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. 

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).