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.