Animated: love Japanese anime, but don’t make a fetish of Asian people

(Michael Castellanos | Daily Trojan)

Subjectively, Japanese anime is great. I like Japanese anime. Ever since I was young, I loved going to the manga sections of the local library to read the latest editions of manga and watch the accompanying anime, such as “Maid Sama!” I was absolutely fascinated by this visual way of storytelling, especially because there was also a cultural specificity around many of the characters and plots.

I appreciated seeing East Asian classrooms in anime as it reminded me of my own educational exchange program experience in Taiwan. Whenever I saw these animated images of Japanese food, I felt like I was back in my predominantly Asian-American community in the Bay Area, where Asian restaurants are not a rarity, but a prominence in my neighborhood. Seeing Japanese food reminded me of Taiwan as a whole where the majority of my extended family lives.

Taiwan has been under Japanese colonization and has been fundamentally influenced by this period in the island’s history. It was common to see an abundance of Japanese food with Taiwanese twists during my summer vacations. My grandfather speaks a little Japanese. While I could talk about the complex legacies of the colonization between Taiwan and Japan, I want to bring up that a visit to Taiwan contributed to my relationship with anime, which has established itself as a dominant cultural force in Taiwan.

It was because of that global perspective that watching anime in the United States reminded me of Taiwan. But while my Asian-American peers and I appreciated anime for its positive cultural connotations for identity, it was also hard not to notice how anime was being appropriated.

People often confused a love for anime with a desire to appropriate Japanese identity. While I loved anime, I don’t think there was ever a time when I would claim I wasn’t Chinese or lie about my ethnicity. Nevertheless, it was common to be called the “weeaboo” label, albeit in jest.

According to Dictionary.com, a “weeaboo” is defined as “a Western person who is obsessed with Japanese culture and often considers it superior to all other cultures.” However, Computer Hope takes a broader approach to the definition of the term, applying it to “fans of Japanese anime cartoons or manga comics.” This definition includes all non-Japanese people who are invested in Japanese anime and manga.

With anime having enormous cultural weight in the world – according to Solomon Pace-McCarrick of E-International Relations – anime has raised awareness of Japan and Japanese culture. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, nor should anime aficionados be labeled in a derogatory way right away.

In fact, if anime is a means of both artistic and cultural expression, then this form of entertainment can increase the understanding of Japanese culture. Anime has become increasingly multicultural, as noted by Pace-McCarrick, and is also capable of cultivating empathy through storytelling.

Despite this, for lack of a better and less cringey descriptor, a love of anime has a dark side. Just look at Ella and Johnny on the reality TV dating show ’90 Day Fiancé’. A YouTube video focuses on this exact relationship – made by “thots n prayers”, the compilation of moments from the show is titled “asian obsession on crackkk (90 day fiance: ella & johnny).”

This video, although edited for comedic effect, features multiple real-life moments from the series as Ella, a 29-year-old white woman, openly describes her love for all things Asian and Asian people that stems from her love of anime. Her declared love for Asian people leads her to confuse Johnny, a Chinese man, with her particular love for Japanese culture, and start a relationship with him.

Throughout the video, Ella seems totally oblivious that her appreciation for Japanese culture is instead an infatuation that has contributed to racial objectification. She calls Johnny her “Asian Prince” and that her “obsession with Asian culture” is “much more than just cosplay” because she also likes Japanese anime. It’s almost laughable how serious Ella is – and how ignorant.

It is important to emphasize that the problem is not with anime. It lies with those who consume it. As with all things, there is a balance between loving and fetishizing it. It is possible to be a fan of Japanese anime without projecting it onto Asians. Still, it’s dangerous when some of the tropes present in anime, such as hypersexualization of girls, become vehicles for stereotypes about Asian women as submissive and voiceless.

For me, it has been instrumental in understanding Taiwan’s political history and the impact of that history on my Asian-American identity. For others, it has become a means of fetishizing Asian culture and objectifying Asians. What that shows is that anime is at least as complex as any other cultural medium in the world — and we should appreciate it, not appropriate it.

Valerie Wu is a senior who writes about animation and digital art from a contemporary perspective.

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