I’m not Japanese. Despite my efforts and severe cultural abandonment, I am a not a Japanese national. The Nihon my heart sings for would see me as a dirty gaijin. My bowing, my use of suffixes all of them are from a culture that simply isn’t my own. My squealing over manga, the slips of Japanese that dot my English speech: all of those are from a land that would see me as a foreigner.
So why am I doing this? Why bring this up? Haven’t I served my 40 cultural lashes for being an abandoned American? I recently got to attend the Asian New Year Festival here in San Antonio run by the various Asian-American societies and The Institute of Texan Cultures. I had found the event as Japanese Culture Club president and took my group there as a means to show them how various Asian cultures celebrated New Years. I’ve attended this event for years now and I’ve seen a clear distinct change: recently there have been more and more cosplayers there.
Normally I am thrilled to see fellow cosplayers but it struck me as somewhat rude. This is a New Years festival and anime is not the only thing Japan has given us. The steady number of anime and manga vendors has increased at the festival and while a few have always been fine in my opinion to me this event is sacred: it is culture not fandom. It hit me especially hard because the day of this year’s festival I actually changed clothes: I was going to wear a shirt from a beloved anime and I decided to stick to simply red for good luck. I dressed up in the way I would if I were going to church and seeing cosplayers there offended me. This isn’t their culture. This isn’t my culture. Why am I up in arms? No one else seemed so ruffled by the matter. And isn’t it more than offensive that I as a gaijin was more protected of the Japanese flag than any of the Japanese natives who were more than content with the cosplay and anime fans flocking around buying onigiri in their very own otaku poorly spoken Japanese and broken Engrish.
I let the festival go: it was just a festival but thought about it again with the presence of two Asian markets here. We have one that’s a more traditional establishment: while the occasional otaku or lover of Asian culture will saunter in for the most part it’s filled with restaurant professionals or Asian-Americans looking to find the food and flavors of their homeland. The other is Minnano: a Japanese grocery store run by a lovely Japanese-American family and is very authentic. Almost every time I have been there it is usually shopped by some Asian-Americans looking for the flavors of home but it mostly overrun by otakus like me. I shuffle through, the occasional sumimasen leaves my lips and the bowing that has made its way into my life as I try to find the best instant miso ramen and the finest UCC canned coffee. I felt like an outsider despite my pronunciation being more than fine. The owners have never questioned why as a tiny chocolate Westerner was there and spoke more Japanese than even they did at times. But for whatever reason I was less judgemental of the other otakus there looking for Ramune because to me when you lead with Japanese Grocery Store: you embrace that you are opening the door for otakus like me. While the other Asian market is not marketed to otakus like me and despite our appearance most treat it like any other grocery store but with a way better instant noodles selection and a great amassment of sake.
I bring this up because there’s a new wave of otaku out there very different than my own. I was part of the anime generation that advocated “otaku citizenship.” As the first and second wave of anime fans many of us (I included) used anime and manga to abandon our American culture. I found strength in Japanese morals, power in calligraphy and solidarity in ideals of honor, personal responsibility and care for the family: they were very much like the ideals I was raised with as a Southern woman. Anime became our citizenship test, manga our passport books. Bowing, suffixes and casual Japanese became part of my life and many other anime fans I knew. The newest wave of anime fans…not so much. That’s more than fine and the new wave of fans have their own special quirks and that’s perfectly alright. They see anime as more of a thing of its own and not so much a means to Nihon.
Because I gave up my “Americanness” to be effectively in spirit Japanese I feel even more at odds with the fact that in all actuality: this isn’t my native culture. Cultural appropriation is a hot topic and I think it’s entirely overblown and often misused but there is something to be said about a small black young woman who speaks more Japanese than American slang and knows more about some manga than some Japanese students. But there’s also something to be said about seeing only anime and manga as culture. Anime and manga are just parts of the entire Japanese mythos.
There is history: good and bad and having to take the bad makes sometimes mythologizing Japan very uncomfortable. There were absolutely negative aspects of Japanese culture and there are still huge issues of sexism, racism and inequality. That honor, power and strength applied only to men of a certain type and absolutely wouldn’t apply to me not just as a black woman but as a woman. There was a war: a terrible war, awful things happened. There were war crimes. There is poverty, government issues, a real yakuza that needn’t be romanticized as anti-heroes.
It’s unfair and ridiculous to take and piece Japan together from manga stills and drama CDs. Japan is not just wallpapers taken from paused stills from InuYasha set to a Yoko Kanno soundtrack while Mai Yamane sings in between samisen chords. Japan is a real place, with real concerns, with real history that didn’t just start with Astro Boy.
It’s important to keep this in mind when we look for a culture outside of our own. Thanks for listening to this tiny rant from an equally tiny otaku.