Staffer learns to embrace interest in foreign culture

Written by Collin Jaeger

My relationship with Asian culture began about four years ago when I heard Japanese metal music for the first time. To my musically-surfeited ears, Japanese metal was a fresh gift of chaos and wonder, but not too long after, the broader Japanese culture would also captivate me. While becoming familiar with the sound of Japanese lyrics, I decided to start studying the language and got a great insight into the culture. It was the first foreign culture I had ever found interesting, and learning about it would become a fairly important investment of my life in the coming years.

At school, I find it very easy to talk about my new interests with others, and my fascination with Japanese culture at the time was no exception. Despite this, it wasn’t long before the absurd consequences of being a non-Japanese American and openly liking this culture hit me pretty hard. Barely anyone took my goal to be fluent in Japanese seriously, and many threw around the term “weeaboo” as an insult. I eventually figured out that weeaboo was a strangely specific word, and it seemed like most people didn’t actually know what it meant. But after years of listening to many interpretations, I can best describe a weeaboo as someone who garners superficial knowledge of Japanese culture through its entertainment and believes that it’s superior to all other cultures. It’s a word that can certainly describe some—even people who I’ve met in my life—but has never described me.

It’s not the misuse of the word that has bothered me, though: it’s what people mean by it. There’s a strong implication that non-Japanese people can’t know anything about or be allowed to enjoy Japanese culture, which is especially discouraging for someone who spends genuine time and effort studying it.

The racial element of being branded a weeaboo has always irritated me the most. Whenever a piece of Japanese culture or a Japanese person enters my life, people always assume it has to do with some naive wish of mine to be Japanese. For example, someone once attacked me for having dated a Japanese girl, claiming it was only because of her race that we dated. Never before did I think people would use race like that to denigrate other people’s relationships, but it just goes to show how toxic the stigma around this culture is.

Throughout my life, I’ve never thought of race and culture as having any authentic connection. Because of that, I have a very open mind about what cultures different people can adopt. It was due to music that Japanese culture appealed to me, and since then, I’ve gotten into various other cultures the same way. When I finish learning Japanese, perhaps I’ll try learning Finnish, Norwegian, Chinese or Russian because of all the music I listen to in those languages as well. It just so happens that Japanese was the first to catch my attention.

Ultimately, I see no boundaries for what languages or cultures I can study, and there are so many facets to each that to say I absolutely love any of them would be silly. There are plenty of things I enjoy about Japanese culture, but through studying it, I’ve actually found things I detest about it as well. More importantly, however, I’ve learned that there is so much more to Japan than what colorful anime and cute J-pop idols show the rest of the world. There are daily lifestyles, traditions and universal values that are important to observe too.

When it comes to people who shame others for liking this culture, I can understand where their sentiment comes from. There’s a huge bandwagon for “Japanophiles” on the internet, yet many of them don’t even care to understand what Japanese culture is really like, and it makes them look awfully contemptible. Bearing that in mind, I’ve never been one to fit in with this crowd. Any time I’ve been associated with it, it’s always been the result of prejudgement. The one thing we do have in common is that at the end of the day, we explore Japanese culture to find what we enjoy about it, just as people do with any other culture. Connecting with cultures that are trendy or more susceptible to judgement never stopped me from pursuing what I enjoy.