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Did Westerners Always Call It Anime?

by Justin Sevakis,

Whisper asks:

I have been wondering about the etymology of the terms "anime" and "manga" in American culture, particularly why Japanese animation and comics are often called a special name while, say, Japanese video games that are released stateside are not. I heard that it has something to do with the term "Japanimation." Would you happen to know anything about these terms' histories in the USA?

Back in the early days of VHS anime releases (the early 90s), there wasn't a good English shorthand word for Japanese animation. Neither fans nor industry wanted to use the word "cartoons" as the term used to (and still does) conjure the image of American work intended for a juvenile audience. Anime was completely unique, and newly available films like Akira, Project A-ko, Fist of the North Star and all the rest were blowing people's minds.

"Japanese animation" was clumsy and not all that catchy of a term. The internet was barely a thing yet, but fans on both anime newsgroups like rec.arts.anime and online services like CompuServe and GEnie were starting to refer to it as "anime" -- the shortened version of the Japanese katakana-ized "animeshon" (アニメーション) or derived from the French term dessin animé, depending on who you asked.

The anime publishers of the era were not yet regularly online, but some of the prominent fans of the era who were working with these tiny boutique home video publishers suggested the name. In this era, Central Park Media was distributing for every publisher except for Streamline Pictures: releases from Viz, A.D. Vision, US Renditions, AnimEigo and Right Stuf were all being sold by CPM, and CPM's VP of Sales, Mike Pascuzzi, was pushing hard to get these releases into major retailers and rental chains like Blockbuster Video and Suncoast.

He tried the term "anime", but quickly found that the all-important retail buyers were not taking to it. They kept pronouncing it "ay-naim", and tripping over it like it was some exotic term that didn't mean anything to them. These buyers were extremely important gatekeepers, but they were also in charge of stocking a lot of videos -- they didn't really have time or interest to learn new terminology or sit there and watch these weird imported cartoons. Calling it "manga," which wasn't all that accurate but initially seemed to be a sufficiently gaijin-friendly word (hence the brand "U.S. Manga Corps"), was facing similar problems.

CPM eventually came up with the term "Japanimation." Fans never liked it. It sounded too close to a racial slur, and therefore vaguely pejorative. However, for selling anime to big retail chains it was a godsend. The word was entirely self-explanatory -- no more sales calls would end with a gruff middle-aged buyer telling Pascuzzi and his team, "I don't know what this 'ay-naim' stuff is, but I'm not stocking it." There was no more breaking into a sweat as they feverishly tried explaining that Japan made cartoons and they were really different from American ones before the buyer hung up the phone. Just by hearing the word, the person at the other end already learned Japan made animation different enough to warrant distinctive branding, and didn't have to feel stupid or defensive about a term they didn't already know.

CPM getting anime into Blockbuster was a watershed moment for anime in the US. There was no anime on TV in any form, and the internet could barely support low-resolution graphics at this point, never mind streaming video. People discovered new video content at their local video store, and Blockbuster Video was so dominant in the VHS rental market that in many areas they were the only rental shop in town. And in those early days CPM and Streamline were the only companies market savvy enough to break through that and other barriers to the market. It's hard to say for sure 25 years later, but it's likely not a stretch to say that the term "Japanimation" played a significant role in that.

It's worth noting that no other company ever called it Japanimation -- almost everyone just called it "Japanese animation" to retail buyers and in print ads. Most of these publishers were run by fans, and preferred the fan-correct term "anime" internally. But by the time these companies were dealing with large retail buyers, the barriers were already down, and most stores already had dedicated anime shelf space. Getting buyers to take anime seriously was no longer an issue -- they knew what it was, they knew it had explosions and boobs, and they knew that people bought it. And that was enough for them.

As for CPM, company president John O'Donnell ended up springing for a ton of Japanimation-related trademarks, and even managed to secure the official anime section of America Online, calling it Japanimation Station™. He very reluctantly stopped using the term by around 1999 or so, even going so far as to offer retailers shelf talkers (those printed cards that hang from shelves) that said "Animé". (Note the accent over the e.) But the term Japanimation still popped up for years afterwards, usually making fans chafe whenever it did.

At least we weren't calling it "manga."

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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