An Entirely Too Complicated Discussion About Race and Picrew

I’ve been a very vocal supporter of representation in media.I’ve paneled on the importance of having one’s skin color, religion, orientation and more represented in the media they consume be it comics, movies, television and more. But when I’ve had these conversations, I’m always quick to say that we demand representation in Western media and to many, I give Asian media a pass. There are indeed methods to my madness; Japan is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries on Earth. For many of the religions that are minorities in the United States, they are minorities in Asia (hence the fetishization of Catholics and Catholicism in anime and manga). And, to be very real here, most of Asia still has incredibly conservative and strict views about homosexuality, transgender rights and more. It’s one of the reasons why yaoi is so odd as far as “representing” queer people since it’s mostly coming from a place that has strict sodomy laws and continues to fetishize and trivialize the lives of gay men.

To summarize, I just can’t hold manga and anime to the same standard I hold American media as far as representation goes. There is no excuse for an American comic book movie to have no black people in it. There is no excuse for a television show to not have queer people in it. There is no excuse for an American book to feature protagonists and characters of different body types, races and religions. I can’t ask Japan to represent me: a small black Catholic queer.

Picrew is an avatar creation generator that is Japanese and is incredibly popular. I started noticing these elaborate avatars being made by people and noticing variations on the same format. In fact, there’s a very famous Picrew template that features pride flags and has a huge variety of skin tones, pride flags and colors and gender and presentation options. Picrew is great for someone like me in that I have a great visual eye and style aesthetic but I could not draw a straight line if you threatened me. If you’ve seen some of my newer icons and branding online, those are all Picrew creations. 

Picrew is full of fun generators that allow users to make icons, avatars and more. I love Picrew but there’s been something that I’m very aware of: not all generators accommodate skin tones like mine. I don’t have this issue with many of the Western avatar generators: I’ve even found some that are pretty dead on. But every once in a while, I’ll click on a auto-translated title hoping to find someone in the options for skin tone that look like me and I just can’t find them. Some have no options at all for different skin tones while others have one option for “brown” that are either way too light for me or way too dark for me. 


I’ve always had an odd relationship to my skin tone: I’m not so detached that I don’t feel black but I’m lighter in tone than most of my family and in comparison to some of my friends, I’m also usually the lighter skinned one. There’s a lot of colorism within the black community that tends to favor lighter skinned black people and a resentment from darker skinned black people against folks like me. In all fairness, we’re the more represented of the entire group so I can understand the resentment while also being hurt by it.

There’s a strange dysphoria that particularly comes to finding a Picrew generator that has one or two options for brown skin tones and neither fit. I rarely feel dysphoric whether it comes down to gender or race but to see a generator that has either a tone far too dark or far too light, it’s almost painful. I had a similar moment playing Pokemon Sword when I began to question if I was truly as dark as my character is. I’ve been honest about me using skin-lightening productions for hyperpigmentation but recently, I stopped because I was spotty and far too light. I looked like a bad Monique Heart highlight job because of the bleaching agents in the cream and it caused even more pain about my race, my skin and my skin tone. After a few weeks of cocoa butter and vitamin E oil, I’ve been able to get back on track to what my tone is and now I’m even more concerned about the concealer I was matched to. What is my skin tone? What am I? How black am I? 

These questions are new and are frankly distressing and recently have come about from a silly avatar generating website.

On the flip side of that, there is a euphoric bliss to finding a match to my skin tone and making an avatar or icon just like me. It’s incredibly fulfilling to look at an icon and think “Yes, this is it. This is perfect.” I’m proud of most of the icons I’ve made and I do swap them out every once in a while just because as of this time, I’ve made quite a few of them mostly just for fun. Picrew became a way to work through my desire for kawaii avatars and icons without having to commission someone. As a long time lover of anime and kawaii culture, it’s nice to have chibis and bishojo and anime-inspired icons that do in fact look like me.

So by now, you may be asking: well, what do you expect? You did just say that you can’t ask more of Asian creators. To that I say, fair point. I do maintain that I cannot ask Asia to represent me; I can also say that it’s been sad to not be seen or represented in a medium I love so much. What’s even more interesting is seeing some of the generators’ creators mentioning that they have no intention of adding new skin tones or such after people ask for them which to me goes beyond simple ignorance and moves into full on intolerance. It’s one thing to not think of darker skinned people due to a lack of exposure and another to entirely just wish to not acknowledge them at all after people ask for more options on a generator that is popular. 

So what do we do? Well, Picrew is great even though it’s a little memetic at this stage to have a Picrew avatar (several even made an appearance in Contrapoint’s excellent video on Canceling). If you are of color: commission artists. There are plenty of artists all over the social internet who would be willing to accept a commission for an avatar or icon. Start drawing! Every once in a while, I’ll sketch out stuff: you’ll never see them because they’re bad but sure, I’ve done it. 

It took me years to feel proud of my melanin. It took me years to reconcile my blackness while being an otaku and lover of Japanese media and culture. It took me years to feel even a little bit confident in my skin and not finding avatars that match my skin or creators that refuse to acknowledge that darker people even exist seemed to push some of that progress back to nearly the same place I was as a teen that almost delighted when my great grandmother said she was happy I wasn’t a “darkie”. 

Not finding a skin tone that matches mine in Picrew seemed to bring up every moment of internalized racism I have kept in my body for the last two decades. So here is where I soft revise my statement. I do still think that, if you are a person of color, queer person, religious person or similar looking for representation in Asian media: abandon all hope, ye who do weeb stuff here. But can I also say that it is detrimental, painful and unnecessary for creators to actively and continue to ignore people of color as their media increasingly becomes global?

I sure can. 

In Senpai I Trust

I take titles very seriously. I’m from a generation that took titles seriously. Things like writer, teacher, speaker and more were not meaningless. Which is why I found a particular aspect of Japanese culture and language that I liked I ran with it. I love suffixes. Using -san, -chan, -kun can say so much about a person and your relationship to them. While using -sama, -imoto, or -ototo also can speak volumes. Today I want to talk about three words I use a lot and why they mean so much to me: senpai, sensei and kouhai.

We’ll pause here to go over some grammar and vocabulary! In Japanese, suffixes follow a proper name. We’ll use my panel name as an example and use a suffix that people would know me as:

Aichi-san.

Y’all thought I was gonna use -sama. I can wait for that.  In the Japanese language, these suffixes stand in for words like: Mrs. Miss. Mister or Doctor. They can denote familiarity, respect, position or seniority.

Now for some vocabulary: for the sake of this post: we’ll focus on the three words I plan to elaborate more on.

Senpai: typically an upperclassman or person a year or to is slightly ahead of you in a career position.

Sensei: can be used to describe someone with superiority or seniority to you or an expert in their field.

Kouhai: a student or underclassman in school or a new employee in a company.

Longtime readers of the blog or attendees of my panels know that I use these words a lot. I am a proud senpai to many kouhai and I am a proud kouhai to my sepais and my sensei. I have made a chart to make things easier but here is the long and short of it. I am the senpai to my now former anime club members and a few others who have asked for me to guide them in the ways of conventions, cosplay and anime. I am in fact a kouhai to my three senpais and I have one sensei above all of them. Outlined it looked like this. I have my kouhai from my anime club and the ones I’ve gained now. I have my three senpais: Nancy, Patricia and Cris (who is no longer with us [that still feels weird to say]) and I have my one sensei: Jason. There is one disputed senpai: Jessica, who joined because she was a friend of Nancy.

I’ve even made a chart for you.


So why are we having this conversation? Well, at heart, I take titles seriously. I say that I am a writer not just because I write but because I went to the old fancy college to study ye olde book-learning. I say that I am a panelist because I regularly panel. I don’t just throw words around because without meaning, words are strange.

And I know many of my fellow…”fans” of Japanese culture (more on this soon) will throw these words around with a little less care (I know I’m generalizing, don’t sue me).

Here’s where I’ll explain myself. I won’t be that level of gatekeeper that every Japanese word must be handled with a great deal of respect: that’s why I’m going out of my way to say that this is just my connection to the word. I just know I’m a formalist and don’t go around throwing these words around.

Now, my connection to these words is of course rooted in anime and a love of Japanese culture. When I first met Nancy and Patricia and Cris, they were all I wanted to be as a fan, cosplayer, writer and more and I asked for them to take me under their tutelage.  

When I took over the anime club in college in a spectacular coup d’etat, I instilled in my club members that I wanted to be their guide to this world of media criticism, Japanese culture and anime. I showed them my competence and expertise and was humble when I didn’t know something. I was proud when they called me “senpai” and I was happy to call them “kouhai”. I took care of them. I made breakfast, I cooked lunches, I became a confidant and friend. And I learned so much from my kouhai who encouraged me to be less of a stick in the mud about newer anime and brought me out of my shell as I dealt with the loss of my mother.

And in turn, my senpais made me who I am now. Their kindness, empathy and skill inspire me, motivate me to be better. They are there for me when I am down and guide me when I have no idea what I am doing (which is more often than one would think).

I can still remember the night my longtime partner left me and I texted Nancy-senpai. She and another senpai of mine, Jessica came over immediately. They took me out to ensure that I ate because breaking up often means not eating human food in favor of hoping tears could provide nutritional value and cake frosting to mask the pain. They made sure I was okay. They checked on me. They took care of me and ensured that I was okay to go back to work before leaving me to my then solitary apartment.

I’ll tell another story because it feels appropriate to tell people just how close I am to my senpais. Cris was magnetic. Cris was an amazing panelist, cosplayer and a brilliant and patient soul. I regret that it took so long for us to get as close as we did. But Cris was to me the embodiment of what it meant to be a senpai. She was always there to listen and provide feedback that was so helpful. Before she died, one of the last conversations she had was to push me to try new things and new panels and at new conventions. She celebrated my success, she was proud of me and hearing her say she was proud of me may be one of the best parts of my existence and she was wonderful. She was smart, bright and wonderful and I miss her dearly.

I carry my title of senpai sacredly. Whenever I’m on stage, I do my best to be authority but also personable. I love it when people come up to give me hugs or tell me that my honesty helped them through a difficult time. I love being able to be not just a screeching harpy or a stern man yelling but someone who has learned and struggled and made mistakes. Every hug I give when I’m off the stage, every time I answer a message late or happily let my panels spill into the hallways after my set is done.

It isn’t just a power trip, it isn’t about ego: it’s about wanting to be the best person I possibly can be and wanting to share the knowledge I have and also wanting desperately to be better and constantly improve.

My senpais and my sensei are more than just friends to me. And my kouhai mean the world to me and I will defend them with my life.

It’s a sacred sort of bond. A title given and earned. It’s a strange sort of relationship; the purest expression of how found families work. It’s done with love and trust and passion. It’s late phone calls, early messages and maintaining relationships because anything worth having is worth working for.

That’s what these words mean to me.

Spirited Away and Westernization: Is It All Disney?

The film Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki is the coming of age story about a girl named Chihiro and her magical journey through a land of spirits, demons and monsters.  This is thought to be a quintessential Japanese story of determination and strength through what is to most a very exotic and foreign land but upon closer inspection one can see that this film has deeper Western influence within it than at first glance despite this being Miyazaki-senpai’s fabled “return to Japan”.

Westernization as defined by the dictionary is “the influence of Western culture on non-Western cultures”. This can also be called the imposing of Western ideals on non-Western cultures.  Westernization in Japan began in the Meiji Era in the late 17th to 18th century when American traders forced the Japanese to open their ports and flourished again during and shortly after World War II and has since gained speed with globalization. Westernization can be seen not just in the culture and language but in various films and publications from Japan. Everywhere from McDonald’s to hearing more and more people in Japan speaking English, Western influence has been the battle we seem to be losing as we struggle to preserve cultures outside of our own.

I’ve watched this film countless times and never gave it any thought, I always assumed it was just to appease American audiences and must have had something to do with the Disney influence but further investigation revealed that it is not only intentional but original to the film.  It all started with a moment of watching the film with friends and keying in on one key line. “Don’t worry, Daddy’s got credit cards.” Chihiro’s father went on in the key scene at the café for the spirits with Chihiro’s parents who up until then I never considered to be overly Westernized but that sort of flaunting of wealth and money and then the overly pluralized capitalist remark from her father just sealed the deal, this film has more Western influence in it than I think anyone knew.

The first place this is apparent is in Chihiro herself. She spends most of her time in the film yelling, whining or complaining.  These are very non-typical traits of a Japanese character of firstly her age being that of ten years old and of her gender, being female. The typical Japanese girl is even in this modern era meant to be quiet and respectful, polite, considerate and respect her parents. Even with the slight influence the West has provided in modern Japan, Japanese children even up until young adulthood maintain a level of respect that is uniquely Eastern.  Chihiro was unlike any character I had seen in a Japanese film before.  This is meant to show the duality of characterization and she was meant to provide a foil to the traditional background of the film but she seemed to be a more basic example of Western influence than a mere foil to the tradition of the film.
The second place is in the main setting itself, the Bath House of the Spirits. The Bath House is run by the witch Yubaba, who is a greedy, sinister and selfish character who runs her bathhouse strictly and with an iron fist. Firstly the bathhouse in Japanese culture is a mostly male dominated realm not to be owned by a female. And a female with such strong Western ideals. Though this is one of the more traditional parts of the story, most often in Japanese myths women that as wicked and greedy are shown as grotesque as Yubaba and are often the villain of the story as with Yubaba.  She is also dressed surprisingly in a Victorian outfit that seems to be a nod to 19th century England; her clothes are tight-fitting and show off her large broad body which shows strength and ferocity, traits that are uncommon for even villains of Japanese myth. Such capitalistic greed and concern for money and self-preservation as Yubaba shows are surprisingly common for Japanese myth but her clothing, style of speech are distinctly Western. But there is one key that does tie her back to tradition, she takes Chihiro’s name, this is a very Eastern concern, the tie between the soul and the name. But in a moment of Western concern Yubaba takes Chihiro’s first name and not her family name which even for girls is of more concern than their first. Between her pipe smoking and over-concern with her gold stash she reminded me more of a female brothel owner in the South than a Japanese villain.

Within the bathhouse’s work structure we also see another shout back to Victorian England and to factory life of the Industrial Revolution. The workers at the bathhouse seem to be of a lower class and cannot afford to actually enjoy the bathhouse’s luxury but are resistant to change when the human girl Chihiro is offered a job. Each department refuses to take her and such specialization within the workplace seems more at home in a factory in London than a bathhouse in Japan. Also the poor treatment in which they are treated, and conditions they work are of poor standard, crowded and very busy. Not serene at all or zen-like similar to how we believe and have record of most bathhouses being run.
The foremen are cruel and make harsh comments to the female workers, the female workers often girls and young women have to work very hard. In traditional bathhouses women were only allowed to work as geisha and could not even do any of the actual work of the bathhouse and that was relegated to the workers of the bathhouse who were usually male and they worked in what were considered to be normally very equal and fair conditions. These factory conditions did not appear in Japan until well after the Meiji era and the beginning of World War II and is by no means traditional.

The third distinction made was with the boiler man and the overall industrial feel of the film. Despite the film’s backdrop being a very traditional Japanese bathhouse that could have been plucked out of a Meiji Era picture book, the boiler room is a testament to steam era technology that seemed to bypass Japan and seemed to come more from Victorian England than late Tokugawa Japan. Coal power is distinctly Western and the more traditional form used to power bathhouses came from manpower or natural geothermic reactions.  The skyline also in the film is very modern and Western, though it does seem to seamlessly meld with East and West, skylines and dragons, myth and reality, old and new.

Another place we see a near overly Western influence comes with some of the items dotting the landscape in the film. A New Orleans-style paddle-boat brings weary spirit guests to the bathhouse a one-way San Francisco-style trolley car rolls along the stops of the spirit world. These things are almost never seen in Japan outside of theme restaurants and in pictures from the United States. What are they doing playing background image to a traditional bathhouse?

The interpersonal relationships of the film are another mark of Westernization. It is not just Chihiro’s pessimistic and disrespectful attitude but also her forwardness with other authority figures. Her parents are near oblivious to their daughter’s needs and shoo her needs away and her growing concerns about entering the terrifying abandoned amusement park. Her parents are not as attentive as we are accustomed to seeing Japanese parents especially ones that have a young daughter.  We are quick to shove that to the side and assume it is a plot device; if they had listened to her more intently the plot would have never moved forward. Yubaba’s relationship with her foremen and workers is more like that of a factory owner than the traditional respect of an Eastern bathhouse.

Another key fact that gets the plot moving is Chihiro’s family moving, this is actually fairly uncommon even in modern Japan where jobs are very stable and families have not moved from prefecture to prefecture in years even if they do work in the more industrial regions of the country like the Aichi prefecture where there is a great deal of auto manufacturing. The behavior of the characters cannot be simply chalked up to devices of the plot of slaves to moving the story along, there is a deeper Western influence within that perhaps served the purpose of making them more relatable to a growing American audience.

Now, the film has plenty of traditional elements to it. The idea of a bathhouse for the spirits and Yubaba’s odd concern with respect and maintaining her guests’ happiness. The closeness to the spirits is one that is only seen in the US in regions like New Orleans where voodoo is practiced and there is a closeness and concern for the dead there; that is the only other place outside of Eastern myth that I have found the living and the dead communing so casually together. The theme and concern with mythology is one that is uniquely Eastern. Also the great interjection of mythological characters and creatures of folklore that have survived for thousands of years in Japan like the dragon and water spirits, river spirits, demons and monsters that seem to encompass the landscape of the film.

Spirited Away was as Miyazaki-senpai said his “return to Japan”, the film’s exotic setting, mythical creatures and whimsical spirit was very unique and unlike the average film to the average American movie-goer. What did tie the film back to Japan was something Miyazaki does consistently throughout many of his films and it is doing his best to when he can preserve Japanese culture and the dying way of life that is the traditional Japanese way, in a way the Bushido code provided the guidance for the samurai up until the early Meiji with its brief resurgence during World War II, Miyazaki strives to bring that time back, to a simpler time where man lived and respected nature, and therefore respected others. Where myth and legend lived not just on paper but in the hearts of the people. Where honor was key and the most important thing to a person and not money or socioeconomic status.

These more traditional aspects come from another key scene and that is the stink spirit. We come to find that it is not a stink spirit at all but an old river spirit but due to neglect and pollution he has become gross and dirty. It takes outside help from Chihiro and the other workers at the bathhouse to clean him up and discover his true nature, a clean and healthy river he is grateful and leaves powerful medicine behind. This story is one that we see more commonly in the West but we are beginning to see in Japan as the Japanese become suddenly very concerned with preserving their rich natural habitats and local rivers and streams that were the lifeblood of the ancient Japanese and became neglected shortly after industrialization and pollution came to Japan.

The other key place is within Haku. He is one of the only characters to maintain traditional dress and for the most part formalities and respect for others including authority figures. Despite him being a mythical creature his story is also fairly similar to other Japanese stories. River spirits often communicate with humans and form close bonds with mortals, that being the reason why so many rivers in Japan have human names, they were thought to have real human embodiment that could feel and move just like humans could. Haku’s relationship with Chihiro then isn’t just to be chalked to do plot device, this is something that was seen as rather conventional if this story was being told hundreds of years ago in Japan.

Music and dance are other key places where we see the traditional creep back in, the soundtrack to the film is filled with traditional instruments like the samisen and koto, instruments used most commonly by geisha or Shinto priestesses. Also the various fan dances that happen throughout the film, though this even could be considered more a gesture in some instances. Fans are a highly traditional part of Eastern culture including Japanese, Chinese and Korean. Depending on the occasion they can symbolize elegance and grace or signal death and doom depending on the usage and occasion.

Amid criticism that Disney’s influence had been negative on his films, Miyazaki assured his fans that he worked very closely with translators and made sure they did their best to maintain the integrity of his works. This poses the question further. If it wasn’t Disney’s fault, why are these films so filled with Western ideals and images? It would be easy to just blame Studio Ghibli’s partnership with Disney on the Westernization and say this is just what Disney does to these things but since Miyazaki signs off on each film personally that means he either add these things intentionally or he still isn’t quite catching them before the film’s premiere.

Perhaps it is to widen his audience, for many years Miyazaki’s films had only been known to those who could fluently speak Japanese and had subject matter that was odd to the average American including pigs in WWII Italian planes and a secret society of talking cats. These films geared at young adults were highly sociopolitical with references that not many understood. It was not until some of his middle works like KiKi’s Delivery Service and Nausicaa of the Wind Valley that his works became more easily digestible to American audiences and as American audiences asked for more the more Western the films became and the easier it was to relate to the characters and story lines but at what costs? The end result for a while became a film that began in Japan and that at times was in Japanese but was basically the same as any other American cartoon.

In the end Spirited Away may have been Miyazaki-senpai’s fabled return to Japan and to the untrained eye, it’s easy to get swept up in the exotic location, mysterious plot, mythological creatures and intriguing yet relatable characters. But upon closer inspection one sees that this film is far more influence by the polarizing world around Miyazaki-senpai. One that does not know when to be old or new, when myth and legend are appropriate or when they need to be pushed to the side where contrast isn’t just a comment on the inside of a travel brochure it is a legitimate concern. When fans are concerned about the Japan in the texts books fading away forever as the new building encase old pagodas, where will the films be when the battle is decided as East becomes a growing part of the West.


Works Cited

Napier, Susan. “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.” Journal of Japanese Studies 32.2 (2006): 287-310. EBSCOhost. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <blume.stmarytx.edu/ehost/detai…>.

“Westernization of Japan – International Business – a Wikia Wiki.” International Business Wiki. Web. 22 Nov. 2011. <internationalbusiness.wikia.co…>.

A Dual-Culturalist Steps in from the Rain

“The ultimate source of comfort and peace is within ourselves.” ― Dalai Lama XIV.png

Today did not start off smoothly.

It’s cold, it’s wet. I had more errands than I like to run on a Saturday to run. Today did not start off well. By the time I had finished my errands, I was near soaked to the bone, shivering cold and miserable. I wanted to sit down. I wanted lunch. I wanted to warm up. In an act of small rebellion, I opted for comfort food and that may take just a little bit of explaining.

Culturally, I’m painfully abandoned and we’ve talked about it a lot (see examples here and here). My idea of comfort food is at times very different from the image you’d expect from a Southern black girl (though, don’t get me wrong: I love soul food). But today was different. I didn’t want mashed potatoes. I didn’t want cream gravy. I wanted chicken katsu. And there was only one place in the city that I would trust to make chicken katsu and to make it without disappointing me or breaking my bank.

Fujiya’s is a local spot. I’ve taken my anime clubbers here. I’ve had dinner with my senpais here. I’ve had lunch with friends here.This place is traditional, beautiful and delicious. I asked for a table for one and was asked if I wanted to sit at the bar and watch the sushi master at work. She was a wonderful woman, kind, and very skilled with a knife. I sat down, ordered hot tea and almost on impulse said a few words in Japanese because tucking into a bowl of the only soup I’ll eat outside of miso.  She laughed and asked me how much Japanese I knew. I told her not as much as I wanted to. We exchanged pleasantries and I waited for my meal.

When my chicken katsu arrived I was thrilled. A perfect piece of fried chicken, a sauce that’s almost too damn sweet. Sticky, fluffy white rice that almost runs black with soy. I was home. The woman serving me was essentially a surrogate: she was just Oba-san for what it was worth. She ordered around the staff in Japanese and I got to sit, watch and enjoy as the rain fell outside.

The tea was hot, the meal was filling and the atmosphere was great. And for a brief moment, it didn’t matter that my morning was stressful. Or that traffic was bad. Didn’t matter that it was cold, dark and wet. What mattered was that Oba-san was worried about me and that I was eating enough. She was worried that I wouldn’t be satisfied (I was very satisfied). We chatted about the nature of language and how easy it is to lose and to gain one. I felt the more at home in this restaurant than I had anywhere else in recent memory.

And for the moment, I could just forget. I’m grateful to the lunch I got to have. The conversation I shared and the meal I got to take home. One day, I’ll attempt to make chicken katsu at home because everyone should know how to make the food that makes their heart sing.  And while normally these moments are filled with cultural remorse and a feeling of not belonging to the culture that I do so love, it was in that moment remarkably irrelevant. What mattered was that I enjoyed myself and truthfully, I did.

This was a short post and a very timely one. What a treat, huh? Maybe I’ll do more of these.

Stay warm, readership.

 

A Culture of Her Own

“Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.”

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.