“We are not special. We are Japanese!”: Heroes and the Enactment of the New Foundational Narrative

In NBC’s extremely popular new series Heroes (2006-present), individuals all over the world suddenly and inexplicably develop supernatural powers which they must learn to use in order to protect mankind. As one of these heroes, a young Japanese salaryman named Hiro Nakamura, along with and his friend and sidekick Ando Masahashi, attempt to save the world from annihilation, they enact a new and more contemporary version of the foundational narrative as described by Yoshikuni Igarashi (2000). Unlike the original postwar narrative, Japan is no longer explicitly feminized and in need of rescue, nor is it the threatening economic machine of the 1980s – instead, it is rendered as an ineffectual and weak male. In Heroes, the Japanese are portrayed as “good capitalists”, but at the same time only a pale imitation of the proper free and individualistic capitalism embodied in the United States. Through its depiction of Japanese “strange” and “foreign” social norms, the show makes invisible the cultural context surrounding these norms, and presents American neoliberalism as inherent and natural rather than culturally constructed. The character Hiro embodies not only the current trope of the Japanese male as dictated by the foundational narrative, but also enacts the drama of rescue and conversion, steadily transforming through his contact with the United States into a “true” American hero.

In Bodies of Memory (2000), Igarashi explains the foundational narrative as a method of understanding the changing relationship between the United States and Japan, particularly in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s defeat and its subsequent occupation by the American military. This narrative was co-produced between the two countries, and enacted through popular culture, news media, and the popular imagination. It consisted of the United States, gendered as male, rescuing and converting Japan, which was conceived as a desperate female: “The relationship between the United States and Japan in the postwar melodrama is highly sexualized. The drama casts the United States as a male and Hirohito and Japan as a docile female, who unconditionally accepts the United States’ desire for self-assurance. As a good enemy that is also constructed as a docile woman, Japan provides the United States with a reflection of its own power” (Igarashi p. 29). By depicting each of the countries in this manner, it allowed the people of both nations to make sense of their sudden shift from enemies to allies.

As the power dynamics between Japan and the United States have shifted over time, this narrative had to be updated in order to again comprehend their changing relationship. In the 1980s during the economic boom in Japan, the country was no longer gendered as female in the foundational narrative, but became an aggressive and hyper-sexual male businessman, with the United States as a woman in danger. This new trope is that of the salaryman, the kigyō senshi (corporate warrior). Japan’s economic success on the world stage was attributed to their strange and foreign business practices, in which the salaryman must sacrifice his body and personal freedoms for the good of the company, as the free and clean bodies of the postwar period were once again restricted by oppressive the requirements of Japanese society (Dasgupta in Louie and Morris 2003, p. 120).

This new and powerful Japan was somehow aberrant from the American point of view, as it was achieved through tyrannical control over the businessman, and not in a free and individualistic manner. Both Igarashi and Dorinne Kondo point to the 1992 Michael Crichton novel Rising Sun as indicative of this new narrative. Kondo reads the novel thusly from the American point of view: “The Japanese may have the upper hand now, but clearly all is not lost. ‘They’ are, after all, merely ‘plodders’ – hardworking but uncreative, successful only because of their dedication to work and their devious business practices. Representing ‘them’ as clannish and endowed with a racist superiority complex, [the character] Connor not so subtly allows us to counter by asserting ‘our’ own superiority” (Kondo 1997, p. 244). This new foundational narrative, then, continues the drama of rescue and conversion, by allowing the United States to insist on its own superiority and somehow “save” the Japanese from their own cultural values.

According to Kondo, the two stereotypes of the Japanese male at the time were either “the corporate soldier who threatens to invade the American economy” or “the bespectacled, camera-carrying, buck-toothed, asexual, emotionless automaton” (p. 173). As this paper will demonstrate, it is this second stereotype that survived the “bubble burst” of the late 1990s and survives in the popular imagination to this day. The new Japanese male is that of the emasculated and laughably pathetic otaku. As LaMarre indicates, “theirs is such an unqualified masculinity that it appears pathetic… they are both passionate and helpless… and the emphasis on youthful passion or youthfulness serves to highlight a childlike subjection…” (LaMarre in Yoda and Harootunian, 2006, p. 371), and is thus no longer a threat to the United States’ economy, nor its women.

At the same time, though, this otaku character is more able to free itself from the perceived oppression of Japanese society: “… the otaku apparently refuses certain forms of disciplinization and rationalization, especially those of the corporate man and the nuclear family. Thus the otaku strives toward a new kind of man” (LaMarre, p. 376). In this way the drama of rescue and conversion that is fundamental to the foundational narrative may again be enacted, as the otaku is more willing to adopt American neoliberalistic beliefs. It is this trope of the Japanese man that is portrayed in Heroes in the character of Hiro Nakamura, to which we will now turn.
Such an ineffectual and pathetic male lead character as an otaku is usually never seen in a lead role on a television series, as the traditional hero of American film and television is “undoubtedly masculine and heterosexual” (Brandt in West and Lay, 2000, p. 70). As the force that drives the film and the symbol of confidence and charisma, “heroism… is deeply injected with codes of masculinity like strength, courage, and the will to do things” (ibid, p. 71-2, emphasis in original). One would assume than an otaku type would never be figured in such a role, but throughout the course of Heroes, both Hiro and Ando learn how to be proper heroes as they attempt to save the world, slowly moving away from their “otaku-ness” and toward a more American ideal of heroism throughout the course of the show, in their performance of the drama of rescue and conversion.

The series begins with several scenes of Hiro in Japan as he works at a mindless office job, as is socially required (Episode 101, “Genesis”). Hiro is first shown staring at the clock in his white-walled cubicle, his desk decorated with figurines of anime characters and a computer desktop of Godzilla. Staring intently at his clock, he manages (using his ability to control time) to turn it back one second. Upon his success he leaps up from his chair, throws his arms up in victory, and shouts “Yatta!” (“Hooray”). He then turns and runs through the endless rows of matching white cubicles cheering happily, until he reaches the desk of his friend Ando. The subtitles tell us his first words are “I’ve broken the space/time continuum! I have discovered powers beyond any mere mortal.” To this declaration, Ando reacts with sarcasm: “Oh, you and Spock.” Hiro, in complete seriousness, responds, “Yes! Like Spock. Exactly.” At this point, his superior arrives and drags him back to his desk by the ear like a parent would a misbehaving child, and Ando returns to watching an online striptease on his computer.

This first scene is a perfect indication of the new trope involved in the foundational narrative. Unlike Rising Sun, in which the Japanese businessman was an ambiguously dangerous threat to the United States, Hiro is a threat to no one, save perhaps himself. He appears to function as comic relief for the series, as his cheerful personality seems oblivious to all solemnity. While the American characters struggle with their powers and changing identities, Hiro is thrilled that he can now act as the hero he has always read about, and constantly compares himself to other popular culture heroes such those in as The X-Men, Spiderman, and Star Trek (although one might ask why he uses American popular culture references instead of Japanese). His clownish nature is clear in farcical mock-seriousness in all his actions, such as the scrunched-up and overly dramatic facial expression he makes whenever he uses his powers.

As noted by LaMarre above, Hiro’s position as an otaku allows him to be liberated in some extent from the cultural pressures of Japanese society. In the scene described previously, Hiro is the only person in the office not acting appropriately, and the only one not sitting at his desk. His alterative potential is also prevalent in another scene from episode 101, in which the employees of his office engage in mandatory callisthenics on fake green turf on the rooftop of the building. As everyone else moves in unison and counts over and over again monotonously in their matching black-and-white business suits, Hiro stands still and stares upwards at the solar eclipse occurring right over their heads, while no one else seems to notice.
Hiro expressly states his desire to be different later on in the episode, after he and Ando are forcibly ejected from a karaoke bar when Hiro manages to teleport himself into the women’s bathroom using his newfound powers. At this stage, he and Ando get into an argument about Hiro’s longing to be special:

Ando: There are twelve and a half million people in this
city and not one of them can bend the time/space
continuum. Why do you want to be different?
Hiro: Why do you want to be the same?
A: Because that’s what I am. The same.
H: Exactly. Just like everyone else. Homogeneous.
A: Yogurt?
H: You don’t understand, I want to be special.
A: We are not special. We are Japanese!
[Literally, 「我々は特別じゃない。俺たちは日本人だ。」]
H: Fine. Stay here. Be just like everyone else. I want
to boldly go where no man has gone before.

These scenes of Hiro and his rejection of Japanese norms seem to suggest that he is the only one who wants to break free of the constraints of society that hold him back from doing as he desires, which is a perfect indicator of the American ideology of individualism.

Beginning in the final scenes of the first episode, Hiro travels to the United States in order save New York City from an explosion, and it is at this time that juxtaposition between American and Japanese becomes the most clear. As noted by LaMarre above the otaku male is extremely ineffectual with women, and this is clear as both Hiro and Ando are utterly useless in their interactions with the American women they encounter as they travel from Las Vegas to New York. For example, in Episode 105 (“Hiros”), Ando agrees to follow Hiro to the United States in the hopes that he might meet the online stripper he was watching in the first episode. After having an argument with Hiro, Ando abandons him and goes in search of this woman (unbeknownst to him, another one of the “heroes”). She is understandably shocked when he arrives at her home, and explains to him in very condescending terms that her online persona is “just pretend”, and that there’s a difference between the internet fantasy and the real world. Here, it seems as though Ando was unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, and appears quite pathetic for having assumed that she would actually welcome him into her home.

Hiro himself also has a romantic interest introduced several episodes later, but as long as he remains the emasculated otaku he will be unable to engage in a proper relationship. This woman, Charlie, is extremely non-threatening and innocent, but she is killed before any relationship may occur (Episode 108 – “Seven Minutes to Midnight”). Although Hiro is able to use his powers to go back in time in an attempt to save her before she is murdered, it is revealed that she was dying of natural causes in any case. He is ultimately unable to save her or have any intimate contact with her whatsoever: as he is just about kiss her for the first time, he is suddenly teleported back to Japan, to the roof of his office building where his co-workers are performing callisthenics – back the symbol of conformity and homogeneity. Again, as everyone else moves and chants in unison, Hiro stands still, and is wearing red while everyone else is wearing identical black suits (Episode 110 – “Six Months Ago”).

Upon his return to the present day, he reveals to Ando that he has lost his ability:
H: I teleported forward, backward… But I couldn’t
save her. I couldn’t save Charlie.
A: So try again.
H: It won’t work. This power… It’s bigger than me.
I can’t change the past. No matter how hard I wish.
I failed.

Very clearly, he has become completely emasculated and ineffectual through his attempts to have a relationship with Charlie. (Interestingly, though, in order to regain his powers he must retrieve a Japanese katana sword, which acts as a symbol of re-masculinization.) Unlike the threatening figure of the kigyō senshi in the 1980s who was a danger to American women (as depicted in Rising Sun), this new depiction of the Japanese male is no threat to females as he is unable to ever properly have any sort of relationship.

In addition, when Hiro and Ando interact with the men they encounter in the United States, their ridiculousness and weakness is dramatically increased, as well as their position as clowns or fools. For instance, again from episode 105, Hiro encounters Nathan Petrelli, a self-described manipulative and controlling “shark” who is running for congress. He does, however, have the ability to fly and is seen doing so by Hiro even as he attempts to pretend that nothing has happened. The following dialogue occurs after Hiro confronts Nathan about his abilities:

Hiro: Flying man! You fly – I see you! Fwoosh!
Nathan: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
H: It’s okay, I keep shi-ku-re-to [secret]. I bend
time and space! Teleport into future. We are
both special.
N: [looks away with a sceptical expression]
Alrighty then.
H: I go to New York, I see future. Big bomb goes
there. Bad for many people – TO-KAAANN!
N: Shhh!
H: [whispering] Booom! [pushes up his glasses]
N: I can see where that might be a problem.
H: Don’t worry – I stop it. [pushes up his glasses]
I’m hero.
N: [sarcastically] Lucky us. [Walks away]
H: Give me lai-do? [ride]
N: What?
H: Lai-do [mimes steering a car] Bu buuu.
[pushes up glasses]
N: Sure. Why not.

When compared to the calm and serious Nathan (who is incidentally shirtless in this scene), Hiro seems extremely childish as he smiles cheerfully at the confused American. As Hiro speaks in heavily accented and broken English, he must mime actions to describe things, making him appear even sillier, and his “otaku-ness” is increased as he must constantly push up his glasses. It is interesting to note that the other “foreign” character in the series, the Indian university professor Mohinder, speaks highly articulate “Queen’s English”, with a negligible accent. The new foundational narrative is perfectly embodied in this scene, as both Japanese and American males come into contact and act out the new power dynamics at work between the two countries after the economic collapse of the 1990s.

In Episodes 113 (“The Fix”) to 114 (“Distractions”), Hiro must face his own father and sister when they arrive in the United States in order to convince him to return to Japan. These interactions demonstrate the ideology of company-as-family/ family-as-company as outlined by Kondo (1990), as well as the relative position of women in the social hierarchy and business world in Japan. However, the episode then systematically debunks these social practices, as Hiro manages to convince his family members to accept his newfound individualism. In Episode 113, Hiro and Ando are kidnapped and forced into a van, and taken to meet an extremely stern and cruel-faced man wearing a suit, who is revealed to the Hiro’s father, and head of a zaibatsu-type corporation. His father insists that Hiro return to Japan and resume his appropriate role as heir to the company/family as his only son. As this storyline develops in Episode 114, Hiro’s father is depicted as a Japanese male seemingly left over from the previous foundational narrative, as he is best described as belonging to the threatening and mysterious kigyō senshi trope whose company loyalty is absolute. His father discounts his son’s “mission” to save the world as an unnecessary distraction, and demands he come back to work, offering to make Hiro the Executive Vice-President as a prelude to becoming CEO: “You are my only son,” he states. “This is your destiny.” Hiro, however, responds, “Father, I believe I have a different destiny.”

Both his sister Kimiko (also dressed in a business suit) and Ando try to convince Hiro to return to Japan, as they believe that family obligations should come before personal choices. Hiro, however, will not be dissuaded from his mission, and manages to trick his sister into listing what she thinks should be done to save the company, and she proclaims that no one knows more about the business than she does. Upon doing so, though, she immediately realizes her error, bows, and apologizes to their father for speaking out of turn. However, by demonstrating that Kimiko knows more about the company that he ever will, Hiro is able to convince his reluctant father to make Kimiko Executive Vice-President, and frees himself from the company/family obligation: he states, “Life evolves, Father. And the son you wanted to be like you will follow his own path.”

This scene seems to suggest, however subtly, that the evolution that Hiro refers to requires the adoption of a more American-style ideology, one in which traditional values and familial obligations are not as important as self-determination and personal freedom. The Nakamuras enact the company-as-family/family-as-company narrative as outlined by Kondo, but it is portrayed as strange, overly formal, slightly backward, and discriminatory toward women (as their father would never have chosen his older, more business-savvy daughter to succeed him if Hiro had not suggested it first). All the factors of the 1980s-1990s foundational narrative that created the impressive power of the Japanese economy at that time – such as slavish devotion to one’s job, familial and social obligations, and father-to-son inheritance of the business – now appear out-of-date, and products of a disappearing age, as Hiro manages to break free of his duty to the company-as-family and choose his own destiny.

Over the course of his time in the United States, Hiro comes to adopt American-style neoliberalism, and steadily abandons the Japanese social norms, as evidenced in the above interaction with his family. The final product of this contact with American ideology is depicted in Episodes 104 (“Collision”) to 105 (“Hiros”), in which the audience meets Hiro’s future self. While it is not revealed exactly how far in the future this new Hiro has come from, he is nearly unrecognizable from his original self. This future Hiro has no recognizable accent when speaking English, wears no glasses, has a small goatee, a deeper voice, and is wearing all-black clothing. He speaks with deadly seriousness as he tries to warn the character Peter of the events to come, and not a single trace of his clownish otaku self remains. Now, he is a “true” hero of the American style – masculine, charismatic, and in control.

The rescue and conversion drama of the foundational narrative continues: “The postwar foundational narrative’s power has been constantly challenged by the ever changing power dynamics of the two countries, and to each challenge, the narrative responds with its basic theme of the popular representations of the two countries’ relations – rescue and conversion” (Igarashi, p. 43), and the series Heroes is no exception. Although the relationship between Japan and the United States has changed drastically again and again over the course of the past fifty years, the narrative always responds in the same way, as the United States is able to save the Japanese from their own society and convert them to a “better” way. The United States rescues the weak and ineffectual Hiro from his mind-numbing job, and makes him a “real” hero by converting him to neoliberalism, and he in turn manages to spread these liberatory values to others, such as his sister and father, who he manages to break just a little bit from the stricture of Japanese beliefs. While just as steeped in a cultural context as Japan is thought to be, the depiction of Japan in this series seems to stealthily suggest that American-style neoliberalistic values are somehow innately superior to the cultural values of the Japanese, as Hiro moves away from his former monotonous life and becomes a “true” hero.

This new foundational narrative is acted out through the portrayal of the monotony and futility of daily existence in Japan, the weak and pathetic portrayal of Japanese men in comparison to both American men and women, and in the suffocating social obligations of the company-as-family ethos. By choosing to be unique and different in the face of these social pressures, Hiro gains the sympathies of the audience and continues the drama of rescue and conversion which first appeared in the immediate aftermath of WWII and the defeat of Japan. As Japan and the United States continue their close association into the future, this foundational narrative will surely shift again to better reflect this relationship, and will give us a new glimpse into the subconscious play of power occurring on the international stage.

Works Cited
Heroes. Created by Tim Kring. NBC, 2006-present.

Igarashi, Yoshikuni. Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945-1970. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Kondo, Dorinne. About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theatre. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Kondo, Dorinne. Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Louie, Kam and Morris Low, eds. Asian Masculinities: The Meaning and Practice of Manhood in China and Japan. London: Routledge Curzon, 2003.

West, Russell and Frank Lay, eds. Subverting Masculinity: Hegemonic and Alternative Versions of Masculinity in Contemporary Culture. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi B. V., 2000.

Yoda, Tomiko and Harry Harootunian, eds. Japan after Japan: Social and Cultural Life from the Recessionary 1990s to the Present. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.


2 responses to ““We are not special. We are Japanese!”: Heroes and the Enactment of the New Foundational Narrative

  1. Yay! I liked it! Not too shabby for writing in, like, a day! I liked your description of “future Hiro”..he really DID look and act like a totally different person! Good Job, gold star!

  2. Very good. This is why I want to write alternate-universe: I want to celebrate Hiro as an otaku, I want to have him in a relationship with Ando, and I want to basically break the idea of American imperialism here by subverting its inversion. ^_^

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