I attempted to write this post previously but it took on a tone I didn’t like, so I’m going to try to redo it. Last time I talked about why I consider learning Japanese a personal failure. Now I want to talk about why I don’t think it is.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I failed at Japanese. But it did serve a very important purpose, and I may yet pursue it for other reasons or considerations.
I remember when I first truly became interested in learning Japanese. I don’t remember the exact date, but I remember what happened. I’ve told this story before. I came across a video on YouTube called “Morning Musume English Lesson”. In essence, it was a group of young girls who were a part of an idol group called Morning Musume (Morning Daughters) who were having a bit of a staged English lesson. It was in a fake classroom setting with an American sensei, and they were so tremendously cute! They were talking in this language I didn’t understand (absolutely none of the words made any sense whatsoever, it may as well have been gibberish), all of these completely foreign symbols were going across the screen, and it was just… so cool, in its own way. None of the girls were particularly attractive to me, and that’s a good thing – but that wasn’t the point. It was cute. They were idols, but they were just being young girls, and sometimes there’s nothing more refreshing than just girls being girls.
So I dug more into it, and found out that there were lots of cute Japanese girls (and please remember – I’m using “cute” in a kawaii sense, not in a hentai sense. I truly mean just cute. Quite frankly, Japanese women really don’t do it for me, though some other asian body types do) who just ran around doing cute Japanese girl things. They were normal. I got to watch them running around Japan doing Japanese idol things, being happy and cheerful and it was just…. nice. It was everything I don’t find in my culture. It was refreshing.
So as I dug deeper, I started to notice an emotional resonance to some of the things I was seeing in Japan. I kept getting this image of my head – and I don’t know where – of a small Japanese girl on her bicycle ringing her bell and riding home from school. It’s probably an amalgam of other images I’ve seen, overlaid on some of my own experiences as a child, but that’s exactly the point. I found myself able to overlay images and emotions from my childhood onto things I was seeing and learning about Japan.
You see, I didn’t get a childhood. I mean, I really didn’t. Oh, sure, by all external appearances, I was a child. I went to school like other children, I played outside like other children, but my inner world was so much different than other children. I was cheated out of a childhood. I never got to have actual friends like other children did, and everything was just messed up. I don’t think I’d ever actually recovered from that.
But the thing about Japan – and the odd thing about Japan – is that their school culture is pretty much the only thing that they export for foreign consumption. You have to really dig deep to learn about the other stuff, some of which is incredibly beautiful and some of which is ugly. But their school culture – the experience of being a child there – is right there for the taking. You get it in anime, you get it in manga, you get it in idol culture, you get it in pretty much everything they show you. I can’t honestly think of a single manga or anime (though I’m sure there are a few, of course) that don’t involve school aged children as at least one of the main characters. Those that don’t, are hentai, and they’re quite specifically kawaii in their own way (you really think the maid costumes are supposed to be worn by old women?) So Japan’s pop culture is very attractive to those who didn’t get their own childhood – you get to glom on the childhoods of others and live it vicariously.
That really is what Japan exports, more than anything else. An experience of childhood. And I think that’s why most American otaku and weeaboo find exported Japanese culture so appealing. It attracts misfits that don’t fit into their own society.
I’ve said repeatedly that I don’t consider myself otaku or weeaboo. I didn’t, and don’t. I recognized that was Japan was exporting was actually a very small part of their actual culture, and I even respected that. They are a very sophisticated, complex, and historically beautiful culture. And export very little of that. So the fact that I respected that what they were exporting was only tangentially related to their actual culture is, I think, what differentiated me from otaku and weeaboo. But, that said, I still found the same kind of attraction to their exported culture. I wasn’t immune, and for much the same reasons. I wasn’t one – but I could have been, if I’d stopped at what they export. It was a close thing.
It took me a while to be able to put words to what was happening, though, because the truth is I was very, very emotionally attracted to them as a culture. In my mind, I knew exactly what they were made of, I saw the warts as well as the beauty, all of it. I knew on an intellectual level that, in truth, I really wouldn’t like their culture very much. As I dug into it more and more, I knew this more and more. But I kept consuming it anyway. Because they were so friggin’ cute. I got to know Takahashi Minami and her extremely expressive face, particularly when she got pranked (which was frequently), I saw Ohori Megumi being trekked all over Japan to try to sell her album so she got to stay in AKB48, I saw the girls from Morning Musume going to Hawaii and Houston and having an absolutely smashing time. I saw the trouble that Minegishi Minami got herself into by breaking the “no dating” rule, and was saddened by how she felt she had to handle it. I started to really care about those little girls – they became like the friends and daughters I’d never had – and that’s exactly what they were exporting! I grew to kind of like the music, but the music was never what it was about. Never.
But at the end of the day, it was all an illusion. They exported a blank slate that people like me could use to process our own failed childhoods. And deliberately so, although their actual goal was just to make money.
And I’m going to always be grateful for that.
But that’s not going to last. Eventually the culture grows up. The girls graduate out and start their own careers. Some gravure, some AV, and some even doing normal TV shows (like Takahashi Minami, for example – they’re still pranking her, the poor woman!) But at some point, they grow up. And I guess I have to as well. They served a useful purpose in my life, I will always be grateful for that, and I hope that someday I get to meet one of the idols I saw on YouTube just to be able to tell them that. They wouldn’t understand. That’s okay.
But what purpose is there to learn Japanese when the only reason I really had for learning Japanese has disappeared?
And that, my friends, is the next question I have to answer, if I plan to continue.
I don’t love them for being idols. I don’t love them for being cute or beautiful. I don’t love them for singing and dancing well (frankly, most of them don’t). But I’ll always love them for letting me into their even manufactured lives enough to give me a taste of the childhood I, myself, have never got. That’s a gift I’ll have a hard time ever repaying. And for the most part, I won’t even try.