My first real introduction to Japan and Japanese was through idol culture.  Morning Musume, to be precise.  So it’s no surprise that I’m unusually knowledgeable about the subject.  I can name quite a few idols from Morning Musume, AKB48, Sakura Gakuin, and a few others besides.  And those that I can’t name, I might be able to recognize.

I know about the scandals of both Sashihara Rino and Minegishi Minami, and how they resolved.  I know why those scandals occurred in the first place, and I understand some of the cultural context behind them.  I have a few posts on this blog, even, about my thoughts about some aspects of Idol culture.  I’m not always complimentary, but as it’s my first introduction to the culture, it’ll always hold a place in my heart when it comes to Japan.

But it’s not something I really understood.  I still don’t.  But after thinking about it, I think I understand a little better.

The thing I think many foreign otaku, and foreign fans that are not otaku (such as me) don’t really understand, is a very simple fact.  Us gaijin can keep up with idol culture, and they might even acknowedge and be appreciative of that, but at the end of the day, we are not the target audience.  Idol culture is Japanese.

Take, for example, the garish and gaudy costumes that they were.  AKB48 wears a colorful pastiche of a Japanese school uniform, and Morning Musume tends to wear outfits that hurt to look at.  But Japanese students wear very conservative and conformative school uniforms.  While those costumes are garish and over the top to our western eyes, to a Japanese eye, perhaps it is that very garishness that they like.  Because it is a slap in the face to conformity.

Celebrities in a culture often represent something to non-celebrities that the non-celebrities would like to emulate.  Sometimes they’ll even live vicariously through them.  Japanese idols are no exception.  They offer something to their fans that is otherwise lacking in their lives.  Something that we in the west only dimly understand.  Idols are very cheerful and energetic, and their youth is infectious.  These are things we in the west understand and appreciate.  But to a Japanese person – I get the impression that they are something more.  Perhaps an ideal Japanese person that they were always told existed, but never found outside the carefully crafted narrative of idol culture.

Of course that’s speculation.  I’m not Japanese.  But there’s a reason why so many otaku glom onto idols that they will never have even the slightest chance of exchanging more than one or two words with if they’re lucky.  And I think it’s a little more than just desperation.

I’m not sure the idols know exactly what they are to Japanese culture.  But I do think most of them understand what their role is. And for those who will “play ball”, it can be very lucrative.  After all, for the services celebrities offer, they are often extremely well paid.

It just needs to be understood that those services have little to do with what they’re actually getting paid for.

Am I Otaku?

I’ll be honest. I dont identify as otaku and I dont want to be otaku.

But last night I sent a bunch of funny links to my friend from AKBingo, explained to him who Takahashi Minami and Shinoda Mariko are, and then gave him the backstory on how Shinoda-san became an idol. Then I was humming “Oogoe Diamond” and the intro to “Sakura no Hanabiritachi”, after I went through most of their discography to find out where that intro came from (it’s catchy).

Unfortunately I guess that makes me otaku.

Why does that upset me?

Because I consider otaku somewhat unbalanced, tbh. One commenter to this very site told me he’d punch someone out if they dissed his favorite AKB48 member. And that is disturbing. Sure they’re cute and funny, but they’re just entertainers and I’m entertained. Sure, if I were escorting an idol down the street and someone threatened her I’d open a can of whoopass, but that’s because it’s the right thing to do, not because they’re idols.

I dont want to be associated with that. But I guess by talking about it, I am.

So what to do?

オタク… 何?

One of the most fascinating things about Japanese culture, I think, is the otaku.  I’m not one by any means, and I don’t at all understand them, but I find them fascinating.  I’m not sure in what way – I think it’s at least in a “what the heck makes them tick” sort of way.  I don’t dislike them or hate them, I just don’t understand them.

I don’t understand cosplay, for example.  To me, it’s just a waste of time and effort.  Why bother with it?  I’ve seen people spend a lot of time and energy on makeup and costumes, and sometime they even get into character and act the part.  I had a coworker who once tried to get me to go to a “Ren Faire” (where they cosplay as medieval or renaissance people) with the rationale “the women there are easy!”.  I declined (that, for me, was an argument against), but I still just don’t get it.

There are certain aspects of anime that do impress me, I have to admit that.  There is an anime called “nodame cantabile” that impressed the hell out of me with their attention to detail – they animated a guy playing a complex Rachmaninoff concerto on the piano – and got every single note right.  But I don’t understand the huge and complex fandoms that have sprouted from the artform.  I don’t understand the half-clad figurines, the anime character pillows, etc.  I just don’t get it.

I don’t at all understand “waifu”.  In fact, I personally think this is an aspect of Japanese otaku culture that is as endearing as it is disturbing.  I don’t understand fans who appear to think that they can date idols and anime characters – to the point where the idols aren’t even allowed to date because it might destroy the fantasy that many otaku have built up around their favorite idol.  Perhaps there’s something I’m missing.  There probably is.  But on its face, it just seems rather sad to me.

It really does seem to me that otaku culture is mostly a way to take money out of lonely people and put it in the pockets of certain kinds of media creators.

All that said, I’m trying to keep an open mind.  Next January, there is an anime convention here in Austin (I found out about it because I was driving down the street and there were cosplaying people heading to get something to eat) literally within walking distance of my apartment.  Ikkicon 2018, to be precise.  I intend on going, just to see what all the fuss is about.  I won’t be cosplaying.  I may even just keep to myself and observe.  But I really want to understand it.

Right now, I don’t.  My attraction to Japan is its history and culture, of which otaku really isn’t a large part.  But it’s a part, nonetheless, so the more I understand, the better.

Shave and a Haircut, HAPPY

I am, by training, a classical musician, so from a musical perspective I find most idol music trifling.

This does not mean it is always uninteresting.  Every piece of idol music I hear (well, almost) has  something interesting or thought provoking.  Sometimes it’s even in the lyrics, which are mostly insipid but with glimmers of depth to them.  For example, the lyrics of “what is love” by Morning Musume:

If you can't even make one person understand you
how will you seduce the world?
If you leave one person feeling sad
will you be able to make the whole world happy?

This is reminiscent, to me, of the story about the boy who was tossing starfish back into the ocean, was stopped by someone who told him it didn’t matter, and he pointed to a starfish he threw back – “it mattered to that one”.  Actually surprisingly deep.  So I’m not entirely unappreciative of the music (though I could not honestly be considered a fan – if I had a choice I’d much rather listen to a piano concerto, and no idol music is on my phone).

But that’s really the only reason it interests me, truly.

So I was listening to one of the songs on the more insipid side of the scale, Happy Summer Wedding by Morning Musume.  It is actually a rather sweet song, I suppose, but it’s obviously not meant to appeal to either my gender or age range.  Fair enough, I guess.  But right in the middle of the song is a rendition of “Shave and a Haircut”.

This struck me as surprising and incongruous.  Right in the middle of the song a small fragment of something that honestly does not fit culturally (or, honestly, even musically) was dropped into it, rather like a little drop of oil in a sea of water.  It just didn’t match, and I’m not sure why Tsunku, or whoever wrote the song, decided to do that.

And it’s something that I’m not sure if most Japanese would even pick up on – it’s almost as if it’s a little nod to their Western audience.

So today my boss made a statement about the “Goldilocks sweet spot” and my mind went back to the incongruous “shave and a haircut”, and I realized that there are aspects to a culture that cannot be taught in a language class, or at least cannot easily be taught.  And that’s when I fully realized that learning how to speak a language is only half the battle, if that.

And it’s also why I post about things that are not specifically language related.

I cannot understand Japanese without at least being familiar with the underlying culture.  And that is very important to me, and I’m spending an inordinate amount of time familiarizing myself with Japanese popular culture, reading books, manga, and other things that will help me to understand the underlying cultural assumptions.

But make no mistake – I’m not otaku.  Many Japanese pop-culture things are fun, and cute, yes.  And I’m always looking for ways to integrate them into my own culture.  But they’re not of any great interest to me past being a curiosity.  If I ever behave in a way in which I could be consider otaku, or even worse, weeaboo, it will be time to hang it up, dust off my cowboy hat, and spend some time on a ranch where there is no Internet or phone.

I learn the language because it fascinates me.  I study Japanese pop culture because it fascinates me as well, and helps me to learn the language better.  But I refuse to make a fool out of myself worshipping all things Japanese.  And I think that’s how it should be.