The Subversive Legal Philosophy of Anime

The below is excerpted from author’s forthcoming article in A. Pearson, K. Tranter and T. Giddens (eds), Law and Justice in Japanese Popular Culture (2018, Routledge).

I am prepared to accept that few consumers of manga and anime are motivated by a passion for legal philosophy. Nonetheless, manga and anime is the most important forum for the popular circulation of critical and subversive thought in Japan today. Despite differences in their tones, target audiences, and the length and complexity of their storylines, three hugely successful franchises—One Piece, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Attack on Titan—are sufficiently alike in their explorations of law and legal authority to suggest that certain ideas resonate powerfully within the Japanese manga and anime subculture. All three advocate defiance against legal authority. More radically still, they expose how legal authority rests ultimately on deceit perpetrated by the socially powerful.

One Piece follows the adventures of a pirate captain and violent criminal in his opposition to the World Government. In both Attack on Titan and Fullmetal Alchemist, the protagonist is a soldier in the service of the civic power, but chooses ultimately to rebel and overthrow it after discovering the horrors in which it is complicit. However, there is more to these stories than a hackneyed exhortation to prioritize the dictates of conscience over those of law. Each implicitly explores the relationship between morality and legal authority in a way far more sophisticated and subversive.

The franchises implicitly endorse a legal-philosophical position known as “legal positivism.” This maintains that, although law may strive to reflect moral values, a putative legal rule’s status (as law or as non-law) has nothing particularly to do with morality. The root of legal authority—i.e. a ruler’s ability to create law as opposed to norms of some other kind—is not metaphysical, but sociological. A ruler makes law whenever there exists within the political community a logically prior “rule of recognition” awarding that ruler’s pronouncements the status of law. One Piece elegantly explores this distinction between legal and moral authority, by celebrating the abundance of laws that are (a) legally valid but (b) morally offensive as an opportunity for individual moral autonomy, specifically by disobeying the law in order to act ethically. For the protagonist and his band of loveable rogues, the edicts of the corrupt and authoritarian World Government must be defied not because they are not law, but because they are laws their consciences oblige them to defy.

Legal positivism unapologetically accepts that legal authority arises by bootstrapping: a ruler has legal authority only because a critical mass of legal actors accepts that authority. The rule of recognition, unlike all other rules of a given legal system, is simply a social convention. If relevant legal actors cease to accept a norm as valid law despite its satisfying the usual criteria for validity, they are not “breaking” the rule of recognition: rather, the rule itself has broken. It follows that the legal system founded by that rule of recognition has ceased to exist; the ruler no longer possesses legal authority, but only the non-legitimated power to compel obedience through force or fear. These three stories’ subversive message lies in their insistence that rules of recognition arise because of lies, and collapse when the truth is exposed.

In each of these imagined worlds, the population lives in cultivated ignorance of the origins and purposes of established civic power. In One Piece, the events of the hundred years preceding the World Government’s emergence have apparently been lost to human knowledge, replaced by an astonishingly perfect lacuna in the historical and archaeological record. In Attack on Titan, towering concentric walls shelter what is thought to be the last remnants of the human race from the Titans, gruesome hominid giants with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. The inhabitants know nothing of their history until the moment when an ancient ruler led their ancestors inside these walls, including the origin of the Titans and the construction of the walls themselves. Equally unenlightened are the citizens of Fullmetal Alchemist’s state of Amestris, who believe unquestioningly a skillfully concocted fictional account of their nation’s origins and history.

In presenting legal authority as the product of misinformation, all three challenge a real world assumption: that power structures derive organically from human nature and society.

The stories describe the results when the true history and nature of the civic power are exposed. Humanity’s efforts against the Titans eventually precipitate a dramatic and existential battle. Collateral damage to the outermost wall exposes the secret concealed within: supporting the wall from inside is a colossal Titan, immobile but clearly alive. This catalyzes the collapse of the regime’s legal authority, because it irreparably shatters the illusions by which the state procured the social endorsement necessary to sustain a rule of recognition in its favor. Immediately it becomes clear that, far from being the people’s ally and protector against an external threat, the state is complicit in their captivity and subjugation, and has perpetrated a grand and ancient deception in order to sustain the dominance and privilege of the ruling class. In Fullmetal Alchemist, the eponymous alchemist eventually discovers that Amestris is the creation of an ancient and malign entity, which plans to sacrifice the entire population in a complex alchemical reaction to increase its own power. The result of both these revelations is legally legitimate insurrection, at the hands of those freed from the illusions on which the legal authority of the regime relied. It is this cataclysmic popular enlightenment that One Piece’s World Government resolves at all costs to prevent, orchestrating the deaths of rare individuals able to patch the gaps in the historical record and reveal the true origins and purpose of the established order.

In these three stories, popular understandings of history and the civic power have been deliberately manipulated, by promulgating specific lies, or preserving specific secrets. But in presenting legal authority as the product of misinformation, all three can be read as challenging a general and primordial assumption that persists in the real world, namely that existing power structures derive organically and ineluctably from human nature and society. They participate in perhaps the central critical endeavor: combatting the false consciousness caused by the unequal distribution of social power, in order to expose apparently natural social phenomena as constructions that support the vested interests of the privileged.

It is also tempting to see their explorations of official deceit and exploitation as contributions to the battle over Japanese history, and challenges to the state’s claim to represent the interests of the Japanese people at large. Ideological fissures in Japanese society have deepened with the current administration’s efforts to dismantle the postwar pacifist constitution and the understandings of Japanese history, identity and society for which it stands. These manga and anime franchises echo leftist interpretations of Japanese history and the postwar political and economic settlement, according to which the Japanese people have consistently been, and remain, exploited for the benefit of a small and officially privileged group of powerful interests. In this respect they are an incitement to class consciousness in Japan, something the nation’s consistently conservative establishment has tried to suppress with the invented tradition of Japan as a harmonious and collectivist society free from the structural cleavages that usually characterize developed economies. These three stories are powerful examples of a counter-narrative, one that invites searching scrutiny of the iniquities that lie—skillfully concealed—at the dark heart of the Japanese state.


+ posts

James is an associate professor at Sophia University Faculty of Law, where he teaches and writes on English and Japanese private law, as well as constitutional law and legal theory. He has previously taught at the University of Tokyo and Meiji University. Most of his free time is spent in pain after training in three martial arts

To Top