shows that the MSDF is in the process of procuring new vessels and equipment to increase their overall naval power. And all of this is happening just when KanColle became a huge phenomenon. No wonder KanColle is being targeted as an unintentional attempt to influence public opinion towards war.

But again, it is all coincidental. The MSDF fleet improvement came as a response to several Chinese threats during the last seven years. Since 2008, Chinese vessels have repeatedly encroached Japanese waters. It is also a response to the recent commissioning of the Liaoning aircraft carrier. To add to the threat level, China’s coast guard is also undergoing a degree of militarization. Of course those big guns are gonna alert someone.

KanColle and Ties to Japan’s Past

In KanColle, the main character is the Admiral and his fleet of kanmusu (lit. “ship girls”). The basic premise of the anime is to showcase otaku wish-fulfillment by having the kanmusu engage in everyday activities. The anime is loaded with tropes, cliches, and all the things you could expect from any stereotypical moe anime. It’s basically just another moe-shit-laden anime the moe industry spews out every season.


But, perhaps the problem with KanColle lies in its kanmusu. The kanmusu are anthropomorphized ships inspired by, mostly, the Imperial Japanese Navy. Take Akagi, Kaga, and Sohryu for instance. These three kanmusu are based on actual aircraft-carriers used by the IJN during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Ironically, in the anime, both are portrayed as clean and innocent. For another example, take the I-8 submarine. The I-8 in the game is depicted as a quirky and adorable scamp. Yet during the war, the I-8 was responsible for sinking a neutral Dutch vessel. If you take the time to cross-check all of KanColle’s kanmusu with their actual historical references, you’d find that almost all were involved in bloody conflict.

You’d think by now that KanColle is deliberately trying to trivialize Japanese history by portraying their lethal ships as innocent little girls. But you might be wrong.

There is an interesting (or rather alarming, depending on how you see it) part of the Japanese way of life when faced with tragedies or suffering: suck it up and move on. The Japanese don’t dwell on tragedies like most Western cultures do; they try their best to get back on their feet and let bygones be bygones. Instead of lamenting war, Japanese creators satirize war. It has been done in several titles. Take Hetalia, a satirical anime series about WW2. Or Strike Witches, the anime that features anthropomorphized airplanes from the WehrmachtGirls und Panzer takes WW2 tank battles and makes a sport out of them! You would not imagine Western media portraying Hitler or Nazi Germany as anything but brutal and diabolical “krauts”. This “trivialization” of war is what pisses people, especially from other cultures. It is unacceptable for a country that forced over 80,000 women into forced prostitution, annexed the Korean Peninsula, and blew up Pearl Harbor to trivialize war. They should feel guilty all the time.

As you can see, it’s all about clashing cultures. Hence, the suspicions.

But, I think Japan has said “sorry” and kneeled enough. Their Constitution is evidence enough (though that’s possibly going to change in a year or so). They have stayed out of pointy international affairs for over five decades now and have shown their commitment to atone for their wartime sins. In the Gulf War, they opted to stay out of the fighting and only engaged in checkbook diplomacy. During Koizumi, Japan was committed to help disaster relief around the world. Well, that commitment has in fact weakened since Koizumi and Abe though, but nevertheless, Japan has often times shown a lot of remorse and guilt. So, perhaps it’s time to let go.


Is KanColle a subliminal attempt to revive Japanese militarism and push public opinion towards Japanese rearmament? As enticing as the idea might sound, sadly, no. KanColle is just another product of Japan’s creative industries which is coincidentally based on Japan’s wartime past.  There is no hidden agenda or manipulation of public opinion. While the idea of using culture to generate propaganda does exist and has been used, I doubt KanColle falls within that category.

In the end, KanColle is just a game, a product of Japanese pop culture. Let’s leave it at that.

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