Japanese shame

I wanted to expand a little on something I touched on in an earlier post… namely, just why it took me so long to recognize (really 認める) Japanese as the language I wanted to be fluent in, when I entered college supposedly as a French major. I think for a long time I was embarrassed about it because of the public perception of those who study and are interested in Japan/Japanese things. I thought if I showed everyone that I was studying French just as much, I wouldn’t seem as “weird.” A noble goal, but one that in the end added to the delays and cost me time I can’t get back.

When I meet Japanese people, sometimes I get asked the classic question, “What made you want to study Japanese?” (どうして日本語を勉強しますか? and similar variations). If you study Japanese, you’ve probably answered this question in conversation with someone or you’ve written a small essay on the topic. My reply often goes along the lines of “さあ… よくわかりませんが… [Hmm… I really don’t know…]” before I have to, usually, make up a real answer like “It sounded interesting?” Because the truth, the real reason, is: anime. And manga. But I don’t want to get labeled an otaku, because I’m really not–anymore–and I don’t want to scare off potential Japanese friends, so I never ever say that. (And despite what I’m about to say, I stand by that, because I can’t do anything about Japanese perceptions of otaku, especially Western otaku–which might cost me potential friendships–but I can at least try to  feel okay about other Westerners labeling me weird.) We’ve all seen the super anime/manga fans in your typical Japanese class, and they’re annoying as hell (fortunately, they usually quit after a few semesters, because–yeah–Japanese is hard). I didn’t want to get lumped in with them! I didn’t want to be perceived as a “weeaboo,” someone obsessed with Japan stuff to an unhealthy degree. Actual weeaboos make me feel Fremdschämen (embarrassment on the behalf of someone else’s behavior) intensely and I avoid them.

Being a weeaboo is actually a big fear for me, and it’s easy to get a little like that when you have any amount of enthusiasm for Japanese language/culture. (I do find that weeaboos generally are not as enamored by the language, since it’s difficult, whereas my primary love is for the language and culture comes second, so there’s at least that to comfort me. Plus, I’m quite aware of the negative parts of Japan, and a part of me was glad to go home after four months.) It’s why I sometimes won’t purposely speak Japanese to waitresses in Japanese restaurants, or the people at my local Japanese mini grocery mart, something that totally perplexes my boyfriend. I just don’t want them to think of me as annoying, over-eager. But part of that shame is similarly what kept me from acknowledging Japanese as the language I wanted to build my career on for so long. I was afraid of how other people, mostly people who don’t know much about Japan and just have a few stereotypes in mind, would view me as a result. I knew it would make me seem a little weirder than if I simply had a slight obsession with France, for example–after all, Americans love French stuff, but with Asia it’s like “Hmm, why? Why can’t you like something normal?” It’s sort of a problem–I wish I could just embrace it instead of feeling slightly embarrassed.

Interestingly, I learned my first Japanese word in second grade unwittingly. It was 班長, hanchou, or as it’s known in English, “honcho.” Of course, at the time I didn’t know it was a Japanese-origin word–I think I only found that out a few years ago, and it blew my mind. One of the popular girls in my class had invited me to spend the night at her house, and I went; while we were playing with dolls, she told me one was the “head honcho.” It was the first time I’d ever heard the word and I didn’t know what it meant.

It wasn’t until middle school that I actually started to want to learn Japanese, though. (Buckle in, this is gonna be a long story.) Towards the end of elementary school I’d become friends with a few people who introduced me to the world of Sanrio characters (already a Lisa Frank fan, I got sucked in by the cuteness aspect), and for a while that was the extent of my interest in Japanese things. In sixth grade I became friends with Aro, someone who already had several nerdy interests, and we bonded over a love of the Animorphs book series (I have always been a great reader–although I honestly can’t remember which came first, the friendship or my own interest in Animorphs). Over time we merged our friends into a larger group with Aro as the ringleader thanks to an uncanny charisma; whatever Aro got into, everyone else soon followed and liked it too. Thus around 1998, sixth/seventh grade, when reruns of dubbed Sailor Moon episodes began to be broadcast, Sailor Moon became Aro’s new obsession and the rest of us were persuaded to fall hard for it too. That was it, our group was identified with an anime/manga obsession from that point forward. (I’m still close friends with the vast majority of those people today. Anime bonds?!). Thanks to series like Sailor Moon, Pokemon, and so on gaining visibility at that time, even a friend who didn’t go to my school started to share my anime/manga love (of course, I encouraged her). I even went with her to an anime store sometime in seventh grade shortly after the late 1998 release of volume 1 of Sailor Moon, where I purchased it–my very first graphic novel. Published by Mixx (later TOKYOPOP–where I worked! In Japan I ended up meeting the people who had worked on that volume. So strange to look back on!), it was one of the first translated manga to come out; of course they were all flipped at that time, something I didn’t know for a while. I also purchased and fell in love with another early Mixx-published title, Magic Knight Rayearth, which was my first foray into Clamp works (I’m still something of a Clamp fan today). Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth, Pokemon, and Ranma 1/2 were the series I was most into then–Ranma was really popular with the whole group for a while–and over the years my friends and I would trade copied VHS tapes and translated manga volumes until we’d all seen a wide breadth of series.

At the same time, Aro and I got involved with a site called Otaku World. (We embraced the word “otaku” at the time as newborn fans with no idea of how derogatory it is in Japanese.) It was there that we learned about kami-shibai, paper theatre plays, since the site had a program that allowed people to create their own stories told via the kami-shibai program. (I made a lot of online friends after joining a forum for kami-shibai program authors then, and still keep in touch with a few to this day–I even met a couple in 2007!). I remember debating with Aro about how to pronounce kami-shibai–“kah-me-shee-bay” vs. “kah-me-shee-buy” (I was the latter, and correct, though how I thought kami was pronounced was still off). I don’t know how I ended up correct there, as I only had a grasp of a handful of Japanese words; somehow I had an instinct. (I wasn’t always right, though: I had to learn that the Ranma 1/2 character Akane’s name was said “ah-kah-nay,” not “a-cane.”) But moments like those–learning Japanese words and how to pronounce them–made me hungry for more. I wanted to learn more. I even wrote out a list in one of my notebooks of the Japanese words I knew so far.

Throughout high school, my friends and I continued to get each other interested in series we had discovered, passing around tapes and manga, attending anime conventions and cosplaying, though by graduation our passion had cooled a bit. (For the record, today I occasionally watch anime and read manga, as I have a few series I remain a big fan of, but I hate going to anime conventions and I hate a lot of the fan culture. I try to be a “cool” anime/manga casual fan. Is that possible?!). I wanted to learn Japanese badly the whole time, but my school didn’t offer it so I settled in to wait until I could take it in college. I wanted to study it properly, formally, and I also didn’t know where to look for good self-study resources, so I didn’t try very hard to learn it on my own. I did however attempt to “translate” romaji song lyrics–a deeply misguided mistake! I also taught myself how to sing several Japanese songs. But I was deeply jealous of anyone learning Japanese who could read it–I viewed that as an insurmountable task.

When applying to college, I made sure to choose one that offered Japanese, even rejecting my acceptance into a semi-prestigious private college because it didn’t have Japanese (much to the bafflement of my mom, who didn’t see why that should be important in light of the name recognition!). Upon arriving at college and registering for my first semester of classes (old-school style–in person!), I had to wait in a long line of freshman as the upperclassmen registered before us and, subsequently, classes filled up. As each class became full and unavailable, someone would write its name on a board. When “Japanese 101” appeared, I began to slightly panic. If I couldn’t take Japanese 101 this semester, I’d have to wait until sophomore year. I tried to console myself by saying I could always begin German instead, but it wasn’t very helpful. Finally I entered the hall where the professors sat at tables to sign our slips and register us into their classes. After registering for my other classes, I decided to approach the Japanese professor and try my luck. At the time there was only one. I went up to him nervously and explained my situation–that I really wanted to get into Japanese 101 and was there any way I could anyway even though it was full? He grimaced–I was the third person he’d be letting in over the limit, to my surprise–but agreed. I was elated and relieved. In the end, several people dropped the class the first week–almost all weeaboos forced to recognize the difficulty of even beginning Japanese for the average person without foreign language aptitude, or regular people who had foolishly thought “Japanese sounds fun/interesting!” and quickly regretted it–bringing our class to an acceptable size, while I stuck with it to the end. Giving in to the impulse to try and fight for Japanese 101 remains one of the best decisions I made, but it still makes me a little nervous now thinking just how different things could have been if I hadn’t!

I look back on all this now–rejecting a college that didn’t offer Japanese, desperately wedging my way into Japanese 101–and almost can’t believe it happened that way. I have a bit of a haze around my memories of how I got started in Japanese, because I’ve spent so long downplaying it–“oh, I don’t really know why I took it, it just seemed interesting” and other excuses. To actually look at the facts is a little shocking to me now! It was a conscious decision, very much so, even though it doesn’t seem that way to me at all, it feels very much like I just fell into it quite accidentally. I’m not sure why that is.

As I’ve said before, I entered college as an English-French double major, and planned to study abroad in France my entire junior year. I also thought I’d spend my sophomore year living in the French wing of my campus language house. In the end though, I lived in the Japanese wing and spent half of junior year in Japan instead. Japanese began to dominate more and more. I graduated an English major, French and Japanese minor. I guess I held on to French so long to sort of legitimize my Japanese–“see, I’m not a weeaboo, I like other stuff too!” Of course, I genuinely liked/like French and France, but I just don’t have the same passion for it, the same drive to be fluent. It would be nice–but I’m more inclined to look at my shoddy accent that just embarrasses me, as well as the intolerant attitude of French people towards anyone who can’t speak fluently, and give up.

This was frustrating when I told my parents about my plans to try and undergo more formal Japanese study: they didn’t get why, Japanese/Japan is still a foreign inscrutable thing to them, lumped in with China and the rest of Asia in their minds. “Why not France?” my mom asked me, confused. Of course they’d prefer if I went back to France because then they’d have an excuse to return to Europe! (They have no interest in coming to Japan.) But maybe it’s all the time I spent trying to cover up my Japanese shame by playing up my interest in French stuff too that really confused them. (For what it’s worth, my French host family was baffled by my interest in Japanese as well.) And in hindsight, I wish I’d given that up earlier and just focused on Japanese alone as soon as it became clear that I preferred it to all other languages, which I could have done more easily if I hadn’t clung to French for so long as a cover. Having a Japanese major–even though at my school that would have just meant a lot of culture/literature classes in English and very long essays, as opposed to the more rigorous language study that I would have wanted–would be good right about now.

I don’t know… I just know that part of my journey, as I attempt to make a career out of Japanese, involves coming to terms with the idea that people may misinterpret me as a weeaboo when I tell them what I’m doing. I know I’m not–well, maybe a little, but not in the bad way–so that should be enough. Right? (Yes, I’m a very self-conscious person. But the whole point of this post is to say I’m going to try to care less!)

As for whether I’d be honest and tell my Japanese friends that I like anime/manga… which to me is a completely separate issue, tied to Japanese perceptions of otaku that I can’t do anything about… um, maybe later.


7 thoughts on “Japanese shame

  1. Rebecca Sparks says:

    I really dislike the term “weeaboo”, as if “nerd” and “geek” and “otaku” weren’t enough shaming words to imply that people lacked social skills and were so into their hobby they lost touch with reality, we have to create a new one to specifically for the anime community. Especially since enthusiasm and mistakes happen often in a new hobby or interest. There’s no shame in being interested in another culture, and there’s no shame in it starting with anime. It’s not like they were doing bunraku plays at your school, or reading Tales of the Heike. As long as you don’t take manga/anime as a literally true reflection of Japan, as if that’s all Japan has to offer, and you’re respectful of other people, than you’re fine.
    I’m frustrated (not at you) at a society that has a hierarchy of liking, and shames people for having interests or lifestyles deemed outside the norm. And it frustrates me that these sub-cultures take that shame and use it to hurt people inside their own community. Reading Weeaboo stories, most of the stories are about sexual harassment and someone going through a psychological breakdown, with the occasional story about someone being rude.
    Blarg. I don’t think I’m saying what I want to say at all. Sorry.
    On a completely different note, Have you read “Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere?” It’s by one of my professors, who has quite the career as a Japanese translator and has hung out with some impressive literary and film talents, and he tells very amusing ancedotes.

    • Séri says:

      Haha, it’s hard for me to tell how much of your comment is censuring the way things are, and how much is censuring me for using the word, the thinking, etc!

      Well, I’m no fan of the word weeaboo. I do think that there ARE some people who fit every definition of the word, including the pejorative ones, to an absolute T. And they’re the exact kind of people I can’t stand.

      But I also know that many people I know, who believe themselves to be “normal,” would absolutely see me as a “weeaboo,” and I have to just accept that. There really SHOULDN’T be any shame in it, and we shouldn’t use those words–but, I have to face the fact that there is and we do. :/ At least I really don’t ever have cause to call someone else a weeaboo like as an insult (sometimes it’s really a matter-of-fact observation and synonymous with “extreme and out-of-touch-with-reality Japanophile”).

      As long as you don’t take manga/anime as a literally true reflection of Japan, as if that’s all Japan has to offer

      Well, the thing is, that really is what weeaboos do! Most are very young and/or very naive, and just have stars in their eyes thanks to a newfound Japan obsession, and they really are like that! That to me is the core of the word “weeaboo.”

      Sexual harassment, psychological breakdowns… I don’t know much about things like that being associated with weeaboos.

      No, I haven’t read that book, but it sounds very interesting, although it also sounds like something that would just make me super jealous. It sounds like your professor has had the career (minus academia) and the life that I want for myself…

      • Rebecca Sparks says:

        As far as the sexual harassment, psychological breakdowns, I’m getting that mostly through The weeaboo stories tumbler.
        The embarrassing fan stage is more of a stage of life in America, where we go to fitting in as much as possible as kids to finding our own identities as preteens to early 20s. Neophytes of any new interest of this age group are grating; Christians, atheists, republicans, baseball, sci-fi, goth, techno, cars, etc. What is grating is not the interest, but the immaturity.
        A term like weeaboo ties that immaturity to the interest, like if you like Japan too much you’ll become more immature, or that all people who like Japanese things are immature. Neither are true statements. I know lots of people who are mature and very interested & knowledgeable in Japan/Japanese language/anime (including myself). Why would I want to perpetuate this stereotype that shames and punishes them, or that matter, enthusiastic initiates who like what I like, and will one day be mature and knowledgeable?
        there really SHOULDN’T be any shame in it, and we shouldn’t use those words–but, I have to face the fact that there is and we do.
        Rebel! Don’t feel ashamed, and don’t use shaming words. Easier said than done, of course, but it’s not like there is an innate shame to the interest—people make other people feel this way. In part I am unhappy that you use weeaboo, but it also breaks my heart a felt so ashamed for just liking Japanese language. I’m sorry that your parents don’t understand. I don’t know how well your interest fares in [state], where here in San Jose/San Fran area there are tons of temples and communities that teach Japanese language.
        I know that you can be hard on others, but I believe that you are harder on yourself. I’m glad you have worked through your internal and external barriers that kept you from doing something you love. As far as talking to waitresses in Japanese, I tend to be shy, but my roommate is considerably bold. While we stopped by the hand-pressed tofu store, she started chatting the sales clerk in Japanese, and after the conversation turned to umeboshi, the lady behind the counter offered up her own homemade umeboshi she kept in the back—the best I’ve ever tasted. This is just one of many examples where the people she talked to in Japanese seemed pleased by her effort, not put off by her over-eagerness. Sometimes it pays to be bold.

      • Séri says:

        For some reason I can’t reply to your comment directly… weird.

        I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree, because while I have nothing against enthusiasm, some of the ways dictionary-definition weeaboos express that is very embarrassing to me, I think it’s very over the top and unnecessary, and I don’t see that perception of mine changing. I said before, I never have any cause to use it as an insult. I continue to think it can sometimes be a very accurate description of someone. But I can try to not use the word from now on and instead say “hardcore Japanophile” or something. Like I said I rarely have cause to use it about someone anyway. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about other people who are, just me and my fear of being perceived as one.

        This whole post is about me working out why I felt ashamed and vowing to feel less ashamed in the future. My parents’ reaction just makes me upset, not embarrassed further. I wanted to use this entry to talk through my issues and declare that I want to try behaving differently from now on. In the process I might have admitted some things that weren’t great about myself. But the point is that I want to acknowledge them and then try to move on from them.

        I had to edit out where you said my state because I’m trying to keep things anonymous here. But I think you made a judgment when you assumed that because it’s [that state] we might have less cultural resources when it comes to Japan/Japanese things. That isn’t true at all. Every big city here has a Japan-America Society including mine that put on several Japanese cultural festivals every year, we have huge Asian populations in every city (thanks to all the technology companies), there is a weekend Japanese school for Japanese-American kids, Japanese language classes offered to the community year-round, and we have some very legitimate Japanese restaurants. Sure it’s not as robust as it would be in California, but you don’t have to assume that because it’s [state] we’re culturally bereft/backwards.

        Thanks for contributing your opinion, it’s really given me a lot to think about!!

  2. Rebecca Sparks says:

    Sorry to make some assumptions. Know you city is very cosmopolitan–you’ve told me actually in the past. I just wasn’t sure–I knew you had to have some because of Japanese speaking waitresses, but it doesn’t really tell me population density. And sorry to be so nosy on a personal post.

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