Why Jpop? Part Eight: That Whole Japanophile Thing

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

Do I have a fetish about Japan?

I don’t think so… but I could be wrong.

What exactly is a Japanophile? Someone who appreciates Japanese culture? Well, yeah, that’s me. But while that may work as a standard definition, it doesn’t capture the more sinister connotations behind the term Japanophile.

If a Japanophile is somebody with an interest in all things Japanese, that doesn’t apply to me. My interest is pretty much limited to its popular culture and its prettiest women (well, my standard of prettiest, which isn’t very traditional at times). By that criteria, I could also be a Francophile and Anglophile… As far as I’m concerned, the best part of any other society is its pop culture and pretty women. The best part of the United States is its pop culture and pretty women, not necessarily in that order.


If being a Japanophile means somebody who’s fetishistic about his interest in Japanese culture, who has an unhealthy interest in something just because it’s Japanese… I don’t think that fits me, either.

But that gets kind of hazy, considering where I’m at in my life. My wife is Japanese-German, born in Germany but raised in Japan. I met here while I was working at a dotcom that translated manga. And I got that job at the dotcom by writing some articles about how the American comics industry could learn from Japanese manga’s economic model…

At some point, I need to visit Japan with my wife because she told her family we’d do so. Our kids are going to be raised fluent in Japanese and German and English, just like she is; that means I need to learn Japanese and German pretty damn soon. Our eating habits are split between American fare and Japanese fare. Just tonight we went out with a friend to a nice sushi restaurant. We watch a good deal of KIKU, the local Japanese station.

Oh, and what do I spend my spare time doing?

Collecting Jpop memorabilia and media files and maintaining a Jpop-centric blog.

So yeah, Japan’s got a bit of a stranglehold on me, in part because of who I married but also out of choice. Guilty as charged in that respect.

That said, I’m not ever going to claim that Japan is better than anyplace else. I think the negative connotation of Japanophile would fit that, and it’s not something I agree with. I’ve met people who hate their own society and prefer Japanese society. Except their idea of Japanese society is idealized or skewed in one way or another.

I once had a student who had to give a speech about a meaningful item he owned and he chose to bring in a samurai sword. He talked about bushido and honor and how Japan is an honorable place but America was not. When another student asked, “Then why don’t you move there?”, I have to admit the question came to my mind as well – except I was thinking feudal Japan in particular, since samurai swords aren’t common in modern Japanese everyday life. This is one way of exoticizing Japan: to take its deep respect for tradition and history and twist it into something simplistic and anomalous.

The American equivalent would be foreigners who think of the U.S. as a cowboy-infested Marlboro country or a goddamn Boyz n the Hood gangsta rapper ganguro fantasyland. Or for that matter, people who come to Hawaii expecting all leis and hula dancing and poi, a kind of Polynesian paradise that exists only when tourists are around. In a state so reliant on tourism, give the rubes what they want.

Another example of bad Japanophilia: I once met an anime and manga fan who only liked the hentai stuff, especially tentacle rape. There is no way to describe him except as a mildly retarded (in the clinical sense), scruffy loser. The one time I met him at the comic store where I worked, he kept talking about how much he loved Japan and how all the women were crazy for him and he couldn’t wait to get back there someday. Basically, he wanted to convey the idea that back in Japan, he was hot shit. (Why he needed to stress this to the cashier at a fucking comic store, I have no clue.) While I dutifully listened and smiled politely, I couldn’t help but think, Well, if you pay enough for women in America, you’d be fond of them too.

Which brings up that whole other connotation of Japanophile: a fetish for Japanese women, somebody who gets turned on by a woman because she fits a (horrible, horrible) stereotype of femininity and subservience.

And let’s contrast this to a fetish I know I had in the past. When I was younger – and well before I met my wife – there were some instances where I’d be uninterested in a female and then, finding out she was considerably younger (usually 16 or 17), would become very interested in her. We’re talking the whole raised-eyebrows, Oh really? kind of reaction. For some odd reason, the examples that immediately come to mind ended up being very good friends of mine with no romance involved. (Almost none, at least.) But I’d say that is a fetish: when one particular aspect of a person defines the desire one feels, especially if that particular aspect overrides any other considerations.

If that’s the definition of a fetish, then I don’t have a fetish for teenage girls anymore. Nor do I have a fetish for Japanese females. As a Filipino who’d been active in Asian American student organizations in college, I don’t think being interested in Asian women is all that unusual.

But do I have a fetish for teenage Japanese girls, is that a combination that surpasses all other considerations?

Nah. I know this mostly because, living in Hawaii and temping for a Japanese tourism company for several months now, I run into many Japanese women and a good deal of Japanese teenagers. It doesn’t feel like a smorgasbord of potential delight as much as the rush and push of everyday humanity. There’s no sense of the exotic, no eroticizing impulse, when you find yourself taking it for granted and just considering these people faces in a crowd.

But wait! How about Japanese teenage girls in sailor school uniforms…? Or Or dressed in penguin costumes?

Ah, we’re picking nits here! No comment.

It’s easy to claim that an interest in Jpop springs up from the mere fact that it’s Japanese and all things Japanese are cool in the eyes of a Japanophile. But it’s not like I enjoy Japanese culture indiscriminately, that I want to experience all things Japanese. I keep a healthy distance from visual kei, for starters. (Not that I think it’s bad, it’s just not for me. Though perhaps Matusdaira Ken counts as a visual kei / samurai samba hybrid?) It’s also not as if I ever accidentally lapse into speaking pidgin Japanese, which is a common stereotype of anime otaku. There are too many people around me who really do speak Japanese; I couldn’t get away with it even if I wanted to. And it isn’t as if I’d drop everything for a chance to move to Japan; my wife and I had discussed it as a possibility but we both agreed Hawaii was a better fit for us. I’m quite comfortable being an ugly American, and an ugly American I’ll remain. That said, Hawaii’s just the right balance between Japanese and American culture, with a whole lot of other cultures thrown into the halo-halo mix.

But the accusation of Japanophilia is an honest concern, not because I care what other people think necessarily (if I cared, that whole teenage fetish paragraph would’ve been cut) but because a strong interest in another culture is often considered suspect, a sign of some intense dissatisfaction. We live in an increasingly global world, but there are some people who want to narrow that global view out of one kind of myopia or another: the myopia that claims one’s native country is the best and nobody can say otherwise, and the myopia that claims some other country is the best and so I’ll make up for having such a shitty native country by acting like a jackass in worshipping that other, idealized country.

I think the best way to look at an interest in another culture is from a couple of angles. First, it’s an openness to new and interesting experiences. You’re not automatically dismissing your native culture, just considering what else is available. The term that used to be employed for this is being “cosmopolitan”. Second, a refined interest in another culture – or an aspect of it – should indicate a heightened self-awareness of what one seeks and appreciates, a kind of eclectism where one seeks the best fit to one’s own leanings. I’ve been picking through what I like about Jpop in past entries, considering not only the pretty girls and the catchy songs but also the marketing and the presentation and the attitude and the experience of discovery / collecting.

I don’t like the term Japanophile because it’s too simplistic, too Pavlovian: it’s like ringing a Japanese bell and expecting me to salivate. It’d be closer to the truth to say that you’re ringing a whole chorus of bells, each of them an ingredient adding up to what Jpop provides, some of which is uniquely Japanese but not all of it, and that harmony, that symphony of disparate elements, is what gets the drool rolling down my chin.

Which is a horrible image, but let’s end on that note anyway.

Next: Concluding Remarks