Intro to American Otaku Culture

It seems necessary to present an introduction from the most macro-viewpoint of national culture before getting to  further the nitty gritty details of the Otaku niche. Here are my explorations of the outermost layers of  US American otaku culture.

Mixing Pot vs. Salad Bowl Cultural Ideas

Many Americans learn in primary school that the nation is a “Melting Pot” of peoples. The metaphor relates how the cultural identities of incumbent immigrants are assimilated into the national identity, which is also impacted by the addition. The cultural identities “melt” like ingredients into a soup, maintaining many original tastes but also adopting more strongly the flavour of the base itself-the American national identity. The “broth” is also affected by the inclusion of these ingredients. This cultural idea has been part of how Americans define their culture for over a century. More recently, and particularly after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, an alternative idea of a “salad bowl” has become popular in academic conversations about cultural identity. In this model, different “ingredients” or cultural identities exist separately and juxtaposed to each other, still maintaining their unique identity while being an active part of the whole.

 

Anime Con Culture Overview

Much of the history related here I’ve learned through countless conversations with Anime Con “elders” (often only 40 or 50 years old) who recount consistently similar oral histories and stories about the rise of Anime Cons.

 

In the 1970s and 1980s, science fiction conventions often incorporated anime into their programming. Despite the fact that offering anime gave the conventions an additional draw to their membership, anime fans at sci fi cons were often ostracized, and their viewing rooms were often placed in an out-of-the-way corner or off a rear corridor of the venue. This act of “othering” is a common phenomenon in the crafting of group identity: we are this, because we aren’t that. Exclusion, therefore, is an exercise of community building. At sci fi cons, anime was included for drawing on similar themes (technology, robotics, etc.) but excluded for being outside the relative norm.

As anime became more popular and their isolated viewing rooms filled,  many of these anime-fan black sheep came together and split off the parent sci fi convention to form their own, smaller but independent anime conventions. The 1990s saw an anime boom as Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z (and later Pokemon) were shown on major network/non-cable channels. These shows’ popularity were even more bolstered by syndication on the Cartoon Network programming block “Toonami.” In anime con culture, the “Toonami generation” refers to this group of anime fans who were introduced to the art form from these popular 90s shows.

Anime cons have since become an edifice in US popular culture. The largest cons have over 30,000 attendees, and almost every city has an anime con on the East Coast. According to animecons.com, there are more than 150 anime cons in the US scheduled for 2015.  

I posit that these cons are gathering points for an unique cultural identity, the Otaku, which is a third-cultured mix of Japanese and US American cultures. The Anime Con serves as a homebase for these third-cultured individuals. A noticeable majority of anime conventions are education-oriented nonprofit organizations, and these cons are hosted by lay-people who often have no professional event planning experience. The staffers are volunteers, who put in hundreds of hours of planning and execution to pull off one-to-three-day events. The largest East Coast convention, Otakon, is a three-day event with over seven hundred volunteer staff that hosts more than thirty thousand members. While the event pulls in millions of dollars each year, the only paid staff are the outsourced accountants and the lawyers of the non-profit Otakorp incorporation.

All anime cons follow the same structure: con-goers can meet famous Japanese and American guests, attend lectures, concerts, dances, and workshops, as well as buy licensed and unique fanwork wares in the (“dealers room” and “artist alley”) markets.  Anime conventions represent the best of both Japanese and US American cultures: Japanese ingenuity and embracing of novelty with US work ethic, Japanese collectivity and team work with US ambition and self-motivation, Japanese fanaticism and American inclusivity.

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Resources for talks given at Otakon Vegas, part 1

“Disappearing Women: Tracing Women’s Roles from Yaoi to Reverse Harem and Beyond”

1: “You only have two hands”

  •  Women who try to balance personal/familial life and professional ambition. The story is made up of their struggles and failures, sometimes they come out balanced, sometimes not.
  • Japanese Examples: Kaichou wa Maid-sama, Hana Yori Dango; Kimi Wa Petto; Gokusen. (Honorable Mentions: Pride, Anego, the Wallflower.)
  • USian examples: Iron Lady, Zero Dark Thirty, The Devil Wears Prada; Mona Lisa Smile; Dream Girls; Frozen. (Honorable Mentions: Twilight, Sherlock)
  • Thematic trends: Women have to chose either proffessional life or personal/familial life. We also see the emergence of the need of concealment of “feminine” or “familial” side of a woman in the professional sphere. There is also the smaller trend that women must be workaholics in order to be present (possibly succeed) in the professional sphere.

2: Feminine Body, Masculine Mask (building from ideas presented in Fanon’s “Peau noire, masques blancs” from 1952)

  • Cross-dressing and gender-bending stories
  • Japanese: Ouran High School, Hana Kimi (from manga to j drama to dramas throughout asia, then j-drama reboot a few years later with the same props.) Also from other regions but internationally popular: Taiwan’s 1/2 Prince, Korea’s Cafe Prince, to lesser success mainland China’s My Bratty Princess
  • Western Examples: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Queen Christina (1933, satisfies the Bechdel Test,) Disney’s Mulan
  • Conclusions communicated through these stories: To qualify for the possibility of success, women have to suppress part of themselves. It isn’t a way to succeed, it’s a way to get a chance to succeed.

3: Absent Women: Gender Displacement

  • The rise of Yaoi and Slash in Japan and USA
  • They arrived at the same time: Yaoi grew from male homosexual love stories written for a women’s target audience in the late 1970s and published in doujinshi (Kaze to Ki no Uta, often attributed to being the first yaoi, was published as a manga in 1976.) The first slash between Kirk and Spock appeared Star Trek fanzines in 1970s.
  • Yaoi: seme and uke as masculine and feminine
  • Slash: Even without sex scenes, we still see the main pairing as feminine and masculine. Protagonist is more often the bottom, as is the POV when applicable. USian slash is a little less gender dichotomous than Japanese yaoi.
  • Yaoi is on the decline in USian markets, but slash is on the rise, especially with the growth, strengthening, and gaining of recognition and credence of the fan fiction medium.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What does it mean for our societies when the ideal woman is a man?
  2. Is forsaking our femininity the only way to succeed in the professional sphere? In what ways is our femininity an advantage in the business world?
  3. Is yaoi/slash pure escape from a misogynistic world? Why do we read it?
  4. Name a famous woman who has both successful home and professional life. (The only ones I came up with before the talk were Meryl Streep and possibility Angelina Jolie. Although, my listing Ms. Jolie may be more indicative of how ignorant I am of her life.) The groups came up with Ms. Streep as well. Still, only one name?
  5. Self-fulfilling prophecy?
    • Stories sometimes tell us how we wish things would be, but also tell us how things are. Are the telling and retelling of these negative stories disempowering women? Making them unable to envision a better world? Is it adding to the strength of the glass ceiling by saying “you cannot do this, no one has done it, even this awesome character” ?
    • If these stories are cautionary tales, do they make the women who consume them too cautious? Are women unable to take the necessary risks for success (especially in USian culture where we reward risk taking behavior)  after be informed by these stories?