How Much Does “Japanese-ness” Matter to Anime and Manga Fans?

The stereotypical image of the non-Japanese anime fan is someone who is in love with Japan. He goes by many names, mostly given by others but also self-referenced: otaku, wapanese, japanophile, weeaboo. This anime fan believes that at least part of what makes anime great is that it comes from Japan, and this imbues a certain degree of specialness or at least difference to it.

But I have to wonder, just how much is it even true that Japanese-ness is that vital component for so many anime and manga fans?

This is not to say that it definitely does not matter for people or that at the end of the day fans are better off judging things from some imagined objective stance of mighty neutrality, but rather is just me asking about where that desire for Japan may or may not exist.

Let’s talk about fans of dub voice actors, the kind who line up to get their autographs every time they appear at a convention and who vastly prefer them over their original Japanese counterparts. You can say something about how those are the voices they’re familiar with, and that they were exposed to those voices through a more accessible medium like television, but what I think is that, at the end of the day, even if Japanese-ness might be present in other areas of the anime they like, be it the character designs or the settings of the stories, “Japanese-ness of speech” itself is not as much of a factor. Having the comprehensibility and perhaps even understanding of nuance of English (or whatever language) is more important than having the characters speaking in Japanese.

Once I attended a cherry blossom festival in New York, where I saw a black girl dressed in a kimono. If it wasn’t clear that she was an anime fan, she was also surrounded by friends cosplaying Naruto characters. What was interesting about the way she wore her kimono though was that it clearly wasn’t the correct way to put one on nor the correct way to walk in one but it was obvious that she didn’t care. I got the impression that even if she knew, it wouldn’t really have mattered. While the coolness and I would even dare to say the Japanese-ness of the kimono itself was important, it was also important for her to assert her own attitude, to conform the kimono to herself rather than the other way around.

A simple hypothesis would be that a fan prefers just enough Japanese-ness for their anime and manga to seem special or different, but not so much that it becomes utterly alien or unapproachable. However, I think that would be a flawed statement for a number of reasons. First, an appeal of Japanese-ness might not necessarily equate to exoticism or Orientalism (though in many cases it probably would), and second, there is a dynamic of what people do and don’t want to be, how much they expect things to conform to their own values rather than the other way around, and so “alien” for some may be preferable. Maybe I’ll think of something better eventually.

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8 thoughts on “How Much Does “Japanese-ness” Matter to Anime and Manga Fans?

  1. I think by Japanese-ness you mean the authenticity of Japanese culture to a foreign anime or manga fan. Or more so, how the perceive the importance of authenticity of Japanese culture with their interests in anime or manga. Something I realized painfully after spending six months in Japan was that Japanese anime fans like anime for very different reasons than their foreign counterparts (this was the biggest culture shock for me – meeting Japanese anime fans). Especially in comparison to the Western World.

    Simply, I think Western anime fans lock on to the individuality of some characters, the open expressions, as something they can associate or identify with. Something they think is cool, or different, something they haven’t seen before and take it as their “thing.” (everyone has their own thing in Western culture, right?) In contrast, Japanese anime fans literally consider themselves a sub-culture (Japanese bi-linguals will always use this term to refer to the anime community in Japan). I found myself always getting angry at Japanese anime fans, they rarely discuss why they like certain characters, or why they like certain shows more than others (yet are very opinionated online). For the Western fan, they are more expressive of what they like, it’s part of their individual person. For the Japanese fan, it’s a sub-culture that is almost like a secret society they won’t talk about in public. I saw a guy with a Nanoha shirt on a train platform once, and when I said hi and asked him who his favorite character was (in very polite Japanese), he looked like he wanted to escape from me like the plague. Dude, you’re wearing a Nanoha T-Shirt in public waiting for a train. Seriously, what’s the problem?

    I’ll also say that sometimes the Japanese background of the writers and animators of anime are at times painfully obvious, but only if you’ve been there. Despite the stoic, xenophobic, quiet society you see everyday; I for one was genuinely surprised at the amount of girls who actually do hit guys they know well for saying out of place things (this seemed rude to me), how a group of guys will get together and decide something can’t be helped and do nothing about it because its troublesome, and how the average person will generally ignore the comments of energetic and active people regarding it as strange. I also found out the hard way that trying to hold hands on a first date is apparently equivalent to asking for sex(a’la Clannad), and completely unwarranted. No matter how many times I told that girl we should go out on a date, have fun, drink, karaoke, and spend the night together, she didn’t think that it was “that type of date” until I tried to hold her hand, making for an awkward evening.

    My first thought was that it almost seemed like the Japanese people were out-of-touch with reality, but I scoffed at myself and realized I was the one out of touch with my reality. In fact, one of the most interesting experiences I had was talking to Japanese people who had spent 4+ months overseas in Western Civilization, and described their experiences as “waking up” and feeling strangely out of place upon their return to Japan’s overbearing and collective society.

    To sum all this up, I guess what I want to say is their culture is actually noticeable in anime in a lot of different ways, but you have to spot these differences with an experienced eye. I think you make a good point about Western fans associating the “anime” parts of anime with them being authentic Japanese culture (being completely off base and disregarding it), whereas the authenticity and Japanese origins are easy to spot for people who have been there. If that makes any sense.

    In contradiction to this post, maybe you can write a post about how things that seem very “anime” are actually surprisingly very “Japanese”.

    Also are you back in Northern Europe or are you going to be around for the next USPML?

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    • Well as far as just walking up and talking to people goes, you can’t really do that in any context in Japan, at least in Tokyo where people are kind of reserved. If the dude was wearing a Nanoha shirt that probably means he’s a super otaku who ESPECIALLY doesn’t know how to talk to people.

      If you wanna talk to people and make friends in Japan (if you’re no longer a student…) you should probably look up social gatherings and stuff.

      As far as holding hands goes, I’ve done that on first dates/meetings here and it’s been fine. Probably just depends on the girl.

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  2. I think the question is far too broad. The question is only really answerable if we break down into the various genres of the medium and I would argue even further than that, into the specific types and even modes of anime and manga. A show, for example, the current Joshiraku is almost completely, entirely based on its “Japanese-ness” and even though people often comment on the wit and dialogue of the show, Bakemonogatari, is another show which is heavily reliant on Japanese mythology, joke structure, language, phrasing, expression etc etc. Whereas a show like Sailor Moon or perhaps a lot of romances and shonen might not have to be as implicitly Japanese to translate all their intended meaning and impact with minimum loss.

    I don’t think it’s fair to try to make a general question, because as we know, generalizations are just that – general and non-inferential. They only tell us the correlation between “Japanese-ness” and enjoyment not any causational relationship between the two though.

    So tl;dr – there isn’t really an answer to the question. It’s entirely contingent.

    I must say though that the idea of being a weaboo or wapanese etc has little do specifically with the Japanese-ness of anime and more to do with the general mindset of comparisons in the community – japan as the geography for the inception of our much beloved hobbies will naturally be struck with a numinous praise. As is every other hobby that originates elsewhere to the fandom. It’s a natural part of the human psyche. It isn’t a question of Japan or anime, its just a part of how we as “fans” tend to associate our hobbies intrincities with the place of their birth.

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  3. I enjoy the Japanese-ness of anime in terms of setting, character designs, story tropes, and what not, but I can also enjoy it when a lot of Japanese-ness is taken out, such as watching the dub of Cowboy Bebop (English voices with settings and characters very non-Japanese). I have things about the culture and familiar anime tropes I like seeing, but as long as the story, characters, etc., in the show are enjoyable to me, Japanese-ness doesn’t matter (which is why I like watching good dubs in addition to subs).

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  4. There are some discrete elements of anime, I think, that can appeal to a specific kind of Western fan without invoking some mythic Nipponity to explain it. The greater emphasis on contained arcs told through successive half-hour episodes, for example, in contrast to the live-action, usually hour-long television of a more episodic nature that dominates in the West (although this is changing to an extent). But once you get beyond neutral preferences like that, you do start to run into aspects of the nature of anime (and related Japanese media) that grow out of qualities largely alien to the fiction of the Western world, and it’s hard to tell what of those things are “a matter of Japaneseness” and what are other artefacts of the way the medium was shaped. And yet…

    I sometimes wonder if many Japanese fans approach pop culture in a fundamentally more compartmentalized, immersive fashion than the majority of Westerners do: more used to playing roles and subsuming their inner identity in a collective society than we are, they are much freer to identify with stranger protagonists and accept more bizarre elements in their fictional worlds. If that’s the case, then I think that accounts for a fair amount of the devotion anime elicits from some Western fans, and worship of Japan becomes tied up in the appreciation of that use of the fantastical and over-the-top without shame or restraint. I mean, the biggest meme about Japan on the English-speaking internet is, “Oh, those wacky Japanese! [DreamOfTheFisherman’sWife.jpg]”

    Of course, it’s not like Japanese pop culture is the only place where weirdness roams in fiction; you could point out that the Japanese phenomenon of the obsessive loser otaku parallels the Western (and to an extent primarily North American; I’m not sure that, for example, “Whovian” carries the derision “Trekkie” often does, though I could be wrong there) phenomenon of the SF/F-obsessed nerd or Comic Book Guy. But Japan might embrace it with more abandon, under all that repression we associate with its mainstream culture. I wouldn’t be surprised if for a lot of the Western otaku who pride themselves on their devotion to the Japaneseness of a text, the attraction is in not just its function as a marker of specialness, but also in the promise it makes to them of a wilder land where their interests are free to roam without being called childish and shoved into the corner of the bookshelf…not that such a wilder land actually exists.

    Also, if you’re saying what I read you as saying in the last paragraph, then yeah, I think some of it is also that anime is built out of tropes and elements often different than the ones the West is encrusted with (I need to go hose some Hero’s Journey off my car…) and exposing ourselves to a different cultural milieu feels more novel and attractive. It’s true for me, anyway; recurring traits and themes attract me to both anime and other, non-Japanese media, but coming at anime from a different perspective often makes it seem more engaging.

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  5. Japanese-ness. For me, that has my demands that anything I purchase, whether anime or manga, retain the Japanese honorifics as a starting point. Depending on the title, I may want things to go a little further. Part of my desire for things to be this way stems from my two-years in Japan and the love and respect for Japanese culture that I developed, combined with my irritation that for some reason (at least in American official English subtitles and many manga titles), any Western honorific or title is awesome, but Japanese honorifics and titles are anathema.

    I won’t watch anime in English (except for those times when I get sent review copies of anime), but at the same time, I don’t disrespect people who only watch stuff in English. That’s how they enjoy it, and that’s cool with me. However, I want what I want, and as a consumer, if an anime company or manga company that brings things to English-speaking audiences wants my money, there better be at least the option to get it my way.

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  6. In my Vocaloid research, I’ve come across a similar issue. One of the most notable AHA! moments for me was at one of the Mirai no Neiro Vocaloid panels at AX 2011, where the audience was asked about who was looking forward to English P’s, and barely a dozen people in the audience (of probably 2500+) raised their hands.

    Not sure if you categorize this mindset as “authenticity” or something else, but it’s certainly very interesting to see how fans draw the line in terms of cultural appropriation and boundary making.

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