Reimagining East Asian Creative Industry Through the Lens of Techno-Orientalism

The rise of East Asian soft power evident through its leading creative industry has caught the attention of global society.

The rise of East Asian soft power evident through its leading creative industry has caught the attention of global society. The situation of East Asian ‘catching-up’ Western’s dominance on today’s world political trajectory is not something new, however the significant growth marked by the industry today has led to the emergence of multiple discussions circulating around the world’s rising powers. In a way, the dynamics has also affected the Western projection on the East Asian region that was once portrayed as a contrast to the avant-garde and bizarre ‘Hollywood Dreams’–representing the advancement of the West (US & Europe) in comparison to the East (e.g. China, Japan, Republic of Korea, Taiwan). Hence, the situation of Eastern’s uprising represented in various non-traditional aspects has eventually triggered Western’s internalized insecurity through a rather contradictory view, Techno-Orientalism.

Techno-Orientalism: A Contradictory Take on Orientalism

Techno-Orientalism refers to the portrayal of Asia (and Asians) represented in various modern-day media through a highly exaggerated view of both having advanced technology developments yet intellectually inferior at the same time, often implying a need for Western influence to elevate their recognition. In accordance with “Techno-orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media” by Roh., et al (2015) this involves the use of hyper-technological terms in cultural productions and political discourse. Hence why the existence of this rather contradictory ‘version’ derived from traditional orientalism has eventually challenged the trajectory of todays’ West vs East dynamics. To put it simpler in words, Techno-Orientalism explains how the West views the East as both less-superior and futuristic at the same time. This has become one of the key concepts in defining contemporary Asian studies, incorporating the non-traditional elements of states, including the existence of various media in fostering national agendas and identity. On the other hand, the traditional orientalism that has been largely featured in numerous publications merely views Asian countries in the Eastern hemisphere as inferior and oppressed, referring to that of the age of colonialism.

The Representation of East Asian Creative Industry: Dystopian Themes and South Korea’s ‘Hallyu Wave’

Whether it is the Japanese’s Anime or South Korea’s K-Pop and K-Drama, the rapid growth of East Asian creative industries today is undeniable. As a matter of fact, East Asian creative media (in the forms of music, movies, performing arts, etc.) is widely consumed and favored by the global community, including those in the United States, transcending age, backgrounds, and most importantly, language barriers. In exploring the cultural impact of East Asian creative industries, there are a variety of ways in which the West perceive this phenomenon, one of them is through the lens of Techno-Orientalism which resulted in a fairly negative view of the East. While the term “… having advanced technology developments yet intellectually inferior at the same time” might be confusing, there needs to be a clear example in explaining what techno-orientalism really is like. For instance, we might encounter movies that portray the hyper-technological landscape of Asian countries, often illustrated through a dystopian-themed city with plots on how robots can eventually ‘take control’. One of the earliest cases is ‘The Blade Runner’ (1982), an American sci-Fi movie which depicts a city that is heavily influenced by Japanese attributes such as neon-lit signs and displays, found in the heart of Japan, such as Tokyo.  A simpler example would be coming from Disney’s animated movie, ‘Big Hero 6’ which highlights the existence of highly-advanced robots and technology as well as, again, neon-lit signs in a ‘fusion’ city called San Fransokyo which incorporated a combination of both Japanese and American elements. Both movies shed light on the Western’s fear over Japan’s superiority in the field of technology development. America’s excessively futuristic view over Japan through providing narratives on how machines could lead to the downfall of mankind shows a clear insecurity on Eastern domination and possible colonization in terms of technology. In fact, referring to Asians and Asians’ features as ‘robotics’ and associating them to the Y2K (Year 2000 Problem) trend and CyberSpace can be considered as highly stereotypical acts, conveying a very orientalist perspective.

The second example comes from K-Pop (an abbreviation of Korean Popular Music) as a part of a phenomenon called ‘Hallyu Wave’ on which South Korean culture eventually becomes globalized. In line with the shift of an era towards a more modernized global society, K-Pop that was once a “mere” music genre evolves into a national pride and identity by incorporating South Korea’s subculture into the elements of mainstream pop music in the same basket. As K-Pop made a notable breakthrough in the global market in the 21st century, Western insecurities on the rise of the East arose. The massive production of South Korea’s creative industry has scored extraordinary achievements on the international level, such as the blockbuster ‘Parasite’ (2019) that secured prestigious awards on the Cannes Film Festival and the popularity of K-Pop groups such as BTS, Blackpink, Seventeen, NewJeans, NCT and more other in the world. The rise of South Korean creative industries is seen as a competitive situation by the West, evident through the creation of the first K-Pop category on American Music Awards and The K-Billboard Awards, making it more obvious that there is an absence of justice and equality in the international music industry by positioning Korean Music as a threat and spreading the ‘there is always a need for Western validation’ narrative, regardless of their achievements and popularity, not only among their loyal fanbases, but also the global society as a whole.

In conclusion, the Western internalized inferiority on the rise of East Asian soft powers evident through the emergence of its creative industry favored by the global community can be clearly seen through the lens of Techno-Orientalism. The rising cultural dominance of East Asia through its media, represented in the Anime and Hallyu Wave breakthroughs in the world today unveils a complexity on how this occurrence not only triggers fears of the West but also draws a line on Western’s condescending perspective towards East Asian countries by creating certain stereotypes and labels. With the existence of exaggerated portrayals of East Asians, baseless hate-trains and racial remarks, a modern-day colonialism is apparent. Thus, there should be an end to this matter by constantly aiming for peaceful coexistence and promoting healthy cooperation.

Isabella D. Widyaputri
Isabella D. Widyaputri
Isabella Damaiyanti Widyaputri is an International Relations Student at Universitas Gadjah Mada Indonesia. Her strong interest in contemporary Asian studies and the significance of digital media has influenced her writings.