Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Short Critical Analysis of The Weeaboo

I remember weeaboos. Back in my highschool days they seemed to be everywhere, although that’s probably because I actually had a steak in the Anime community in those days. But then again, that was ten years ago and people didn’t call them weeaboos in those days — merely Japanophiles. Still, in my teenage years I remember being annoyed by these supposedly ardent Japanophiles, who would insert random bits of Japanese language into their sentences and day dream about one day owning and operating a café in Osaka, despite never having worked a job, with their Japanese wife or hubby, despite never having met an actual Japanese person, who would somehow resemble their favourite shojo manga character (look it up) despite never having been to Japan. The following music video by "Filthy Frank" offers a look at how the weeaboo is popularly conceptualized. That someone would dislike weeaboos to the point that they saw fit to compose and perform a song and edit the video for it speaks volumes of the disdain weeaboo's garner. 



In those days, being a teenager who was still “finding myself” I was not well enough equipped with theory and critical analysis or even a strong sense of self identity, to be able to engage my dislike in any meaningful way. Simply put, I didn’t know why I disliked weeaboos, I just knew that something about those folks just didn’t sit well with me. It didn’t help that I was on the cusp of being one and that I so frequently encountered them, watching a fair bit of Anime myself.

Now however, I have spent the last several years of my life studying all about Japan, China and Korea in great detail (I’ve also lived in South Korea for over a year) and am equipped with an honour’s degree in East Asian Studies. Armed with much theoretical discourse, I can finally and properly articulate what it is about weeaboos that I don’t only dislike but what may be empirically problematic about them.

Found this on some image sharing website. Seems that people spend as much energy attempting to differentiate themselves from weeaboos as they do hating them.
I’ve noticed that there are a number of subjective and informal analyses of weeaboos online and while these range from amusing to almost uncomfortably hate-filled, I thought it would be interesting to attempt to use some of the academic theory I learned during my time as an East Asian Studies Specialist undergrad to explain why the weaboo is so widely reviled. Because . . . it’s fun! And also because while a lot of abuse is hurled at these folks, there doesn’t seem to be much effort spent on attempting to understand why these people are so, for lack of a better word, annoying.  

For the purpose of this analysis, the weeaboo shall be defined in the broadest terms:

The term is most often used to denote fanatical fans of Japanese Manga (comics/graphic novels) and Animation, who accept the reality presented in these mediums as an accurate portrayal of the reality of Japanese life. I would argue that it could easily be used to categorize anyone who has a disproportionate interest in a certain aspect of a culture coupled with a stubbornness which allows for cultural tunnel vision. This, I imagine, is why the weeaboo garners so much vitriol in online discourse.

Found this image on knowyourmeme.com. Weeaboo memes are not exactly difficult to find.
The weeaboo, often lacking any real experience within the cultural space they are attempting to engage forgo critical inquiry for the fictional representations presented in mass material culture, in this case, anime or manga.

In the realm of acadamia, particularly undergraduate East Asian Studies, the weeaboo tends to be the butt-end of many jokes. Calling a member of the East Asian Studies community a weeaboo is like calling a doctor a quack, or a writer a hack, implying that their body of research is less-than-credible and overly fixated on one topic while totally ignoring the broader complex narratives of the countries in question. This may be because many committed East Asian Studies scholars may have either been weeaboos at one time or another and/or have had the unfortunate experience of having to engage weeaboos in the most mundane of arguments on something that could easily be disproved or answered by glancing at a Wikipedia article or sitting in on a first-year lecture.

Don't know who Haruhi is but another good example of vitriol. 
For example, there are some weeaboos who seem to believe (and will attempt to convince you) that Ninjas still exist in Japan. In EAS we learn that most published contemporary sources on Ninjas (especially those published in English) contain speculative and therefore dubious information at best and that one of the few things we actually do know about Ninjas is their fall from prominence during the reign of Oda Nobunaga in the mid to late 1500’s. I digress . . .    

More to the frustration of East Asian Studies scholars and it would seem, people in general, the weeaboo fixates on the elements of culture, often specifically material-culture, that he or she finds ideal. The weeaboo tends to take these ideal elements and whether consciously or unconsciously treats them as the embodiment of that culture as a whole.

For example a weeaboo may watch an anime — let’s call it Gentlemen’s Flower Café — about a bunch of handsome and sensitive young gentlemen high school students who open a pastel coloured café together in Saitama (which, in this case happens to be a bright and pastel coloured city) and have all sorts of wonderful romantic adventures with their mostly female clientele who also happen to be comprised mostly of students from their same high school. The weeaboo may watch Gentlemen’s Flower Café and believe (or in fact “force” themselves to believe) that in Japan, high school is a time for leisure and romance wherein students are afforded enough time to run their own businesses if they so desired. This is of course despite the fact the in Japan, high school students either often live with their parents and spend much of their time in cram-schools intensely studying (or sleeping) in order to pass demanding University entrance exams or are heavily marginalized “delinquents”. Again I digress. . .      

Found "weeaboo bingo" around numerous websites. Again, I didn't have to look far. (click to enlarge)
By this process the weeaboo views their culture of interest as also being ideal and will defend it vehemently if it comes under criticism whether that criticism is constructive, educated or otherwise. It is the combination of the weeaboo’s fixation on ideal cultural elements combined with his/her’s lack of lived experience within that national space that leads to a shared sense among weeaboos that Japan is somehow the perfect country and can do no wrong. One of the major criticisms I have seen against weeaboos is that they tend to share the unconditional belief that living in Japan is preferable to living outside of it.

Whether or not this is actually true on a quality of life scale, this phenomenon likely occurs because the weeaboo, like everyone else in their country of origin are exposed to the successes and failures of their society on a daily basis. However, as the weeaboo has likely not lived in Japan for any extended period of time they have not yet been exposed to the myriad success and failings of Japanese society and so tend to view the country through rose-tinted glasses. This is frustrating to a lot of people, largely, I imagine, because there is no such thing as a perfect country. Japan, like every other nation it the world is full of things both awesome and awful. Every country is like this. This is not a subjective statement, it is empirical. If you don’t agree you are in denial.

Apparently this is something some weeaboo's actually do.
The other major criticism I have seen brought against weeaboos is their tendency to insert bits of Japanese grammar and vocabulary into otherwise English sentences. In linguistics this is called “code-switching”, only that linguists argue that effective code-switching requires genuine proficiency in both languages. In most cases, the weeaboo lacks genuine proficiency in Japanese, I suspect because this would likely involve real contact with actual natives of Japan potentially putting the weeaboo’s carefully constructed alternative reality at risk of being shattered. As for inserting bits of a language they cannot comprehend well enough to have a basic conversation into their everyday speech. . . I’m baffled and, I imagine, so are the people who must interact with them.

Still, I understand that it is likely this has much to do with a feeling that if one incorporates bits of Japanese into their speech it may bring them closure to Japan or Japaneseness. Of course actually learning the language in earnest would help this to a much greater degree, however, real language acquisition is a long uphill battle that requires much time and discipline and as far as I can tell weeaboos aren’t exactly known to carry these traits. Unless it relates to reading manga or watching anime.

Found this on westerngirleasternboy.com. Pretty much sums it up. Although I guess I'm arguing that you do have the right to "knock that" or at least a number of good reason. Koreaboo is also the name of a pretty good Korean media blog as indicated on this gif.
While initially the term weeaboo was used exclusively for those fetishizing Japanese cultural aspects, in recent years, the online community has seen a rise in number of what some people refer to as the “koreaboo”. The koreaboo is someone who fixates more often on the fantastic quasi-realities of South Korean culture presented in Korean pop music videos, melodramas and variety shows as representative of the reality of life in South Korea. This recent phenomenon has become much more frequent in the wake of the “Korean Wave” or Hallyu which is purported to have hit North America in 2009. Aside from the difference in national space, the behaviour of the koreaboo is very similar to that of the weeaboo, fetishizing elements of South Korean culture that feature most prominently in K-pop videos and Korean melodramas.  

To sum up, weeaboos are annoying because they consume Japanese mass media, fetishize or isolate the elements they find ideal within that piece of media and take it as representative of the contemporary reality of Japan as a whole. This is of course despite that piece of media being heavily dramatized or simply total fantasy. What is especially annoying from the East Asian Studies perspective is that they do this while ignoring myriad credible sources of information easily available in English through electronic or print sources largely written and researched by actual specialists in Japan and abroad.

This is a panel I found on funnyjunk.com titled Logic of a Weeaboo. The entire strip is available here.
While weeaboos are often shrugged off as being annoying “geeks” with their “heads in the clouds” weeaboos can actually be a serious problem in some cases. In worst case scenarios weeaboodom can embody a kind of orientalism, racism or even a kind of bizarre pro-Japanese ultra-nationalism. The weeaboo may opt to celebrate Japanese “otherness” as opposed to attempting to engage meaningfully with the country and culture, reinforcing the popular orientalist notion that Japan is somehow culturally impenetrable or simply at odds with “the west”. The weeaboo may also opt to associate with people of certain cultural backgrounds or ethnicities over others because they perceive some to be closer to the culture of Japan (Asian-Americans for example). Finally the weeaboo may take to online forums or other such outlets and brazenly lambast or chastise others for their perhaps informed and constructive criticisms on such topics as Japanese foreign policy, historical blemishes, social issues etc. (While this has not happened to me personally, I’ve seen actual evidence of this in the past).            

As an East Asian Studies specialist this is unsettling and also having a weeaboo or a koreaboo attempt to inform me on matters pertaining to North East Asia can be excruciating. I imagine it being similar to a licensed chartered accountant being forced to take field advice from a freshmen who is half-way through their first economics class. There is little they can tell me that I don’t already know, and much of the information is usually heavily biased and not well researched. In any case the information they provide almost certainly does not come from a place of experience or critical thinking.

Another weeaboo inspired comic found on imgur. Read the whole thing here.
However, never fear! If you are afraid that you might be a weeaboo or are concerned that someone you know might be turning into a weeaboo or is one, there are a number of ways you can help them. To help you out I have devised a list, though I must admit, these are not sure-fire:

Alex’s Top Five Ways to Cure the Modern Weeaboo

In my experience weeaboodom is most commonly a product of ignorance and limited exposure to Japanese history and sociology coupled with confidence issues and social anxiety. While things like confidence are most often gained through experience and social anxiety can dissipate through similar means, there a few ways you may be able to help yourself or your weeaboo friend.   

1.   Weeaboos are often open to Japanese media. If you can show them a documentary or some such thing on the trials and tribulations of Japanese life, produced by actual Japanese people, you may start them on the path to reform.

2.      Enroll them in East Asian Studies. As the vice-president of my student union who grew up in Japan and hates weeaboos once said “If you take East Asian Studies it’s impossible to be a weeaboo. You just know too much and there’s no going back.”

3.      Buy them books on Japanese history and society and remind them if they actually care about Japan as much as they profess to, they should do some actual reading about it that extends beyond the odd Wikipedia post, forum poster or manga adaptation.

4.      Get them into Japanese movies that are not exclusively live-action anime adaptations. Everyone loves movies and there are many Japanese films that deal with all manner of interesting subject matter and contain much social commentary.    

5.      Take them to Japan and force them to live there for at least two months or failing that attempt to introduce them to real and diverse people who grew up in Japan (provided that they can handle basic social situations with some degree of finesse).

At the beginning of this article I mentioned that back in high school, 10 years ago now, I was in grave danger of becoming a weeaboo myself. Indeed, I remember envisioning Japan in my adolescent mind as some kind of ultra-modern neon kawaii paradise where there was no poverty and everyone was happy and care-free. The things on this list are what saved me from my own seemingly impending weeabooness. Back then it wasn't until I started doing some serious actual learning about the place that my views became much more balanced and frankly, more healthy. I still have a lot of love for Japan, but I believe that to truly love something you need to accept that it isn’t perfect and has areas in which it can and should improve. Professing to love a country while ignoring its shortcomings is like saying you love a sick friend while refusing to acknowledge that they have a serious yet treatable illness.

So there you have it. I just wrote a 2500 word article on freakin’ weeaboos, proving that you can write a long-winded critical analysis on ANYTHING. More importantly though I feel I have highlighted that even something as seemingly ridiculous and silly as weeaboos are actually relevant to our society despite being the product of a somewhat niche community.  

Originally I wrote this as a sort of satire of academic writing but in writing it I actually realized that I really was making a point. Weeaboodom is actually kind of an interesting problem that is related very much to the Study of East Asia by foreign nationals (like myself). While the weeaboo is denounced as a joke by many and may be seen as an overzealous lover of “the east”, at its core, weeaboodom embodies many of the same orientalist suppositions that lead to discrimination, “othering” and in extreme cases even xenophobic thinking. Egads! 

Anyway, I hope this gave you something for your brains to munch on. Yum yum.

See ya'll next time, when I certainly won't be writing about something relating to Anime.                     

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Great White Motoko Kusanagi

Howdie pardners! I wrote this a while back but then got busy with stuff and never posted it. So here it is, the movie actually comes out in two years so there's plenty of time to still be annoyed.

It's been a while since I talked about film and racism in Hollywood in relation to East Asian stuff. . .  so I'm going to do that now.

In this satirical College Humour sketch Nicholas Cage's agent is desperately trying to save Cage from himself to little avail. You can watch the sketch here. It's actually pretty funny.
Some years ago I remember seeing a short video on the popular website College Humor called Nicholas Cage's Agent and it consisted of a frustrated agent pitching movie ideas to a disembodied voice on the phone doing it's best Nicholas Cage impression. The joke is a simple one. The agent suggests that Cage be more selective with his films and keeps pitching more films which get progressively more ridiculous and offensive and Cage signs on for all of them. The short was made at a time when Mr. Cage apparently owed huge sums of money in back taxes (or something like that) and as the story goes, starred in whatever would get him a decent pay check (apparently he's debt free now so I guess it worked). During the sketch the posters for these hypothetical films are displayed behind the agent's desk after he pitches them. The one just before the last and when Cage's agent is at his wits-end, is for a hypothetical film titled "F*ck Asian People". Whether or not this was a stab at Hollywood by the College Humor folks for their all too often white-washed casting choices is not entirely clear, but honestly, at this point I feel that "F*ck Asian People" might as well be one of the many slogans of the Hollywood machine and perhaps North American media in general.

A poster for the 1995 release of Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell which is credited as being an early mainstream success for anime in the American market. 
It may not be news to some of you that there is a live-action adaptation of Mamoru Oshii's 1994 animated cult-classic Ghost in the Shell (itself an adaptation of a popular manga of the same name) in the works and that Scarlett Johansson is to star as the lead. I feel compelled to question the point of making a remake in the first place but then again Hollywood loves remakes so that's no surprise.

In any case, apparently it's now been confirmed that miss Johansson will in fact be playing the lead role of agent Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming film.

Let that sink in for a second. . .

Scarlett Johansson is playing Motoko Kusanagi.

Johansson. . . sounds Nordic to me. . .  Kusanagi. . . well if that's not a Japanese name I dunno what is . . . oh. dammit! Why do they keep doing this?!

I suppose it doesn't help my argument that Anime characters tend to look racially ambiguous. . . but yeah Kusanagi. . . Kusa-frickin-nagi. In kanji that's 草 frickin' . (草薙 素子Kusanagi Motoko)  
So yes, Hollywood has voted yes on white washing Motoko Kusanagi, ostensibly one of the most "Japanese" characters to grace western popular culture. To me this is like getting Leonardo DiCaprio to star in the lead role in Toshiro Mifune's biopic. It's offensive and even more so considering that it's source material, the Ghost in the Shell animated film, is actually more popular in North America than its home country of Japan. No, this is not about adapting an obscure "Japanese classic" for "western audiences", this is about ensuring people will see this film. Therein lies the problem.

Naturally I'm not the only one vexed by this and myriad folks have taken to voicing their disdain or support for the project in droves. The argument for the casting choice I've seen most often used is nothing new. "Well who else is going to to play Kusanagi? Who else has enough star power to carry this film if not Scarlett Johansson?" A fair question perhaps, only that by asking it people are, even perhaps inadvertently admitting that there are currently no actors of East Asian decent working in Hollywood right now with enough star-power to carry the film on their own. Rinko Kikuchi is a name which seems to be popping up here and there and I think that could be an interesting choice but lets face it; casting her in a supporting role in Pacific Rim was risky enough by Hollywood standards and it's safe to say that she was likely not the main draw for most who decided they were going to see that film, she's also not a local which is important to consider for my next point.

Hollywood also has this tendency to tell stories about East Asia, but in most cases only if they can insert a white dude into them as the lead. The Last Samurai, while a fairly solid film, is one of the best examples of this especially given the historical implausibility of it's plot.
The real question we should be asking here is, why aren't there any East-Asian actors with enough star power in North America to carry this film? Let's narrow it down a bit, why aren't there any Asian-American actors with the star power or supposed acting chops who could fill in for Ms. Johansson in this role? Is it because Asian-Americans suck at acting? Yeah, that must be it! Cause Danial Dae Kim was awful in Lost and Grace Park was just so unconvincing as Sharon 'Boomer' Valerii in Battlestar Galactica, and let's not forgot how unpopular Masi Oka's portrayal of Hiro Nakamura was in Heroes am I right? Wrong.

Meditate on this and you shall find the answer. . . which is systemic racism. Unconvinced of the existence of systemic racism? I just provided you with an example. Think you can come up with another reason for the disproportionate lack of A-list Asian-American celebrities in Hollywood that isn't related to systemic racism? You can't. Not one that will satisfy me anyway. . . if I didn't think I was right I wouldn't publicly post my opinions on the internet for all to see.                              

Just one of the many photo comparisons on google images right now.
Now, let me just say that I like Scarlett Johansson, I honestly do. She's a great actress with impressive range and a generally neat person (as far as I know) and I don't blame her for this situation, not entirely anyway. I also think that she could probably pull off a pretty good Motoko Kusanagi. . . that is if we lived in a wonderful world where systemic racism didn't exist and never existed in the first place (could you imagine that!? All films would be like Cloud Atlas and no one would give a sh*t!). As it stands however, no, I don't think Johansson should play this role and it's frustrating and insulting that this hullabaloo-stirring conundrum has even arisen to begin with. But as we all know, Hollywood is an insensitive machine that doesn't give a hoot about your struggle, so they're going to go ahead and make this thing anyway, I just hope they have the decency to change her name to a English one - it doesn't solve the problem at all (and arguably makes things worse) but I personally feel like it would make for slightly smaller middle-finger to Asian-America. *sigh*

I'm not even entirely convinced Rinko Kikuchi would be the best fit for Kusanagi (and she's also not Asian-American) but this makes a lot more sense to me visually than the picture above at any rate and, ya know, film is a visual medium and all.
I would like to conclude by admitting that yes, as a fan of the series I realize that the whole Ghost in the Shell concept allows for characters to be able to switch their consciousnesses (or "ghosts") between bodies and all that neat sci-fi stuff. And yes, this means they could play it off so that Kusanagi had transferred her consciousness into a "shell" that resembled a white woman. You could argue these points validate the casting choice, but then you would be downplaying the fact that Hollywood and American media in general have been white washing Asian characters for decades and that this makes a lot of people sad and frustrated. Ghost in the Shell: The Remake, was a pretty good chance to not do that, but lo' and behold, I suppose my expectations were too high? So yeah, even though I'm a white dude, this stuff pisses me off, because as a human being I get pissed off at things that needlessly anger large portions of the population I co-exist with. Things like this make the world a somewhat less pleasant place to live in. Stop pissing people off Hollywood and start actually getting in touch with the people who consume your products. Tirade over. Food for thought and all that. Next time I'll talk about a book or something.