Growing up, I really liked Japanese anime—a thought at which a sizeable group of people my age would already be snickering and rolling their eyes. That’s the way it is: I’ve always been a huge sci-fi fan, and anime was a form of storytelling that helped me get my fix; alongside books, movies and TV series.
At the time in place where I grew up, namely Europe circa early 2000s, there was a pretty heavy stigma against people who liked anime. A stigma that persists to this day, although things have gotten a lot better now that the US also churns out lots of animated content for young adults.
The idea was that cartoons are for children, and that anybody in their teens or 20s still watching stories told through illustrations was either childish, socially awkward, or just plain weird.
That stigma didn’t come out of nowhere. Other activities once deemed childish—like playing video games and wearing t-shirts—were already in the process of being normalized. Anime was taking longer, which I believe is due to two main factors. The first is that anime is an industry dominated by what was considered to be a far-away country.
The second is that the far-away country is Japan, and it’s acceptable within Western society to broadly think that Japan’s just kind of freaky.
The vicious circle of stereotypical anecdotes
I can’t deny that Japan is very different from the West, so it’s not surprising that our respective cultures find each other bizarre. We eat different foods with different utensils. We work in different organizations, in accordance with a different work ethic. We spend our free time in different ways, consuming different kinds of entertainment.
But that can be said of any two cultures that developed for hundreds—if not thousands—of years with limited mutual influence.
If Japanese culture gets filtered through a much thicker cloud of wacky misinformed mystery than other cultures, it’s because there’s an established narrative in international media about what stories coming out of Japan are worthy of the Western public’s attention. An overwhelming majority of those stories fall into one of three categories: lonely Japanese people coping in unusual ways; seemingly useless or over-the-top technology (bonus points if it’s sexual); and cultural mascots.
These stories are everywhere, all the time. Just recently, the New York Post released a piece on how a team at Gifu University came up with a robot that realistically simulated the experience of holding a girlfriend’s hand. The caption stipulates the device is targeted at lonely men. Checks two of the big three categories for an international sensation, and indeed, as I write these lines the video on Twitter has already surpassed 2.6 million views.
While I don’t want to minimize the work of engineers at Japan’s 75th most prestigious institution of higher learning, I can unequivocally say that disembodied mechanical hands are not a widespread cultural phenomenon. There aren’t single men all over Japan clamoring for this product.
This is a news outlet (well, the New York Post) going out of its way to find a story that fits a popular cultural stereotype.
The entire reporting process behind these stories is a mix of lazy and harmful. Media outlets around the Western world will lie in wait for the opportunity to catch one of the 126 million people living in Japan doing something unseemly. The anecdotal drollery then gets exported and sold to incurious audiences; people who will never visit Japan and are perfectly content leaving their warped understanding unchallenged.
These stories often get classified as news, world events, or cultural pieces. They’re not. They’re entertainment at the expense of a group that has almost no voice. Basically the equivalent of Florida man, if Florida were some far-away island filled with tens of millions of people who will never know they’re the butt of the joke.
Anecdotes are entertainment
All that being said, I’m not against funny, interesting or unusual stories in the media. Not everything has to be serious social commentary all the time. I don’t see culture as sacred or off-limits to comedy, and poking fun at one another is how we bridge cultural divides, relativize deeply-anchored preconceptions, and come together to find our common humanity.
What gets me is when the story is a tired cliché peddled by a clickbait-hungry reporter, targeting a low-information audience, reinforcing negative stereotypes against a certain group or community that is unlikely to respond.
I’m tired of getting messages from friends and family sending me links to these articles and asking me in all seriousness if that’s how life really is over here. If you’re going to take a cheap shot at Japanese culture, journalistic integrity should dictate you put it in proper context. The problem is that proper context is not as interesting as ascribing off-putting behavior to an entire country—not to mention that in our current media landscape, journalistic integrity has long been sacrificed at the altar of clicks and likes.
Since I have little faith that the media will soon change its ways, my hope rests with the readers who actually care. Those who seek more in-depth information about cultures different from their own and who recognize that if a story seems unbelievably odd, chances are it’s anecdotal. With your support, perhaps content creators with more integrity will have the means to offer a more complex and nuanced portrayal of Japanese culture and society.
Some already do, and I definitely want to try.