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We Are All Weaboos On The Inside

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This is a scientifically proven fact.

Well, perhaps that’s going a bit far. But I recently finished writing an academic report that touches on this subject and I thought it would be interesting to share some of my thoughts with general readers.

(I should stress that I’m not a particularly trained academic – yet. It doesn’t matter how much know about the subject, though. I’ve always believed that the most educational pieces of writing are made by those who feel as if they are still learning themselves; it’s those kinds of people who take their readers along on a ride. This is all meant to get you thinking, so don’t assume I’m shoving facts down your throat.)

For a long time, you see, I’ve been interested in how English-speaking anime fans approach the “Japanese” part of anime – the language, underlying culture etc. Two questions were burned in my mind:

  1. Does anime affect how you learn Japanese?
  2. Does your Japanese proficiency affect how you view anime? (i.e. your taste)

I had a go answering the first question in an earlier post: How Does The Anime Fandom Affect How You Perceive And Learn The Japanese Language? But I think what I wrote there was largely incomplete. In truth, the answer to both these questions are related and so they both affect each other. As you watch anime, you learn more Japanese, and as you learn Japanese, you engage with anime on a deeper level.

The English-speaking anime fandom at large is in a funny position here, because on the Internet, we tend to engage with anime on multiple levels simultaneously. Anime is described by some academics as a “culturally odorless” product, which explains how its appeal is so easily transferable across cultures. It doesn’t “feel” Japanese, in other words. And yet for the most part, non-Japanese anime fans insist on preserving the “Japanese-ness” of their anime. So basically we have a product that on its surface leaves little imprint of its home culture but where the fandom itself brings out the Japanese flavour.

We can explain this through the nature of both the fandom and anime itself. Anime tends to portray a kind of “fantasy Japan”, which draws on both traditional Japanese images and yet distorts them for the sake of… I dunno, fetishising? Case in point: bloomers. Japanese schoolgirls do not wear these anymore, but it’s a standard part of the anime experience.

Just look at those thighs!

Just look at those thighs!

It’s still Japanese, but you have to read deeper behind the images to find the “true” Japan behind it. So non-Japanese anime fans like you and I are exposed to this pseudo-Japan we see in anime and traditional Japan is probably not the first thing we associate that with. But we know the product is intrinsically foreign and exotic.

So what happens next? Some fans dig deeper. We differentiate between ‘cartoons’ and ‘anime’, and then we become snobbish about it. We emphasise both to ourselves and others the uniqueness of anime, even if we know on an intellectual level that this is not entirely true. (Snobbishness and excluding others outside the niche is something that happens in any subculture; otherwise it would cease to be a subculture.) In order to retain our snobbishness of anime being the One True Way, we emphasise its Japanese roots.

I’m not saying we do this all the time. We don’t. Most of the time, we’re reading our own cultural values into anime. It’s just that at the same time, we are aware that it is Japanese – and this is how anime becomes a global product, where the Japanese language becomes the common factor uniting fans across different countries. It doesn’t matter if you’re Spanish, Indonesian, Syrian, Taiwanese, Arabian or wherever you’re from – you will know what Pikachu is and you will agree with me that Pikachu is one kawaii motherfucker.

What Level of “Japanese-ness” is Acceptable?

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It’s interesting that as non-Japanese fans, there are parts of the Japanese culture which you actively embrace, no matter how immersed you are in the culture, and others which never seem to catch on – unless you consider yourself part of the culture.

The notorious Dubs versus Subs debate will always be on the side of the Subs in popular opinion, no matter how much dubbing technology and English voice acting improves. For the most part, fans enjoy the way Japanese voices sound and often they’re simply more fitting of the character. (I personally quite like dubs, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Fans love their honorifics too: ‘-kun’, ‘-chan’, ‘-san’ and that sort of thing. Manga published in English these days tend to keep all the honorifics with a list somewhere explaining what they all mean. Fans are also sensitive to how gender and age-specific language is encoded in personal pronouns and in the end of sentences, so we know that males refer to themselves as ‘ore’ or ‘boku’ and end their sentences with ‘ze’ or ‘zo’ and that females say ‘watashi’ and end their sentences with ‘wa’. Again, this actually doesn’t reflect on how Japanese people really speak – anime characters tend to exaggerate their gender-specific speech for the sake of easy characterisation. This is comparable to the stereotypical depictions of, say, French or Texan accents on television shows and movies.

Getting outside of the actual language, depictions of traditional or historical Japan – shrine maidens, priests, samurais, ninjas and so on – are also very popular with non-Japanese fans, regardless of their knowledge of Japanese. Anime series such as Natsume Yuujinchou and Hyouka, which employ a slower-paced feel and tend to exclude viewers who don’t understand certain aspects of Japanese culture or the language, are also well-regarded for precisely this reason. I think that this is a reflection of a general Western fascination with Orientalism and the romanticising of these exotic aspects of Asian culture. This is the kind of exotic that is easy to appreciate from an outsider’s view. You don’t need to become part of it to understand it.

Otaku anime, though? Ecchi? Hentai? Not so much.

This is where I think you can see a difference in the outlook of fans who enjoy otaku-focused anime compared to those who merely appreciate Japanese culture. English-speaking fans of otaku anime, I’ve noticed, are often more attuned to the Japanese fandom and tend to mirror the Japanese otaku’s consumerist habits: buying character products, reading doujinshis, etc. I also think that one’s level of Japanese proficiency plays a part in this. These fans are more immersed in the language itself. There’s no strong relationship, but I think you could argue for a correlation between one’s identity as an otaku and their immersion in the language.

(By the way, if you haven’t noticed, I am an otaku pig myself.)

The Role of the Internet

Gatchaman

In the English-speaking corners of the Internet, fans of differing competency in the Japanese language come together and talk about anime. Given that we are all interested in the Japanese culture in some way, the result is that our own English-speaking fandom has strong parallels with the Japanese-speaking fandom, even if we are never quite the same. Japanese anime-related words also come into our own English lexicon and we use them in regular conversation. Think of words like ‘moe’, ‘hentai’ and ‘otaku’.

These words become adapted to the needs of our language, but we never lose sight of their original meaning. For example, we needed a word to refer to Japanese animated pornography and ‘hentai’ became that word, even though it really means just ‘pervert’. BUT – since we know of anime titles like Hentai Ouji to Warawanai Neko (lit. ‘The Perverted Prince and the Stony Cat’), not to mention that every second anime girl yells “HENTAI!” when she gets accidentally groped by the hapless male lead, we are constantly exposed to their Japanese context.

Fans also tend to define and redefine Japanese words in English, pointing out both their English and Japanese usages. Whenever the word ‘otaku’ comes up in a conversation, someone usually points out that it has a more negative connotation in Japanese. (Anyone remember the Otaku Elimination Game?) Since communication on the Internet is very circular and the same information gets repeated over and over on public forums, fans tend to reinforce their understanding whenever they interact and use the language.

Final Thoughts

So by being anime fans, we’re creating our own subculture that engages with the Japanese language and culture on multiple different levels, plus our own engagement with anime affects how we learn Japanese, and vice versa. It’s all very complex but also very exciting, if you ask me!

Naturally, what I’ve written here only scratches the surface on how the global English anime fandom works, but it’s a start. As far as I can see, there hasn’t been much research done on the English fandom, and so it’s something I really want to get into and investigate more thoroughly at some stage. This kind of study is important to me as an anime fan.

Before we can understand anime more properly, I think it is vital that we understand ourselves.

See, there are some fans (and you may be one of them) who dislike the idea of weaboos and who resists the overly “Japanese-y” aspects of anime, while there are others who actively embrace their inner weaboo. These attitudes form a framework through which we view anime. If you approach anime like a movie buff and simply critique each anime as it stands on its own terms, your outlook and tastes are probably fundamentally different from someone who spends a lot of time looking at fanart and writing fanfiction.

But make no mistake: it is that same idea of foreign exotica which pulls us into anime. We like those Japanese cartoons because they present a world we can never be fully part of but which we will constantly strive to understand in our own way.

We are all weaboos on the inside.

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Posted on October 20, 2013, in Editorials and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I’ve always found the divisions between western anime fans to be an interesting one. I do think most anime fans who participate in their fandom on the internet tend to understand that the “Japanese-ness” of anime is really -how otaku centric is this anime?- Maybe I’ve been a bit naive on that. I suppose at this point I’ve probably beat that fact into all of my friends heads so I don’t talk to people who are unaware of that very often. At any rate somewhere along the lines of reading eroge I realized I’m about as otaku as a western fan can get. I think the real test of how otaku someone is might be when they reach that point where they don’t want to brag about it. >_>

    Personally I think that the biggest reason people become so split on anime is because they don’t know what to expect from it. I’ve actually been working on a blog about that for a few weeks so I won’t say too much here, but I will say that I think learning some “anime Japanese” does help people appreciate the more otaku centric stuff, I know it has for me.

    Five years ago I would have hated stuff like IS or Sakurasou because of my own moral bias. Really the only reason that truly changed is because I have a habit of challenging myself on anything that people find controversial, it’s just part of my personality to want to understand why.

    What really changed my perspective on otaku anime was coming to understand otaku culture better by watching tons of anime and reading about it on the internet. At one point I decided to watch anime raws just to see how much I could understand and while I have no illusions of being able to speak Japanese, I can actually understand most of what goes on in an average anime episode. That exercise alone did a lot to change the way I view anime.

    Now I occasionally find I understand anime better when I haven’t read the subtitles and that can be a really weird feeling. I should probably take some lessons and actually learn the language… I just feel really silly about learning a language solely to understand fiction. My interest in Japan doesn’t really expand beyond otaku culture at this point.(shameless otaku pig as well, I even have a figure collection to prove it!)

  2. You’ve sorta touched on this subject, but the idea of weeaboo/english-speaking otaku and Japanese culture is rather different. It’s obviously a different type of culture than that we are used to, but it’s also not what Japanese culture is like. Where the so-called weeaboo-ism comes in is when someone takes this otaku culture as being both superior to their own culture and identical to Japanese culture. At a wild guess, it comes often from not feeling comfortable with the culture you are in so latch onto the one portrayed in your entertainment. I’ve seen a number of studies in weirdly random places, like facebook likes studies and google patterns, that english speaking anime fans are way more introverted than your average person.

    The criticism of weeaboo-ism comes from the mistaken idea that otaku culture mirrors Japanese culture. That the idealised fantasy culture in anime/manga is what you’ll find in Japan. Also that many of them are obnoxious stupid teenagers who already don’t have good social skills. You can kinda see why the criticism of weeaboos exists. Double criticism points for part of that culture they find appealing is underage sexualisation. Makes it a pretty easy target.

  3. As the good Scamp says, the distinguishing characteristics of a weeaboo (wee-a-boo, two e’s) can be said to be a combination of unquestioning acceptance of otaku culture as legitimate Japanese culture, and embracing it in rejection of one’s original culture. In fact, Internet sources say the usage originated directly from 4chan mods replacing occurrences of the over-abused word “wapanese” with “weeaboo.” “Wapanese” is an obviously derisive amalgamation of “white” and “Japanese,” basically making fun of supposedly white people (a questionable assumption on the Internet) for over-enthusiastically showing off their supposed expertise in Japanese culture (also questionable). The word “weeaboo” itself was coined in a comic strip (see here http://pbfcomics.com/71/). In the comic, the term is left undefined, but is the subject of some kind of punishment game, where whoever mentions the word first is subject to, apparently, paddlings or beatings from everybody in earshot. With this context, it would seem that the mods were trying to discourage use of “wapanese,” but instead the result was that they merely replaced one derogative word with a new, funnier-sounding one. And perhaps more wide-ranging as well, since “weeaboo” no longer directly implies white people.

    Of course, like anything else in language, the term is subject to evolution and loss of specific meanings. But if we do keep the origins of the term in mind, it’s plain to see why it carries such negative connotation, even beyond “otaku.” It implies immaturity, naive arrogance, and a lack of understanding of the true nuances and values of culture. As I see it, those who look down upon anime as all bug-eyed “uguu kawaii desu” and those who glorify it for the same, are two sides of the same coin. So I’d say that the more we strive to understand the bigger picture, the good and bad in otaku culture, its relevance to the rest of Japanese culture and our own, and how to talk about all this intelligently and tastefully, the more we purge our inner weeaboo.

  4. I have been wanting to write about the so called Japanophiles (which is the technical term for weeaboo). While it’s a good thing to appreciate a different culture as they a lot of unique aspects. I typically find Asian cultures more interesting since I’m Chinese. However, I feel that pop culture does not equal culture as a whole for the fact that Anime only shows for the fact that it only show a few aspects which is the most popular such as Sushi and cuteness. It’s just like watching Kung-fu movies and think that Chinese culture is all about fighting or listening to K-Pop bands/Korean Drama and saying that is Korean culture even though there is a lot more to the culture. Possibly if one learns a language whether it’s Japanese, Chinese or Korean, one can learn some more aspects of the culture than presented in media.

    While that is only a small part of the issue, the thing kind of bothers me is rejecting their own nationality and think that one is better than the other. The very thing that bothers me about these kind of people is not for the fact that they are embarrassing, but also for the fact that they are arrogant for the fact that they are tying to act Japanese when it’s not how actual Japanese people act.

    But as the other two people said, I think they pretty much sum it perfectly. For me, I don’t randomly blurt out random Japanese words for no reason. It’s either I speak in English or Japanese and thats it, unless I have to define something. But in short, people have to realize that there is more to Japanese culture than just popular media such as its history and language. I think the same holds true with other cultures.

  5. I won’t respond to each comment personally since everyone brought up similar things, but I have to say that I learned a lot from what you all wrote. Thanks, guys.

    Looking back through my post, I realised I didn’t actually write much about weaboos themselves, despite saying every anime fan is a bit of a weaboo in some way. Personally, I don’t think having a particular interest in a foreign culture is inherently a bad thing, but weaboos do take it too far to the detriment of themselves, most of all. Understanding and accepting oneself is definitely the first step towards accepting others. All the more reason, I think, to study how the English fandom works in detail.

  6. I kind of get what you’re coming from, and how anime fandom does give rise to a subculture of its own, and within this niche culture you tend to have elitism, snobbish behavior, etc.

    But you might want to take note that not all English speaking audience are primarily from the Western culture. There are also the Asian fans (who speak English because it’s universal), and regarding that you could read Iwabuchi Koichi’s articles on transnationalism or “cultural proximity” to see how this fandom can be interpreted from a different perspective or in a different context, rather than solely from the lens of the “Western” culture. Just an extra thing to think about.

    But yeah, what you have here is pretty fun and worth reading.

  7. As I said in your other related post, since Japanese language and culture was my major in college, I would say I’m more familiar with the “non-anime” side of Japan than your average anime fan whose only exposure to the culture is its anime, manga, and games. Since anime is what got me interested in Japanese in the first place, I guess I embraced my inner weaboo long ago XD

    Anime in Japan is basically just as much a subculture there as it is in Western countries – it’s still nerds/otaku who are into it and keep up with all the shows that aren’t mainstream, family entertainment – but the main difference from my experience is that animation is a much more widely accepted means of storytelling in Japan. It’s mostly thanks to the manga industry rather than the anime one, since the former targets a much wider audience, with manga made for businessmen, housewives, you name it XD

    Like you touched on in this post, English-speaking fans are drawn to anime because of its novelty of not having any kind of equivalent in their culture, and its creativity of depicting “fantasy-Japan” in such a variety of stories and genres. But another reason is simply because it utilizes the animation medium to its fullest, and that draws anyone who likes animation to it.

    Anyway, great post, and I like what you said in the end about how the “critic” and the “otaku” aren’t as different as they seem…in the end, they’re both drawn to something special in anime that they enjoy.

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