U.S. aircraft carrier "propa-manga"

As the nuclear-powered George Washington sails toward Japan, the Navy attempts to win Japanese hearts and minds with a comic book.

Published June 16, 2008 4:43PM (EDT)

In service of the goal of greater cross-cultural understanding, there are very few pop-cultural landscapes in which How the World Works fears to tread. But after scanning all 204 pages of the U.S. Navy's manga "George Washington CVN 73" (humongous PDF file here) I can only report back, don't follow me. This is for seriously irredeemable otaku, only. (Thanks, I guess, to Silicon Hutong for the link.)

The context: In August, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington will sail into Yokosuka Harbor, the first nuclear-propelled ship to be "forward deployed" in Japan. Some Japanese, having a certain history with the U.S. and matters nuclear, are believed to feel anxiety about the prospect. So the Navy commissioned two Japanese artists to create a graphic novel/comic book -- known in Japan and by consumers of Japanese pop culture worldwide as "manga" -- in an effort to assuage nervousness by portraying daily life aboard the USS George Washington.

"George Washington CVN 73" devotes only one passing mention to the carrier's means of propulsion, which to me, is not all that reassuring. The rest of the story chronicles the often bumbling efforts of newbie sailor (and half-Japanese) petty officer Jack O'Hara, as he becomes accustomed to the ship, and worries about whether his Japanese grandparents will welcome him when he finally reaches Japan.

My two highlights: The moment when Petty Officer 1st Class Elly Benton tells Jack that her three main goals in life are to earn a special pin denoting extra-special service on-board, climb Mount Fuji, and sample "a bowl of ramen in pork broth." This is just random enough to qualify as the kind of genuinely vapid silliness that is often encountered in authentic manga and anime. The second comes when Jack heroically puts out a fire in a laundry dryer on board ship -- the full-page panel depicting the brave sailor wielding his mighty fire extinguisher evokes any number of Japanese manga heroes as they triumph over crazed giant robots or mutated spirit-monsters from hell. Some wield giant katanga, others fire extinguishers -- no matter, the samurai spirit will never die!

How the World Works will give the Navy credit for attempting to be culturally relevant in a manga-obsessed nation that it describes as having "state-of-the-art culture, history, and traditions." The finished product is nonetheless excruciatingly dull. The Navy says it successfully distributed hundreds of copies to eager readers last week in Japan, but Stars & Stripes reports that some Japanese bloggers are dubbing the publication, "propamanga." If the goal is to lull readers to sleep, well, consider the mission accomplished.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Globalization How The World Works Nuclear Power