“An Asexual World”: Asexuality in Death Stranding

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.

Sam standing in front of a giant crater

Source: TechCrunch

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.


Queenie:

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!

Concluding remarks

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.


Footnotes

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)

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
This entry was posted in Articles, Media, Misconceptions. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to “An Asexual World”: Asexuality in Death Stranding

  1. Coyote says:

    Siggy, you mentioned there’s been some backlash to the criticism on Twitter — if there are any folks defending Death Stranding over this, I’m kind of curious what those arguments look like. I did see one hostile(?) response to Naomi Clark, but I’m genuinely unclear on what the person was saying… something about human extinction, I guess? Is that generally the type of thing people are responding with?

    • Siggy says:

      The most hostile responses I saw were directed at they_goblin, who posted the first screenshot on Twitter. I put in a link, but it seems they made their account private, so you can’t see it right now. You can also see a bit of the twitter hate in this thread.

      The most common responses were (1) “It’s just the views of a character, not the writers,” and (2) “This is a real problem in Japan tho.”

      My response to (1) is that obviously games are still capable of saying things even if all the words are spoken by fictional characters. My response to (2) was to ask Queenie to talk about it.

      • Coyote says:

        The “real problem in Japan” seems to be sexism, racism, and capitalism, from the sound of it.

      • Sennkestra says:

        Yeah, the first response that Siggy mentions (“It’s just a characters words, it’s not like Kojima Productions is endorsing it”) is the most common response I saw – to which I would also say, you know, characters in games aren’t actually real people and don’t just make up their own dialogue spontaneously. It still has to be thought of and written by real developers, who are effectively endorsing it by deliberately presenting it without correction or criticism.

        I also saw the things Siggy mention in (2), including variants which basically implied that oh, Japanese culture is different like that, so it’s not actually problematic if they misrepresent it or make false assumptions because it’s part of their culture. (which is not actually a good excuse, and ignores all the work of ace communities actually in japan)

        Unfortunately, there was also a number of a 3rd type of response (especially targeting they_goblins post), which didn’t even try to make a coherent argument and just mocked asexual people in general or made bigoted statements harrassing the OP for being trans and nonbinary 😦

  2. Rachel says:

    As a an ace who is a longtime, proud gamer, I am somewhat skeptical of Hideo Kojima’s innocence on the asexual terminology used in the English translation. Like, we aren’t in the 90s anymore, when shoddy translations and poor to non-existent oversight from the parent company reigned supreme. Kojima commands TONS of clout in the industry, so I find it hard to believe that he would lack tremendous oversight over every single element of any localization. Finger-pointing at the translators just doesn’t do it complete justice. And even if we grant that the original Japanese text was not written to target the ace community at all, it is still bogged down with the kind of rhetoric that hurts the asexual community, and other communities too. (Also, Kojima’s fanboys are among the worst, so I am (un)eagerly awaiting the fallout).

    As an aside, WHY ON EARTH was panromanticism name dropped, specifically? If the writers wanted to go with the (aphobic) theme of “identifies about avoiding human connections,” then aromanticism would be the more appropriate target, not panromanticism.

    • Sennkestra says:

      My bet is that someone read one (1) article, that happened to use the words “panromantic” and “demisexual” specifically, and decided they sounded woke and just kinda jammed them in to whatever they already wrote.

      The fact that those terms (which are in both translations) also make it impossible to deny hat they didn’t intend this to be about real ace communities, unlike other scifi works in which a generic “asexuality” is used that may or may not have any relation to real people.

    • queenieofaces says:

      The Japanese text and the English text are almost identical, so I don’t think this is a translation issue. Like Sennkestra said, my guess is that they read one (1) article and lifted terminology and definitions from it.

      Re: panromanticism, I talked about this on tumblr a little bit, but the terminology they use for “asexual” is specifically used to denote aromantic asexuals (Japanese has different terms for aro and non-aro aces), so it’s also possible that they misunderstood “panromantic” as referring solely to panromantic aces (which would fit with their “connecting in the wrong way” theme). It might also be a “heterosexuality is the only right way to connect with people” thing, but I’d have to have way more knowledge of the rest of the game to make an educated guess on that.

    • Siggy says:

      The one thing that does seem to be a translation issue, is the thing that Games Revolution put in its article title–confusing asexuality and the “sexless lifestyle”. In the original Japanese, the “sexless lifestyle” refers to people in partnered relationships who have not had sex for some time, while “asexuality” refers to aromantic asexuals. So it seems to be remarking on two related but distinct trends. In English it’s less clear. But as I said in the OP, this is far from the biggest problem with the text.

      I don’t want to make any assumptions about Kojima’s specific role in either the original Japanese or the translation, but also I’m not sure why it matters? I’m not invested in trying to understand who Kojima is as a person.

      • Rachel says:

        Thanks for the reply. As for Kojima, it matters in so far as he is the “celebrity-auteur-director” who is being directly named as the primary responsible party. If he is innocent of this (which I doubt) then lots of people are misblaming him and that’s not okay.

        • Coyote says:

          I don’t see what difference it makes who is responsible. The text itself is still worth criticizing. If your priority here is that people might be thinking less of Kojima personally over this…. I can’t say I rank that priority as highly. The more important thing is that this is another example of anti-asexual rhetoric being circulated in the world, quite possibly now some people’s first exposure to the terms “demisexual” and “panromantic.”

        • Sennkestra says:

          I mean, I think when you found and name an entire company after yourself and aim to start making tons of money off of it, you don’t get to complain when people blame you for actions the company you created and named after yourself takes.

          • Rachel says:

            Upon reflection, both you and Coyote are completely right.
            For context, one thing I’ve noticed is that gamers will reflexively pile blame and vitriol for the latest controversy of the week at whomever is most visible, regardless of their level of power or responsibility, and I’ve developed a strong knee-jerk attitude against that (and since this is a video game controversy, I guess the wires got crossed in my brain).
            As you both have pointed out however, that is not at all relevant here, so my comment was in error.

  3. Vesper says:

    …i apparently missed Tumblr notifications when all of this was going around over there, but i wholeheartedly concur with both Queenie and Siggy’s thoughts on this. i haven’t been on Twitter either, but have no doubt that Japanese Ace Twitter has been / still is talking about this game as well. kind of curious what’s being said there…

    i do want to randomly throw out there that an Italian journalist reached out to me about this article that he recently published on the mentioning of asexuality in Death Standing. my Italian is beyond rusty and i haven’t bothered with a translator as of yet… but it may or may not be of interest someone out there, so:
    https://www.gay.it/cultura/news/death-stranding-asessualita-apocalisse

    • Siggy says:

      I passed it through Google translate, and it’s a good article, your comments especially!

    • aceadmiral says:

      i haven’t been on Twitter either, but have no doubt that Japanese Ace Twitter has been / still is talking about this game as well.

      Actually, funny you mention that, because I haven’t seen anyone talking about it just in the natural course of the people I follow, and I tried doing some searches that yielded very little in the way of substantive discussion. With the caveat, of course, that do not know enough to know if my search terms were as complete as they could have been. Thank you for the link to the Italian article, though! There’s another one from an Italian asexual site too (https://www.carrodibuoi.it/2019/11/17/death-stranding-asessuali/), with the caution that this site is very much editorial rather than news.

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  5. Siggy says:

    Reddit is reporting that demisexuality is mentioned in some of the post-game text–a character “diagnoses” the protagonist Sam as demisexual. I’ll post the full text when I find it, although that might not be for a while.

    • Coyote says:

      This just keeps getting weirder.

      Especially weird to see people praising(?) the game for having a demisexual character, when it’s presented like that.

    • queenieofaces says:

      If anyone can dig up the Japanese text on this, I would be super curious to see what word it uses for “diagnose.”

      • Coyote says:

        Is there a variety of words for that in Japanese?

        • queenieofaces says:

          I mean, yes, the same as there is in English. Mostly I’m curious if they’re pulling language from articles about GID (which is sometimes used by trans folks in Japan to self-identify, in addition to being a medical diagnosis).

    • Siggy says:

      Yep, there have been a lot of recent articles about it, more than I can keep track of. I personally find them hard to read because they re-explain stuff I already know, haha. I’m glad they’re there though.

      My favorite one was this video, from 1:01:08 to 1:05:54 (spoilers outside of that range), because it’s two people who gave glowing reviews to the game and they’re just talking about how stupid this particular bit is.

  6. Siggy says:

    I found the text describing Sam as demisexual on the fan wiki. I also updated my reference post with the text. For context, this is written by Sam’s therapist. She not only diagnoses Sam as demisexual, but also President Strand as panromantic, and discusses the implications.

    It’s bad.

    • queenieofaces says:

      I. Have so many questions. But also their bizarre and nonsensical usage of “panromanticism” explains the bizarre and nonsensical kanji they chose to represent it.

      • Siggy says:

        Yeah, it makes me wonder if the whole reason they included demisexuality and panromanticism, was so the writers could refer back to them later. And we can see that though they provided technically correct definitions, they did not appear to understand them. It’s just so weird that they picked out those two words and decided they’re like opposites or something.

    • Siggy says:

      Another bit of context, is that the therapist is portrayed as unambiguously wrong about other things in the interviews (she doesn’t believe in the beach). So I suppose someone might defend it the grounds that she’s not presented as correct.

      But the thing is, her statements don’t make sense even coming from a prejudiced therapist. It’s just poorly written nonsense.

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