The cyberpunk genre has been Orientalist for decades — but it doesn’t have to be

“Wake the fuck up, samurai,” Johnny Silverhand growls, crouching over player character V in a dump somewhere around the outskirts of Night City. “We have a city to burn.” Behind him floats an advertisement for Kiroshi Opticals; a neon purple eye on a holographic display peers out to an area out of focus. Early marketing material for Cyberpunk 2077 cemented this line into popular consciousness, and specifically the use of samurai in context to the game. It has been used in nearly everything since. Even in the 2018 trailer for Cyberpunk 2077, you could see the word “samurai” emblazoned on the back of V’s collar, just above a heavily stylized image of an oni’s face. At Gamescom and E3 2019, press members received jackets showing the oni’s face as well, bringing the Orientalist fantasy into our own reality.

It’s cool. It’s slick. It’s cyberpunk. The idea and the iconography of the samurai in the Western consciousness has been diluted into two things — the venerable samurai of Akira Kurosawa films, or the highly stylized, slick street samurai that occupies the neon-illuminated cities of cyberpunk media. Yet within the cyberpunk genre, Japanese corporations are the enemy, even as multi-national vocabularies and cultures have been congealed together to create a future envisioned by paranoia and fear. This is one of the many examples of techno-Orientalism and xenophobia that has been persistent since cyberpunk’s inception.

The world of Cyberpunk 2077 oozes the patchwork aesthetic of 1980s Orientalism, and the subconscious fear of an America that is no longer American but instead dominated by Japanese ultra-capitalism. You roll out of bed to radio programs making jabs at Japanese whale fishing; the streets of Kabuki and Japantown are densely packed with a hodgepodge of Chinese and Japanese-inspired buildings and street vendors; and the Arasaka Corporation reigns supreme — mostly uncontested by rival military groups. That is also where the crux of Cyberpunk 2077’s story lies: in the ineffective dismantling of a Japanese corporation that functions as a shadow organization, pulling the strings behind major world events. Naturally, other organizations exist within the multicultural Night City, but Arasaka remains the most prominent with the game; the corporation has even developed an item that is effectively the in-universe equivalent to the philosopher’s stone.

Image: CD Projekt Red

The Arasaka Corporation is a “modern” reimagining of the Japanese zaibatsu from the 1930s to late 1940s, with Arasaka effectively representing one or even all of the “Big Four” conglomerates that existed under and during Imperial Japanese rule. CEO and founder of the corporation, Saburo Arasaka, is a stand-in for the ultra-nationalist Japanese soldier turned savvy businessman. While the game, and the original Cyberpunk tabletop games that inspired it, could have provided players an avenue to actually push back against a pro-imperialist ultra-capitalist society, that isn’t the path 2077 wants to go down. Instead, it allows you to be a rebel and to dismantle the corporation under specific terms and conditions, while trying to balance the idea of “Cool Japan” simultaneously.

Cyberpunk as a genre has a long history with exotifying Asian cultures and countries — specifically Japan in regard to its text and Hong Kong concerning its aesthetic. Cyberpunk arose to prominence during the 1980s through formative works like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which envisioned the future as a techno-dystopia. The genre further cemented itself when Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner became a cult classic. That film has gone on to inspire decades of cyberpunk media, including the tabletop game that Cyberpunk 2077 draws direct inspiration from; at this point, Blade Runner is perhaps more widely known than Gibson’s Neuromancer or the book that inspired it, Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? While Neuromancer toyed with the idea of a technology-ridden dystopia, Blade Runner fully envisioned it. The movie also expanded on and pulled from themes in Dick’s science fiction, such as the fear of America no longer seated in the position of a world power; before Androids, Dick had published The Man in High Castle, in which the Axis Powers won World War II. The foundations were already set for cyberpunk to slot itself into the territory of dystopian alternate fiction with America’s eyes on East Asian corporations as the newly envisioned threat.

The sets of Blade Runner are visual examples of the economic fear of the 1980s, and specifically the fear of an America that has become more Japanese than American. Holographic geisha advertise products while main character Rick Deckard eats ramen, as opposed to a more traditionally American fast food like hamburgers. In Chi Hyun Park’s Orientalism in U.S. Cyberpunk Cinema, the author notes that Ridley Scott envisioned this future as “distinctly Asian, highly technological,” which contributes to the techno-Orientalist landscape and aesthetic that is entrenched in the film and within the genre. Even in the opening shot of the city, you see Los Angeles mostly populated with East Asian people, and while the city itself does have a large Japanese population in real life, this visual also cements what American corporations were afraid of at the time.

Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

In the 1980s, Japan was in its “Bubble Period,” with the country’s economy growing substantially due to post-war government policies that included the development of technology. This was also partially due to the U.S.-Japanese alliance that was formed shortly after World War II. Maximizing U.S. Interests in Science and Technology Relations in Japan, a text that details technological and economical advancements in Japan post-World War II, mentions that “a unifying thread in Japan’s postwar industrial success stories has been the effective utilization and improvement of technology acquired from abroad,” this not being strictly limited to the literal application of technology, but also innovation in areas such as “management and systems techniques.” This allowed Japan to gain a foothold in the global economy and earn a place as a rising world power. However, once the Bubble Period “popped” and the Japanese economy began to deflate, xenophobia toward Japan and by extension Japanese people began to redirect itself.

This made way for the “Cool Japan” phenomenon, which was bolstered by the Japanese government in the mid-2000s and helped recreate how the West effectively saw Japan. In the ’80s, the West had viewed Japan as a threat to America’s economic status as a world power, and cyberpunk as a genre reflected that fear. But through soft marketing bolstered by the general interest of Japanese pop culture in the early to mid-2000s, Japan was able to recreate a more palatable image through manga, anime, music, and other avenues to effectively change the way the country had otherwise been perceived. Cyberpunk stories incorporated “Cool Japan” into the existing history of the genre; all of it intertwined in the diluted replications of the genre that were to follow. What represented xenophobic anxieties of a technology-controlled future wrested out of the hands of white America turned into the Orientalist reproduction of the aesthetic.

Image: CD Projekt Red/CD Projekt

Cyberpunk 2077 proves to be a modern incarnation of the genre’s historic faults and problems regarding its portrayal of Japanese and other East Asian people. 2077 seeks to fulfill those fantasies, as it lapses into the “Cool Japan’’ category with its Akira Easter eggs, katanas, and even calling the player “samurai,” adopting what Western media has heavily associated with the trajectory of coolness in Japanese media, be it cyberpunk or feudal. And while the most recent tabletop scenario book skirts around the now mostly defunct Arasaka Corporation and all of the baggage it effectively carries, we see the same techno-Orientalism and xenophobia shift its focus toward Chinese corporations — which now reflects modern America’s anxieties toward mainland China.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are pieces of modern cyberpunk media that use the tropes of the genre, and the fears associated with those tropes, to great success and without falling into Orientalism or the xenophobia that accompanies it. Love Shore, currently in development by Perfect Garbage Studios, and the recently released Umurangi Generation by Origame Digital, both center narratives around marginalized people in techno-dystopias without falling into Orientalism. Katana Zero by Askiisoft uses the “Cool Japan’’ trope and techno-Orientalist street samurai iconography but flips these tropes on their head in a staggeringly effective way.

Cyberpunk stories can be told effectively without supplanting the fear of the “other” while simultaneously aping culture for the sake of aesthetics. We can have stories about fighting back against ultra-capitalist corporations and authoritarian dictatorships that step away from the tropes that have continued to drag the genre down. It’s what we deserve, and what stories about our future — as bleak as it may be — should be about.

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