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Does Japan Have Otaku For American Animation?

by Justin Sevakis,

Christopher asks:

With the anime/otaku industry being a fairly robust fandom in the west, I was wondering: is that mirrored for western animation/cartoons over in Japan? Are there groups that work on fansubbing new episodes of Steven Universe and Gravity Falls as soon as they're available, or argue about including translation notes for the myriad pop-culture references in The Venture Bros? Is there as much of an industry streaming or releasing official subbed/subbed discs of these shows over there? Or is our fascination with one particular country's animated output a uniquely western phenomenon?

There are definitely fans of Western animation in Japan, and how the fans act and their reasons for doing so are vastly, vastly different from Western fans of Japanese animation.

Disney animation has been popular in Japan since the post-war era, and seeing classic Disney features of the 30s and 40s is a major part of what inspired Osamu Tezuka, and what inspired Toei Douga (now Toei Animation) to create the first color anime features. While Disney fandom has had its peaks and valleys, the brand is ever-present in Japanese society. Japanese kids love Disney stuff, and Tokyo Disneyland is the second most popular Disney theme park in the world (Disneyworld's Magic Kingdom is #1). Frozen was the third biggest box office hit in Japanese history, and merchandise is as ubiquitous there as it is here.

One thing that you must remember is that in Japan, American entertainment has always played a very dominant role in the popular zeitgeist. Kids learn English throughout their entire school careers. People watch American movies all the time. Dubbed American TV shows become hits on Japanese TV. People listen to American music. For many Japanese people, America is simply where the cool stuff comes from. You see that reflected throughout a large chunk of Asia, but it's always been particularly pronounced in Japan. American pop culture is, simply, mainstream.

Compare that to how Japan seems to average Americans: a far cry from the exotic and dated stereotypes of the past, but still not exactly familiar. Most people STILL can't pronounce Japanese names. Most people can't name a single Japanese movie or musician. When most of us discovered anime, free of context, it felt as if we were hearing fresh ideas for the first time. No matter how clichéd and tired certain anime tropes are, for the first few years we see them through fresh eyes and they're new to us. It's refreshing and exciting, like you just got let in on this great secret.

Since not a huge amount of people are into anime, and the well of otaku knowledge is deep and obscure, you then have to band together online to learn all you can. You learn about the relatively small companies that bring anime out in America. You learn which sites are good to watch anime on, and which ones are pirate sites that should be avoided. You learn about the obscure, seemingly-accessible handful of voice actors that voice your favorite characters. It's a small world, one that takes some amount of effort to get into, but once you're involved, becomes a fun little club; a knowing wink amongst other fans.

There is nothing like that for most Western media in Japan. Major international media conglomerates release new American movies (animated and otherwise) to Japanese theaters in due time. The Simpsons and American Dad! are shown on the Fox satellite channel. A lot of shows never get released in Japan, but copyright is taken seriously enough (people go to jail for piracy regularly) that no underground of fansubbing could possibly spring up. There's simply no need to get so excited that you need to organize and build crazy things as fans.

What fans in both countries share, I think, is the sense of wonder at what it must be like to live over there, and maybe a dash of the grass seeming greener. Those opinions are formed through idealized depictions of life, in movies and TV shows, animated or otherwise.

But for organized fandom to come about and build amazing institutions, the way we know it does, it takes a super nerdy group of obsessives, and people like that are simply drawn to anime in a way that they aren't drawn to American cartoons for the most part.

On the other hand, there has been South Park doujinshi for at least a decade.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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