(Photo by David Revoy via Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 4.0)

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The entertainment industry has recently produced media revolving around cyberpunk and other vaguely Asian-coded futures. These futures are not always directly set in Asia but often hint at Asian people, languages, and themes. For example, the 1982 film Blade Runner takes place in Los Angeles but relies on Japanese cyberpunk aesthetically, featuring a giant floating geisha poster — a landscape inspired by what Director Ridley Scott describes as “Hong Kong on a bad day.” Other prominent examples include Cloud Atlas’ (2012) Neo Seoul with non-Asian actors’ eyes edited into slants, or Ghost in the Shell’s (2017) robot geishas and floating koi fish holograms. 

Cyberpunk is a genre within science fiction, usually depicting protagonists fighting against a highly technologically advanced dystopia controlled by megacorporations. These films mainly draw inspiration from Asian cities like Tokyo, exemplified in the video game Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) and its Japantown littered with love hotels and karaoke bars. Often, cyberpunk media accidentally reinforces stereotypes of Asian people and corporations as morally corrupt compared to their Western counterparts. They can therefore fuel racist sentiments towards Asian people, representing them as subhuman or robotic. 

The Origins of Techno-Orientalism

Cyberpunk media originated the techno-orientalism trope, which depicts Asian people and places as technologically advanced but morally inferior. This trope reiterates the concept of orientalism described by Edward Said, a postcolonial scholar, as the tendency for Western writers to describe the “Orient” — an abstract combination of Southwest Asian and North African countries — as backwards and uncivilized, the opposite of the developed West. 

Techno-orientalism puts a unique spin on orientalism by shifting depictions of the “Orient” and its people from barbaric to highly intelligent, which seemingly is positive. However, this superior technological intelligence is depicted as so extreme that the characters are subhuman and lack morality. As a result, many movies with techno-orientalist themes are dystopias: high-tech nightmare futures controlled by Asian people. 

The transition from orientalism to techno-orientalism can be due to the rise of global capitalism, particularly the increased participation of Asian countries in it. Japan’s rapid economic and technological development after World War II dismantled the perception of the East as economically undeveloped, with other nations seeing it as highly advanced and intimidating. As other Asian countries industrialized alongside Japan, these anxieties shifted toward several others, particularly China. 

Techno-oriental tropes also stem from the phenomenon of “Yellow Peril,” which refers to White, working-class fears about the increasing Asian immigration to the U.S. Many White American workers became nervous about Asian people “taking over” their jobs as they were willing to accept lower wages. These fears accompanied concerns that immigrants would disrupt Western values such as democracy, Christianity, and traditional gender roles. As such, regardless of how much the West relied on Asian immigrants for early nation-building, such as the construction of railroads, there was still a deep hostility towards them.

The East in the Eyes of the West

Techno-orientalism is an inherently dehumanizing trope because it overlooks self-determination: the East exists only as an interpretation of the West. This view aligns with Said’s criticism of how the Orient was less of a free real place and more so an abstract “other” for Europe to distinguish itself against — if authors portrayed the Orient as mystical, Europe was positioned as developed. This logic extends to colonization: when the Orient becomes depicted as in need of ruling and barbarous, Europe is justified in conquering it. In techno-oriental films, settings are typically portrayed in vague, Asian-coded manners while ignoring the settings’ potential cultural richness. 

This tendency happens a lot because we, as consumers of the entertainment industry, see techno-oriental portrayals of worlds through the eyes of White protagonists, often those struggling to navigate the dystopian landscapes. Despite the futuristic setting being distinctly Asian, genuine aspects of Asian culture are excluded, with Asian characters often only cast as side characters who are robotic and emotionless. Chloe Gong, a Chinese author, traces this back to stereotypes about Asian people that emerged during the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The Act and popular beliefs at the time saw Asian male bodies as subhuman in their capability of enduring horrible working conditions and thus not needing the same workers’ rights as their White counterparts. Such stereotypes associate images of the Asian male body with machines in factories rather than actual human beings.

Furthermore, lots of entertainment portrays Asian women as fetishized love interests stripped of independent, complicated storylines. Instead, they exist to move the story along for White characters. For example, Kyoko in Ex Machina(2014) is a fetishized cyborg who performs sexual favours and dances on command. She is not only fetishized by other characters but also by the viewer through her depiction. While the film suggests she gains consciousness at the end of the film, she sacrifices herself so the White cyborg protagonist can escape. Frequently, Asian women become confined to roles of the domestic helper, sex slave, or damsel in distress in need of a White male saviour. These depictions strip Asian women of their autonomy and complex storylines, effectively distancing them from the audience and encouraging sexualization and fascination rather than empathy. 

The Impacts of Techno-Orientalist Tropes

Creating a perpetual “other” is ingrained in orientalism and techno-orientalism. This can perpetuate feelings of alienation and encourage discrimination or maltreatment, demonstrated in the 1980s during Japan’s rise to global economic power. Xenophobic American workers often attacked Japanese cars because of the industrial power they symbolized. These attacks escalated into violent hate crimes like the case of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American killed by White auto workers who mistook him for Japanese; instead of rightfully blaming capitalist systems, anger about automation led to the murder of a young man celebrating his bachelor party. 

Hyper-sexualized portrayals of Asian women as either submissive or violent seductresses in the media also fuel issues like the military-prostitution complex, where women are sexually exploited in or near army bases, or sex tourism, where poverty often pushes women into non-consensual sex work. The dehumanization of Asian women further fuels violence against Asian sex workers, who are often unprotected due to the criminalization of sex work in most Asian countries. Furthermore, pornography disproportionately portrays Asian women as rape victims. Dehumanization and fetishization also contribute to the alarmingly high rates of sexual assault among East Asian women. The 2021 Atlanta Spring shooting saw a man murder eight people in spas, six being Asian women, citing his sex addiction and the idea that his actions would stop his “temptation.”

Techno-orientalism encourages people to demonize the East while overlooking a lot of Western hypocrisy — where Western futures can be both technologically and morally advanced, Eastern ones are dystopias. As Said described, how authors described the Orient and its people partially justified Western imperialism: backward, underdeveloped, and uncivilized. The West’s rapid industrialization, technological power, and leading role in global governance proved this idea. However, these relationships have changed as Asian countries have rapidly increased their economic growth. Justifications for maintaining American power have resultantly shifted to the U.S. as the most benevolent leader. In reflection, themes within cyberpunk continually depict Western companies as more humanistic and Eastern companies as more corrupt. 

Confronting Techno-Orientalism

The implication of techno-orientalist tropes is that the West should feel threatened by an Asian-controlled future and should therefore take steps to retain its dominance. This can, ironically, affirm the exploitative use of Asia’s workers and resources. While stereotypes like techno-orientalism or the model minority are seen as harmless or even positive because they focus on Asians being hardworking or intelligent, they tend to overlook intrinsic humanity. Since Asians are depicted as robotic, unfeeling, and uniquely capable of work, justifying poor working conditions and stripping access to support can seem more justifiable. 

Cyberpunk media frequently attempts to make criticisms about capitalism and industrialization, asking us what the future looks like when devoid of humanity — powerful themes worthy of exploration. The issue is when writers succumb to popular depictions of Asia and, often accidentally, reiterate these stereotypes, which can and have led to ignoring Western hypocrisy, fueling xenophobia, and motivating hate crimes. Rather than mindlessly continuing with classic techno-oriental tropes, authors need to interrogate where they come from and the attitudes they perpetuate.

Edited by Light Naing

Helen Guan

Helen (she/her) is a third-year student studying political science at the University of British Columbia. Originally from China but immigrating to Vancouver, Canada at a young age, she is particularly...