We spent some time at the Sakura Matsuri, or Cherry Blossom Festival, in downtown Denver’s Sakura Square this past weekend. It was a good chance to catch up with old friends and we ended up filling a long table with extended family members.
I was there to do a booksigning for a vendor, Heritage Source, a family-run business based out of LA, which sells books online and at events like Sakura Matsuri. Carolyn Sanwo brought her husband and two daughters along to help run the booth all weekend, and I sat there for a few hours on Saturday and chatted with folks and signed copies of “Being Japanese American.” Erin spent the time volunteering inside the Tri-State Buddhist Temple’s gym, selling manju pastries to the hungry throngs.
It was hot but crowded. And, among the crowd were a surprising number of non-Asian kids, dressed in shabby faux-kimonos, looking as if they were homeless urchins. What was I to make of this new trend?
It’s a good thing. These poor misguided kids love Japanese culture, thanks to anime.
But in the past, their fanaticism would have been on display only at the annual local anime convention, Nan Desu Kan. There, fans could dress like their favorite characters and be among thousands of other fans — mostly hakujin, or Caucasian (I don’t know why young APAs in this area don’t seem to get bitten by the anime bug) — who look and think and act just like them. It’s like a Star Trek or Star Wars convention, only with weirder characters.
Now, however, these “fanime” are coming out of the closet, so to speak, and sharing their newfound cultural affection with others at public events like Sakura Matsuri.
The problem, though, is that while they feel as if they’re proudly showing the Japanese and JA community how much they appreciate the culture across the Pacific, they’re reducing that culture into a handful of shallow, surface affectations. The “kimono” are often short, cheap polyester robes, tied with colorful sashes that take the place of the traditional obi belts, and tied like overgrown shoestrings instead of in the tidy, exact way that only old Japanese ladies seem to be able to wrap, fold and tie obi.
I even saw one young woman in a kimono, with a plastic toy samurai sword stuck into her sash.
That would be the equivalent of me going to the Greeley Stampede rodeo wearing a 10-gallon hat (not out of the realm of possibility) and dangling a pair of toy Mattel Fanner 50 cowboy pistols from a holster. I wore those pistols when I was 5 years old, but ain’t no way you’ll get me to wear them to a damn event where real cowboys will be in attendance.
So, I’m in a quandary. I love that anime and manga, or Japanese comics, are getting young Americans interested in Japanese culture. In fact, I wish more JAs would take their cues from these fans. But the lack of care and cultural sensitivity bum me out. It’s almost as if these kids are simply being mere cultural imperialists, even if in their hearts they feel an honest affinity for Japan.
I even asked a couple that I met at the festival about it. She’s a Japanese-born woman who met her husband, a young Caucasian from Colorado, when he was attending university in Japan. He’s an actual anime artist, and lived in Japan doing that work for years before he and his wife moved to Denver.
They both said it also bugs them to see these kids putting on the trappings of Japanese culture without really knowing it. They had a word for it, but I can’t remember it. Something about how it made their hair crawl…. He teaches animation in Denver now, and he comes across students all the time who are shallow anime fans. He says he’s hard on these kids.
I say good, teach ’em a lesson. At the same time, there’s that part of me that knows that out of 20 fanime, there’s got to be at least a kid or two who’s so enthralled by the culture that she or he will truly become immersed in it, and be respectful of it.
After all, that’s how this teacher got to Japan in the first place — he got hooked on early anime and applied himself until he was able to attend university in Japan. Hell, he’s more Japanese than I am.