I still remember the first day of class. “Where are you?” I text messaged my friend Tuan. “The class is about to start.” My friend and I had agreed to take a language course together. At the time we were engineering majors, and we needed to take a couple of language courses in order to meet our general degree requirements. The procrastinators that we were, we had missed all of our chances to enroll in the usual French or Spanish and had to choose between Russian, German and Japanese. It was my friend’s idea to take Japanese, and at that moment I was glad I agreed.
In this classroom, there were girls everywhere. They were cute, skinny girls with perfect skin. Some had long black hair, others had blond hair, but each had a bright smile, and I settled in for what I was sure would be my favorite class.
“I’m in class,” Tuan messaged back. Just then, as if on cue, an older Asian woman with red glasses walked into the class and wrote “Chinese I” on the chalkboard.
I ran into the classroom next door. It was full of guys wearing anime-themed T-shirts discussing manga. Most of them had neck-beards and glasses, and at least one didn’t seem to grasp the concept of deodorant. There were no cute girls at all. Tuan shook his head in disappointment.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a nerd, but these guys were in a different league. At the time, I had been aware of anime and manga. Like most of the other people I knew, I had watched Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon and the other stuff on Cartoon Network. And thanks to Adult Swim, I had even seen Cowboy Bebop. These guys, though, were full-blown otaku. One guy even bragged that he had bought his anime T-shirt in a kid’s size because shirts his size weren’t available.
For a while, I didn’t talk to anyone but Tuan. I had nothing against my classmates, but I knew they were nerds. Not a nerd like me, either; they were pretentious nerds. These guys wanted to learn Japanese in order to become a part of the otaku elite. They would probably leave class, put on costumes and head to an anime convention. They would walk around quoting lines from their favorite cartoons in Japanese, saying, “I watched the original without subtitles” as they looked down their nose at those of us who watched the dubbed version. I wanted no part of this nerd caste system.
After several weeks, they started talking about something interesting. “Man, I just got Katamari Damacy,” the guy in front of me, John, said. The game was only a few months old at the time.
“There are so many weird games like that in Japan,” John continued. “That’s one of the reasons that I want to learn Japanese. I can buy games from over there that we don’t get here.” He was right and I knew it. Japan was flooded with new, odd and innovative games, and not all of them made it to the states. It was rare that something like Katamari Damacy would hit American shores.
John and I were fast friends after that. He was as into videogames as I was, and he told me about a whole slew of interesting games I had never heard of. It was enough to make me study Japanese beyond the coursework.
The weeks flew by as our teacher taught us in broken English. One day, she had us break up into groups to ask each other personal questions in Japanese. Tuan and I were together by default, but John decided to join us. “Have either of you been watching Bleach?” he asked. I didn’t know what that was, but Tuan was very well acquainted with it. The two of them talked about magic swords and dead people until the end of class. Afterward, I checked out Bleach for myself.
I was engrossed. I spent the entire weekend watching the show, and after that I began looking for more anime. I found things like Naruto and Rurouni Kenshin, and I even re-watched the last few seasons of Dragon Ball Z.
It was hard to believe that a repressed society could produce such imaginative work. They didn’t seem to worry about children or protest groups. Petty things like natural limits never got in the way; moral choices were an anime character’s only stumbling block.
The more I got into watching subtitled anime, however, the harder it got to understand the little things. It was a little more Japanese-y than I had thought it would be. For instance, what did all of the titles attached to a person’s name mean? Were all of the different demons made up, or did they actually exist in some legends? Was a fox spirit a demon or an actual fox? And why were there so many death gods?
To some extent, my Japanese class cleared up a few things. I found out that close friends could call each other “kun” and children and young girls were called “chan,” but for other things I was still in the dark. Thankfully, many of my classmates seemed to be Japanese culture experts.
None of them said they loved anime or manga or videogames; they said, “I love Japan.” It had to be true. No one would learn so much about something that they only thought of as a hobby. It was an obsession, an obsession I, too, developed.
If you asked me before about anime fans and otaku, I’d have written off the whole subculture. But once we found some common ground, I was able to appreciate Japanese culture the way they do, to become enamored with a society far different than my own, and I’m better for the experience.
Khristopher Kirkland is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.