I Went Looking for Anime and Found Japan
Have you ever felt like you knew a place without having been there? Ever come across a familiar scene in a foreign land that forced you to blink your eyes and double take?
My journey to my second home started when I sat my friend best friend down, breathed in deep and made an admission.
“I like anime.”
Okay, so it wasn’t that dramatic. But for those who don’t know, anime refers to Japanese cartoons that have a reputation for being oversexualised and overviolent. So for the longest time, I was ashamed of my taste and attempted to hide it, isolating myself from the ‘normal’ conversation of the people around me.
“Did you watch the newest episode of Glee?”
“How good is that One Direction song!”
I just smiled in response. I wouldn’t know.
I loved the intricate plotlines of anime, with its visual symbolism of literature and cinematic flourishes of film. I also loved how different the storytelling style is from the West, so when I came out as an otaku (anime enthusiast), I bone crunchingly embraced everything to do with it and its country of origin – Japan.
In the anime community, this kind of person is derogatorily called a weeaboo: a lover of all things Japanese. But all the Pocky, green tea and ramen I could consume at home couldn’t compare to actually travelling to Japan. Just like LA is seen as the dreamland of Western cinema, Japan is paradise to the otaku.
My dream first became a reality when I went around Japan on a school trip in year 12. As I sat on the plane, sparing no thoughts to the educational value of the trip intended by my subject, I prepared myself for the shining glory that would be finally getting to see in person what I’d consumed for years through a diet of onsen, crowded trains and anime high school.
There’s a mythos amongst okatu: Japan, and especially Akihabara – a district in Tokyo famed for being a manga and anime lovers’ pilgrimage – are jokingly called “Holy Sights”. But, as is often inevitable, the fantasy of a place can be torn to shreds by its reality.
A few days into my first Japan trip, I realised my preconceptions about the country and its culture were maybe a little misguided thanks to the flourishes and fantasies of the anime artists; and perhaps a little part of me already knew that was going to be the case.
This realisation should have crushed me: scrunched me up like weeaboo trash and thrown me in the flaming bin. But instead, something else caught my attention.
Why was everything so familiar?
Several years later, I have once again found myself in Tokyo. That feeling of familiarity returns more every day as I wander roads the width of a single car. It’s in the hanging powerlines dipped onto black tiled roof; the grey of the city landscape, with buildings clumping together in metal mazes and rainbow party streamers glowing through the neon advertisements. It’s in the eye-popping green of the countryside as I pass by in the carriage of the Shinkansen (Bullet Train).
I’ve been taken to a traditional festival in the streets of Tokyo, with Taiko drums hammering in time with bells and chimes, BBQ smoke filling the air from frying food and children playing colourful games. I won a goldfish friend that sadly only lived until the next day. I wore yukata and geta with my Japanese friends, and understood the difference between cultural appreciation and appropriation.
I was in awe — not from the foreignness of the environment, but at the familiarity of it. None of this was strange or alien. I had seen traditions like this roll out from start to end many times in various shows, and through the eyes of hundreds of characters, I had already lived this.
If travelling is all about experiencing a new culture, I was only experiencing a familiar one. This got me wondering – would going into a coffee shop in New York be as familiar as watching an episode of Friends? Does Midsummer Murders accustom us to actually strolling through a quaint English village?
It is often said that the world is becoming smaller. Maybe that’s because there are places that are no longer foreign to us, as, in a way, we’ve already experienced them – albeit indirectly.
That’s not to say that armchair travel is an alternative to actual travel. My introduction to Japan was through anime, and although I was able to absorb many cultural nuances, physically being in the country put all my prior knowledge into context. The screen acts as a barrier to immersion – learning a culture is one thing, but being able to participate in it is where cultural understanding happens.
In addition to realising how familiar Japan was, my travels also worked the other way: they made me aware of how distant from Japanese culture you are as a foreigner, regardless of how much Pocky you eat. With my blue eyes and wavy mouse-brown hair, I’m still a gaijin (foreigner) to every Japanese person I pass. When I accidently bump into someone on the train, and apologise out of instinct with a small half-bow, I can see the surprise in their eyes at my learned gesture.
I also have the privilege of ignorance – real or feigned – that my gaijin status affords. I can retreat to English when I do something stupid, like pull on the flip-out bin in the shinkansen and wonder why the bathroom door isn’t opening. The foreigner card is an amazing tool, “Sorry – I’m just a baka (stupid) gaijin; I don’t know better!”
There’s a freedom in watching something from a distance. But the real enjoyment comes with immersing yourself in something already so familiar to you, of a place turning from an array of trivia to a lived experience. I still get a body-tingling thrill whenever someone I’m talking to back home in Australia reciprocates my love of anime. But as I came to understand Japanese culture in the context of the real world, I gained a newfound appreciation of the place that was so new to me, yet so engrained within myself.
I went looking for anime, and instead, I found Japan.
Cover by Andre Benz