Full disclaimer: I work for TOKYOPOP as an editor, and I have worked on every print volume of Hetalia thus far. But I do enjoy Hetalia as a manga fan, and as a history nerd, and so this post is written from that perspective.
The other day I came across a remark from manga blogger Sean Gaffney that said reading Hetalia requires a love of World War II history and an ability to completely disassociate oneself from the atrocities committed by some of the countries represented in the book during that period. It struck me at the time, and since I first read that comment, I’ve been mulling over why it bothered me.
Simply put, both of these requirements are somewhat off the mark. What Hetalia really requires from its readers is an interest in history and the ability to understand that history is not all wars and atrocities.
The first requirement is easily explained: Although the most of the countries/characters are wearing their World War II-era military uniforms, not all of the content is about World War II history. Not to mention the fact that not all of the countries/characters existed during that time period. Having read all the existing Hetalia print volumes so far, even the sixth volume that’s currently in production, my educated guess is that actual World War II-era subjects make for about 20-35% of the content in the print books. Based on that guess, the majority of the content of the books is about other points in history. World War II just provides some shallow framework for Himaruya to use because it is when many nations began to take their current form and attitudes. It creates a standard time for him to start from, but he is constantly rewinding and fast-forwarding the historical tape. In other words, Hetalia is not a World War II comic with some overall history components, but a history comic with some World War II components.
The second requirement might be a bit harder to put into words, but I’ll do my best.
If you were educated in the U.S., you probably don’t look back on your history classes fondly. This is because history classes in the U.S. school system tend to teach history as compartmentalized and easy-to-understand sections focused on one or two major historical events. Students are taught the important dates, the key players and tidy reasons why the events happened, plus some easy explanation as to the significance of it all. Then the students are made to memorize these facts and explanations for a test. The culture and thinking of the time period is completely ignored, and students are not given a chance to relate to and understand the people of years past. All they are presented are facts that are delivered as gospel truth. True discussion is rare because passing the standardized tests are more important.
There are a myriad of problems with teaching history like this, mainly that it is uninteresting to most students, that often the facts are ridiculously biased, that bias often leads to a lot of ignorance/misinformation, and finally that history is not as simple as neatly packaged facts. Neatly packaged history assumes that history moves in a straight line, ignoring anything that doesn’t directly cross paths with that line.
Despite all this, I managed to develop an interest in history. I enjoyed it well enough in grade school, but I didn’t really understand how much more it could be until I got to college and decided to take a South East Asian History course. With that course, taught by the amazing Professor Christina Firpo, history suddenly exploded into its full form: a heady mix of people, culture, laws, art, technology, sex, anthropology, sociology and so much more. Wars and atrocities were no less significant, but finally the complex paths that lead people to commit them were unfurled. History was not so tidy anymore, but the full story of human life, all across the globe, as best as historians could retell it. You don’t have to look far for proof of this. It wasn’t just Franz Ferdinand’s assassination that led to World War I, or else it would have been just a war between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia.
It is with that history nerd’s approach that Himaruya Hidekaz tackles history in Hetalia. He revels in the minutia, and focuses on forgotten or overlooked historical tidbits that explain life back then over the major points that get all the media attention. It may look like Himaruya ignores those major points completely, but they often turn up as characters beating each other up or as background radiation. For example, in the recently released volume 5, Himaruya spends a lot of time talking about the military rations of different nations fighting in World War II.
So half the problem is that a lot of us are used to history being big, generalized, very serious and very romanticized popular media, while Hetalia is all details, culture and cuteness. A.K.A. The weird, silly side of history. The other half seems to be that people get stuck in a moral quandary of sorts. They don’t want to forget the atrocities of World War II because the atrocities were so, so bad, and they don’t want to be seen as mocking the victims.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with not wanting to forget the awful parts of history, but that doesn’t erase or diminish the importance of what was happening in and around World War II. The small details, like army rations, have historical significance too because they influence the larger events. (Rations affecting the performance of soldiers, for example.) Here is where you can really see why history is often compared to a tapestry: the little things that make up life come together like threads to weave a big picture. Without the little threads, you don’t have the whole picture, some of the effect is lost.
Hetalia is not a comprehensive history text by any means. Most everyone who reads it understands that inherently. Himaruya acknowledges too, and my theory is that he leaves the tough subjects up to the professional historians who can do it right. He’s just an interpreter who presents history in an easy-to-digest format.
In that, Hetalia is like a gateway drug for history. It’s existence has led a fair amount of fans to become history nerds, judging by the sheer amount of fan-created works that delve into histories that Himaruya hasn’t covered in-book.
That does not mean that Hetalia isn’t problematic in other ways, but those are topics for other posts. However, disassociating oneself from the horrors of World War II is not really one of them because Hetalia simply follows a different path down history. Hetalia asks no one to forget the evils of the world, Himaruya just illustrates the parts of history he finds fascinating.
So, not to harp on Sean any longer, but that’s why I disagree with his comment. Hetalia may be lightweight, but it does not lack merit entirely. I mean, without Hetalia, how else would you know about Germany showing up to fight in Africa in stuffy leather uniforms?
The more you know, folks. The more you know.