Shokotan recently blogged in praise of a group of American cosplayers, saying that “Americans are really great at making weapons and stuff” and wondering “How can they carry all that stuff around??”. The cosplayers in question have certainly put their hours in, and the results are impressive (although it’d be nice if there were some pictures from a better angle) but what’s more interesting is the statement that follows. “I want to know more about the otaku of the world!” she exclaims “The Internet makes it easy to keep up with the latest productions in real time, so the number of otaku across the world is increasing rapidly”
Now, say what you will about Shokotan. Shingo doesn’t care for her, but I’d call myself a fan. Nonetheless, she raises a very interesting point, which happens to be something I think about quite frequently. In short, how is it that otaku in This Country and otaku in the Other Country can have so much in common, and work toward so many common goals, and yet still have so little contact with each other?
Well, yes, we don’t speak the same language. Obviously.
Granted, that’s not exactly helping, but I can’t shake the feeling that there are more sinister circumstances at work here. When you step back and think about it, it’s really quite amazing how Japanese fandom and American (along with other English-speaking countries, yes) have managed to grow and mature to the point that they have with almost no meaningful direct contact between the two. We aren’t making our own anime or manga (and don’t nitpick me with OEL nonsense, we’re really not), we barely produce our own hobby goods at this point, and as was previously discussed, we are not making any significant amount of our own doujinshi. We are consuming the same goods, regardless of location, and even the most thick-skulled gaijin otaku is going to be aware of where these things come from. What’s more, now that, as Shokotan so astutely observed, the Internet has managed to render geographical disparity all but irrelevant, our lag time has been considerably reduced. We are very nearly watching the same shows at the same time, reading (or at least staring at) the same doujinshi at the same time, and until Shingo disappeared permanently into Azeroth we were getting pretty damn good at ogling the same figures at the same time. We’ve come a long way, but as gaijin otaku we still implicitly understand that we are always one additional step away from the source. We need subtitles to help us watch, and we’re at the mercy of other people to provide them. Although unofficial channels have become almost ridiculously efficient of late, the official channels for receiving anime and manga still leave us lagging behind by months if not years, and reduces our selection to a mere percentage of theirs.
And yet, despite some lingering disparities, our fan cultures are more notable for their startling similarities than for their pronounced differences. It’s not exactly like we wouldn’t have anything to talk about with our overseas counterparts, and at the end of the day, otaku are otaku, the same in all places.
So why, despite all that we stand to gain, does neither faction make the slightest effort to establish meaningful lines of communication. Sure, the language barrier is an issue, but I know several people who have lived in the Other Country for a prolonged period, and speak jive well enough to qualify for the gaijin pass, but still live within their own social ghetto of gaijin otaku, walking amongst their akiba-kei comrades but never actually making contact. It’s true that most otaku are naturally fairly timid creatures, reluctant to ever step out of their comfort zone, and any additional barrier to socialization can become insurmountable. Still…the language issue certainly isn’t helping, but it seems like by itself it would be a solvable problem given enough time and people. I’m guilty of this myself, to a point, having spent a considerable amount of time in Tokyo’s otaku hangouts and never once managed to have a conversation with someone who wasn’t a shop employee or a maid. I did, however, manage to strike up an extremely productive friendship with a local otaku after I discovered that I happened to be living with him. He had an endless supply of helpful advice, tipping me off about all the best maid cafes and interesting upcoming events, and he was tremendously fascinated to learn about how otaku in other countries manage to get by with the resources available to them. In short, a good time was had by all. Why, then, is this the exception rather than the rule?
On the Other Country side, some of it is certainly just a matter of apathy. From a certain perspective, there’s really no reason they should care about American anime fans any more than Americans themselves would care about Brazilian Star Trek fans. If pressed, one would certainly acknowledge that they must exist, but even then you’re unlikely to take a lot of time out of your busy day to actively seek them out. It goes without saying that we are universally aware of them though, so clearly the onus is on us to kick things off if this party is ever going to get started.
Shoko-tan’s acknowledgment alone, however, is proof that we are starting to meet the standards for notability. There are actually a few things that we are extremely good at, and in some cases merely achieving parity is enough to generate a small amount of recognition. In the age of Nico, a dozen white guys doing the Hare Hare Yukai dance is at least worth something. Not much, I suppose, but we’ll take what we can get. Even more notably, there have been a smattering of new stories over the last few years that made the rounds in the Other Country press, featuring gaijin otaku as points of interest. These articles treat us as little more than a peculiar novelty (and on reflection, are disturbingly similar to the kind of coverage gaijin otaku periodically get in their own local news) but they represent an improvement nonetheless. Most encouraging, though, is the recent entry of gaijin otaku into the otaku metaculture zeitgeist. Looking at Sue and Angela (of Genshiken fame) one cannot help but feel an unsettling mixture of pride and shame, which speaks very highly of their accuracy.
Unfortunately, we must therefore also acknowledge the possibility that even in situations where the two factions are fully aware of each other, contact is something that neither side actually wants. For the most part, otaku are naturally passionate people, and that the same passion that unites us is also capably of generating substantial hostility over even the slightest matter. One of the most notable instances to date when international contact was achieved is, regretfully, the infamous episode when 2ch and 4chan collided over the drama surrounding the production of Gurren Lagann. Often unclear whether the participants were agreeing or disagreeing, the whole episode was amazingly hostile, and managed to prove that it is entirely possibly to have protracted flame wars without a common language. Although this serves as a moderately poor example, since the denizens of 2ch and 4chan are more or less collectively incapable of being remotely civil to anyone, let alone each other, this meeting pretty perfectly illustrates the absolute worst-case scenario for any international contact. In a way it’s a bit comforting, since it would seem that the worst is behind us. On the other hand, it’s not terribly encouraging for the future in and of itself.
I personally suspect that the underlying problem is really a simple lack of mutual respect. Each side tends to act as an unflattering mirror for the other, and through the the filter of the Internet, it is only natural for the stories that make it across the language barrier to be the most horrific and extreme examples of each culture. From this, it’s only natural for our country to develop the impression that Other Country otaku are all borderline-psychotic hikikomoris doomed to live out their entire lives devoid of contact with 3D women. And likewise, it’s only natural for them to see us as obnoxious and boorish parasites, latching on to an “exotic” culture without ever developing a real understanding or appreciation remaining hopelessly out of touch and making up for what we lack in expertise using pure volume. We begrudgingly accept that the existence of the other faction is probably a benefit in the abstract, but remain disinclined to actually spend any time together. Again, this is not a phenomenon unique to the international divide, though. We are just as likely to see other groups of otaku with whom we share a language but whose guiding interests are incompatible with our own. The harsh reality is that in the event that we truly do get to know each other better, there’s no guarantee we will actually like each other.
I’d like to think it’s still worth a shot, though.