Introduction to Copaganda in Anime and Manga

By: Lucas DeRuyter September 17, 20210 Comments
the main cast of My Hero Academia in action poses

Content Warning: Discussion of police brutality, racial discrimination, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. 

Spoilers for Persona 4

There’s a lot of media that glorifies cops. In fact, there’s so much pro-police propaganda that it’s reached ubiquity, meaning it is largely unnoticed by viewers and accepted as a part of the entertainment landscape. This kind of law enforcement propaganda is dubbed copaganda and, while writing for Level, Prof. Mark Anthony Neal describes how it works with the lines, “copaganda actively counters attempts to hold police malfeasance accountable by reinforcing the ideas that the police are generally fair and hard-working and that Black criminals deserve the brutal treatment they receive.” Prof. Neal’s piece specifically cites western shows and movies ranging from The F.B.I. to Bad Boys as prominent examples of copaganda

This isn’t just an issue found in content produced in the United States, though, and media from all over the globe contains an abundance of pro-law enforcement storylines and themes. Anime and manga are not exempt from this, with some of the most successful franchises in both mediums espousing dangerous, pro-cop social politics. That’s why this piece aims to introduce new and old anime fans to the concept of copaganda, highlight some of the most popular ways the practice appears so that it can be regularly identified, and offer some direction on how fans can still enjoy the mediums in spite of these prevalent themes.

Before we get too far into this issue, it’s worth noting that, while legal, penal, and policing systems differ across countries and cultures, there are more than enough reports of discrimination and neglect committed by Japanese police to suggest that there are similar underlying issues with policing across the globe. This is made clear by Black Lives Matter protesters in Tokyo citing an incident where a Kurdish man was harassed and physically assaulted by Tokyo police as racial profiling. Even if Japan does have lower rates of police brutality than the US, other failings in policing and judicial systems are still present. 

As noted in Mari Yamamoto and Jake Adelstein’s piece for The Daily Beast, cases of sexual assault in Japan are rarely investigated and perpetrators are infrequently prosecuted, suppressing how often victims report these incidents. Moreover, this piece has an excerpt from an American who suffered a sexual assault while in Japan, and she notes that the officers she spoke with were both inappropriate and tried to pressure her into saying the assailant was a foreigner — a report that also highlights Japan’s pervasive anti-Korean and anti-Chinese racism. So, while the exact expression of police misconduct may differ depending on the region, it’s clear that Japanese society has foundational problems in their policing system that are at least similar to those found in the United States. 

cop character from Astral Chain
Astral Chain

The best place to start examining copaganda is its history, because it wasn’t always around and doesn’t have to be as prevalent as it is today. The myths and stories invented by humanity over our collective history are incredibly varied. Some of these timeless stories, such as the legend of Robin Hood and the myths surrounding Ishikawa Goemon, cast a critical eye on those in power and show how individuals can rise up in the face of their oppression. Other myths, like the legend of King Arthur or the belief that members of the Japanese royal family are descendants of the sun god Amaterasu, discreetly enforce a ruler’s position of power by connecting them to divine forces. 

In the US, modern-day copaganda began to take form in 1938 with the release of the first Superman comic, which featured the paragon of moral virtue acting outside of the law to address issues that the police couldn’t handle. While this one piece of children’s media inadvertently advocating for an unchecked police force isn’t inherently a problem — and is inevitably complicated by additional factors, like the fact that Superman was a benevolent figure written by Jewish writers at a time when Nazism was climbing to power — the rise of similar stories not imbued with coding by marginalized authors helped create a media landscape that tells kids that the world’s problems can be fixed by giving authority figures more power and freedom, which is definitely a concerning trend. 

That being pulpy children’s media, though, superhero comics were relatively unexamined by broader society at their inception, and most of the American public’s perception of the police was colored by more mainstream pieces of media like Keystone Cops, a series of slapstick silent films that depicted law enforcement as being wildly incompetent. However, this changed with the birth of the police procedural in 1967’s Dragnet, which glorified the actions of cops and painted them as morally righteous figures suffering for the sake of good and decent people. Look no further than Dragnet’s fourth episode, “The Interrogation,” to see the show’s lead rant for nearly four minutes on how tough cops supposedly have it and how they deserve more respect for just doing their jobs. 

four main characters from western cop shows

The exact reason for the police procedural boom following Dragnet’s success is up for debate. While the show did prove that there was an untapped market for law enforcement dramas, it’s also worth noting the positive depiction of police made city officials more likely to approve shooting permits to production companies and even loan out officers to section off filming locations. In fact, modern Hollywood could not function without its cooperative relationship with police departments. Regardless, copaganda programming proved to be a goldmine in the US, forever coloring genres like detective fiction and legal dramas as pro-cop.  

Copaganda has just as long and interesting a history in Japan as it does in the US. As noted in Raymond Lamont-Brown’s A History of the Japanese Police Force, Samurai were the first police officers in Japan, which tracks considering their primary duties were protecting the members and interests of the upper class that employed them. For further clarity on how media has gone on to build and glorify the myth of the samurai, check out Kazuma Hashimoto’s stellar piece on how samurai are actively being reimagined by conservative actors to fit national and imperialist ideologies, and how the game Ghost of Tsushima plays into this revisionism. 

Of course, there are other examples of Japanese copaganda besides samurai stories, such as detective fiction. Edogawa Ranpo, largely considered to be the father of Japanese detective fiction, drew inspiration from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and created his own eccentric super detective in 1925’s The Case of the Murder on D. Hill, Aketchi Kogoro. This character resonated with the Japanese populace enough to appear in the long-running Lupin III series and serve as the loose inspiration for Persona 5’s Akechi Goro. Much like western detective fiction, while this genre does regularly depict police as being as ineffective or dismissive as they can be in reality, it also feeds into the myth of super cops who can solve any case if they’re allowed to skirt around the regulations that govern regular police officers.   

samurai preparing to draw his sword
Ghost of Tsushima

Why is placing police officers on a pedestal and aggrandizing them in nearly all forms of media a problem, though? The chief issue is that it makes citizens and police officers believe that cops are above the law that they’re supposed to unilaterally enforce. It also makes it more difficult to enact police reform when cops can point to countless fictional examples of why they should be given more power and subject to less scrutiny. Look no further than CBS, America’s largest television network, having fourteen of their nineteen promoted dramas focus on the fictional heroism of cops and cop-adjacent people. As noted by Erin Corbett in their What Is Copaganda?… piece for Refinery29, “these one-dimensional displays actually do harm by presenting cops as being solely friends and allies to the public at-large, rather than offering a truthful depiction of the deeply violent and racist nature of police work in America.” 

Basically, when copaganda is as normalized as it is today, it convinces people that these fantasies are real, which makes it nearly impossible to address the problems caused by racially prejudiced, overfunded police forces that are rarely held accountable for their actions. After all, as Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, brings up while speaking with the Los Angeles Times on the topic of violent crime rates decreasing in America over the last twenty years, “most Americans, according to Pew Research and others, believe that crime is going up. So there is a gap between perception and reality, and the gap between perception and reality is definitely related to the images they’re getting in their homes every day.”

Unfortunately, a lot of anime and manga contribute to this gap in reality and instill a sense of cop worship in viewers. Some of these series are even industry titans that shape the modern anime fandom. By examining these works and analyzing how they subtly and overtly exert this influence, an individual can learn to recognize these tactics and alert others to the dangers of their presence. 

In the ever-popular shounen genre of anime and manga, there are a lot of new and old titles dedicated to making the police look like heroes to generally younger audiences. For instance, the recently completed, Hard-Boiled Cop and Dolphin opens with its lead pointing a gun at a man holding a woman hostage, and doing an obvious homage to Dirty Harry. The chapter then goes on to make a case for why Japanese police officers should be able to use their firearms more liberally. 

a coup and a beefy man with a dolphin head pointing guns at each other
Hard-Boiled Cop and Dolphin

This ‘loose-cannon cop who gets results’ trope is as common as it is exhausting in police fiction. At its core, this premise argues that police would be more effective and crime less prevalent if they were given more freedom to define criminality and carry out their own version of justice. Considering that actual police officers routinely use the already lofty amount of freedom granted to them to over-police and harass people from marginalized communities — demonstrated in Baye McNeil’s interview of Jesse Freeman, a Black American living in Japan, who’s been stop-and-frisked five times a year due to the Tokyo police force’s use of racial profiling  —  granting cops free reign would only exacerbate the problems already present in policing systems. 

Then there’s the thankfully canceled Tokyo Shinobi Squad, which centers on the crime-fighting efforts of extrajudicial ninja who are called into action because, in this world, increased immigration caused lawbreaking to skyrocket. As this description implies, this manga is blatantly xenophobic and promotes the reactionary idea the immigrants commit crimes at higher rates than citizens; which is thoroughly disproven for both documented and undocumented immigrants. This shouldn’t distract from its prevalent cop worship, though, and its assertion that the only way to address illegal activities is to increase police personnel and hold them less accountable for their actions. The idea that more cops equates to safer communities is widely disproven; as noted by Betsy Peral’s writing for Center for American Progress, expanding police forces “account[s] for between 0 percent and 10 percent of the total crime reduction.” The same piece goes on to argue that community-based organizations, like nonprofits that promote community safety and wellness, have a significantly greater impact in reducing violent crime. 

It should also be noted at this point that all of the copagandist shounen series mentioned in this article are or were published in Shonen Jump, the most popular manga publication on the planet. That this outlet and its parent company Shueisha would push such socially and politically conservative stories onto their audience of mostly young boys and girls is unfortunately in line with their history of concerning behavior. This pattern includes reported sexual harassment by editors to women mangaka and continuing to publish the works of Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro and Watsuki Nobuhiro, who were convicted of soliciting sex from a child and possessing child pornography respectively.   

crowds in MHA talking about Deku as a "ticking time bomb"
My Hero Academia

By far the most frustrating of the Shonen Jump titles is My Hero Academia, an international juggernaut that’s helped bring anime and manga into mainstream culture in the past few years. In this series, heroes are basically cops with fewer regulations and greater celebrity status. In its early chapters, MHA boldly questions the systems in its society and suggests that there might be better solutions to its problems than this hyper-capitalistic version of policing. 

However, it has yet to give any kind of overt answer to these questions in its more than 300 chapter run. Instead, MHA focuses on young people entering into this policing system who fully believe in it and think that they can solve its problems by being more virtuous than other people. Their sense of right and wrong comes directly from the propaganda generated in this world, so essentially My Hero Academia’s leads believe they can solve any problem by being better cops than anyone else; even when many of those problems stem from that system.  

My Hero Academia’s answer to the social and political questions it raises seems to be that “good” cops who believe in the institution that empowers them can fix any injustice. This overtly plays into the propaganda that bad cops are a rarity and that changing regulations to crack down on them will hurt the majority of supposedly virtuous cops. In the time the series saves by no longer casting a critical eye on policing systems, it finds the time to redeem a hero that physically and emotionally abused his spouse and children, which is particularly worrisome as cops are more likely to commit and face less repercussions for domestic abuse than the general population in the US. 

Things aren’t much better outside of the shounen genre, thanks to titles like My Boy in Blue. In this shoujo manga, a sixteen-year-old high school girl falls in love with, starts dating, and marries an adult man who is also a police officer. The policeman lead is made out to be a paragon of moral virtue, which both acts as free PR for police and somehow justifies his intimate relationship with a child. This central conceit is especially gross since police sexual misconduct, including the sexual assault of minors, is a considerable and underreported issue. 

cast photo of Tokyo Ghoul wearing white trenchcoats
Tokyo Ghoul

The seinen genre, which on paper should be able to tell more varied and subversive stories thanks to adults being its intended audience, also falls into common tropes of cop worship. Franchises like Tokyo Ghoul and Jagaaaaaan feature several ethically gray characters who work in law enforcement or a similar institution. While these characters do have internal conflicts over their actions and deal with a litany of personal issues, the ultimate effect of these story beats is to make a reader sympathetic to these officers. This is less than ideal as showing how rough cops have it without demonstrating how they’re contributing to broken systems of oppression only makes it seem like these are unfixable problems built into society. Murderous villain Adachi of Persona 4 might boast that he became a cop simply to gain access to a gun, but he is treated as an aberration — to the point that at the end of the story Chie still declares her intent to become a police officer as a way to protect others.  This furthers the “bad apples” theory of policing, blaming failures and transgressions on individual bad actors and either incidentally or deliberately pointing away from the system that continues to perpetuate these cycles of violence.  

Even the powerhouse genre of cyberpunk anime can only channel the discipline’s anti-authoritarian roots about half of the time. Anthony Gramuglia in the Anime Herald points out that classic cyberpunk anime like Appleseed and A.D. Police Files frame the police as being anything from champions of progressive social politics to a necessary, if flawed, cog in a system that is vital to keeping order in the face of extreme circumstances. These series are plain-faced in their promotion of the police and directly argue for supporting even broken policing institutions. In reality, there are several alternatives to current policing systems — many of which are outlined on the Defund The Police website — and defenses of those systems tend to be little more than the privileged trying to protect the status quo that benefits them. 

All of this isn’t to say that anime and manga are inherently pro-cop, or that the series explicitly called out in this article are without merit. The issue is when wide swaths of entire storytelling mediums feature pro-cop messages, thereby ingraining those sentiments in culture and making it more difficult to change harmful policing practices and systems. Thankfully, there are a number of critically acclaimed anime and manga that are expressly critical of law enforcement and their place in communities. 

the leads of Akudama Drive tensing at the appearance of the cops
Akudama Drive

The anime-original series Akudama Drive brilliantly navigates issues of state violence and the social troubles that arise from having distinct criminal and law enforcement social classes. For a deeper dive into Akudama Drive, be sure to read Inkie’s terrific piece on the anime’s condemnation of retributive justice systems. 2019 original anime darling Sarazanmai is also boldly critical of law enforcement officers. It explicitly depicts the two officers in the show as the pawns of a mega-corporation who use their status to benefit the rich and powerful, which mirrors the in practice function of cops in real life. 

One Piece, perhaps the most successful manga and anime ever made, is fundamentally against cops and the systems that empower them. Much of the conflict in One Piece stems from the acts of oppression committed by the World Government via their Marine forces and the deputized Pirate Warlords. Here, characters empowered by the government nearly always act in their own self-interest or to the benefit of those in power. Even when readers are meant to root for characters that are a part of the Marines, like the idealistic Koby, a major part of their character arc is reckoning with the knowledge that the organization they idealize has a sordid history and isn’t always a force for good. 

Sadly, these cop-critical titles feel more like an exception to the status quo than anything else. The industries creating this media seem unlikely to break from their cop-worshiping trends without significant prompting anytime soon. So what’s a socially conscious anime appreciator to do in the face of all of this propaganda? Well, we can call it out when we see it. 

Media review and critique is an important part in pushing all art forms forward. Pointing out that a given piece of media doesn’t align with your own values or promotes what you believe are troubling social politics, isn’t the same as throwing the whole property under the bus. Even if most Japanese publishers treat international markets as an afterthought, expressing these concerns is the most direct method we have in eliciting any kind of change in the industry.

close-up of Monkey D Luffy. subtitle: Shoot down that flag

A socially conscious media consumer can also keep in mind the kinds of media they turn to for comfort and enjoyment. There are innumerous reasons to be worried about the state of the world right now and it’s understandable to want to turn to morally simplistic stories that offer assurance that things will be okay and they always have been. These stories tend to instill this feeling by offering a defense of current social structures and those in power though. Even popcorn media espouses political ideologies, and should be engaged with critically from time to time. These kinds of media can still be something to relax to, but copaganda works best when individuals internalize pro-cop messages without questioning what they’re internalizing. 

These solutions aren’t going to make copaganda less prevalent overnight. The practice is so ubiquitous that it’s impossible to enact any kind of systemic change in the near future. That being said, recognizing media with copaganda and understanding why it’s harmful is an important first step in addressing this issue. A better future with better media is always possible, and any problem can be fixed so long as we recognize and acknowledge it as such.  

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