Why it's time to lighten up about "weird" Japan

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106 Responses to “Why it's time to lighten up about "weird" Japan”

  1. lolop says:

    I think Japanese culture will keep being weird for a very long time because of the difficulty the language poses for so many, this I think will keep people away from “contaminating” it some how.

    You know, things loose their novelty because people get used. And its kinda difficult if you don’t know the language. Does that makes sense?

  2. Kimmo says:

    Didn’t the term ‘weird’ lose most of its negative connotations decades ago?

    It’s virtually a term of endearment as far as I’m concerned.

    If I was to criticise Japan’s culture, I’d say that perhaps there’s still a great deal of conformity under the surface… the various genres of whatever tend to be relatively pure, from what I’ve seen.

    Keep stirring that melting pot : )

  3. David Pescovitz says:

    Lisa, This is a fantastic piece and an important one. The issues you raise in this essay, and in your coverage of “weird” Japan, are deeply complex if we pause to think about them. Meanwhile, the simple commitment to “fun” and novelty is, of course, in the DNA of happy mutants. Indeed, one of the subtitles of the original bOING bOING print zine was: “The flipside of serious culture.” Bravo. I’m proud to read this on BB.

  4. DomoDomo says:

    Can I just say I’m totally envious of you chanpon-types who can navigate two cultures so fluidly. I’ve only known two people who I would consider truly rock the chanpon style, and both of these people were cool as hell. Being able to not just interpret language but culture (which you can’t take classes for) is pretty badass.

    I’m glad you are able to share your experience with a wider audience.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I love “weird Japan.” Yes, I’m enjoying it because it seems exotic, but what makes it a lot more enjoyable than say, “weird [insert developing country here]” is that i don’t have to worry that I’m off on a “noble savage” kick that would feel racist. I know Japanese culture is at least as sophisticated and modern as mine. I enjoy being able to revel in the differences without thinking that I’m being condescending. I also like that both Japanese and American culture are quick to copy other cultures including each other, so that trends get reflected and rereflected.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for an enlightening article. I always wondered whether the Japanese were “in on their own joke” or not. Now I understand they’re not simply “weird,” they’re brilliant cultural pranksters.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Nice. A good resource to point to in the future, instead of always having to say a) it’s a big country, which increases the chances that there are a few really weird people. First ask a Japanese person whether they find whatever you see normal or not. b) Also, ask yourself whether whatever you see might actually be a joke or not.

    You could have reflected a bit more on your own role, though. As you say, you did build a career on what to some extent is catering to these reflexes.

  8. fnc says:

    I’ve had to explain to a middle aged professional that the body of “anime” isn’t just a collection of hyperbloody fantasies, but includes stories about mundane aspects of normal peoples’ lives, and also some truly great movies. He had never even heard of Miyazaki, so I told him he should see My Neighbor Totoro and remember that a country’s “culture” isn’t some monolithic thing that can be boiled down to a few bullet points.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I really appreciate this post. TBH, I’ve gotten really super tired of the Western fetishization of Japan, to the point that I’ve kind of started to dislike any mention of Japan at all. Can we talk about interesting pop culture in India or China or Iran or South Africa or Belize?

    What has bothered me so much about most of the endless Japanophelia is the unrelenting positivity of it. Yes, there’s cool weird stuff going on in Japan, but it’s also a real place with real problems. I don’t see a lot of coverage of how the strict gender roles really damage people, or the suicide rates due to stress and work culture. I don’t want to be a downer, but the overly thrilled voices of most authors of such coverage seem to portray Japan as some sort of magical fairyland of weird culture and intensely interesting goings-on where nothing bad ever happens. And, well, no.

    Similarly, a lot of the pro-Japan writings tend to really otherize and stereotype the Japanese. They’re not people, they’re Mysterious Orientals. One of the things that’s nice about your writing is that you don’t do that.

    Anyways, I appreciate your more balanced perspective here.

  10. tripperdan99 says:

    A wonderfully written article. Thank you for sharing the insight. It is a FACT that some folks take things too seriously and Just Don’t Get It.

    ~td99

  11. Anonymous says:

    The US has to judge off of unsaid cultural stereotypes and value directness and efficiency. Japanese people have a tendency to avoid conflict, which further progresses into a collective cultural empathy for people and an innate respect for true heartfelt actions (I think its called makoro). Where a Japanese person will automatically think about extenuating circumstances and reasons and further tamper it with respect for true individual passions, Americans do kind of the opposite. What happens sounds so crazy to us that its funny, but we sense the..there really is no other word for makoro than makoro. Maybe it’s just that we need one in the english language. We sense it, we find it funny, we respect it, and we’re fascinated by it because our culture snuffs it out if its not mainstream.

  12. Anonymous says:

    While I agree that Western reactions toward Japanese culture tend toward fetishization or undiscriminating criticism, I am not willing to just roll with a culture that festishizes the infantilization of women. Whether or not this is all a part of Japanese humor is irrelevant — ingrained, harmful social and cultural attitudes towards are inherently problematic and deserve scrutiny. I don’t intend to say that Western culture is superior in any way, including in its treatment of women, but I think better than a “just roll with it” approach is a respectful, educated, and open-minded combination of appreciation and criticism when regarding any culture. It’s dangerous to write off sexist attitudes as simply all part of the joke.

  13. Kyle Armbruster says:

    Lisa:

    I have lived in Japan for 10 years. I’ve lived all over the country, including rural areas. My wife is Japanese. I speak and read Japanese.

    In the time that I have been reading your posts and articles, I’ve been unsure as to what I really thought of them. On the one hand, you say “roll with it,” but on the other, you’re just contributing to the silly fetishization of your home country. And you know you’re doing it. That’s what sells, though, so it’s hard to fault you for that.

    However, as others have pointed out, these “weird” things you write about are weird over here too. As the ALT in this discussion pointed out, if you bring up any of the “common knowledge” Japanese subcultures to most Japanese people, they have no idea what you’re talking about. If you are pressed to prove it and produce something like japscat porn, they are horrified. “These people aren’t Japanese!” is a common reaction (not that these people are foreign, but that they don’t represent Japanese people). Guys with dolls can be seen on the rare occasion on the subway, but no one will sit anywhere near them because those guys are crazy.

    And this is where I feel I need to ask you to stop rolling with it. It is not racist to ask, in all seriousness, if a guy who married a DS character is mentally ill. It’s a valid question. It struck me as a great big nerd joke, but yes, if he was serious, I’d have to say he’s a nut.

    As someone who straddles the literal and figurative ocean between two cultures, you know very well the power you have to control the image of the other that your audience develops, but it seems to me that, while you’re certainly better than most, you still come down on the “isn’t Japan crazy” side of Japan reporting, and I think that’s a shame. This post, while good in spirit, in letter, seems to reinforce the idea of weird Japan, by claiming that what you report on is not weird and that we should just roll with it like people do in Japan, where they most certainly do not.

    This is an issue I face almost every day at work (I am, やっぱり, an English professor). There are many English teachers here who play the gaijin clown, acting silly and showing off weird/funny aspects of their home countries’ cultures. They are immensely popular with students. However, I absolutely refuse to pander to the students like that, not because it’s not fun (because it is), but because I believe it is doing them a disservice. If they end up studying or working in the US, I don’t want them to go through the utter shock I did when I came to Japan and found it to be technologically backward (you read that right) and almost universally mundane. I was horribly disappointed, having grown up on US Japan coverage, but ultimately discovered better and more rewarding things I had never heard of in the US, but which were commonplace here (example: karaoke is enjoyed in small, private rooms with close friends, and is therefore relaxing and fun). When I represent the US to Japanese people, I try to focus on these everyday experiences, rather than the statistical outliers. The experiences are not only more useful and more educational, but, I think, are also more fun or interesting.

    Finally, so as not to sound too scoldy, I do want to commend you on your “taste test” articles, because you typically focus on everyday Japanese food that US Americans just usually don’t know anything about. The food over here is hearty, varied, and delicious, but most of the dishes that people really eat at home everyday are unknown in the US and that is a crying shame. Shichimi should be in every American’s spice cabinet, and raw eggs and natto deserve a larger audience (especially when mixed together).

    I really encourage you to seek out more stories like that. Report on things people do every day. Write about Kano Eiko’s hilarious, hubristic turns on London Hearts. Write about Yukio Hatoyama’s policies and not his batshit-insane wife (Last week, I got a lot of response papers about Miyuki Hatoyama–for some reason a lot of them chose to read about her last week. Student opinions tended to be along the lines of “I hope people don’t think she’s normal.”). You can’t highlight tiny subcultures of your home country and then ask people to roll with it. You can roll with it because you understand the broader context. Most of your readership can’t because they don’t.

    I hope you read this. I really enjoy your writing, but I do wish you’d ponder this a bit.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I have a feeling Americans who remark on the strangeness of Japanese culture are also out of touch with their own.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I really feel that much of modern Japanese culture is in response to being seen for so many years as being far too majime (you know, the salaried overworked Japanese businessman with no life?).

    The obsession with cuteness, the infantilized sexual culture (I don’t even mean manga; even the kind of porn that Westerners can relate to generally feature women gasping in extremely high-pitched voiced, like they just finished sucking down a balloon-full of helium), all of it seems to be a self-conscious response to far too many years of not having ANY fun, of being too grown up.

    It’s the same way that American macho-ism (“I like my trucks BIG and my beers the same; and my steak, I like to kill it with my own HANDS”) is very much a response to what Americans saw as the sissification of their country due to the loss of the Vietnam war and the peace-n-love movements. I find it equally bizarre and equally false.

  16. Lt DirtyFreq says:

    *thumbs up*

  17. RisuSennin says:

    Thanks for explaining it. I do have a high curiosity about (and fascination with) Japanese culture, and I’d much rather understand its reality than gawk at it like a bumpkin at a sideshow. The idea of taking it all as if it had come with a wink feels like a perfect subtext for understanding some of the crazy stuff I see from Japan.

  18. macho says:

    Very refreshing to see this written here.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Whats werid about Japan is how BORING it is.

    The pop-culture of Japan is INCREDIBLY stagnant.

    How long have busty violent sailor-girls been parading around mangas?

    How many animes/mangas about giant fighting robots or collection adventures?

    I quit watching/reading anime when I realized how repetative it was. Yes, theres good stuff out there, but its the TINIEST fraction of whats produced.

    Look at Japanese pop-culture today, and look at it 5 years ago, how different is it? Now do it with America.

  20. Ted8305 says:

    Did someone just say “weeaboo?”

  21. Epimenides says:

    For what it’s worth, Lisa, I feel the same way about media misrepresentation of Japan.

    I got particularly sick of asking to write about weird Japan around the same time Western fanboys were working themselves into a lather about crappy J phones they knew little about.

    More here: http://post.ly/FE17

    • Epimenides says:

      Sorry — not “asking to write about…”, but “being asked to write about weird Japan…” It’s late here and it’s been a long day mining the seams of pseudo-news at the state broadcaster here, NHK…

  22. JJR1971 says:

    Rather slightly off topic, but I can acutely remember the experience of living in Germany and remembering how Germans would fetishize and seize upon the weirdest aspects of American culture and blow it up large and talk about it, and sometimes ask me about it. It was utterly predictable. Often I could only shrug and say “yeah, it’s freaking weird; I don’t understand it either.”
    or
    “There’s more to life in the USA than X (or Y or Z)…”

    No doubt I do the same thing about contemporary Japanese culture; I watch a lot of Anime, yes, but I also try to understand and respect more traditional Japanese culture.
    I only know a few words of Japanese, and I definitely cannot read it.

    I’ve gotten better at being able to pick up on the specifically Japanese cultural elements of some Anime, which sometimes adds to the humor and awkwardness.

    It’s interesting to see how the Japanese view European culture and its legends and myths through some of its Anime that uses European settings/stories.

    As an American, I have mixed feelings about the culture of pacifism the American occupation strongly enforced and reinforced in post-war Japan; Sometimes I think it’s one of the worst things we did to Japan after the war. It’s interesting to see idealistic, pacifist Anime characters bump up against the hard realities of war and injustice, and realize that doctrinaire pacifism may not be tenable.

    On a lighter note, I still profusely enjoy watching romantic comedy style Anime set in Japanese High Schools…so much of that teen coming-of-age angst is universal, hence the appeal beyond Japan’s borders.

    I remember reading about physicist Richard Feynman finally giving up on learning Japanese when he learned that even in scientific discourse, the same rules of politeness, modesty, honor, etc, of normal Japanese conversation (all rather complicated for a foreigner) still applied to scientific language as well.

  23. Gloria says:

    Great write-up, Lisa — I think this is easily my favourite of your contributions to BB. I’m looking forward to the thread this spawns.

  24. EscapingTheTrunk says:

    Thank you for sharing this with us, Lisa.

  25. benher says:

    Lisa, this article has been waiting to be written for years. I think you nailed every point eloquently.

    Thank you thank you thank you!

  26. Bat Guano says:

    I remember a restaurant designed to be like a 1940s gas station. The waitresses were dressed as mechanics, and would ask you things like, “can we top off your tank for you?” That was a weird fetish thing in Portage, Mich. Those people are bizarre!

  27. aliciainwonderland says:

    I think maybe people are having problems “lightening up” about the articles you write about wacky Japan because for example you often fail to emphasize the non serious aspects of whatever wacky situation. For example, I didn’t seem like most of the people in the comments understood the the tounge and cheek humor in Sai9000′s marriage because you didn’t present it as anything but serious until a good ways into the video and you failed to mention it in the written portion of the post.

  28. aliciainwonderland says:

    Also, you might get negative feedback because you fail to address fact-checking errors and instead blame them on “readers’ biases + issues “.

    http://www.mutantfrog.com/2009/07/27/nemutans-revenge-some-fact-checking-and-reaction-to-the-nyt-story-on-anime-fetishists/

    • Ceronomus says:

      Thanks Alcia, that link was pretty eye opening. It is one thing to read an article from someone telling us that the reaction to sensationalized news about Japanese culture is overblown…but it is another thing to read such an article from someone who seems to have been sensationalizing the materials in the first place.

      “likewise it is important for voyeurs of Japanese culture to recognize that most everything pop-culture-y that is exported to the West comes at us with a wink.”

      When something is presented as news, I rather expect it to be news, not a joke or internet hoax. Now, that said, ethnocentrism isn’t a great thing, and people making racist comments because of someone’s lifestyle choice isn’t really cool.

      Still, we’re talking about a country where used panties were sold in vending machines until at least 1993 (http://www.snopes.com/risque/kinky/panties.asp) I think that we can all agree that there are portions of the Japanese experience which are wholly alien, and possibly repugnant to outsiders…and not at all a joke.

      • grimc says:

        I think that we can all agree that there are portions of the Japanese experience which are wholly alien, and possibly repugnant to outsiders…and not at all a joke.

        As long as we can agree that it can be held true for any country. Japan has panty vending machines and guys “marrying” video game characters, the US has NAMBLA and promise ring ceremonies where daughters “wed” their virginity to their fathers.

        • Ceronomus says:

          Very true. Sadly, what the majority of media give us about Japan is the aberrations instead of the cultural norms. I mean, if I were in Japan and all I ever read about the US were things such as NAMBLA and “Reverand” Phelps, I’d think the US a country full of freaks.

          One could easily argue that the whole “Weird” Japan topic is the fault of the people reporting these things as “jokes” in the first place.

      • Anonymous says:

        Yes, because here in America we keep our used panties sales on ebay where no one can see.

    • Rob Beschizza says:

      That article is silly. It hangs a mountain of wrath — including a hysterical claim of plagiarism — on the thinnest precepts and a fishy statistic that was only tangenitally relevant to the story. It is, I think, an excellent example of the weirdness that Lisa has to put up with when writing in the U.S. about her own country.

    • Chrs says:

      Also, you might get negative feedback because you fail to address fact-checking errors and instead blame them on “readers’ biases + issues “.

      The statistical argument opening that article about virginity is horrible. Arguing about “all 30-34 year olds” with assertions about “all 30-34 year old heads of household” is ridiculously unsound. A large part of the surrounding arguments involve people of that age continuing to live with their parents, which means they will be completely ignored when calculating statistics based on “head-of-household” information. In the United States, that number is roughly 10%, sourced from the US Census Bureau, via an analysis at UPenn, for comparison. The rest of the argument is based on things he finds “hard to believe”. It’s a house built on statistical sand.

      The cultural or presentation criticisms are another issue entirely, and one that we grapple with in every aspect of the media, up to and including coverage of Japan. I have no problem criticizing that, but to be perfectly honest, presenting the extremes of a society tells you a great deal about its regular operation.

      Just try to tell me the NRA, NAMBLA, chastity rings, the WWE, the San Fernando Valley, and Williamsburg don’t each tell you something important about American culture. It takes a godawful amount of work to weave it into a coherent narrative, and it requires dozens of unique but related cultures to explain it, but I’ve been living my whole life inundated in American culture. It makes sense, in its own ridiculously confusing ways.

      Most cultures do. I do want to second an earlier comment that it’s partly due to avoiding the “noble savage” thing: I know they can handle it, and I know it’s not terribly important. Of course there’s a bunch of other boring stuff going on there, but whatever, it’s the boring stuff. The interesting stuff is a comparison between the cultures, and again, the extremes really do tell you something about the culture. Of course, then it’s getting filtered through the lens of our culture, and then you’re just into a whole new level of kaleidoscopic insanity. It’s a great ride.

  29. Anonymous says:

    I find it sad that in all the Westerner’s minds, “Japanese culture” is essentially associated with anime, video games and all the likes.

    It’s so much deeper than that, much more complex with roots in religion, history, the country’s economical development, but also much more dark.

    Most western people think Japan is a high tech country with big companies and people reading manga and playing video games- even those who pretend to be genuinely interested in the Japanese culture.
    It’s kind of depressing.

  30. Francesco Fondi says:

    @Lisa
    a couple of months ago I wrote about this very same issue in the Japanese magazine GameLabo so I really appreciate this post as some of your articles published this year made me fear you were on the “Crazy Japan” bandwagon too…

  31. Anonymous says:

    So, am I reading this right? Like Americans, many Japanese live in a haze of irony to avoid the monotonous boredom and institutionalized helplessness of their real lives? Maybe even more so?

    It’s ALL just a joke — a silly, silly joke.

    Actually, I think I understand the US better now.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Actually, fetishization of Japan/Japanese culture has been going on since when Monet was painting. You can still see that a lot of European artists were “inspired” by Japanese designs, and Japonesque(sp?) was very much in vouge at the time. Nice article.

  33. Jenn says:

    Kyle #77 and Rob #78 have really interesting points; as someone who works in a field where my chief job responsibility is to promote language study and accurate knowledge of other cultures, most of the Americans I work with (in a highly educated region) boil Japan down to technology, tea ceremony, anime, geisha, video games, and ninja. People pick those topics because they’re fascinated by them and they are the most ubiquitous things in the US media about Japan, whether in fiction or print, because not many people find diminishing rural population problems or workplace attitudes toward women as interesting as Harajuku culture or crazy TV shows. This isn’t to say one should avoid talking or writing about the fun/offbeat/wacky topics, but that a healthy dose of perspective and an explanation of their importance to normal Japanese is usually needed to contextualize them, because some people never go beyond those.

    I personally find that introducing people to some of the everyday aspects of Japanese culture in terms of entertainment and group activities that would be great fun or deserving of attention in the US if only more people knew about them in the first place; someone already pointed out box karaoke and wasabi roulette, and there’s nabe nights, nagashi soumen noodle troughs, temakizushi parties, onsen resorts, etc.

  34. Chiaki777 says:

    I beg to differ. I don’t think it’s not, not too cool to be “majime.” Rather, I don’t think Japan is fixed in whether it is “majime” or “omoshiroi.” The notion is based on a fixed perception of Japan, that the Japanese cannot be serious and wacky at the same time. We spoke of Japan as a nation of technological squares, and then moved on to calling them those wacky lovable Asians that make gundams.

    I think both sides can exist in duality. It’s a matter of where the camera is pointed. Japan is still making the humdrum corporate fare within business, and its power as the third largest economy in the world should not be ignored. It’s overshadowed though by increasing globalization.

    Instead we focus on the odds and ends of society, and that’s how we get to panty vending machines and pop idols playing ridiculous game shows.

    To point out, I think Sankaku Complex does a good job pointing out how this isn’t just a phenomenon in Japan with how crazy the rest of the world gets in their societies. The only difference between a man in Japan raping and killing a school girl and one that’s done in America is how the Japanese are shown to be “those pedos that like lolicon” while the Americans say “America is a dangerous country full of gun toting wackos.” I think it’s the same thing, just framed differently.

  35. Fiddleback says:

    Excellent post, Lisa. I only lived and worked in Japan for three years, and often fell into absorption with the “otherness” aspect of my host country. (Plus being a bit too majime, until my Japanese friends introduced me to wasabi roulette: Russian roulette with temaki sushi…who gets the giant blob of wasabi?) One thing I noticed: the fascination with “weird” aspects of other cultures on TV programs. I never saw some of the odd bits of the U.S. until they were aired on Japanese TV.

  36. j_king says:

    “Japan” has been a fetish in the west since the late 70s/early 80s if anyone here is old enough to remember.

    I took a vacation there just over a year ago. It was funny because before I left everyone was telling me wild stories about all the fantastic things I would see and do. It was all of the same tropes you would hear from wankers and fan-boys who only know the “Japan” in the media. As expected however, when I got there I was pleasantly greeted by a place and culture that was much more normal and functional than the one my friends back home idealized.

    We have rapid and abundant access to media. It dilutes our ability to think critically about our experience and place in the world. We start to think we know things about people we’ve never met and build opinions about places and cultures we’ve never been to or experienced.

    So sadly we end up with a sub-culture in America that believes Japan is a halcyon of culture that understands them — anime, flashy clothes, and rampant techno-fetishism. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. Japan is a culture with a broad range of experiences, ideals, history, and so forth. It is as undeserving of the generalization that Western media affords it as the US is undeserving of the “gun-toting war-mongering fat unintelligent slobs” stereotype. If you are one of those people that identifies with Japanese culture, I highly suggest you stop for a minute and reconsider what you think “Japanese” is. You might need to start calling it something more specific.

    Like, “weeaboo.” :p (that was tongue-in-cheek for the Internet-sarcasm-disabled).

  37. jackm says:

    I hate to “mine”, but I think I should add something here relating to perception of foreign culture.

    Under the surface of what Ms. Katayama is writing about is an tendency to assume all foreign culture is presented seriously. In many cases, this is a fair assumption.

    But it’s easy to forget how much senses of humour can differ from culture to culture. Consider the differences between British, Australian, Canadian, and American humour, and we all (more or less) speak the same language!

    Thinking another country is laughing at itself (or even worse, at foreigners) when it disseminates its culture can complicate foreign perception of that culture, especially when sources of information on what a culture is really like are limited. When the Japanese present crazy hyperbolic cartoons about schoolgirls alongside little else about the country, it’s easy for stereotypes to get distorted.

  38. t3knomanser says:

    Understanding other cultures is boring. Being entertained by other cultures is awesome. Sometimes that entails understanding, sometimes it’s improved through the lack of understanding.

    Either way: the world exists for my entertainment.

    I love watching clips from Japanese television, shaking my head and clucking, “Oh, Japan.”

    • deixamli says:

      personally, I think that the more you understand a culture, the more entertaining it gets…at whose expense are you being entertained, anyhow?

  39. Ray Maurwa says:

    I’m generally in favor of the idea that people need to “lighten up,” but isn’t communicating context part of responsible journalism?

    For example, in the NYT piece on “2-D Love,” the author states that people who have romantic relations with body pillows are part of a “thriving subculture of men and women in Japan who indulge in real relationships with imaginary characters,” and that it’s “impossible to say exactly what portion of otaku are 2-D lovers.” To me, this reads an an attempt to play up the proceedings by trying to make it look like people all over Japan are having sex with inanimate objects.

    If there’s a joke that someone needs to be in on, then the reporter has a responsibility to make sure that they are taking the appropriate steps to communicate this, not just throwing out some distorted weirdness and then trying to justify it by saying that people who raise objections to the story don’t “get it.”

  40. tokyodamage says:

    @GwonkBuckley: you nailed it about the contradictions.
    But I think talking about weird stuff from ANY country is OK if you try to explain the context and make a decent effort to help the creators develop an audience overseas. The site “global voices online” used to do a totally rad series where they’d take Japanese forum discussions about politics and society – average Japanese people exchanging opinions – and translate these discussions into English. But they had to stop doing it because nobody read it – people were too busy reading about anime or whatever.

  41. voltdofmatriculus says:

    Thanks genuinely…this is a second reprieve at a defining impasse and…..Japan is the distant jewel and now….will humanity involute and disgustipate our potentialities with a special report (occidents happen) . I see my 3rd sabbatical in Brazil honor for artistic purpose. or Japan sense of union and community….Arigo in congonhas do campo or benjamin fulford and Kanji ? HMM? we will see. GAMBARI….Valentine

  42. Anonymous says:

    great piece. it seems like the japanese are having a lot more fun than the rest of us. “But they’ve really just found creative ways to toy with amorphous concepts like love and romance that complement their own unique lives.” that is an excellent way of putting it.

  43. Tyrsfist says:

    I think that this is just an American cultural phenomenon. Any culture that isn’t the dominant culture of the mass media will always be both marginalized and portrayed in a warped sensationalistic manner.

    Is the portrayal of Japanese subcultures any different than the portrayal of D&D gamers, Furries, American anime fans, or any other non-mainstream groups?

    No.

    Anything that isn’t mainstream is, by default, “weird” and will be represented in it’s most bizarrely fringe incarnation as being proto-typical of the group as a whole.

    Many Americans believe that every young Japanese person walks around is anime or gothic lolita costumes literally all the time. Meanwhile, an equal portion of Japanese people believe that all Americans wear cowboy hats, snake-skin boots, and a gun belt with a pair of six guns on them.

    This is because that’s how the Media presents things to the masses, while claiming it’s all fact.

    Satire should be presented AS satire, not as factual accounts of real events.

  44. blueelm says:

    I think you just summarized my fetish for things Japanese. I’m aware that real Japanese life is beneath that surface, and also something I can’t ever really be a part of. I don’t know what it is to really be Japanese and I don’t mind that. But for whatever reason Japanese people have created this crazy fun exterior culture that’s enjoyable to experience. So I don’t know, I guess I just take what they give me and understand there’s an element I probably won’t understand :P If nothing else they give us a window as to how crazy American culture looks if you’re not born in it too.

  45. Anonymous says:

    Japanese culture is not “abstract art”; a man marrying a video game character or suggesting that “2D women” are just as good as “3D women” isn’t quirky, it’s nihilistic, dangerous, and pathetic. That’s not the judgment of an American upon a Japanese; that’s the judgment of a human being upon another human being, for their own sake. Maybe I don’t “get the joke”, but I’m pretty sure the Japanese aren’t so hip they’re inhuman. I’m also blown away by the irony of someone suggesting we should stop fetishizing Japan by “lightening up”, which seems to imply we should forever withhold judgment on such acts — and which, of course, would only further elevate and fetishize Japanese culture in our eyes. I don’t think you’ll reconcile your twin cultures by rendering one immune to the criticisms of the other, Ms. Katayama.

  46. Ernunnos says:

    But they’ve really just found creative ways to toy with amorphous concepts like love and romance that complement their own unique lives.

    How precious. Is there anything you couldn’t apply this to?

    “Y cll m chckn-fckr lk t’s bd thng. Why, ‘v jst fnd crtv wy t ty wth mrphs cncpts lk lv nd rmnc tht cmplmnts my wn nq lf!”

  47. ElJefe says:

    Thank you for the *excellent* article. I’ve not read your work before, but I’ll surely be watching for it now.

    For years, I’ve suspected that some expat journalists in Japan — knowing that very few people will have both the interest and language skill to fact-check — simply write fantastic fiction to sell to their foreign publishers.

  48. Nawel says:

    “Why do so many love to gawk at this mysterious, foreign “other” that is Japanese culture? There are plenty of strange things going on in the US too, but when it happens in Japan, it’s suddenly incomprehensible, despicable, awesome, and crazy.”

    I agree with that. There’s so many weird stuff going on at the US at any given time… Take those anti gay baptists freaks for example… Anyway, I guess is easier to see the “weird” in others than in ourselves.

    cheers, nice article.

  49. Ben Terry says:

    But taking it seriously is part of the fun. “Please explain the joke, that would be responsible” really kills the magic. It is more fun to pretend we are all smart enough to get it, or open enough to not care.

    P.S. People at GWAR shows were not really sacrificing themselves to the World Maggot. The Church of the Sub-Genius is totally legit though. Obviously.

  50. Anonymous says:

    Great entry! You said and clarified it better than anyone else! I seriously can’t stand these blatant, insensitive remarks from folks when it comes to topics/trends/events from Asia. It’s unfortunate how these comments reflect the being of the American society.

  51. Anonymous says:

    So are you saying, “Lighten up, Francis”?

  52. Anonymous says:

    Japanese culture strikes me as odd for two reasons mainly. One it strikes me as organized wierdness (districts in Tokyo dedicated to some subculture, magazines dictating the latest bizarre fad, hentai, etc). The second is that it takes something relatively familiar to an urban westener (goths, comics, etc) and exaggerate it to a great degree.

    Maybe it stems from…
    - Being an insular island based society

    - A foundation of extreme seriousness (e.g. bushido) which demands some form of relief.

    - A desire to avoid feelings of unaddressed guilt from WWII. “How can we be the people who committed so many atrocities when we love Hello Kitty?”

    Germany has addressed its role in WWII and so doesn’t have this kind of guilt, instead it punishes itself by liking David Hasselhoff.

    - A culture based on the group instead of the individual so fads tend be organized with magazines, businesses, etc.

    - Social isolation stemming from excessive emotional restraint.

  53. Adam Stanhope says:

    I made a comment on the first of the two posts about the guy who married his Nintendo DS game girlfriend.

    I asked in all sincerity if he was mentally ill. Lisa had apparently met the guy – I thought it was a valid question.

    Depending on how that question was answered, I might have a different response. Indeed, if the guy was serious about falling in love with his video game character and marrying it, then I would feel sad for him. If he was fooling around, then I would laugh with him at the funny idea.

    Neither of these reactions would have anything to do with the fact that he or Nintendo or the author of the post (Lisa) was Japanese.

    Several people scolded me in that thread for asking whether or not he was mentally ill. I was bewildered by that response and still don’t understand it.

    If someone wrote a short story about somebody who was so lonely that they married an imaginary character in a video game, the reader would likely feel pity for that character.

    AFTER I asked if he was mentally ill, I saw the video from the marriage which made it quite clear that the guy was just having fun. It was a piece of performance art that a number of people were able to participate in, like the officiating priest, his best-man, the maid-of-honor, etc.

    Jokes about Japan and nukes and/or one-inch dicks, etc. represent gross bigotry and the people making them are likely capable of pulling similar jokes out of their ass regardless of the subject matter at hand.

    The people making those kind of jokes are not the same as the people who empathize with somebody so lonely that he/she is driven to madness.

    Big difference.

  54. Dav says:

    I love weird Japan. I also love weird America. Maybe another interesting question is why doesn’t Weird America sell so well? I live in San Francisco and I’ve seen plenty of freaky things here that could compete with the Japanese.

    • manaroundtheworld says:

      Weird America still is alive and well and sells. But it has been around on the world consciousness a lot longer than the Weird Japan. Everyone on the planet has been there, done that, in some form or fashion. Now it is Japan’s turn as the hot focus. Like someone else said, people will eventually get used to it all and move on to something else. Imagine Weird Russia?
      As a porn connoiseur, I like American and Japanese porn in all it’s weirdness. Though I admit to not understanding a lot of the nuances of Japanese porn, not being of the culture or speaking the language. I like the different ideas and approaches to porn themes, and reimagining of themes that I’ve seen before.

  55. pentomino says:

    Would “Heart Attack Grill” count as a fetish restaurant? My local outlet mall used to have an Alcatraz bar and grill, but nobody chased anyone around. Also, the Rocky Horror Picture Show plays in most major cities in the US and several around the world, with a full local cast re-enacting the movie, and the audience shouting back at the screen and the actors alike, and I personally have shown up to every show since Halloween wearing Mario overalls and a Pac-Man hat, seriously considering telling people I’m some kind of 8-bit otherkin, though I’m not really good enough at role-playing to pull it off. So the “weird Japanese” stuff doesn’t strike me as exclusively Japanese.

    The guy who married the Nintendo DS character probably rings as more “pathetic” than “joke” because our cultural radar has been thrown off by some other things that have crept in, not from the jokey fetish culture, but from media stories outlining social problems that Americans consider to be unique to Japan, or perhaps not so common in the US, or at least not something the US media reports about its own citizens. Every so often, a story surfaces on a news site about how sexless the marriages and relationships in Japan are, or you hear the word “hikkomori” referring to people who never leave the house, ever ever, or stories about the battle between Japanese women and the men who grope them on trains. There are serious issues and trends and problems in Japan, although we forget free cultures respond to these things with satire.

    I need only point to the Onion. Its stories have been picked up as real stories by news aggregators, illustrating how difficult it can be to tell satire from reality, especially from the perspective of another culture. But, a few of its stories started out as satire, but ended up as prophecies, like the five-blade safety razor, and the Bush administration. And though these examples pull my main thesis in different direction, they both illustrate that the ambiguity makes it even funnier.

  56. Touch Ohana says:

    “There are plenty of strange things going on in the US too,” but we Americans would rather not hear about them and our mainstream media cover almost nothing they can’t spin into a familiar category. The majority of Americans do not have passports, do not read much and do not cross social barriers. Different is dissonant, disturbing and dangerous unless it can be wrapped in a category such as “foreign” or “fictional”.

    The categories “Japanese” and “science fiction” are especially convenient as “everyone” knows that both are “inscrutable” in a harmless silly way. These labels allow us to portray exotic thought and behavior which we pretend does not exist here and now.

    _Touch

  57. jccalhoun says:

    It seems like the crazy weird Japanese stuff we see in the USA tends to be the extreme stuff. The boring normal stuff isn’t going to get picked up on and passed around online. A couple of years ago I spent a week in Tokyo for a conference and didn’t get challenged to a drift race, get attacked by the yakuza, or any of the cool stuff that movies say happens when you go there. All in all it was fairly normal. There were differences like language, food, driving on the other side of the road, and things like that but weirdest thing for me was constantly accidentally wandering into the porn sections of the dvd stores in Akihabara.

    • mkoji says:

      Thank you, yeah I think people assume Tokyo is this cartoon world of harajuku girls and insane robots flying around everywhere… but it is in reality kind of peaceful, quiet, and at times rather mundane!

  58. Anonymous says:

    Nihonjinron anyone?

  59. damageman says:

    Lisa chan

    You are so on the spot with this post and at the same time way off base. I am an America and I have been living here in the Tokyo area for the last 4years and I speak read and write Japanese.

    Here is where you are right: westerner need to get over this whole fetish with japan. Yes there are some strange subcultures in japan but nothing more extreme then in america.

    Here is where your wrong, Japanese people don’t think these weridos are anything more then freaking weridos. Everyone in japan thinks the guy who married his DS is a wack job! They are just to nice to say it. It is just not nice to be rude and write nasty things. Americans on the otherhand are totally rude say what they feel. So the coments are part of our sense of humor and our culture. It’s not funny to be an a-hole in japan (except beat Takeshi) but in America it is almost always fun and funny to attack people over what they do.

    Japanese people are just to nice to say but they are all thinking it! All of them! If you ask a salaryman what he thinks about gals he will tell you he thinks they are silly or if you ask a young OL what she thinks about akiba types she will say she is grossed out by them.

    お米人=前向き、積極的な意地悪

    日本人=裏からくる、消極的な意地悪

  60. Gloria says:

    Uh, wow, I guess I was wrong. Turns out this write-up brings out the inflammatory rhetoric and crazies. Chicken-fucking? Yes, very classy.

  61. Anonymous says:

    Testify, reverend. Lived in Japan for a bit, love it dearly, and have a hard time getting past the “Japan is crazy” stereotype everyone assumes.

    Fact: almost none of the kids where I taught (a school an hour outside of Tokyo) had computers.
    Fact: all the school computers were on Windows Me, and almost nobody knew how to use them.
    Fact: most of the weird goings-on that I thought were commonplace in Japan, nobody had ever heard of.

  62. Rob Beschizza says:

    Honestly, Kyle, that comment is USDA prime-cut condescension.

    That a westerner living in Japan might explain to a Japanese person truths about their own culture is interesting. But in telling Lisa what she should be writing about, and judging her work on the basis of the assumed reactions of hypothetical audiences, you don’t actually say anything salient about the responsibilities of one who “straddles” cultures. Rather, it draws an image — accurate or not — of whatever psychic cultural periphery you inhabit, ever-nervous about appearances.

    Your request boils down to this: that Lisa should not write as she does about the specifics of Japan that interest her, becuase people she doesn’t care about may interpret her work in ways that reinforce their negative images of Japan.

    But this reflects your anxieties, not hers. The only result of this kind of thinking is that Lisa can’t write frankly about her subjects without endless distractions posed by those demanding she see her own world through their eyes.

    The most striking thing with the 2D girl story, for me, was how strongly the critics felt compelled to define and label the subcultural subjects as abberant. But of *course* they are–unusual experience drives human interest reporting. One doesn’t judge, or fog every feature with context, because to do so ultimately compromises journalistic objectivity and distance. There’s always a bigger (and more boring) “real story” that someone wants communicated, instead of the story at hand.

    You say she “can’t highlight tiny subcultures of your home country and then ask people to roll with it,” because some readers won’t understand the context.

    It’s not her job to educate them. Learning to deal with those people is your problem, not hers.

  63. Kludgegrrl says:

    Well said Lisa, it’s a smart topic that merits some thought.

    Perhaps it is the Japanese attention to detail and pride in craft that leads to some of the Western reaction. If one is going to do something (have a fantasy hotel, cosplay, do computer case mods, whatever) I think that Japanese culture encourages a more whole-hearted, perhaps even perfectionist, approach. Usually the things that are gawked at are not particularly alien to the West, but they are carried to another level in Japan.

    Just a thought.

  64. zapgunner says:

    Political correctness taken too far. As usual. Once again the attempt to explain why something should not be considered weird only pushes it further outside the bubble of other peoples’ experience. Lighten up and allow some things to remain just plain weird.

  65. Anonymous says:

    I find most of the excitement about weird Japan to be sensationalist and eye roll inducing. However, if there’s any country that has this kind of attention coming, it’s Japan. So much of the television content there is based on ogling the freaky foreigners and their goofy ways. That is, when there’s not a cooking show, celebrity show, celebrity-cooking show, or cooking-celebrity show already scheduled. There were a lot of things I loved about living in Japan, the bs about wacky foreigners wasn’t one of them.

  66. MadRat says:

    I kind of figured it was something like this. I used to watch commercials on the TV In Japan blog and at first I thought they were really bizarre. But when you stop and think about it, American TV commercials are just as strange. I realized they were pretty much the same when put in the context of advertisers being weird and silly to get the viewer attention.

    I always figured that the weirdness in Japan was a side effect of a culture with a dominating code of conduct. People need a release so they get a little nuts once in a while just to let off steam.

  67. Maggie Koerth-Baker says:

    Great article, Lisa.

    It’s important to remember sometimes that racism isn’t just something you do when you’re burning a cross on somebody’s lawn. It’s also something you can do when you think you’re “respecting” another culture. The question is, do you treat those people like people, or like some sort of magical/wacky/inscrutable Other.

    Nolite te weeaboos carborundum.

    • mkoji says:

      exactly- I get so upset when people try to tip toe around cultural things they are offended by, such like Japan’s unapologetic racist ignorance towards anyone not like themselves, just because they think it’s an exotic and therefore “better” culture. Maintaining the status quo because you don’t want to upset anyone isn’t going to bring about progress in Japan, and it certainly won’t help women increase their status to above ‘housewife.’ or ‘office lady.’

  68. Anonymous says:

    A friend of mine was trying to convince me of a view similar to this in that a friend of hers watches porn based on sailor mercury. To me it seems cut and dried in that it’s child pornography. But my friend seems to believe that because I don’t understand thr whole japanese thing that I am over reacting. I dunno.Any thoughts on that?

  69. Anonymous says:

    I really enjoyed your article.

  70. quinn says:

    I really don’t see how the country that made Lady Gaga has any room to speak.

  71. Anonymous says:

    xenophilia

  72. Rick. says:

    Can’t weird just be weird? Does it have to be racist?

  73. Ray Maurwa says:

    “The question is, do you treat those people like people, or like some sort of magical/wacky/inscrutable Other.”

    But that’s what many of these “weird Japan” articles do. We hardly get any news about Japan in the mainstream media, and when we do it’s often oddities like these. People get lost and instead become ciphers onto which we (Westerners) can project our fantasies. And, interestingly, the “Japanese popular culture is like abstract art” comparison in the article seems to be indulgent, if not encouraging, of such behavior.

    • Gloria says:

      “We hardly get any news about Japan in the mainstream media, and when we do it’s often oddities like these.”

      Hm. I’ve had no trouble getting perfectly normal and bland news about Japanese politics and economics from BBC News and the New York Times (tip: Click on the “International” section). Not that these sources don’t have their share of sensationalism, but perhaps readers should be proactive.

      Doesn’t it make sense that ordinary stories about other nations wouldn’t make the front page of our news (I’m being simple here, with “our” meaning North American) barring obvious cultural interest or political significance? After all, I’m sure that in Japan, only the strangest or most momentous news about America makes the top items of the day.

    • blueelm says:

      “We hardly get any news about Japan in the mainstream media”

      We hardly get any *news* in the mainstream media. There are serious stories out there about Japan, you just have to dig for them the way you do with other things. Anyone who honestly believes that Japanese culture = panty vending machines is being just as willfully ignorant as some one who believes that America = Fried Hamburgers.

  74. arikol says:

    What I truly admire about Japanese culture is how it seems to adapt amazingly to any changes, incorporating all influences into the culture, while still retaining something uniquely Japanese.
    And being able to be serious, yet not TOO serious.
    This is truly what has let Japan become a world leader after suffering terribly in the second world war.
    Simple, just re-invent the country.. Well, it LOOKS simple when looking back through the last sixty years. The actual DOING may have been a little more complex. Forward thinking and courage.

    And somebody mentioned vending machines with dirty panties. Is there any fetish you can think of which is more harmless? Whacking off over tentacle porn.. whatever. I’ve seen worse things come out of UK, USA, Germany and other countries. Max Hardcore springs to mind although that is not close to the most perverse, yet legal stuff on the market. That’s in OUR culture.

    Of course it’s always fun to watch and laugh when we see something that seems quite alien to our sensibilities and/or a complete perversion of something which has come from our own culture. It’s fun to point and laugh.. not very PC but fun ;)

  75. Anonymous says:

    You know, I thought a lot of the treatment of Sal9000 was pretty heavy-handed myself. It felt like it was written for the American audience to jeer and bellow at, when I immediately figured that he was a long time VIPPER having a good bunch of laughs with his anonymous pals. And it’s not isolated, either. Even when you compare the comments on a NicoDou video with the Youtube post of the same, it’s like night and day (where night is the fun one). So I’m glad to see this writeup that calls out all the people that never bothered to try getting it; I was tired of this trend years ago. Thank you.

  76. marco antonio says:

    What i love about Japan (or rather, Tokyo) is the fusion of past and future in a single frame in a westernized and yet incredibly alien way. As a creative, I find it immensely inspirational.

    Japanese packaging, graphic design, furniture design, architecture, etc. offer fresh, clever perspectives to old problems. Where today’s so-called innovations are just a ‘bigger, better’ version of an existing concept, Japanese artifacts can be quite unique.

    As for the weird and wacky: I find Japan to be level with the US. To USA foreigns, the label ‘Only in America…’ holds true. Liposuction for pets? Sex with cars? Niche porn of smoking, gun-toting women? Supersize *everything*? – only in America.

    That’s just my 5 cents. :)

  77. Obviously says:

    So if I was Japanese would you be telling me to accept something like furries as a normal, subtle and nuanced part of everyday culture in the United States? Would it be racist against Westerners to find a predominantly Western subculture odd if I’m not a Westerner?

    People who do strange things are treated strangely. That doesn’t mean those things are wrong or harmful but it seems to be a gross misrepresentation of Japan or any nation for that matter to say that the the oddities there aren’t seen by their majority as just as odd.

    It’s just like when Europeans stereotype all Americans as mouth-breathing tea-baggers because of how the media represents and sensationalizes things.

    • Rob Beschizza says:

      I think the point is that you shouldn’t take furries any more or less seriously than Americans do. That said, I suspect that the furry subculture contains some particular characteristics which make it not quite comparable to Japanese otaku sorts like Nisan. There seems to be a lot of internal rancor and bitterness of the “burned fur” variety.

  78. CANTFIGHTTHEDITE says:

    The thing about Japan that I never quite understand is the awesome weird stuff it produces while coming across as being more (sexually) repressed than North America. Is the weirdness proportional to the repressiveness, or is it a completely different phenomenom?

    Also, my thanks to Japan for always reassuring me that fighting robots are awesome! You’ve always been there for me.

  79. Obedia Spittle says:

    I posted this anonymously but was to curious to get a response. My frend says I just don’t understand Japan because I think that Pornography based on Sailor Mercury is pretty much child porn. Am I that far out of touch? Is there something I am missing?

    • Rob Beschizza says:

      Sure, there’s something nasty about that that can be reasonably judged poorly without that being intolerant or enthnocentric . But it’s not quite the same as child porn, as there is no child being exploited.

  80. Jonathan Badger says:

    I think what makes Japanese culture so fascinating to outsiders is that its difference from the Western standard isn’t rooted in poverty, the way, say Indian and Chinese culture is. South Korea is another example of a prosperous non-Western culture and while not as popular as Japanese stuff, South Korean movies and comics are gaining a fanbase in the West.

  81. Obedia Spittle says:

    DOH…. Sorry about the multi posts. Mea Cupa

  82. Anonymous says:

    “On the outside, guys like Sal9000 (the guy who married his DS girlfriend) and Nisan (the guy with the body pillow girlfriend) may seem “weird” or “crazy.” But they’ve really just found creative ways to toy with amorphous concepts like love and romance that complement their own unique lives.”

    I’m sorry, but if I recall the story about Nisan correctly, this is a wee bit of a whitewash. He himself noted that he was unlikely to be able to find a real girl while he was carrying around a pillow girl, and it was clear to me that he’d really rather have a real girlfriend.

    Yeah, he might have found a way to cope with loneliness, but it certainly doesn’t sound like it’s all just a happy jokey game for him. It sounds more like he’s anesthetizing himself to escape from his genuine (social? economic? psychological?) problems, enabled by his subcultural peers and the commercial ventures that pander to them.

  83. Anonymous says:

    Yeah… Of course you don’t hear about Joe Kunisaki who does ordinary, largely uninteresting things all day half a planet away. When you hear about Japan all you ever really hear about is the really weird stuff because that’s what people want to hear about.

    People seem to mistake tolerance for acceptance. It’s not that the Japanese consider these bizarre things “normal”, it’s just that they don’t have the unfortunate western tendency to get all upset when someone does something strange, even if it’s harmless.
    There are a heck of a lot of Japanese people who don’t marry game characters/get off to bizarre fetish porn/etc. The people and rituals that make headlines across the world are usually going to be the exception, not the rule.

    Heck, I bet if western culture were as tolerant of others, we’d have just as many “weirdos”. Here, just being homosexual is enough to make some people think you’re evil. The people actually crazy enough to want to do these things here are too afraid of the social backlash. In a lot of other cultures people realize that they have no reason to care what some random person gets off to.

    +1 for “Japanalysis”.

  84. Anonymous says:

    Actually, both Japanese and American sailor uniforms are derived from British uniforms.

    That said, I agree that there is definitely a fetishization of Japanese culture which hampers some people from viewing it as equally meaningful or valid compared to others.

  85. Anonymous says:

    Good article. I lived in Japan for just a short while and found … like mentioned in the article … that the culture was very familiar while also being absolutely strange at the same time. I also remember seeing a lot of TV programs about “weird” stuff in countries other than Japan. So the infatuation with the “weirdness of others” goes both ways. I think with America it just happens to be Japan’s turn. We’ve had obsessions with other cultures before Japan and eventually we’ll grow tired and move on to another.

  86. Anonymous says:

    Japan is AWESOME.

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