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How does the Anime Fandom affect how you learn and perceive the Japanese Language?

weaboo wapanese

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.

How So?

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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?

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Posted on August 8, 2013, in Editorials and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. Unless we do interact with English speaking people who has extensive anime experience in Japan, any understanding on Japan and anything related to it would bound to be have some degree of bias in it.

    However, in general, anime fandom does help in understanding Japanese language and culture in the sense that anime viewers generally would embrace the cultural differences. Then again, that depends on who do we interact. I’ve seen people who interprets anime solely through western perspective and it irks me a lot.

    • You bring up some really good points. I too think that the most beneficial part of being an anime fan is becoming aware of cultural differences, but solely reading your own cultural values into anime does tend to defeat that purpose.

  2. I took a year of Japanese in college, and probably the only reason I’ve retained any of it is because I still mainly watch anime through subtitles. I used to practice by watching Clannad and Shugo Chara raw (this was back in 2008), and recent experience at AX makes me think that I’m at least pretty good at following the general flow of coversation, if not that good at replying. So in that way, I guess my fandom has helped me learn it and hold onto what I remember. I find your idea that anime makes someone better at casual speech pretty interesting, since that’s the style of Japanese I’m most likely to recognize, yet when I speak it myself (badly) I usually default to polite speech since that was how I was taught.

    I never really did the “weeaboo” thing either, so I’m really interested in seeing what kind of results you get!

    • One of the main obstacles Japanese second language learners encounter is how in class they’re taught polite speech but when they listen to anime or watch movies, nobody ever seems to talk that way. It’s way too easy to get the two mixed up in conversation, right? I’ve been there too.

      And it’s cool you’ve shown interest in my study! I’m looking forward to seeing what patterns show up myself.

      • Definitely! I think that’s why I have a hard time constructing replies. I’ll forget what the polite form of a word is in favor of the casual version or vice-versa, which makes me not want to say anything at all because I’m worried I’ll sound rude or igonorant. ;^^

  3. Very interesting article! I think watching anime while trying to learn Japanese would be a great way to improve in the language. I speak from experience, as English is not my first language; I did learn a lot from watching tv as a kid. But I also think some things in anime can be misleading. Not everything in anime is actually a good representation of the Japanese culture/language. To take an example, look at the gym uniforms they use in most high school animes, the girls basically wear a t-shirt and a pair of panties, something that doesn’t actually exist in Japan today. I think the best way to learn Japanese fully, in addition to watching anime, is by watching movies/tv shows, reading books and articles, and spending time with actual Japanese people. I wouldn’t know too much about it though, since I don’t speak or understand Japanese myself (yet!), but as a person learning a second language, I found these to be very helpful.

    • Cool, a response from a non-native English language speaker!

      Immersion is definitely the best way to learn a language. A lot of this applies to learning second languages in general. What’s unique about Japanese in this case is that the anime fandom has created a kind of creole, an in-between language, that may or may not actually be helpful for people studying the language.

      An interesting tangent: how useful are creoles in bridging the gap between two languages? It’s hard to evaluate all the techniques there are for learning another language, especially when you have limited resources. Sometimes, television is all that you have to go on. The toils of the anime fan have implications for us all!

    • As a fellow non-Native English speaker I Agree in all what you said, some things in anime isn’t found in real-life at all (Bloomers?).
      I think light novels is closer to Real-Life than Manga-anime because when I read them I feel Japan in them (even thought I can’t read Japanese *yet* & read translated ones).

  4. Japanese language study was actually my main focus in my 5 years of college. I started out taking Japanese language courses up to intermediate level at my junior college, then continued to the advanced level when I transferred to a university, while also taking related classes like Japanese literature, history, art history (got to do a presentation about manga =D), and politics. I’ve also spent a total of 7 weeks in Japan across two different trips, the first one as an intense study abroad program at Kyoto Sangyou University, and the second a funded sight-seeing tour. And actually, the young Japanese people we hung out with on the trips preferred that we speak informal Japanese, so the dialogue I hear in anime was helpful then XD

    Speaking of which, since my beginning classes focused strictly on polite-speech, I kinda learned casual speech on my own through self-study, anime, and my later classes at uni. Since I graduated in 2009 I’ve only had self-study to rely on and watching raw anime is helpful (though like you said, not extremely so). I watch kid shows like Pokemon or Chi’s Sweet Home raw because the dialogue is typically less complicated, and it helps me retain an ear for Japanese and a few words, but it doesn’t do much to further my knowledge. Listening to anime songs is probably less helpful since I get caught up in the beat and don’t pay attention to the lyrics ^^ And since I started a full-time job about a year ago, my time for self-study has become virtually nil. All I do is test myself from time to time with a kanji/vocab app on my phone and occasionally write a Japanese journal entry on Lang-8. Watching and being immersed in anime is certainly helpful, but the only thing that could really help me move my stagnated Japanese ability forward is rigorous self-study (whenever I can find the time) or spending more time in Japan (one day I hope!)

    • Really interesting story you have there :) Looks like for you, anime is a way to keep yourself refreshed with Japanese but not an actual way to study it. That’s pretty similar to how I regard it too.

      Looks like I’m not the only one who stops paying attention to the lyrics when I listen to Japanese songs! I only ever remember a few scattered words here and there, like “JIBUN WO” in the first Code Geass OP, and then I just mumble the rest of the lyrics. At least, that’s how it’s always gone when I’ve done karaoke.

      • Ah, now that you mention karaoke, there actually are a handful of anime songs I’ve memorized and can sing along with when I go to karaoke with my friends (there’s a Japanese-style karaoke place in downtown LA’s Little Tokyo that I’ve gone to a few times). But those are only my favorites and/or songs that I’ve happened to listened to a lot. For the majority of anime songs, I tend not to memorize more than the basic melody and a few words =P

  5. As I’m teaching myself Japanese for about two years, besides becoming more comfortable with the language as Asian language like Japanese and Chinese are usually more difficult than English, the language is culturally rich. When I was studying Japanese, I found out that Japanese people uses a lot of honorifics and there are two forms of honorific speech referred as 敬語 (keigo), respectful speech and humble speech. For instance:
    先生に宿題を手伝っていただくために研究室に伺います。
    I (humbly) went to my professor’s office in order to (humbly) receive help for my homework from my professor.
    ビル・クリントンは高校で話になりました。
    Bill Clinton (graciously) talked at a high school.

    While studying Japanese on your own takes motivation, at least it gotten easier as there are programs to memorize vocabulary, lang-8, online resources and electronic dictionaries on smartphones and tablets! Even so, I mainly use video games as a form of practice opposed to Anime as I have the text to understand what the character is saying and it’s easier to look up words that way. Not only that, Japanese textbooks usually gives some lessons cultural notes to show how Still, I find the weeaboo thing kind of annoying (no offense) not because I’m Asian, but they simply don’t understand the culture. Replacing cute with “kawaii” doesn’t make one Japanese, but make it sound irritating, unless you have a good reason to. Just speak just English or Japanese.

  6. I’ve started trying to learn Japanese myself quite recently, and the truth is that I would have even bothered if it weren’t for anime and visual novels. Anime is great for learning the pronunciation of Japanese words and, as you’ve said, for exposure to casual speech, but it’s not something I plan to use as a primary learning resource. Still, it’s really nice that i’ve begun recognizing more words than just the ones that are overused and the feeling of progress that that gives is a great motivator. I would have loved to study Japanese in University at some point, but sadly my current degree won’t allow it =(
    I’m not really one to use random Japanese words when i’m speaking English, but I have noticed the tendency of others to do that.

    • Anime is a great impetus for studying Japanese. I find it most effective in simply raising your awareness level and giving you a reason to study. I mean, how doesn’t want to be able to watch anime raw like a pro? Even if it’s not your primary learning resource, no shame in admitting it’s your reason for interest :)

  7. >> 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.

    What are traits of a Japanese person? What are the values of moe and otaku culture? Do elaborate.

    Also, you address the English-speaking audience as “Westerners”, but from my experience, a significant portion of the English-speaking anime fandom on the web is from Asian countries. These people have both English and Japanese as second languages, and their primary languages and cultures may or may not give them an advantage over “Westerners” in understanding Japanese language/culture. Where do they fit in, do you think?

    That does bring up a thought though: Worldwide, how important is English as a bridge to anime fandom and thus Japanese culture? English is and is likely to remain the reigning lingua franca of the Internet. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_in_computing#As_a_foreign_language
    People from India, Germany, Malaysia, etc. use English sites to access Japanese content and discuss anime. What factors lead to the creation of this global English anime fandom, as opposed to each language/culture mainly forming its own (not saying that they don’t have their own, just saying that I think the global English thing is real and significant)?

    • What are traits of a Japanese person? What are the values of moe and otaku culture? Do elaborate.

      This was beyond the scope of my post, so I didn’t address it directly here. I did attempt a closer analysis of otaku culture in this post: https://fantasticmemes.wordpress.com/2013/07/20/understanding-otaku-pandering-in-anime-and-light-novel-culture/

      To summarise briefly: there are parts of Japanese moe and otaku anime that go against our expectations of “good storytelling”, and these indicate that there is a significant difference between our own values and that of a Japanese otaku. Defining what exactly these differing traits are would be way too difficult in the short space of this comment, so apologies for the lack of concise response.

      Where do they fit in, do you think?

      I did make mention of this: Since the English-speaking fandom is international, often the words in anime become our common grounds for communication.

      I did refer to the English-speaking fandom as “Westerners”, simply because it’s easier to identify them as such, because by using English as a lingua franca, the Western perspective becomes the predominant influence in discussions. But you are right: the truth is that our community is made up of fans across an extremely broad range of countries. I think that this is what has led to the anime fandom being so distinct from Western or Japanese culture. English is just as much a common ground as Japanese in our case.

      What factors lead to the creation of this global English anime fandom, as opposed to each language/culture mainly forming its own (not saying that they don’t have their own, just saying that I think the global English thing is real and significant)?

      I would say technology has been the overriding factor in creating a global anime fandom. The Internet makes it easier for us to communicate. And we have to give points to anime itself for having such a cross-cultural appeal.

      I would be interested in investigating non-English and non-Japanese anime fandoms, but unfortunately I cannot speak any other language beyond those two. I imagine the similarities and differences between those fandoms and the international English-speaking fandom would be illuminating.

      Worldwide, how important is English as a bridge to anime fandom and thus Japanese culture?

      I would say it’s been highly instrumental in creating the anime fandom as we know it today. Without it, it would be difficult to identify a defined subculture – and it would certainly have an effect on how speakers learn English as a second language and not just Japanese.

      This is a really fascinating digression, again beyond the scope of my post, but still very interesting to think about, especially from an academic point of view. I’ll definitely try to look into this with more detail.

      Thanks for the illuminating comment. You asked some really good questions and brought up some great points for discussion.

  8. I think anime is a great way to get inspired to study Japanese, and also a great way to keep up with the language for people who have studied in the past but no longer do, or to supplement ongoing study. I don’t think I’d ever recommend anime as a sole means of studying Japanese though. There are definitely plenty of useful words and phrases that can be picked up, but as you pointed out, I imagine viewers would also face the difficulty of hearing a lot of things that aren’t used in day to day conversation for various reasons. Reading and writing is important in any language too, and that would be more or less left by the wayside if someone only ever studied Japanese through watching anime.

    • Totally agree with you there.

      Since I know you work and live in Japan, I’m a bit curious in what way anime shaped your personal perceptions of the people and the language. Do you subconsciously associate the things you see with anime or is it in your mind strictly one facet of Japanese culture? I know for a lot of anime fans (including myself) it’s easy to make links with anime everywhere, even when it’s not particularly relevant.

      • I suppose like a lot of fans, anime was the starting point of my love of Japan. It expanded into other facets of Japanese pop culture as well, but anime will always be my number one love. Now that I’ve been living here for about a year though, I tend not to associate anime with what goes on around me. There are plenty of similarities, but mostly I keep anime and real life separate in terms of my understanding of the culture here. It definitely is easy to make those links though, and I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that, so long as people don’t just assume that anime and Japanese culture automatically go hand in hand.

  9. Your post got picked up by OTW (Organization for Transformative Works) and I read it through that link. What you talk about is something that touches on my own research (I’m a non-Japanese professor who once taught Japanese language and now works on transcultural fandom), and you might find some of Alastair Pennycook’s work on language useful in trying to work through the very interesting questions you raise here. “Global Englishes and Transcultural Flows” might be especially pertinent; in particular, what you say about anime Japanese being a kind of fannish language that has specific meanings within the context of fandom, and comparatively less meaning in the broader context of Japanese language learning, is spot-on.

    Best of luck with your research! :)

  10. I also came here via the OTW link and like your article a lot, since it touches on a lot of things that I myself have pondered. I think anime is a good way to become familiar with the prosodic features of Japanese and at least some cultural aspects (basically a first access to what can be a very foreign experience for Western audiences), but I actually don’t think it is very helpful for serious language learning. Yes, it is often easier to understand than, say, a dorama or wide show because the voice actors frequently enunciate better, but it doesn’t give you an understanding of Japanese as a very gendered language, for example.

    I realized this myself when I did a lot of translating for the English-speaking Johnny’s fandom (boybands). Though I went through formal Japanese language classes and studied in Japan, after a while I noticed that I was adopting male speech patterns simply because I was translating mostly interviews/blogs by male Japanese celebrities, and had started using predominantly male vocabulary (食う instead of 食べる, for example) – which caused quite a few raised eyebrows from my Japanese friends and teachers.

    Anime doesn’t tell you about this. It often uses language for characterization – e.g. a girl insisting on using male speech patterns only – and assumes that the viewer is familiar with any cultural connotations. Unless a (good) fansubber notices this and points it out to the audience, female fans might adopt speech patterns that they have to painfully unlearn in case they become serious about the study of Japanese.

    In short, while I do think anime is a fun and entertaining introduction to Japanese language and culture, there should also be an awareness that Japanese speech modes and registers are diverse in a different way. Looking forward to reading more about your research into this topic!

  11. Well, here in Peru we speak Spanish, and I see the exact same thing happening among anime fans, and very often. There are people who like anime also like to study Japanese. My friends and I use Japanese terms often, and we even use them surrounded by people who don’t understand them, hiding the meaning, like a “friend-code”, and other groups of fans do it too. The romanization is probably easier to understand because Spanish writing is romanized and pronounced very similarly, the main differences being the sound of some consonants and vowels, and the fact that Japanese consonants are almost always accompanied by a vowel. For some reason, some fans like to compare Japanese to Quechua, our main native language (Inka language), even though only the grammar structure and a few words sound Japanese-ish.

    There’s also Cosplay, Otaku Parties (Otaku has the “anime-fan” meaning here too), and there’s even a group of “maids” that go to certain events and restaurants in the city where I live, wich is very interesting. Here it all started with old animes decades ago, such as Candy Candy, Macross, Speed Racer… so maybe the familiarity makes us more accepted among fans of other stuff, even when people often make that weird look at cosplayers and manga magazines. The problem is that here, most “normal” people don’t care about art and being an artist is hardly a job. It’s hard to draw comics and live from it, and even harder to draw manga and sell it. But even with this people still try to do it and it’s still interesting that the cultural exchange is somehow similar to the English-speaking world.

    • What a fascinating story! Thanks for that – it’s interesting how the way you use Japanese creates an extra niche for your hobby. Comparing Japanese to Inka is something that’s never occurred to me before, and it’s a shame anime culture isn’t so prominent in Peru. I’m glad to hear that doesn’t stop people from trying to draw manga, though ;3 Thanks for sharing your experience!

  12. Reblogged this on Anime Geekly and commented:
    Well atleast I actually studied Japanese three years back.

  13. Okay seriously, why is learning a language from a freaking cartoon becoming some big deal? Anime became popular because its a different, unique kind of cartoon. It’s made in Japan, of course the main language is going to be Japanese, just like how winx club is an Italian cartoon so the original version’s in Italian! Duh! don’t watch a cartoon to learn about a country’s culture or language, like sheesh. other country’s make cartoons, but do people wonder, “Oh I’ll learn about that country’s language by watching it’s cartoons”? No! They just watch the damn cartoon because it’s interesting!

    • I respectfully disagree with your comment for a number of reasons. Like you, I’m critical of using anime as your sole language/culture resource, but this doesn’t invalidate its helpfulness. In fact, many language teachers actively encourage students to watch media in their second language.

      Secondly, I think you’re assuming that people approach anime as some kind of textbook with their primary intention being to learn the language or culture – this is not how it works. Entertainment value is the main reason for most people. Learning the language is a side benefit, which you can get while also having fun. The two goals are not mutually exclusive.

  14. This is an interesting post.
    I was technically born in Japan, but because I lived in a US air base, where the school was 100% English, I never formally studied in a Japanese school, so I had to learn it on my free time.

    While I agree it’s bad if someone relies too much on anime, I think watching anime definitely helps with the immersion bit. Pitch, emphasis, and pronunciation of Japanese.
    Dramas might be a bit better though, since they tend to be more realistic and have more realistic situations/settings.
    Something that I noticed most westerners learning Japanese struggle at(aside the ‘r_’ and ‘fu’) is the accent. Or, I don’t know if it’s called “accent”, but it’s that I often hear them slurring the vowels when they speak Japanese… how to explain it… Like when you say “Aw” in English, it is different from Japanese “a”. There is less of the “w” sound at the end. I have noticed some English speakers pronouncing “Chan” as “Chon”(ex: Azumanga Daioh’s English dub), and to me it sounds really weird, and I’d rather they just pronounce it like the Chinese surname, even if it’s still not right.

    I never really had a problem with pronunciation myself, but that is probably because of all the immersion I have had all of my life. I was born in Okinawa and my mother takes us to visit her relatives there, so I end up listening to non-stop Japanese conversations all the time there, for about 3 weeks to a month every year we go.

    For the most part, I almost always just use casual speech with a bit of common slang since any Japanese people I talk to are in Japanese servers of MMORPGs.

    It is actually pretty interesting that many Japanese gamers speak so casually with strangers in games. They do still have some seemingly mandatory polite manners like “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu” when you team up, but for the most part you meet Japanese people who speak like you’re already familiar, using slang and informal speech.

    Another thing I noticed is that they also rarely don’t speak/type when you type to them. When I play a game in an English or SEA server, and join a party/group, I often see people who for some reason, absolutely refuse to type anything, but they are obviously playing the game… I never understood this, but I have only once ever seen a silent player in a Japanese MMO.

    Just talking with Japanese online has broadened my understanding of net slang and casual speech among Japanese otaku so much. Most who I have met will even go out of their way to teach you new slang or abbreviations. One of the most recent I learned was “Onnyanoko”, which is apparently otaku slang for “Onnanoko”(Girl).

    It’s also pretty interesting how many of those Japanese gamers want to learn some English, so it’s kind of like something you could trade knowledge of.

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