Cyberpunk is beautiful, and problematic
With the recent successful update patch 2.0, new DLC (downloadable content) Phantom Liberty, and a live-action project in the works, Cyberpunk 2077 is the darling of the gamer world right now. The game is set in Night City, a dystopian city in the collapsed US and largely run by Japanese corporation Arasaka.
But the genre cyberpunk has raised questions over the years. Cyberpunk and techno-orientalism are deeply intertwined. Shift conducted a deep dive into this trope and reimagined it in the process.
Why are techno-orientalism and cyberpunk problematic?
Takeo Rivera, assistant professor at Boston University and author of “Model Minority Masochism: Performing the Cultural Politics of Asian American Masculinity”, the origin of techno-orientalism is much older than cyberpunk, and it is seen through the mechanisation of Asian people. “A lot of Asian-American studies writers have talked about the Iron Sheik, for example. There are multiple examples in which, Asians and machines are kind of conflated,” he says.
“Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media” discussed how this conflation of Asians with machines rationalised discrimination against Asian immigrants in the US, as seen through the Chinese Exclusion Act which sought to ban Chinese laborers into the country in early 1900s. The Chinese laborers were seen as machines who don’t need sustenance and safety like Europeans, which implied they are a threat to liberalism and humanist society of the West.
The economic boom of technology from Japan in the 1980s deepened this resentment, which is when cyberpunk can be specifically located, agrees Rivera. “Cyberpunk drew on anxieties about rising economic power in Asia. This pairing of technological advancement with cultural barbarism is the recipe for techno-orientalism,” explains Rivera.
“Techno-orientalism is seen as this constitutive component of cyberpunk… And cyberpunk is the prototypical visual vocabulary for techno-orientalism,” he continues.
Why are we so attracted to the visuals of cyberpunk?
Despite xenophobic origins, it is undeniable that cyberpunk is very aesthetically pleasing. Rivera explains that cyberpunk aesthetics were established by the likes of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
In Cyberpunk 2077, Night City is neon, from billboards to storefront. Japanese signs are littered around the city with the occasional Kanji plastered across a sign. NPCs (non-playable characters) sit around a Japanese food stall enjoying their sushi. The game is continuing to “reference cyberpunk tropes that we see really kind of starting in the 1980s”, Rivera says.
“What Blade Runner did to establish the aesthetic is mixing Japan and Hong Kong and countries like this together. But it’s set in L.A. in 2019. So, for a lot of Westerners, it is a very exotic feel of the future,” explains The Kavernacle, political commentator YouTuber with a Master’s in International Relations and Cyberpunk 2077 player, “because it’s such like a beautiful movie, it’s very appealing to people— this, orientalist future that you see.”
Rivera shares similar sentiment. “Why is it aesthetically pleasing? What about it is pleasing to us? What is producing the pleasure? And I suspect that the racist element is one part of what makes it pleasurable. And that’s something we should take seriously.”
CD Projekt Red, the developer of Cyberpunk 2077, did not reply in time for publication.
We should not dismiss the cyberpunk trope altogether
“What’s important and valuable about cyberpunk is that it also has deeply anti-capitalist inclinations. Cyberpunk was critical of global capitalism,” explains Rivera, “It was critical of the kind of dystopia that emerges from corporations controlling everything and the privatisation of everything, including our technology networks or information networks, information in societies.”
Cyberpunk’s critique of capitalism is also what makes the trope visually interesting, The Kavernacle remarks. “It’s basically authoritarian and corporate dictatorship. So, there is no mobility for the average citizen. You’re all just scraping by. You’re all just like destroying each other just to live. There’s nothing for you in this world anymore. But I think sometimes the contrast to the bleakness were urban beauty of it,” he adds.
Reddit user @Mark_Caswell, Cyberpunk 2077 player, agrees. “What makes cyberpunk aesthetic pleasing is the duality of it, I believe. The neon lights, technological miracles and skyscrapers reaching to the sky. All that wonder paired with high criminality rate, corporatism, and desperation of common people while the rich are the ones who rule the world,” he explains.
The problem with cyberpunk is that “it hinged upon techno-orientalism in order to give a visual anchor for those anti-capitalist anxieties,” Rivera says.
Comparing Cyberpunk 2077 with the cyberpunk trope
The Kavernacle acknowledges the aspects of the game that still has elements of techno-orientalism, “there’s like Japantown, Chinatown. There’s a gang called the Tiger Claws, which are just a blend of like East Asian groups.” He finds Japantown “feels like something out of Blade Runner”.
However, he finds Cyberpunk 2077 differentiating itself from the original trope by including more representation, including of Native Americans, European politics and the currency is Eurodollars.
“Most of the world doesn’t really have much to do with that [techno-orientalism], beyond the massive Japanese corporation,” The Kavernacle explains, “It kind of sticks to the country it’s in [America] rather than making Night City, which is the fictional city, feel like it’s like Tokyo, although it has some of that aesthetic.”
He also notes that the new DLC Phantom Liberty does have not much East Asian influence in the DLC itself. “It’s basically all about the US government.”
Comparing to the original influences of cyberpunk, he explains, “Cyberpunk [the game] has just kind of stuck in its American lane, but it [techno-orientalist elements] is still present”. He continues, “there is this influence from the 1980s from the game, but it’s done a lot better”.
@Mark_Caswell offers another take on Night City. The city is a “multicultural corporate city and corporations took a lot of cultural influence with them”.
He gives examples of how Night City is culturally diverse. “There is a character from Arasaka that has pretty Japanese-like values like strict code of honour and forgiveness, pride etc. Or you can find Hinduist-like monks which live similarly like real monks, and they don’t have any cyber-ware implants as a part of their religion. You can find Mexican gangs or hackers from Haiti.”
He acknowledges that Cyberpunk 2077 has used some stereotypes and tropes regarding nationalities. However, he believes that this is to “make it really obvious that city is very diverse as are characters in it”.
Thinking beyond the binary of “problematic” and “not problematic”
Rivera believes techno-orientalism is a nuanced topic. He argues that “one of the key historical moments in the rise of contemporary American techno-orientalism is the murder of Vincent Chin”.
In 1982, Vincent Chin, who was a Chinese-American in Detroit, was murdered by white autoworkers who were deeply embittered about the rise of Japanese automakers. He was killed for being perceived as Japanese. During this time, there were public lynching of Japanese cars and racialisation of cars. Japanese cars themselves were seen as Japanese.
“There’s kind of this relationship between the machine and the Japanese, this conflation, this idea of a society with conformist ants producing these machines that are going to ruin our [American] economy,” Rivera explains, “there’s something about this sort of relationship between the Asian machine and the murder. And it’s no accident.”
But he notices the ironic importance of the killing in relation to the Asian American identity. “Techno-orientalism, in many respects, produced the historical conditions for Asian-American identity to go mainstream,” he remarks, “this horrible act of racist violence is also what sort of produced a kind of new Asian-American political consciousness.”
Where do we go from here?
With Cyberpunk 2077, The Kavernacle explains that it “isn’t a very Orientalist game compared to some of the other media”. The DLC is not using any techno-orientalist tropes. “So if it [the game] goes more in the direction of focusing on America and Europe, which it talks a lot in the game,” he believes it would help with separation from techno-orientalism even more.
More specific representation within the media is good. “Cyberpunk is just blending all these nationalities, ethnicities, languages, cultures all together and repackaging it to us as like this alien aesthetic,” he explains. So “delving into the nuances of what it’s like to be in these countries” could improve the orientalist aspects of the genre.
Rivera highlights that there are multiple Asian and Asian-American women writing about cyberpunk and their responses to the trope.
Traditionally, “Asian women have been seen as sex workers and sexual deviants,” he explains. It was ingrained into American legislation through the Page Act of 1875 and sustained through imperial wars of the U.S and the West. This trope carried onto cyberpunk and constantly being reiterated.
Asian women writing within techno-orientalist space seeks to disavows this stereotype. Rivera mentions Margaret Rhee’s “Love, Robot” poems as an example. “She writes as an Asian woman who’s thinking about herself orientalised as but also embracing a robot ontology,” he says. Franny Choi’s “Soft Science”, Karen Tei Yamashita’s “Anime Wong: Fictions of Performance” are among works of Asian female authors using techno-orientalism.
“There are various responses… and it’s not as simple as we need to erase techno-orientalism,” he explains, “there are a lot of people who actually masochistically embrace techno-orientalism and then reconfigure it. It’s reclamation.”
An alternative futuristic outlook from two Asian girls in fashion
Shiyu Chen, LCF’s Creative Direction For Fashion student, is a collaborator in this project. Her and I are both interested in this topic. “Techno-orientalism is an inaccurate perception of the future in the “Orient” created by the West,” she says, “Through this project our aim was to create a new narrative through the lens of young Asian creatives, whose main interests are to decolonise fashion particularly through an Asian perspective.”
We knew Asian women are fetishized within techno-orientalism and many cyberpunk media. The clothes are one element showing off sexual deviancy. But everything is set in a dystopian future where danger lurks everywhere. And the clothes don’t make sense if you are living that kind of setting.
So, we took inspirations from retro futurism and The Space Age, since that was once how the future was imagined before cyberpunk came into the scene. The outfit with the brown coat is inspired by 1960s silhouette, a few years after Space Age started. The bodysuit meant to resemble a spacesuit, with a fishbowl for the space helmet.
We also want to stick with cyberpunk’s criticism of capitalism, which is very much valid. Hence, a short 3 images series of the girl getting a job and that job ending up being depressing.
Photographer and co-creative director: Rae Nguyen
Co-creative director, hair and makeup: Shiyu Chen
Styling and model: Maya Croft
Assistant: Brandon Rodrigo