Distraction Free Reading

American Fans of Japanese Popular Culture as Foreign-Identity Consumers

Internet technologies are only the most recent form to provide consumers access to global images and narratives. But virtual spaces (from simple message boards to fully rendered worlds like Second Life), afford individuals the opportunity not just to watch, learn, and communicate about other people and places, but also to go so far as to assume aspects of those identities. Of course, Internet technologies not only collapse geographic space, they can also blur the physical distinctions of voice and body typically used to categorize people as different from each other. This idea has been well discussed in terms of gender, age or disability, where degrees of anonymity, or the mutability of physical presence, of online communications allows users to craft versions of themselves that may appear to have little connection to their own “real” attributes. In avatar-driven virtual worlds like Second Life, ethnicity doesn’t predetermine appearance (of course, it is also possible to chose to be a robot or an animal). For example, anyone can create an avatar with Japanese features and fashions, even a Japanese name, to interact in Second Life’s environments. Assuming “Japaneseness” in virtual Tokyo evokes the unique possibilities of online technology that allow individuals to connect to frameworks of identity uncontained by national borders.

Erving Goffman argued that identity is always performed opportunistically during social interactions; however, in the popular imagination, a disconnect between online and offline identity is often thought of as playacting—or a falsehood—where the actual, someone’s physical characteristics for example, is privileged as the truth against which all else is measured. What can happen then to national identity or ethnicity when visitors to online spaces not only consume this foreign-ness, but also go a step further, electing to adopt and inhabit these alternate identities?

Many Western fans of Japanese popular media belong to a vocal transnational community of desire that is engaged in the direct performance of a kind of “Japaneseness.” Frequently appropriating the term otaku (translated as geek), this community of fans not only purchase and pirate Japanese media and import Japanese commodities, often they also study Japanese history and culture, learn to speak Japanese, and even live and work in Japan. Because of what’s viewed as their excessive interest in Japan, these fans are perceived to be both racist and shallow. While some do adopt the affected cadence of anime characters, or pepper their speech with simple Japanese phrases and cultural references (as lampooned in the Saturday Night Live skit J-Pop America Fun Time Now), there are just as many fans who are self-conscious about the mediated nature of their interests in Japan.

Online, is it possible for American fans to shed what marks them as, in this case, other, and “become” Japanese? In particular, when their performances, however essentialized, don’t stay tethered to virtual origins but instead circulate into daily conversations and cross linguistic and national boundaries, the dividing line between what is Japanese and what isn’t can become muddied; anime inspired artwork, posted online and then circulated as an artifact separated from its creator, is one example. This is made only murkier when American fans move to Tokyo and find work in the videogame and anime industries, helping to produce the very commodities that brought them to Japan in the first place.

What then is the relationship between being virtually Japanese, and actually Japanese? Tom Boellstorff and others have already investigated this relationship in a broad sense, suggesting that the question cannot be easily dismissed. Yet some scholars who study Japan have argued that Western fans are merely consuming “J-cool,” an empty brand signifier, and that such fans are unable to understand, in fact are not even interested in connecting to, the “real” Japan. Others might argue that this fan community remains marginalized to small, and eccentric English-language websites, circulating only in a feedback loop of other fans and disconnected from real Japanese people. However, this assumption is also complicated by the fact that communications technologies afford not only the performance of Japaneseness by non-Japanese, but also, again, the incorporation of these performances within Japan. Virtual locations are themselves of course intensely transnational; for example, “real” Japanese citizens also inhabit Second Life and play within it, and with what it means to be Japanese.

As the intensified global circulation of people and things continues to reinvigorate national gate-keeping practices, and new technologies are utilized by states to limit and contain the movement of people across national borders, any answer to this question then must also go beyond considering the affordances of new technologies; it must also contend with asking who is invested in maintaining the dividing line between who is, and who isn’t, appropriately Japanese.

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