A Spectrum of Cultural Identities: Japanophile, Otaku, and Weeaboo

 

Since 1995, media from foreign countries can more easily permeate US American line-of-sight. With a few clicks on the Internet, we can find or are shown, foreign music videos, films, and blogs. This has lead to an increased diversity of popular media, especially music, penetrating the American market. (For example, Moldova’s O-Zone “Dragostea din Tei” in 2004,  2012 South Korea’s PSY “Oppa Gagnam Style,” and early this year, Norway’s Ylvis “The Fox.”) Cuisine, fashion, and video games have also been heavily impacted by the influence of globalization and increased internationalization as trends more and more easily flow across national borders.

Even though Japan and America fought a war during the first half of the twentieth century, by the turn of the millenium relations had much improved due to the Marshall Plan’s legacy and increased trade between the two countries. Astro Boy, which was shown on major broadcast networks in the 1960s, garnered the first generation of anime fans here in the US. It is interesting to note that a majority of the viewers of the show were unaware of its Japanese origin. For the children who tuned in, it was merely a cartoon. By the 1980s, trade relations were strong between the two countries, and the US media included non-demonized Japanese and Asian characters in pop culture (“Domo Arigato, Mister Roboto” and Gedde Watanabe’s roles in Sixteen Candles and UHF). American teenagers watched the anime Speed Racer (this time knowing it was Japanese) and intellectuals were touting their high brow culture by dining on sushi.

The 1990s saw a pro-Japan boom with the tween popularity cresting on Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, and Pokemon. For the first time, we saw non-English, foreign canon franchise products infiltrating US markets en masse: Dragon Ball Z manga (Japanese style comic books) being sold nationwide in Books-A-Million chain stores, Sailor Moon alarm clocks and accessories being sold at Claire’s Boutiques, and VHS tapes of Pokemon at Toys-R-Us. Armed with dial-up Internet and Windows 95 Home PCs, children who watched these shows were also enabled to learn more about Japanese culture during their formative years.

As a Sailor Moon fan of the 90s, I was greatly impressed by the widespread geographic dispersion of fans, as well as how many were creative in their enthusiasm. I remember spending hours on image-hosting websites, crafting my own GeoCities fansite with pages dedicated to each character, and slowly downloading gifs and jpegs of art and electronic, tinny midi files of music. I even downloaded and printed out a Sailor Moon-themed cookbook, and I still to this day use that recipe for Snickerdoodles, a cookie unheard of in my corner of the world.

For some fans, these shows were just a passing phase. Many, however, would continue their love of Japanese anime and manga. Their appreciation would grow to include other art forms: fashion and high fashion (aka cosplay,) videogames, music, and cuisine. These individuals would become Otaku. Their love of this foreign culture impacting their lives.

Otakudom is different for each individual. Some choose a particular series–e.g. Sailor Moon or Naruto–then grow and develop alongside the protagonists every stage of their childhood, adolescence, and adulthood through the fifty-plus books in the franchise. Western narrative lacks these long-haul stories, with the notable exception of trendsetting Harry Potter.  Other Otakus adopt a certain artform, such as cosplay or JRPGs, spend hours learning the details and nuance of those forms, and design their own creations after the Japanese style.

Otakus’ love also drives them to spend time/money on Japanese goods and culture rather those of the USA. Spending time being immersed, if only indirectly, in Japanese culture primes Otakus to become even more involved in that foreign lifestyle. When they meet other Otakus at cons, this foreign influence is only reinforced as they are given both social and marketplace trade opportunities to acquire more knowledge and cultural artifacts. Simply put, loving one element of Japanese culture enables individuals to love more of it, eventually becoming Otaku, and cons only snowball this appreciation.  

At a convention earlier this year, I was introduced to the idea of a “weeaboo.”  For the Otaku community, weeaboos are people who seek to constantly immerse themselves in Japanese culture, despite living in the USA, in a conscious and often pretentiously declared attempt to “become Japanese,” forsaking their own native culture. Most Otaku view weeaboos with contempt, especially since weeaboos are generally over-enthusiastic young people going through a phase, but also because of a quiet understanding that these individuals see Japan through an extremely exotified lens. Another point of contention lies in weeaboos’ propensity to value the small tangent of culture to which they’ve been exposed as more important than the whole of Japanese culture. The culture is diminished and compressed to an item to acquire or a status to achieve rather than a living, breathing, multi-faceted set of ideas and mores.

When I heard the idea of weeaboo in the Otaku community, I was happy to see a distinction being made between fans who enthusiastically engage the culture and those who simply exotify it. The practice of exclusion also makes for a tighter community, and weeaboos are possibly the best party to exclude. Rather than dividing along race or gender lines like many other subcultures, Otakus are actively excluding people who make unhealthy decisions and ignorant judgements.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have Japanophiles. Japanophiles number far fewer than the Otaku population. These individuals have a culturally relativistic appreciation for Japanese culture. They understand the worth of this foreign culture and seek to learn more about it. They study the language and read Japanese texts in the original form. They become East Asia studies minors (or majors). They apply to the prestigious and highly exclusive JET Programme in order to teach English in Japan for two years. They learn about Japan not only through its cultural exports but also through academic texts. They explore not only its culture, but also its economy, politics, and history.

Thus we have a spectrum of engagement with Japanese culture, ranging from a culturally relativistic point of view (Japanophile) through casual albeit enthusiastic fan (Otaku) to that of extreme exotification (Weeaboo). 

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