Surprisingly, my title is actually a serious question. It just sounds kinds stupid. Not a question I know the answer to but one I have been pondering over for a while now.

You should know that by foreign fan here I mean “not Japanese”. Or more precisely not surrounded by and immersed by Japanese culture. Let me try to explain this a bit better.

uggh too much effort

There are two concepts that have been on my mind lately. Ubiquitous knowledge and intended audience. Both are fairly similar when it comes down to it. When I talk about ubiquitous knowledge or inherent truths, I mean that when communicating with someone, anyone, there’s a certain amount of information that we assume the other person knows. If we’re speaking the same language we often take it for granted that they understand words and their meaning the same way that we do, which often leads to misunderstanding. We assume that they know basic facts of life and survival, like what being hungry or tired is, stuff like that. But we also tend to assume that they exist in a similar social context as we do. That they went to school for example, that they understand moral concepts and therefore if they disagree it’s a difference of morality or if we’re generous of perception rather than understanding.

It’s impractical for someone to explain absolutely everything whenever they have a conversation. And impractical is a huge understatement. It’s probably not possible. This is why most people just assimilate a lot of these truths on a not quite conscious level and don’t really think about them at all when talking with others. They may lead to a lot of frustration when they don’t actually match up to reality but they are part of the mechanisms that make communication possible in the first place.

Intended audience sort of expands on that concept. The idea is that when someone creates a work of fiction they have a general notion of who will watch or read it. Not only in the sense of pre-established notions that they don’t have to explain because there are certain things they assume their audience knows, but also in how certain things will make their audience *feel*. For instance an author can be building up to what is supposed to be a traumatic event..

don’t worry, it will work out…

Actually, let me use a nonsense example here. Let’s say this author lives in an imaginary country where the colour pink is associated with extreme lewdness. Like it’s not socially acceptable to wear this colour in public at all. And they have a character who accidentally throws a red towel in with their white shirts and is then stuck wearing a slightly pink shirt to work. If they explain the entire context it seems like ridiculous hand holding to anyone from that country and sort of lessens the impact of the prose. It makes it childish and way to obvious. Audiences roll their eyes or get bored at getting spoon fed common knowledge. However if they don’t explain it, anyone not aware of the cultural stereotypes might think the character is reacting in a completely random and ridiculous way or, even more likely just have the entire thing go over their head and not know that there were any implications there at all.

This is a pretty obvious example and usually it’s much more subtle details that are subject to such things. But when those little things add up one can end up missing out on major themes and a lot of subtext. Taking in a much impoverished version of the fiction as a result.

This is what I be been thinking about. My background is a cultural hodgepodge and I’ve been exposed to a lot of different cultures in my day but Japan is still a mostly theoretical culture for me. I know a bit about it from research but I have never really lived it. I learned about the culture, maybe even understand it a bit but I don’t feel it. I haven’t internalized it. And let’s be honest, my knowledge is extremely superficial and full of gaps.

All my nostalgia cues, childhood traumas, learned social niceties and and regional morality is bound to be quite different from someone who’s grown up in Japan, even if that someone is from similar economic and educational background as me. No matter how much I explore the subject I’m still not going to internalize it in the same way.

maybe I should try harder

This is why I figure a lot of what anime has to offer must get lost in translation for me. Actually I know that a lot goes over my head because nice readers have to explain details to me in my comments on a regular basis. And although everyone’s experience is unique and there’s a chance of missing out on the details (or Easter eggs) in any piece of fiction, the odds seem particularly stacked against me when it comes to anime.

So why is it that I not only enjoy anime so much, I enjoy it more than European or American media for the most part? Even the games I play are mostly Japanese although the split is more even there, as anime is pretty much the only thing I watch. I could go on about being a weirdo and how that explains it for me but it’s not like I’m that special. I may have hopped on the trend way early but anime is growing exponentially in sales and popularity on the international market. It seems a whole lot of “foreigners” are finding something worth their time in anime and I don’t think it’s all about pretty colours and fanservice. At least a few fans resonate with the stories being told. So why? And is there something specific about “now”?

While trying to answer this question (which I can’t by the way, a shallow theory based entirely on guesswork is the best I have to offer), I came up with two main angles. My first and more solid one is that “intended” experience isn’t necessarily the best experience and certainly not the only experience.

Spice and Wolfe VR experience looks terrifying

I’ve mentioned before that I tend to lean towards a death of the author interpretation of art. I also believe that there’s a quantum art effect. Where admiring or experiencing a work of art inherently changes it. When I read or watch a piece of fiction I filter it through all my bias, experiences, knowledge, fetishes and so forth. My personal experience with that art is a combination of the work as it was created and every personal inclination that goes into my interpretation. As such the anime I watch is unique. It may be an interpretation with intricacies and implications that the author never even considered and might say are not in fact present. And that’s fine.

This applies for everyone. I think that there are some things that are universal to the human experience but a good work of fiction balances out the rest so that individual members of the audience can then go on and find something for themselves.

Anime tries a lot of things. It’s an amazingly varied medium that still manages to be full of repetition and tropes. I’m not sure how that happens… Sorcery? In any case, it’s rich with ideas and influences so someone willing to explore and pour in a bit of themselves into the experience is bound to find something of interest.

there’s someone for everyone

The second theory I have is shaker and has to do with the internet, like most things these days. On a purely practical standpoint the availability and ease of streaming has brought anime to the masses like never before but on a higher level, the internet has made the world so much smaller in the best possible way. I regularly interact with people clear across the world. I share in their concerns and find out about their daily lives. My community has become much more global than it ever was and I think that’s true for most people. The average person has a much better sense of what life is for people in different countries than they’ve ever had before, and in turn this makes the fiction and art of those countries much more accessible. I don’t actually have any proof of this but it sounds plausible.

So where did we land? Can a foreign anime viewer ever truly get the full experience? I guess my answer is yes but that experience may be quite different from what the creator expected… What do you think? Is there always going to be a layer of understanding that’s beyond people that have completely different experiences from the author. Is it more about personal mindset than regional influence? I think this is a truly interesting question even if it might not actually have an answer.

Rini 2020 (11)


37 thoughts

  1. Interesting question! Please allow me to ramble about it for way too long (sorry):

    I think it’s less a question of “can a foreigner get *the* full experience,” and more along the lines of, “can one get *a* full experience?”

    Like you said, the author’s intended purpose of the work is still subject to the infinitely-varied filters of interpretation by each and every one of his/her audience members. No two of these filters will be identical, and that being the case, not even the target audience is guaranteed to enjoy or even understand the story he/she wants to get across. With such subjectivity at play, who can even say what constitutes as a “full” experience? “Full” sort of implies an upper limit– that we either have or have not understood the anime perfectly. And for the reasons I mentioned above, I don’t think that’s humanly possible, regardless of cultural understanding or lack thereof. I also believe this is a good thing– can you imagine how boring our art would be if it were so structured that *everyone* understood precisely what the author had envisioned? It would be like a math equation!

    Instead we have a world in which two, say, Love Live otaku can have fun nerding out with each other and talking about what they love about the series, precisely because, even though they both love the series, their feelings, favourite episodes, characters, etc. will likely be different to at least some degree. In this respect, art is the true “universal language”, evoking thoughts, feelings, etc. regardless of whether or not the “listener” (audience) comprehends it precisely as the “speaker” (creator) intends. I might enjoy Re:Zero just as much as some guy born and raised in Japan, but for completely different reasons. I might hate a particular anime, but still take away something meaningful from it– something the creator did not at all intend. Mark Chapman, the man who killed John Lennon after reading the Catcher in the Rye, likely had a very different interpretation of that book than I did, even though he, I, and J.D Salinger come from similar North American cultures. The book resonated with me very strongly, but obviously not enough to base my entire life around the protagonist, or commit murder. Is my experience less “full” than his? Or maybe his is less valid than mine, simply because he used the book to affirm an evil mindset? But, uh, I’ll stop waxing philosophical now.

    The big take-away from all this, I think, is: Did the anime connect with you in some way? Did it make you laugh, cry, *feel* something, anything at all, besides pure boredom? If so, I believe you’ve appreciated the art to the fullest that you, as an individual living in that very moment, possibly can. You might re-watch the anime years later, after you’ve learned more about Japanese culture, and enjoy it more, or enjoy it less as a result; but that still shouldn’t invalidate or overwrite how the anime made you feel the first time you watched it. They say that an artist should never compare themselves to another artist, but I think that also rings true for *viewers* of art as well. Neither of them are fair or constructive comparisons to make in any serious sense, and may just end up leading you astray.

    1. Fantastic and certainly not too long comment! I and J.D. Salinger are from drastically different backgrounds and although Catcher is not my favourite of his books it still resonated with me very strongly and I hold it dear to my heart. I also have a huge fondness for literature inspired by World War II (not about necessarily but in reaction to) and two of my top 5 fall into that category despite it being so removed from my personal experience that it is somewhat unfathomable.
      Basically I agree with everything you said and this comment rocks. Thank you.

      1. Oh, well you’re quite welcome– just glad I didn’t bore you, lol.
        Very true re: WW2. Hard to believe that all happened less than a century ago. Though I tend to spend more time reading fantasy/sci-fi books, my grandfather used to tell me stories of escaping Nazi-occupied Europe. Much of what he had to say was stranger than fiction!

  2. I find approaching a different language and culture is both a personal mindset and a regional influence thing. My background in Chinese means I get the rather hierarchical structure baked into the Japanese social system and I get kanji (although there might be slight differences between Chinese and Japanese versions of these things at times), but my background as a language student means I’m open to googling the heck out of something or consulting books to more deeply appreciate it (to the point where “googleability” is a point in an anime’s favour when judging simulcasts).

    Alternatively, I got into Nobunaga no Shinobi because of its OPs and protagonist and even though Japanese history of the Sengoku era bores me to death (anything that I like that involves this period generally has something else to prop it up), so there are things I can enjoy /despite/ the barriers. In other cases, there aren’t “correct” interpretations – often in Japanese wordplay, comedy or something similar – and so the lack of understanding that comes from not having cultural background can cause something to be funny because it’s a non-sequitur.

    Your internet theory is basically proven to be true by scholars already, as part of a thing called “globalisation”, although there’s an entire “globalisation sucks” movement as well (particularly when it comes to migration and the like). Globalisation is also argued to be at fault for how easily life can fall apart if we don’t have things like imports and exports, because we’re all connected (and the underlying history of that connection shaping the nature of it)…so I suspect those whose work is tethered to the idea of globalisation are having an awesome time with how COVID-19 is affecting life as we know it…

    1. Proven might be a bit optimistic as sociological theories are difficult to really affirm as facts, especially when you mix in artistic interpretation, but as the notion of Globalization has been going strong since the early 1800s it certainly is well established. I’ll take it! This may be the best supported post I have ever written.

  3. First, as an example, have you watched Molang? It is actually a French animation (I just now found that out) and the true genius is that Molang and his friends speak a sort of Minionesque babble that nonetheless anyone speaking any language can get the gist of. Likewise the humor. I love Molang. It’s simple, sweet, silly and never fails to make me laugh and end up feeling good. Molang lives on the universal truths of love, friendship, and fun.

    Anime, being an enormous and extremely varied set of entertainment has some series that are so reliant on universal truths that I’m very sure we all “get it”. Gundam Iron Blood Orphans is a good example, we get it, robots cool, war bad. But get sucked into the kaiju, mecha (UltraMan), let alone yokai animes and slice of life. Much of it really is “very Japanese” – and yet, we get it.

    What happens is that we get sucked in. And before we know it, we’re looking up cultural references, Japanese history, Japanese mythology, and in many cases even learning Japanese. Rudimentary as my Japanese is – I caught someone on Terrace House making a pun the other day. Laughed. Had to explain it to the hubby.

    Like anything in life, it is what you make of it. If you just want light entertainment the shows that rely heavily on cultural “normal” or history that the average foreigner doesn’t know probably won’t interest said foreigner and they’ll stick to the lighter fare. For those of us who get fascinated – and end up studying Japanese history and language – well, we do get a lot more of it. But that doesn’t mean the person who just likes to watch the cool fights in (insert fight anime name here) is any less a fan or gets any less enjoyment out of what they chose to watch. You don’t have to be Otaku to enjoy anime any more than you have to be a cowboy to enjoy watching westerns, or an astronaut to enjoy watching science fiction. And to the industry itself – everybody’s money is good. (I almost said everyone’s money is green, but it isn’t – see, that’s an American cultural reference, but I was able to generalize it so it works, right?)

    We agree on the death of the author, so I’m not even going to go there and get all involved with stuff we’ve already said 😉

    Very interesting and thoughtful post. Thank you.

    1. “You don’t have to be Otaku to enjoy anime any more than you have to be a cowboy to enjoy watching westerns, or an astronaut to enjoy watching science fiction.” – That reminds me, there’s this term called “mukokuseki” (translated as “stateless”) which people sometimes attribute to the massive success of anime in places outside Japan, although the examples in its favour generally point to things like Ghost in the Shell where culture doesn’t (have to) matter for appreciation.

    2. I had never seen Molang but I googled it after this comment – I have now watched over an hour of random Molang and I might have gotten a bit high off it. In the best way…

  4. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

    If I don’t understand something and the context leaves me confused I know to investigate and resolve. If I don’t understand something and it isn’t really important to the plot, I didn’t need to understand it.

    Since I enjoy anime about as much as I enjoy well done American animation, I can surmise that either anime is better than the best US stuff and what I am missing is dragging it down or “good is good” and I’m not missing that much. My subjective sense is the latter part of the statement.

    I suppose I could theorize that anime is actually worse than US material and my contempt bred from familiarity is dragging the US product down. That would be an unpopular position to take here and also doesn’t feel accurate.

    1. I’m not someone who’s qualified to compare media across cultures. I watch a lot of cinema from everywhere and I still couldn’t tell you if any is better or worse. It is interesting to see when a specific cultural medium starts to fascinate the entire world. Like Disney or Marvel…

  5. I found most good subs and manga translations usually include little boxes of text that explain the cultural differences. I also like you feel like we get another viewing experience that might be just as interesting trough other ways.

    Like when a Japanese person sees a girl with toast in her mouth and they understand.. oh she is late.. I am fascinated by seeing something that is new or strange to me.
    While I might miss a Japanese pun here or there I get fascinated by their strange devices they cook rice with.. or like those sausages they cut into little squids.

    While I do not consume nearly as much anime as you, I actually notice I am turned off by Americana in movies or series much worse. Japanese showcase their culture but it’s so alien it fascinates still. America shoves it down your throat just as much.. some american customs are really strange here. Like Football, Thanksgiving, Super Bowl (which is football but I count as a thing in itself).

    I think there is something in not instinctively knowing a trope or a symbol that makes it much more fascinating to watch. Like if we see a character cross path with a black cat we know it will signal a situation will go wrong.. we anticipate.. When we see an anime character go to the fourth floor of a building to the fourth office on fourth street on the fourth day of a month… we don’t instinctively know something bad is going to happen so I find it more intriguing.

    So what we lose in understanding is something what we gaan in intrigue. While when something is much closer to our world it’s just unrelatable.

    Also how dare you make my beautiful colour mean lewdness in another country! I am so super Panda this harms my reputation. :O La Gasp!

      1. Keep going on like that and it certainly will. be *puts up her fists like Scrappy Doo, mostly to showcase to not take the following serious* . I will strike at you with furious anger..blablabla Pulp fiction/bible quote.. replace names with Pinkie..

        I have a reputation to keep here! I am so pure and innocent people think I might be a nun! Even though I say I don’t believe in god!

        If we brand pink as the colour of lewdness I might draw in the wrong crowd! Have you seen how much stuff on my blog is pink!? I’d have to spend days.. and 100’s of euro’s to unlewd it again!

        But what if such a country does exist.. perhaps I could be the sexiest avatar out there since Barbie!……hmmmmm …

        1. Oh my a Pink throw down! That’s MY type of conflict! Let’s find some incredibly fluffy pillows and get this brawl started!

  6. It’s fundamental in my business that culture contextualizes communication. I used to teach a whole course called Cartoons and Culture because if you look hard you can see the elements of culture in a cartoon. There are still jokes in Lucky Star I don’t get 🙂

    1. Cartoons and Culture sounds like an amazing course! I wish I had had time for those types of classes in college. Heck I wish I had time for them now!

  7. Very much a yes, with the cavet that what the person gets out of it may be different than what the creator intended. For example Grave of the Fireflies, you were indended to sympathise with the adults, and not the kids at least acording to the author, but that’s not how most people viewed it.

  8. Certainly some things get lost in translation. But I’ve always argued that creating any work of art is a collaboration betwixt artist and audience, with each viewer/reader/etc. adding his/her own interpretations to what the artist offers, thus each producing a unique finished piece. My Mona Lisa will differ from your Mona Lisa, although da Vinci collaborated with each of us. . .

  9. This was a very interesting topic to read. You touched on a issue that extends beyond anime and into other forms of entertainment. The intent of any creator gets distorted once they share it with others and it morphs based on the audience who consumes it. One question that always bugged me when studying literature in school was “What did the author mean by..?”. It is a totally unfair question as there is really no wrong answer as our own life experiences will affect the way we understand things plus in many cases the creator probably can’t fully articulate the meaning behind their own work anyway. So I completely with the first argument you make.

    I’ll admit the cultural barrier that exists with anime is just not something that bothered me too much. For western entertainment there have been plenty of jokes or events that I either didn’t get or it just didn’t strike a chord with me. So when these things come up when with watching anime, I just simply shrug it off and focus on aspects that i did enjoy. This may seem weird but some of the differences in the way anime has it’s cultural nuances are one of the things that I enjoy about it.

    1. It’s not weird. A lot of people love travelling because they get to discover a different culture. I figure we can do the same through media in a subtler and arguably more entertaining way!

  10. I think your ideas about why anime appeals to foreigners despite the cultural differences make sense. I’m more about games than anime, but a lot of them are Japanese or Japanese-influenced, and I definitely see some of that cultural barrier there as well. Especially in a series like Persona (which I’m just thinking about now because I’m playing Persona 5 Royal, that’s all) — it’s a very Japanese series. Originally the publisher tried to Americanize it with the first Persona, released in the US back in the late 90s, and the result was a total mess that nobody here really bothered to play anyway. However, when they brought over Persona 3 in 2007, they didn’t screw with the localization in the same way, and it was a lot more popular, I think partly because western fans felt we were getting something more genuine and true to the original work.

    Studying Japanese has helped me understand some of the cultural stuff I never got before, but like you say, there are some aspects of it that are hard to understand if you haven’t grown up in the culture.

    1. I know this is a departure from the topic but how is Personal Royal? I finished Persona 5 twice and I’m wondering if it’s worth picking up Royal?

      1. I’m only a few hours in still, so I can’t say yet. The basics feel the same so far, but it also seems like they’ve added a lot of new content with the new characters and the extra time added. If it’s anything like the P3 or P4 extended editions in that sense, I guess I could say it’s worth it.

  11. A very well written and thought provoking post!

    It’s very true that there are several cultural nuances that we may miss and lose many words in translation. Nevertheless, many anime that from scratch follow a different universe altogether (eg. Psycho Pass) the experience for both foreign and native viewer may be similar. On the other hand, anime like Gintama make it so hard to understand most of the spoofs as they are based in a very, very local context. The Japanese will be able to relate to many of the gags as they are based on the reality shows that they’ve grown up watching. As for the other anime parodies, we can make up for them by watching those. But the ‘lived reality’ of the native Japanese will enable them to enjoy Gintama more. But I still love that anime. It has something for everyone. And all the amazing translators who take the extra effort to explain/mention the context is remarkable.

    1. That’s an excellent point, certain genres lend themselves to a more region neutral experience as they are alien for everyone.

  12. I love Joshiraku dearly, but it’s a *very* Japanese show, and I’m sure I understood about 20 % of the jokes (if that isn’t too optimistic). I sometimes wonder if, when I don’t understand a reference and as a result the scene is a little more baffling than intended by the author, if I enjoy the scene actually more for that piece of total randomness not accessible to the in-crowd? On the other hand, having some of the jokes explained to me later was an interesting opportunity to learn about culture and politics.

    The more anime you watch, the more you absorb. There’s a scene in Minami-ke, where Kana hangs up her little sister as a teruterubozu. I didn’t know what a teruterubozu was when I first watched the show. I wasn’t yet used to how in-/out-group stuff works, nor did I know much about worshipping. When I watched the scene a few years later, it was so much funnier.

    You’ll pick up things, and interpret things. Sometimes you’ll be wrong. Being corrected is a little embarrassing, but you profit from it (I’m speaking from experience) with further anime.

    Also, the little nuances are often hard to ask quesitons about. I remember asking about a linguistic nuance in a show once, and the nice and helpful people who tried to answer my question didn’t really understand what I was asking, probably because cultural defaults are often invisible: they know the meaning, but they’ve never had to think about it, and they don’t know what nuance about it *I* don’t know. It’s a curious difficulty.

    A person from Japan once said in a forum thread that it’s interesting to hang out in an international board, because people say well-in-Japan… when it’s just anime silliness, and then they say lol-anime! when they actually do that in Japan. (The word “interesting” had a slightly cranky flavour, but definitely goodnatured.)

    If you enjoy anime that’s good, and you can pick up on things, but it may not be the best idea to apply that knowledge when you take a trip. You might end up being a very “interesting” foreigner.

    1. It actually never occurred to me that anime was a reflection of life in Japan any more than the Simpsons or BoJack are a reflection of life in America. I’m not sure anyone actually believes that except for small children.

  13. One thing I’ve learned VERY quickly, and I knew it was the case but I still have to get used to, is that Japanese people speak MUCH faster in real life than what I ever heard via anime. Sometimes I can barely catch half the words people are saying to me, yet when I watch anime I can catch pretty much every single word (even if I don’t know their meaning, I can still catch them).

    The speed and from what I’ve been told the way they speak in anime is simply not the same as real life – something that a foreigner may never realize, but something that a local Japanese might watch and find cringeworthy, or just not enjoy. Considering I find a lot of English VA very cringeworthy, I could see why Japanese may feel the same towards Japanese VA.

    I think it’s just a hit and miss thing that mostly depends on the viewer. So maybe there are some situations where a foreigner won’t fully understand or get the intended meanings behind something, but I think there are also situations where a local Japanese might actually pass on the content too for understanding TOO well, if that makes sense…

    1. I have been to Japan for work regularly and I never noticed that. That’s so odd. I’ll pay closer attention next time I go

      1. Haha well there have already been more than enough times where I’ve had to muddle through conversations, getting paperwork done at city hall or things like that and the number of times I’ve had to say “Sumimasen.. mouichido onegaishimasu” is through the charts. Then there’s a 50% chance I’ll properly hear what they said the second time, but sometimes it doesn’t matter because I still don’t know the meaning behind it…

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