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Friday, April 19, 2024

Orientalism, 'Cyberpunk 2077,' and Yellow Peril in Science Fiction

2020 has been one of the most tumultuous years in recent memory, but at least, in a few days, the most anticipated game of the year will come out. That game, Cyberpunk 2077, has already drawn both praise and criticism, but one of those criticisms is of how it handles different cultures—especially Asian culture, which is inextricably tied to the cyberpunk genre.

The Origins of the Cyberpunk Genre

The origins of the cyberpunk genre involve Western anxieties about the East. Techno-orientalism is the use of Asian aesthetics in cyberpunk, futuristic, and dystopian settings. There is a long and deep Euro-American tradition of using Asian symbolism such as neon signs with Japanese and Chinese lettering to express those feelings about what the future holds, including globalization and the threat of a takeover from the East.

Dylan Yeats, the author of Home Is Where the War Is: Techno-Orientalist Militarism on the Homefront, told me that he believes there are two strains of techno-orientalism, the European “Imperialist” strain and the American “Settler” strain.

The former can be traced back to World War II, when powers like the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands were looking at the end of their globe-spanning empires, while simultaneously seeing the expansion of imperialism in countries like Japan. They feared they would be outpaced in both technological and political clout, with Asian nations flipping the table and turning the previously colonized into the colonizers.


As for the latter, the Settler strain is about the promise of land and democracy to transform culture and the world. As America expanded on land in order to accumulate wealth, Asian immigrants ended up being targeted as cheap labor without any concern for their basic rights. These immigrants had sacrificed everything they had in their homelands to seek a better life in America, and thus they were willing to work for meager wages.

Chinese immigrants, in particular, were exploited to build technology like railroads during the 19th century. As a result, they were treated as an underclass and targeted as symbols of fear surrounding job displacement: low wages, dirty living conditions, and greed.

“I think this context is very important. Because to me, cyberpunk as a literary movement and genre and style emerges from this deeper history,” Yeats explained. “The impact of World War II cannot be overstated. I think many Americans today don’t realize just how scary the Japanese were, or how scary it was that the Americans developed globe-threatening atomic weapons to defeat them.”

The aspect that the cyberpunk genre gets right is that technological advancement doesn’t necessarily lead to a higher quality of life, so long as transnational capitalism continues to exploit and redistribute resources unequally in society. The antagonist in the genre is usually a multinational corporation, which is why many villains in cyberpunk stories aren’t lone actors or criminal masterminds, but massive conglomerates that want to dominate everything they can. If there is an individual standing in the way, it’s typically the CEO of the otherwise faceless corporation. But then again, the company is too big to fail, and another CEO can always be appointed by its shareholders.

However, the themes of class and social inequality “often become caught up in fixating upon a foreign, racialized other, whose sudden capitalist dominance is both uncanny and extra-terrifying,” said Takeo Rivera, assistant professor of english at Boston University.

Rivera noted how the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit, Michigan, was a result of fears that Japan’s then booming economy meant that country would soon take over American industries such as auto and real estate. Chin, a Chinese man, was murdered by two disgruntled white male auto workers who assumed he was Japanese. He added, “Techno-oriental fears are mapped as easily upon Japanese people as the Japanese cars: mass reproducible, intrusive, and overwhelming the more ‘human’ white man.”

Why Cyberpunk Is So Often Set in California

When you look at Cyberpunk 2077’s setting, setting, Night City, in the various trailers, the Asians that you see or meet are still “foreign” or the “other,” resting outside of some typical, white male norm. Yeats said that Night City reminds him of Blade Runner, in that there is a real sense of a multicultural future. These stereotypical Asian decorative elements like neon signage with Asian lettering could signal anxieties of a globalized future where some identities have taken a back seat to others. But at the same time, they could just be there for purely aesthetic reasons, as they are commonly seen in modern city neighborhoods like Chinatown or Little Tokyo.

Similarly, it’s no surprise that Night City is located in California. Depiction of the cyberpunk genre involves a globalized world, class conflict, the collapse of effective democracy (subsumed by global corporate interests), and the double-edged sword of technology. It doesn’t look like the future that farmers and 1950’s suburban families fantasized about. “It is no accident that California–the site of so much hope but also fear about the future–is the location for these movies and games,” said Yeats.


Whit Pow, assistant professor of queer and transgender media studies at New York University, explained that the state contains incredibly rich, multigenerational communities of Asian people.

They noted that the Asian America portrayed in Cyberpunk 2077 is in stark contrast to its real-life counterpart. The Asian American communities in the game are still defined by their foreignness, unlike real-world multi-ethnic Asian communities with long histories and roots in the United States today.

Whit explained, “I think it’s important, when looking at the ways that Asian-ness is produced and referenced through objects like those in the clips of Cyberpunk 2077, to think about the way that this game is teaching us to think about race, and how these objects are presenting us with a particular view of Asian-ness that is spectacular, that is foreign.”

You can see this particular foreignness in the Asian “Tyger Claws” gang in Cyberpunk 2077, complete with generic “Asian” accents and old-school katanas. While these are the usual orientalist clichés that we see in cyberpunk settings, there’s a certain insidiousness to them. Yeats mused that these clichés could be rooted in the idea that the presence of Asians is somehow polluting white America.

Organized crime groups and familial gangs like the Triads and Yakuza don’t exactly follow the social norms and rules Western audiences would find familiar (although they might, if they studied the history of organized crime in Europe and America).

Writing members of the Tyger Claws with these clichés reinforces the notion of otherness. However, Yeats explained, “I think there is also an almost unconscious recognition that discrimination and racism perpetuate fantasy depictions of gang culture, so that like African American and Italian American versions, the gangs somehow symbolize a failure of the American Dream to be accessible to all.”

Exoticizing the Other Comes to Corporations

Otherness can also be perpetuated through the racialization of multinational corporations. One such organization in Cyberpunk 2077 is Arasaka, a worldwide megacorporation that has influence in many industries, such as corporate security, banking, and manufacturing. During World War II, Arasaka was a major manufacturer for Japan’s Imperial Army. After watching GameSpot’s overview video of the corporation, which detailed the rise of Arasaka from its founding as a manufacturing company in 1915 to becoming the multinational powerhouse in the present, Rivera noted that there are certainly Yellow Perilist tropes, such as the representation of a hyper-traditionalist Japanese culture paired with high technology and corporate deviousness.

However, as Cyberpunk 2077 hasn’t been released yet, he wanted to clarify that the jury is still out on whether the portrayal of Arasaka is as repulsive as other “foreign” companies we see in other cyberpunk media, such as Hanka Robotics in 2017’s live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. Additionally, Rivera said that it’s possible for a piece of work to contain techno-orientalism that also reworks and contests it. He referenced Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi novel Snow Crash as an example. It contained these themes, but also had a sympathetic Asian and Black, or “Blasian,” protagonist.

Moreover, it’s currently unknown whether Arasaka is inherently more “evil” than, for example, Militech, an American military manufacturing company in Cyberpunk 2077. But one way to depict Arasaka in a bad light is by racializing and exoticizing corporate threats, by framing injustice in nationalist terms as opposed to class-based ones, like “good honest American companies versus devious Asian ones” rather than “international capitalists versus international workers”.

Rivera again cited the 1980s as an example, when the rise of Japanese automakers instilled anxieties about an Eastern takeover of the West. The American auto industry had been dominant at that point and was largely responsible for the growth of the country’s middle class through the post-World War II era.

However, Japanese innovation, speed, and affordability made them an easy scapegoat for Americans who wanted someone to blame instead of examining the systematic issues of their own business practices. The problem wasn’t conceptualized in terms of workers versus exploitative companies, but as an exotic “other”: the Japanese companies intruding on the marketplace that Americans thought was theirs.

A good example of this dynamic can be found in the 2011 game Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Rivera is also the author of “Do Asians Dream of Electric Shrieks?: Techno-Orientalism and Erotohistoriographic Masochism in Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution.”

In the paper, he wrote about how a Chinese company in the game, Tai Yong Medical, was juxtaposed against American ones. “American companies were portrayed as comparatively more sympathetic, less perverse, more visionary,” he explained, “while the Chinese company was grotesque, freakish, hyper-exploitative, and imitative; racism obscured and undermined what would otherwise be a very productive critique of transnational capitalist excess.”

Yeats shared similar sentiments. He mentioned that one of the most sophisticated and important elements of the cyberpunk genre in general was the conflation between military and private corporations. “This is very much a part of Blade Runner and Robocop, when fears of ‘Japanese’ corporations buying American towns were high, but of course that was just a radicalized stand-in for Reagan’s privatization of many government functions, fears about emerging technology exacerbating economic inequality, and a loss of democratic control,” he added.

Finally, You, the Main Character

Finally, one aspect that reinforces the notion of Asian characters in the game as the “other” may actually be the most inconspicuous: the main character, V. The game’s extensive character customization is impressive. However, even if you create the most Asian-looking person you can through the customization tools, there are elements of racialization that are inescapable.

V is by default, a white person. So players’ interactions with the various characters and the world are going to be through the lens of one. Rivera said that Cyberpunk 2077’s character creator reminded him of Mass Effect’s.

In Mass Effect, you can customize the gender and appearance of the protagonist, Commander Shepard, and make him or her look as Asian as you want. However, Mass Effect 3 introduced the cyber-ninja villain Kai Leng. Throughout the game, Commander Shepard fights Kai Leng several times. In these particular moments, Shepard occupies a space of normative whiteness, regardless of what his or her racial features are.

Shepard is scripted the same in those situations, reading as a very culturally white liberal Canadian, no matter how nonwhite the player made him or her look. Contrast that with Kai Leng, who on the other hand is stoic and unfeeling, which unfortunately are stereotypes of Asians.

Rivera added, “Even when it isn’t as overt, or otherwise virulently racist, you can still find traces of racialization in characterization, narrative, and procedural rhetoric, even in the absence of phenotype.” Also, the fact that Kai Leng was written to fight with a katana in a sci-fi universe filled with advanced space travel technology, laser guns, and biotic superpowers is problematic at best.

Regardless of all of this, it is possible to embrace the elements of cyberpunk that resonate with audiences without resorting to orientalist tropes. The sequel to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, 2016’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, was a big step in the right direction. It was considerably less techno-orientalist, given that the game’s central location was Prague, in the Czech Republic.

In addition to including an Asian character devoid of those tropes on protagonist Adam Jensen’s team, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was still unmistakably cyberpunk in tone and identity, despite the relative absence of Asian iconography and stereotypes.

Similar to myself, Rivera is hesitant to write off Cyberpunk 2077 entirely without having actually played it first. He continued, “While there do seem to be familiar techno-orientalist tropes, which are particularly problematic and even dangerous in an era marked by anti-Asian COVID panic, I do wonder how complexly it will deal with race throughout the rest of the game.”

“The fact that the original tabletop game was developed by a man of color, after all, does make me cautiously optimistic.”

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