Just want to put this post here as food for thought.
Why is slavery such a common plot device in isekai web novels? It’s something I’ve touched upon in earlier blog posts and Twitter threads, but it’s only become a big question within the last year or so, thanks to The Rising of the Shield Hero‘s general popularity with the Western anime community. What was once a curious oddity within the light novel subculture has gotten much more visible now. And thanks to America’s fraught history with chattel slavery and persisting political issues regarding how that history is taught and remembered, isekai slavery is a more controversial topic there.
As a result of all the recent chatter, I became curious about why slavery became such a trend on Narou in the first place. I stumbled upon a story called よくある異世界奴隷事情を現実的に考えてみた (“I Tried Thinking About the Common Isekai Slave Circumstances Realistically”). It’s an essay/short story that explores the topic. I thought it was interesting so I reached out to the author ε-(´∀｀; ) and obtained their permission to translate it. Here is the translation:
Well, first of all, thinking about fake slaves sure beats thinking about the KyoAni fire. My condolences to everyone involved but I am just not ready to deal with it. I can use a powerful distraction. Second, Frog-kun please talk about slavery not when everyone is at AX? Thanks.
I’m just going to go scattered brain a bit. For one, regardless if there is (and there is) a difference between how Westerners view chattel slavery versus East Asians view chattel slavery, this is kind of neither here nor there. Putting it in context, we have some light novel writers writing slavery into their works, and it’s not off to assume that these Japanese people are integrated into Japanese society, in the early years of this century. Maybe there are some light novels from the 90s still being turning into anime today but when it comes to this particular discourse, it’s not really as much as historic as it is people using history to interpret a modern thing. Maybe we want to draw from slavery of the past to explain a feeling a writer may have yesterday. And these feelings are byproducts of living beings, in Japan, in the 21st century.
That being said, it feels like slavery, at least in the cases I have encountered in light novel adaptations (as I don’t really read light novels…) are closer to the kind you find in eroge, which is basically just different takes on sexual slavery. I think there are some cases where it isn’t, but invariably the negative space between the enslaved and their benevolent masters allow viewers (or fans, more specifically) inject sexuality into that. There is some notion of devotedness in which are on display at the foreground. It is not unlike how, in Shield Hero, Raphtalia lives for her master, and it is a malleable relationship in which we can interpret Naofumi in a variety of roles (provider, guardian, best friend, parent, lover, brother, etc).
Of course, these fictional relationships are ambiguous, partly because they lack modern analogues. Or rather, their modern analogues are too real to fit a fantasy work of mass consumption by a largely escapist audience. The real problem, similar to my idol rants, is that slavery still exists (both chattel and sexual), and it’s kind of cheeky to lay those into your light novel inspired by entirely different reasons.
The irony of isekai stories about slavery is that, well, for just about everyone involved in these isekai stories–writers, editors, publishers, distributors, retailers, readers–is that modern slavery is effectively a wholly different world that doesn’t overlap. I mean, we call with a different term–human trafficking. Maybe eventually that isekai novel about modern slavery will be the ultimate transcendental brain meme.
To put it in to other words, if people are more familiar with the problem of modern human trafficking (which Japan always be, maybe somewhat undeservedly, maybe not, always a big player in Asia), all this slavery discussion might become less relevant. Naively, I hope at least. I see it the same way as “idol” discussions out west–if people actually knew what idol culture is in reality, they wouldn’t confuse it with fake idol video games and anime. If people knew what modern-day slavery is, they might not kinkshame so much or confuse fantasy nerd self-inserts and bad philosophical signaling with the horrors of real-world slavery.
It’s almost like we are literally talking about slavery in another world. LOL. It’s the sad state of affairs when people cannot separate facts from fiction, because they don’t know what are facts, either due to misinformation or plain old ignorance, and a stubbornness to accept new information.
And it is kind of chilling in some sense. The human trafficking issue in Japan is very similarly patterned–when impoverished youths are exported into Japan and work the sex trade, only because they really have no option, we merely substitute magic spells and metal chains with systemic socioeconomic oppression. Yeah, they may live a much better life as a prostitute! Sure beats being a prostitute in a poorer country. They can afford healthcare! LOL. But com’on.
PS. Ever watch YOU wa nanishini nippon e? They interview some of these laborers under the TITP program.
PPS. Dr. Stone is basically an isekai isn’t it.
PPPS. The prevalence of slavery in isekai works today (of a certain style I should say) may very well be a symbolic representation of the yoke of the tools of society on its people. It would be way too raw to write about real human trafficking, but it is comfortable (for some) to enjoy magical slavery where one’s master is kind and takes care of us. After all, it would be ideal to find employment where your bosses are kind and takes care of you. For example. And of course don’t you rather want to be the boss and not be bossed around? Thus, isekai slavery as a proxy of human relationship in which the gears of society is proxied as magical slavedom now is a thing.