Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Americanization, Japanization, and Japanophiles: A Rant

Well, it's that time again. It's time for Kita to put on her rant-hat. Today, the source of my sudden irritation is an article by Antonia Levi entitled, "The Americanization of Anime and Manga: Negotiating Popular Culture." To summarize simply, Levi's argument is that anime and manga fans should "resist... changes and keep the fandom as 'Japanese' as possible." She goes on to criticize people who enjoy manga and anime without thinking about its Japanese cultural contexts, and even stoops so low as to criticize writers of fanfiction who aren't always culturally accurate. She claims that a focus on characterization over cultural background is due to a fault in focus on the part of the writer, and she even elevates salaryman and World War II narratives as more "sophisticated" than topics such as high school narrative. In her argument, it becomes clear that Levi finds fault in people who don't bother to consider the Japanese cultural context of their fandom, and she even goes so far as to make a distinction between this Americanized view of Japan, and something Levi refers to as "real Japan."

So what, exactly, is my problem with this? As a Japanese major, I take serious offense with some of the content in Levi's article.

First of all, why did I decide to become a Japanese major? I have no idea. This may seem strange, coming from someone who loves JRock and studied abroad in Japan. But the fact of the matter is, I didn't get into things like JRock because it was "Japanese." I became a Japanese major because it was "logical." I'd been to Japan, I knew Japanese people, I'd studied the language a bit, and a Japanese major became the logical next step. I didn't become a fan of particular JRock bands because of their nationality.

For example, my favorite band is Dir en grey. However, I didn't get into Dir en grey because they were Japanese. When I first discovered the band, the only Japanese music I'd ever listened to was the techno-pop band Two-Mix, Malice Mizer, and a tiny drop of Gackt's work. I got into Dir en grey because their particular brand of brain-bashing rock music stroked me just the right way, and I appreciated their overarching "vision" as a band. I didn't fall in love with Dir en grey because they were Japanese, I fell for them because they fulfilled my particular musical desires. I remember a time when I was exploring a forum about the Japanese rock band UnsraW. Someone stated that none of UnsraW's Western fans would like them if they weren't Japanese because they'd be too "mainstream." I can't speak for anyone else, but this certainly doesn't apply to me. If one were to take a look at my iTunes, they'd find other hard rock bands like Korn, System of a Down, and Marilyn Manson sitting happily alongside Japanese bands like Dir en grey and UnsraW.

A Japanophile like Levi is trying to mark a huge separation between "us" and "them." This is something I don't like, or even understand. When I break down who Dir en grey are in my mind, they're humans first, a rock band second, and Japanese third. I don't think of them as a Japanese rock band. They're a rock band who happens to be Japanese.

Of course, I'm not trying to say that one should completely disregard Japanese cultural contexts. Sometimes, it's helpful to understand the cultural background of something created by the people of another nationality. For example, the lyrics to Dir en grey's song Hotarubi might make more sense to someone who's aware of its World War II historical background. However, when Kyo is singing about sadness and suffering... this isn't "Japanese." Japanese people do not experience an emotion that is different from Westerners. If anything, trying to find a cultural context is potentially detrimental to some of Dir en grey's songs, since it undermines the universal human experience.

The same thing goes for Levi's scholarly focus, which is anime and manga. Levi attacks American fanfiction written about Japanese high schools in which the authors fail to take into account the differences between Japanese and Western school systems. She also attacks fanfiction authors that depict Japanese characters speaking in colloquial English. I think it's very sad that Levi feels cultural accuracy is more important than characterization and narrative. While I haven't read much fanfiction myself, I can say for sure that cultural accuracy would be in the back of my mind at best. The main bulk of Levi's attack was against Inuyasha fanfiction writers. Inuyasha is one of the few anime/manga series' that I'm familiar with, and I found Levi's attack insulting. First of all, her argument that the fanfiction depiction of the characters in Inuyasha speaking in colloquial English is wrong is, itself, a hypocrisy. Though Inuyasha takes place during Japan's "feudal" era, the characters themselves speak using modern Japanese, not the Japanese of the Warring States period. The series itself is historically inaccurate. What, then, is the problem with historically inaccurate fanfiction? Inuyasha fanfiction written by Westerners is more like a translation of a translation of Japan's history. Furthermore, a single-minded concern for cultural accuracy undermines the series' content. It's not important whether or not a "hanyou" (half-demon) such as Inuyasha would have existed during the feudal era, what's important is the very human struggle for identity that he faces. Good fanfiction uses these narratives to explore very human issues, not to debate whether or not it's historically accurate that Miroku knows how to ride a bicycle, despite having never seen one before.

Perhaps some of my irritation stems from the fact that, although I've hardly ever read any fanfiction, I did wind up writing some fanfiction back in high school. Writing fanfiction was a way for me to unleash my pent up literary frustrations. If the exasperatingly long blog posts that I write are any indication, my mind constantly suffers from an explosive overflow of words. Fanfiction was a way for me to explore interesting issues while releasing some of my narrative steam. My fanfiction topic of choice was, for whatever reason, the video game Final Fantasy IX. That game was, like all Final Fantasy games, born and raised in Japan. Now, Levi claims in her article that, if one is to write fanfiction about something from Japan, they should take its Japanese background into account. I did no such thing when writing about Final Fantasy IX. Why? Because Final Fantasy IX does not, itself, refer to Japan. Final Fantasy IX is, as my manga professor would put it, "culturally odorless." A world ruled by queens and regents, populated by things such as rat people and sorcerers, and a world which fears a takeover by an alien planet, has little place in a Japanese cultural context. Characters do not interact in any inherently "Japanese" way. My concern was with the very human struggles of the characters, not the birthplace of their manufacturers. Interestingly enough, if one wished to engage me in a conversation on the topic, I've always believed that certain aspects of Final Fantasy IX contained allusions to World War II. However, such an awareness of the game creators' cultural background only enriches the story, and is not required to enjoy it or understand its overarching message. It's also not necessary knowledge for writing good Final Fantasy IX fanfiction.

My other beef with Levi's article is her term "real Japan." Pardon me, Ms. Levi, but what exactly is "real" Japan? I would love to be enlightened about this supposed place. Are Japanese people eating ramen in a ramen shop "real Japan"? Are Japanese tourists at Asakusa "real Japan"? Is Visual-kei "real Japan"? Sushi chefs? Gothic lolitas?

I beg your pardon for constantly falling back upon JRock to explain myself, but it's the topic I know best. This idea of "real Japan" has always irritated me. Dir en grey, once again, will serve as my example. When Dir en grey was "visual-kei", no one ever seemed to hold a doubt that they were a "Japanese band." When Dir en grey dropped visual-kei, they were suddenly accused repeatedly of being "Americanized." So riddle me this: why is the Kyo who wears white-out contacts and fishnet across his face considered more "Japanese" than the Kyo who wears jeans and sunglasses? Is either of these styles "Japanese"? Is either "American"?

Looking at this issue more generally... is the Japanese perspective of America "accurate"? What if I were to say this: it's wrong that the McDonald's chain in Japan serves shrimp burgers because it displays a misunderstanding of American fast food culture. Am I wrong? Is it any different?

Someone please tell me what this "real Japan" is! I was in Japan for a year and I saw so many people, places, and things, and any of it could have been "real Japan." What about the young woman I dubbed "Nesting Girl" in my concert reports? She was known for nesting in the coats of strangers, wearing men's clothing, tackling people, and chasing cars while waving rice balls in the air. Was Nesting Girl "real Japan"? Is she any more "Japanese" than a geisha serving tea to a foreign ambassador? Isn't "real Japan" just a matter of perspective? I mostly saw Japan through the eyes of a live house. The Japan that I saw consisted of young women tackling each other while men on stage wore make up and screamed into a microphone. Was this not a part of the "real Japan"?

There's nothing wrong with acknowledging and even embracing cultural differences. They're there and they're key for human beings to understand one another. But to focus on them exclusively is to undermine the humanity that we all share. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging a "them" and an "us", but we must also acknowledge a "we." If we were to generalize, we could say that Americans value this or Japanese value that but, in the end, don't we all feel suffering and happiness the same?

I may be a Japanese major, a female, an American, and whatever else you want to label me. However, I am first-and-foremost a human. Everything else comes after that.

As always, comments are welcome! Agree with me? Disagree with me? None of the above? I'd love to hear feedback!


  1. As a fellow Japanese major you wrote what's on my mind on this topic. Thank you and you're so completely right!

    I haven't read this particular article from Levi, unfortunately, so I can't answer directly.

    But it sure is irritating that anime or Jrock should be enjoyed in a "japanese" way just because it comes from Japan. What's with that? We are not Japanese, period. As fandom spreads and fans adapt the things they like into stories, it is natural they'd do this linking it to their own experiences and their own background. Are all fans supposed to have a doctors degree in Japanese studies first before writing their fantasies down? That's obviously nonsense. It's a natural thing that things are going to be altered or, should I say, supplemented by different views and elements once they cross national borders.

    I, too, think that, taking up the all time favorite dir en grey as example, that I like them because of their music. Surely, this is not disconnected with their Japanese background, as somehow it was that time and place, when visual kei came into being. But all you said about their "americanization" issue is defninitely correct, it is not the "Japaneseness" that mesmerizes fans, but their universaly appealing music + that bit of exotizm, that may have made ppl into fans first.

    Still, that part is unique to every band from any country or any author of a work like an anime. And this uniqueness is not to be reproduced by fans anyway, since they are not that particular band/anime.
    Closing my argument and coming back to what I said above, fans will write their fanfictions etc. based on "their own uniqueness", as they are German/American/blond/tall/skinny oder whatever, and naturally depart from the character of the band/story.
    And what's wrong with that?

    SAorry for my long comment, but it sure is bothersome...

  2. Thank you for your opinion! As a fellow major in japanese studies, you speak what's on my mind.
    Unfortunately your blog just ate my comment, so it's gonna be shorter now.^^
    I haven't had a chance yet to read this article of Levi? (Is is accessible somewhere?)But I'd like to state my general thoughts.

    My opinion is that all autors, whether its mangaka, bands or anime producers, have their "uniqueness". This stems from who they are, and surely this links back to where they come from and in what time and place they work.

    Dir en grey, to take up the favorite example, are unique as most bands are somewhere. But it is a reversal of the truth saying that we love them because they are Japanese. As you said, we love them for their music, and their japanese origin (and the initial visual kei) are exotic factors, that may of course have sparks additional interest. Surely, many will agree that they like dir en grey's Japanese looks or manners or the way they do things different from american/european bands. But for most fans this is the "plus", and not the original reason for liking them.

    So, what are fans who dir en grey or anime to do? Get a doctors degree in Japanese studies first, before joining the fandom? What nonsense! We're not Japanese, nor will we be, nor should we want to be. It's the most natural occurence in this world, that things are going to be altered, or should I say, supplemented by things new and different, once they cross national borders. Of course fans will use their own experiences and backrounds as they write fanfictions and such. What elose could they possibly be doing? Any try to be "japanese" or take the japanese backround into account can only be a far cry from the authors original intention anyhow. Mark that I say author, and not "real Japan". (What the hell's that supposed to be?) Are fans supposed to be imitators? Holding up some unspoken sacred ideal of their object of liking? Nonsense, fans create as they wish to express ideas, and whatever they create will change a story anyway, things "japanese" included or not. Anyway, what's with the Japanese fanfictions? Are their writers going to be reproached as well if their writing is not "japanese" enough?

  3. So sorry for the double post. I got an error message, so I thought the first one was eaten. O_o WQell, I'll leave it like that now, hoefully you can make some sense out of those two post... Sorry.

  4. Hey, thanks for you comments, xfranczeskax! I don't mind the double post, it just let me hear more of your thoughts! I agree with everything you said. There may be an exoticism to something like Dir en grey, but it is always a "bonus", as you said, and never the main reason. It's just unfortunate that full-blown Japanophiles who can only stress the differences in our cultures often make Japanese majors look bad.

    Again, thank you very much for your comments!

  5. Well, I'm not American or Japanese. I'm Asian, though. To some extend, I don't mind westernization.

    I wrote Japanese historical fanfiction in the past. Before I wrote the fic, I did several research about the figures, castles, location, and terminology. I tried to make it as accurate as possible. But my goal there was to twist the history, instead of rewriting it. That's why it's called a fiction.

    When other author's fanfic is not so accurate, I also usually don't mind. I read fic just for fun and I know they write just for fun also.

    Dir en grey's case is really interesting. Honestly, I'm really annoyed when people said, "We listen Japanese Band for Jrock. If we want western rock, we will listen to American band."

    I don't get the logic here. So, basically they are saying a band is not allowed to do what they like simply because they're not American/European? It's the same as limitting them as an artist! Basically, they're telling the band to make something that the consumers want instead of what they want.

    While I agree that Withering to Death and The Marrow of a Bone are lack of originality, I have to argue when old fans saying that's not the real Diru. To say that they westernize their sound to get more profit is really offensive. Changing genre is very dangerous for a musician, that's why most musicians would rather stay in their comfort zone!

    I agree with you. I'm not listening to Diru because they're Japanese. I'm a new Diru's fan even though I have known them for years. In fact, I hated Visual Kei! I would never give VK bands a try! @_@

    But last year, I found them on top of sputnikmusic 2008 rock chart. I was like... "WTF?! Isn't that that VK band?!". After that, I gave them a listen and the rest is history... (My first song Diru's song is Kodou. At first, I prefer Withering to that to their VK era albums...)