I’m going to assume that for many of you reading this, Japanese is not your first language. But for the sake of the argument it really doesn’t matter what your skill level in the language is. In English, we have plenty of loan words from the Japanese language – and, particularly in the English-speaking anime fandom, these words take on different meanings and connotations from how they were originally used. It does have an effect on how anime fans (as opposed to textbook users) approach learning Japanese as a second language, and it’s a subject that, for both personal and academic reasons, I have a lot of interest in.
First of all: Context
The Western anime fandom is unique in that it’s not completely “Japan-ified” (as in, we’re not all weaboos) but it’s also distinct from other subsets of geek culture. You’ve probably found that, as you’ve watched more anime, you’ve unconsciously embraced some Japanese values or perspectives and you’re not as shocked by weird Japanese things or the cutesy stuff as someone who has never been exposed to anime would be. There was once a time when the anime fanbase simply fell under another branch of the comic book / animation fandom, but this is no longer true. While there is and always will be some crossover between different aspects of geek culture, anime fandom has evolved into its own separate movement.
Yet in becoming involved with anime you do not take on the traits of a Japanese person either, and the fact that, in general, we’re rather resistant to moe and otaku culture means that our values will probably never be fully assimilated. Essentially, as English-speaking anime fans, we’re caught between two different worlds. We have direct exposure to the Japanese culture and language, but I would argue that anime presents us with a distorted view of it – not just because of our own native influences but simply because of the nature of otaku anime itself. As a commercial medium, anime revels in its own insularity, and the stories often don’t reflect reality so much as outright deny it. By watching anime, we’re presented with a “Fantasy Japan”, and it takes some careful reading and perspective to unravel the implicit values that go into creating such a vision.
So by becoming anime fans, our influences are numerous and eclectic. It affects not only our tastes but the way we perceive even the language itself. Since the English-speaking fandom is international, often the words in anime become our common grounds for communication. Like any community bound together by common interests, we adopt jargon words that only really have meaning for us. And since we’re into a foreign language media, a lot of our specialised vocabulary consists of Japanese loan words.
Even if you can’t speak Japanese, you know words like kawaii, shonen, shojo, yaoi, otaku, etc. Search your mind and you’ll realise you use quite a considerable list of Japanese vocabulary just from talking about anime in English. But because we come from such extraordinarily diverse ethnic backgrounds and we have different contexts for using these words, our jargon has evolved rapidly in our lexicon and it’s often taken on a different meaning from the original usage. The word otaku itself has a vastly different connotation in English discourse as opposed to the Japanese.
The implication is, of course, that for anyone who is attempting to learn Japanese through anime is going to have a completely different experience with the language than someone who learns it without influences.
I think I should tell you a little about myself and my own history with Japanese. Like many anime fans, my first exposure to the raw Japanese language was through watching anime. I combined my anime immersion with formal classroom study, and I now study Japanese Sociolinguistics in university. I don’t consider myself a “weaboo”, though. If anything, studying another language has made me much more comfortable with English and my ethnic identity as an Australian. But the “weaboo” phenomenon is a common experience and one I think everyone can relate with to a degree. It’s deeply rooted in a general fascination with Eastern culture, and as Westerners, most of us can’t help but take interest in something so seemingly exotic. I get it.
It is also often remarked that watching anime makes you better at learning Japanese. This is true from my experience and observations. Anime fans immerse themselves in the language and it does improve one’s basic linguistic competence. But I don’t think it’s that much of a help, because anyone who constantly exposes themselves to a language will improve in this fashion. It’s not unique to members of the anime fandom.
What I actually think anime does – and what I think anyone who is learning Japanese as a second language should take special care to take note of – is that it narrows one’s linguistic focus. It improves areas like casual speech, but if you simply apply everything you learn to anime, it can close your receptiveness to other modes of verbal discourse. I wouldn’t go far enough to say it’s harmful or anything, but it doesn’t give you any particular advantage over the textbook learner with things like polite speech and you do have to learn to put the English fandom connotations for Japanese words out of mind for the sake of communicating effectively with actual Japanese people.
This is just a cautious hypothesis of mine, since I haven’t done nearly enough research to justify anything I claim. But it is something I’m very interested in learning more about. I mentioned before that I’m a student of sociolinguistics. Over the next couple of months, I’m going to be investigating the English usages of Japanese words – and invented Japanese-sounding words – on anime forums and other public anime-related websites. I actually sent an email to my lecturer with the word ‘waifu’ in it. She said it was a great idea. (Holy crap, right?!) I’m just an undergrad student, but I’m ambitious and I seriously hope that I’ll one day become someone whose opinions on these matters will count.
So while I go off and do some more thinking and reading about this, I’ll leave my questions for you to ponder over too. If you study Japanese as a second language, how do you think your anime hobby affects how you approach learning it? As anime fans, we’re immersing ourselves in a culture that’s shaped by and yet distinct from both Western and Japanese culture. How useful do you think the anime fandom is as a vehicle in understanding Japanese language and culture?