Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Astro Boy, Tetsuwan Atom in Japan
Japan's most famous anime mascot, Astro Boy
The word "Japanophile" really bothers me. So does otaku. There's really no easy word to describe a passion for Japanese culture that some people won't see as negative, and that's a shame. Do Anglophiles (admirers of English culture) feel like this sometimes?

Looking down on others makes people feel better about themselves, and among foreign residents in Japan, many are quite derisive about those who come to the country because they enjoy popular culture. The perception comes partially as a result of otaku culture in the West, which is usually associated with social awkwardness or out-and-out lunacy, depending on which aspect you happened to walk in on.

Of course, there are some deeply problematic people, and some of them are certainly enthusiastic about Japan as a hobby, or are unwavering apologists. I do think it's unfortunate, though, that people can't just enjoy things.  

I travelled on a GO Transit bus during Anime North weekend this year, whereupon turning down the airport-hotel stretch of Dixon Road, we drove into a sea of con-goers dressed up in everything from cardboard boxes to bikinis. I'm used to this stuff - the other passengers weren't. As we waited at the lights, the crosswalk looking more like Shibuya than little old Mississauga, they peered out the windows and started talking among themselves, wondering what kind of strange carnival was being held out there.

Anime fandom goes hand in hand with an appreciation for Japan, and while some otaku go the opposite way and care little about anything but the media aspect of it, many others are crazy about Japan simply for being The Place Where Anime Comes From, and have little concept of how Japanese society actually functions. 

Fortunately, still more are well-rounded and interested in other aspects of Japan, but the unfortunate trend tends to be that if you started learning Japanese because you happen to enjoy anime or manga, and that path eventually takes you to Japan, you become a target for all the foreigners who moved there because it was a great chance to supplement their party lifestyle and now hate living abroad but can't or won't go home. Then there are the holier-than-thou types who, because they appreciate the higher forms of culture (and don't get me wrong, I practised ikebana myself, and the Japanese arts are beautiful) despise pop culture on principle. 

This is a terrible way to live - I don't see the point in mocking other peoples' hobbies. The unfortunate reality, though, is that after seeing the way otaku, Japan apologists and Japanophiles are openly derided in certain JET communities, I found myself hesitant to socialize with people who seemed to be in Japan for a lark, in case they turned out to be one of these types. I probably missed out on a few opportunities to meet good people, but at the time I didn't feel up to fighting the good fight to defend why I wanted a tatami room and to send nengajo and to cook Japanese instead of Western dishes.

The word otaku doesn't have quite as much negative connotation in Japan as it did twenty years ago, luckily, but Japanese fans are even more secretive about their hobbies. When you cosplay at an event in Japan, you aren't permitted to come in costume from your hotel - you have to register and use the cosplay dressing room to change when you arrive. I suppose this, too, originates from fans not wanting to draw too much attention to themselves. But something I really liked about Japan is that it's OK to be into anime, or manga, or trains, or bentou art, or British television, or anything at all really - it's just not acceptable to be over-the-top about it. No matter what country you're in, the label's not particularly good.

These days, anyway, they're saying that 'the geeks shall inherit the earth,' and I hope that does good things for the perception of fans going forward, especially with the anime boom here in North America dropping off pretty sharply in recent years, Still, someday, I'd like to feel that my interests and hobbies aren't 'strange' to anyone at all.