Otaku: Globalization’s First Children?

“Go abroad.” This is the advice given to thousands of US college students each year. Having studied abroad or living experience in a foreign country is perceived to be a universal boon to one’s resume. Living in a new culture is likewise perceived as a plus no matter what your field: study abroad–it’s not just for liberal arts students anymore! The experience of living abroad can be harrowing or euphoric. It can be beneficial or detrimental to one’s studies. It can be the most rigorous academic work or the most like a vacation one could have as student. It can ignite passions and extinguish others. Any experience abroad, even a bad one, is seen as a positive by employers, academic institutions, and any social network. Why then, if the experience itself can be so detrimental, is it in such high regard and even higher demand?

Part of this is perception. Certainly, having an association with someone with a global background makes the company seem more globally minded. “International experience” is an easy sell in the ever-globalizing world where we live. In many circles, experience abroad is an exotic quality that purveys a certain type of affluence and connectivity that is essentially appealing.

For the quality of having experience abroad to become such a salient and interdisciplinary desired trait, more than appearances must keep it in high demand.

Experience in a foreign culture has not always been seen in such a positive light. During the 1950s-1970s, many dignitaries (and other personnel aiding in the execution of the Marshall Plan,) agreed that abroad experience was damaging to children’s psyches and social development.  American children born to parents living abroad were called “Third Culture Kids,” a term which I was first acquainted by a wonderful Advent sermon at the American Church of Paris. Historically, Third Culture Kids (TCKs) were characterized as socially stunted, unable to connect with their national culture or the foreign culture in which they were immersed. They identified with neither the foreign culture where they lived nor the one printed on their passports, and thus became a part of a Third Culture, only able to truly identify with other TCKs. Furthermore, they were seen to withdraw from individuals of only one culture, unable to adapt to circumstances and perceptions of their mono-cultured peers.

From what I’ve seen and experienced, this alienation stems from sociolinguistic edifices internally erected during the abroad experience. Individuals (here: children) have exposure to certain ideas and linguistic codes to express those ideas in their primary culture. At school or in the public sphere, they are given a different set of linguistic codes to express the foreign (secondary) culture’s differing ideas. Certainly, discussing the disparity or conflict between these two codes is a strong point of mental deliberation as individuals navigate reconciliation of the two. The acts of reconciling the two creates and substantiates a tertiary culture. This experience shapes personality and one’s life and easily becomes a point of commonality and resonance among individuals who have experienced living in foreign cultures. The dwelling in the third culture was, I assume, seen as a negative force for self-alienation from secondary cultures during that time period. After enough time elapsed for the children to stabilize and grow into adults, the capacity to utilize multiple advanced sociolinguistic codes is not destructive or wholly positive for overall communication.

As related in the sermon, and more recently commonly discussed, the popular opinion (as well as child psychologists’ opinions) of TCKs has completely flipped. Abroad experience is now beneficial to a child’s development, as TCKs are thought to have better communication skills than their mono-cultured peers, greater capacity to empathize with those from different points of view and circumstances, ability to adapt (they are often likened to chameleons), and are proven diplomats for mediating conflict and clashes of differing points of view. All these skills are sharpened from living immersed in a foreign culture.

For college-aged students, these arguments also apply, but they are supplemented with the added quality of grace under fire, and the capability to easily handle stressful situations and crises.

What does this have to do with Japanese influence in the USA? I posit that the Otaku of the Toonami Generation underwent a new form of post-geographic acculturation,  resulting in the formation of a new type of third cultured children.

When I first began interacting with Otaku at anime cons in 2012, the threads of dialogue were always similar. The main impetus for individuals to attend a con was the feeling of “community” and “being at home” with other Otaku. They could connect with other Otaku where  they could not with individuals in their immediate communities. They felt alienated from their peers, who had not experienced this new Japanese culture as they had. They immersed themselves in the culture,  absorbing the values, mores, and ideas transmitted through the media and any other supplemental research they may have pursued. They developed their own vernacular to describe their experiences and the tenets of Japanese culture which resonate most closely with their own personalities. These traits fit the same psychological profile of TCKs who grow up abroad. Otaku of the Toonami Generation have all the benefits and challenges of other children who are immersed in foreign cultures without every leaving the borders of their homeland.

American otaku are excellent global citizens. Having been exposed to foreign viewpoints in the media they consume, they are able to quickly understand different perspectives in their everyday life. Further along these lines, they are able to alter their own attitudes and outlooks and adapt quickly when circumstances demand change. From Japanese culture in particular, they have gained a deeper understanding of technology and its effect on our lives, patience and empathy for differing personalities and varying competence for self-expression, and are teamwork gurus.

While getting to know Otakus on a personal level illuminates these positive qualities, nothing quite exemplifies the best traits of Otaku quite like the social institution of a Japanese culture convention. North America has thousands of anime cons. The top five, each of which is not for profit and volunteer-run, see an excess of twenty-five thousand attendees. Most are multimillion dollar enterprises.

With all these advantages, Otaku bring great benefits to the companies and organizations to which they are dedicated. These advantages occur when an empowered American Otaku absorbs the best traits of Japanese culture, but what challenges lie for weaker individuals to be affected by the worst parts of that same culture? That will be explored in a follow-up blog post on challenges to the Otaku community. 

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