From Anime to Actuality: The Evolution of My Conceptualization of Japan – by Marin Ekstrom. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
[A traditional shrine with Tokyo Tower in the background]
Like many children who came of age in the late 1990s/ early 2000s, I grew up on a steady diet of cartoons and video games. This time period coincided with the rise of Japanese media in mainstream American pop culture. As a result, Japanese TV shows and video games like Sailor Moon, Dragonball, and Pokemon became childhood staples. I cannot say exactly why I was personally drawn to such programs. On one hand, they were a bit strange with their giant-eyed characters, exaggerated artistic effects (i.e. over-the-top facial expressions) and fantastical plots. On the other hand, they seemed more whimsical, imaginative, and emotionally heartfelt than their American counterparts, and thus I became a devotee of Japanese media from an early age.
[New friends at a seafood restaurant in Ohara-Isumi City]
[Convenience store rice balls and other goodies]
[Japanese dolls at the Tokyo-Narita Airport]
As I entered middle school, I descended deeper and deeper into otaku-hood (Note: an otaku is someone who is a just bit too interested in Japanese media, somewhat like Star Trek and Trekkies in the USA…). By default, I also became interested in Japan, the birthplace of such media masterpieces, and began to learn more about Japanese culture in the process: popular foods, common social norms and traditions, funky technology, etc. While these efforts did teach me quite a bit about Japan, my stronger interest in cartoons and video games distorted my conceptualization of Japan. Instead of seeing as a real place with real people, I chiefly envisioned it as a “magical cartoon utopia.” After reaching an apex of awkwardness in sixth grade (with my otaku-hood being a major, though certainly not singular, contributor to that affliction), I realized that I would need to tame my inner fan girl in order to survive junior high and high school. Part of that mentality switch was also the process of growing up: the TV shows and video games served their respective purposes and it was time to let go and move on to more sophisticated interests. For better or for worse, I lumped Japan as a whole into that mindset. Save a few fits of nostalgia where I tried (badly) to study the Japanese language, I viewed Japan as an impossibly cool place, but one that was more of a relic of childhood interests as opposed to a serious area of study and scholarship.
[A wild Pikachu appeared!]
Fast-forward to my first year out of college: I was working in China and had the opportunity to travel during the winter break. While there was an embarrassment of riches in terms of travel options, my inner otaku influenced me to book a ticket to the “magical cartoon utopia” of Japan.
I ended up spending six days in Japan and it turned out to be an incredible experience. Unsurprisingly, part of the reason why I enjoyed the experience so much was that I was able to geek out over my childhood obsessions in their natural habitat (I’m looking at you, Pokemon key chains and Sailor Moon facemasks). What struck me the most from my journey there, however, was that I finally learned how to see Japan as a “real” place…and still appreciate it from that angle. First of all, I had the incredible opportunity to stay with my former roommate Risako and her family while I was there. I was showered with unbelievable friendliness and hospitality, which included tons of delicious food, movie nights watching Princess Mononoke and Whisper of the Heart, and lessons in day-to-day Japanese etiquette (i.e. phrases to say when coming/leaving the house, placing your shoes a certain way for good luck, etc). I relished the opportunity to spend time with them and other Japanese people and experience their customs and lifestyles. I also heard fragments of memories and histories that offered their own personal stories while reflecting aspects of national collective memory. Additionally, I had the chance to walk through the cities of Tokyo, Chiba, and Ohara-Isumi City, and saw the blend of contemporary, cutting-edge buildings next to ancient shrines and temples—thus reflecting Japan’s symbiotic respect for past, present, and future. For all of these reasons, I was fascinated by the “real” Japan and embraced it for the duration of my time there.
[Risako and I with some kimono girls]
Having had time to mull over my time in Japan, the most important impact of that trip was how it gave me a more well-rounded, mature view of Japan. Granted, six days is a brief window of time to visit such a complex nation and I have no delusions of grandeur that I am now an expert on the place. However, the experience has helped me to better embrace my childhood love of Japanese cartoons and video games as my gateway drug to the Land of the Rising Sun. Sure, to love a country for its cartoon offerings could be seen as a bit shallow and silly. But much of Japanese media reflects the fascinating cultural undertones of its home base: for example, it may feature characters celebrating a tea ceremony or include characters from Japanese mythology. In other words, they serve as pop cultural ambassadors to familiarize and attract people from all over the world to Japanese culture. At the same time, I am glad that I better recognize and respect Japan as a real place and not just a glorified cartoon land. The country has an incredible history of both isolation and global integration, and has done both commendable and catastrophic actions that still have ramifications in Japan and the world at large today. It is still arguably the key power in the Asia-Pacific region (though it’s in tight competition with China) and remains one of the most important global powers to this day. And simply from a personal perspective, the sites are cool and the people are super nice, which makes me happy that it’s an actual place to visit. If you ever have the chance, I definitely recommend a visit to Japan, and please revere it both for its impact on the worlds of imagination and reality.
Marin Ekstrom serves as an editor for The North Star Reports
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Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports; Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal; Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica. Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports.
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