It’s always fun when you’re watching a show or playing a game, and find a surprise mention of asexuality. Sorry, I meant to put “fun” in scare quotes.
I had bought the game Death Stranding on the day it was released, and within a few days I learned that among its many text logs, there’s one titled “An Asexual World“. It’s not good. After describing asexuality, the text speculates–and laments–that most people in the post-apocalyptic world of Death Stranding are asexual.
First I’ll explain what Death Stranding is about, how “An Asexual World” undercuts its message, then Queenie will discuss the Japanese context from which it arises.
Part 1: Death Stranding
cn: I will avoid spoilers as much as possible, only discussing the premise and themes that should be apparent from the start.
Death Stranding is a AAA game by famed video game auteur Hideo Kojima, his first game after leaving Konami. Kojima is best known for the Metal Gear series, which broke the stealth genre into the mainstream. His style is cinematic and literary, with political commentary that some would say is too on the nose. Death Stranding takes place in a world where a major catastrophe forced people live in isolated bunkers. You play as Sam Porter Bridges, a porter who traverses the American wastelands to connect people together.
The theme of the game is making connections, and it single-mindedly hits that theme with a tenacity unheard of in big-budget games. To give one small example, Sam suffers from aphenphosmphobia–a fear of touch. It’s meant to be ironic that the person connecting everyone together is himself afraid of physical connection.
The trouble with a story about making connections, is that it risks turning into a shallow cliché. If only we all just held hands together, all our problems would be solved. If only we poured enough love on each conflict, we could avoid the work of actually understanding the other side. If only those people who have different ways of making connections–such as Sam himself–would get over their psychological issues.
My impression of Death Stranding, based on a partial play-through, is that it does not want to be a shallow cliché. It wants to acknowledge the difficulties and complications in making connections. But when the game treats asexuality as a sad condition to be solved, rather than just another way of making connections, it undercuts its own message.
Part 2: Asexuality isn’t sad
“An Asexual World” is, make no mistake, a very minor bit of text in Death Stranding. It’s one of many world-building “interviews” accessible through the menu. It’s the viewpoint of a nameless one-off character, presented entirely uncritically.
To summarize the full text, it describes the rise of the “sexless lifestyle” prior to the catastrophe. Then it describes the rise of asexuality, as well as demisexuality and panromanticism.1 Finally, it speculates that the majority of the population has become asexual due to the oppressive dangers unleashed by the catastrophe. The author attributes the sharp decline in birth rate (and in sexual violence) to asexuality.
Several commentators have already pointed out the problems,2 but here’s my take. “An Asexual World” pushes the narrative that asexuality is a sad and lonely state of being, primarily caused by trauma. Asexual people can suffer the same degree of sadness and dysfunction as anyone else, but asexuality is not an inherently sad state of being. There are so many ways people connect with one another–as showcased in Death Stranding itself–sex and romantic love are but two of them.
Also, it honestly sounds like one of those conspiracy theories that people espouse in the comments sections of news articles on asexuality.
I’m a little worried about where we’re taking civilization – to an early extinction?
– a real comment that someone wrote
You don’t want to be like the comments section.
Part 3: “An Asexual World” in Japan
To turn this into something positive, I wanted not just to criticize, but to understand. Was there something lost in translation from the original Japanese? Was this supposed to be commentary on declining birth rates in Japan? So I connected to my network, and found the Japanese version–which looks very close to the English. Then I asked Queenie, our local expert, to explain the Japanese cultural context.
To zoom out to the larger cultural context for a moment, “An Asexual World” reflects a major demographic issue facing Japan right now: the declining birth rate and aging population. One frequently cited issue is that young people aren’t having sex–but, as this Japan Times op-ed lays out, some of the reporting is misleading and there are other major issues at play. In broad strokes, Japan’s demographic crisis is a confluence of economic issues, social issues (gender disparity is a major issue that the Japanese government is not addressing very well), and political policy (the aging population could be offset if Japan relaxed immigration policies). Unfortunately, it’s much easier to blame young people for not having enough sex than it is to address the conditions that might be impacting their desire to have children.
It’s also worth noting that ace communities do exist in Japan! As harris-hijiri, an asexual activist based out of Japan, talks about in the interview I conducted with her back in 2014, they are mainly online at the moment, although some offline events exist. Nijiro Gakkou, for example, hosts offline meet-ups–I attended one back in 2018 (which had over 80 attendees, the most aces I’ve ever been in a room with!) and they’re hosting another next month as part of their Asexual Awareness Week programming. There’s been a visible ace contingent marching in the Tokyo Rainbow Pride Parade for several years now. Just this past week, articles about asexuality were run in Asahi Shinbun and Mainichi Shinbun, two major Japanese newspapers, and a Japanese translation of Julie Sondra Decker’s The Invisible Orientation was released in May. Asexuality may not be well-known, but information about it is available.
Looking at the Japanese text for “An Asexual World,” though, one does not get the impression that the writers were connected to Japanese ace communities. I’ve laid this out in more detail on tumblr, but to briefly recap, the definitions they’re using for terms appear to be pulled from news coverage, with a few minor tweaks. Most damning, though, is the fact that they use kanji for “panromantic” (全愛情) that, to the best of my search abilities, has never been used before and is not immediately intuitive, as it uses the word for “love” (愛情) rather than “romantic love” (恋愛). This same word for “love,” though, is used in the definition of asexuality offered by the log–as a sexuality characterized by an inability to “feel sexual desire or love (愛情) for other people.” This is especially noteworthy as you can find numerous examples of very similar phrasing used to define asexuality in news articles–but with the word “romantic love” (恋愛) instead of “love” (and generally a “don’t feel” rather than a “can’t feel”).
Much like “sexless” youth are blamed for the declining birthrate in contemporary Japan, the issue presented by “An Asexual World” is that “[a]lthough there has been no measurable decrease in human fertility, the birth rate has nevertheless dropped dramatically.” The disconnect from Japanese ace community terminology and definitions straight from mainstream news coverage suggest to me that the writers of Death Stranding may not have any particular enmity for or familiarity with actual ace people. Rather, they might think of “asexual” (and “demisexual” and “panromantic”) as cool technobabble-esque jargon that they can sprinkle in for flavor to address what they see as the real problem–dysfunctional ways of not connecting with other people (or maybe, to use terminology a little closer to theirs, dysfunctional ways of loving).
Siggy: Thank you so much, Queenie, for your detailed commentary!
Since Death Stranding is a video game, I’m worried about having to deal with gamers who really like the game, and believe that it can do no wrong. I personally like the game, but I’m not a reviewer so I’m not here to tell you whether it’s good or not.
If you hate the game, then more power to you. If you love the game, then I hope you also love thinking critically about its themes. Yes, the game is addressing declining birth rates in Japan, but it’s doing so in an oversimplified way, blaming the problem on people’s sexual behavior. But where the writers made mistakes, you, dear reader, now know better, and can make connections that they could not.
1. Demisexuality and panromanticism are correctly defined, but feel out of place. It’s like the writers did a bit of research, and were so intrigued by what they learned that they wanted to include some of it, even though it didn’t really fit whatever they were trying to say. These terms describe the diversity in how different people form connections, but the point about diversity went over the writers’ heads. (return)
2. There were also couple news outlets that covered the topic, and completely bungled it. Game Revolution made it out like we’re angry that asexuality was called a “sexless lifestyle”. Under a careful reading, the text doesn’t actually say that anywhere. And no, asexuality does not always entail a sexless lifestyle, but that’s besides the point. A sexless lifestyle is not inherently sad for the same reason asexuality is not inherently sad. (return)