I got into anime at an old age compared to most. My early twenties, and that was over 10 years ago. Now, as a fan at the further end of the age spectrum (anime skews teens and early 20s as the average age of fans), I am aware of the liabilities of enjoying the medium. American culture still views anime as something for kids, teens, and immature college students. Rural areas like mine are particularly like this. Because I study anime and American otaku culture, I receive a double hit of stigma. Intellectualism isn’t popular in today’s United States. Americans look at intellectuals (not that I see myself as one) with suspicion. I am considered even stranger for studying and writing about what I do. Luckily, my family and inner circle of friends accept my interests. My girlfriend is an otaku and Japanophile. But it is hard to expand my inner social circle in an area dominated by football and beer.
Despite these issues, being an anime fan and researcher offers more advantages than disadvantages. My specialty compliments my job as a librarian. Teens and college age students come to me with anime and anime research questions. They feel comfortable and appreciate having an older fan to speak with. Teen fans in my area face the same stigma, looks, and misunderstandings as I face from well-meaning neighbors. I provide a older voice and nonjudgmental access to anime and manga of all types. Many come to me looking for new anime to watch or seeking “touchier” subjects like yuri and yaoi.
Studying anime and Japanese culture continues to shift my perspective. It points out poisonous areas in American culture–such as the culture of selfishness–and offers solutions. A day where you fail to learn something new is a wasted day. Anime, with its international reach, extends a taste of Japanese culture to everyone. That culture differs quite a bit from Western culture, yet has enough Western elements that it remains accessible. Zen, in particular, influenced my perspective on life.
Ten years ago I had a crisis of faith sparked by a series of deaths in my family and an ugly breakup with my girlfriend at the time. I plunged into a dark depression of which I remember little. My Christian faith died. But one day stands out in the blank spaces of memory. One day at a local bookstore I stumbled across “Peace is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk. I remember having the exact amount of money in my pocket to book cost, down the the penny. The book changed my perspective forever. I couldn’t get enough of Zen. I read Japanese Zen writers and everything else I could get my hands on. Gradually, my Christian faith began to revive under Zen’s care. While it appears strange, Zen is a practice that can stand alone or plug into an existing belief set. It revived my Christian faith, but the resurrected faith is quite different from the childish faith I once had.
While Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings were the catalyst for my Christian faith’s resurrection, anime was where I had learned about Zen’s existence. It introduced many of the concepts and provided a starting point. It sounds cheesy, but I guess you could say anime changed my life, if indirectly.
The messages we consume changes our view of the world. Information and stories are food for the mind. Much of anime is junk food, but to be fair, American TV is mostly junk food too. The American mind suffers from obesity, stories that lead to impulsive behavior and misunderstanding. One the whole, anime contains good messages: friendship, persistence, loyalty, and community. Anime exposes people to Japanese culture (even if it is a glossed over, watered-down exposure) and helps you escape an American-centric view. American media can be insular and white-washed. Anime raises awareness of different approaches to characters and storytelling.
These messages influence us in ways we are not always aware. Advertising works in this way with its messages of dissatisfaction, selfishness, and greed. Most of anime contains messages about appreciating the moment and relationships. Since I started my anime habit and my study of Zen, I find I enjoy the journey more than I had in the past. Before my studies, I focused on outcomes and destinations. Now I enjoy the path more than the destination. I view mistakes and failures as learning experiences, as ways of improving. Many anime characters embody this idea: Goku and Ichigo for example.
I am not sure how long I will continue to study anime and American otaku culture. I consider myself an outsider rather than a member of otakudom. In order to study it, I have to have some distance. Writing about anime allows me to pull my interests in history, sociology, psychology, art, and economics together. But it does come out a small price. I care little what others think, however. I rather like the label of eccentric.
I am hesitate about this post. I dislike publicly speaking about myself. Few know that I had struggled with depression, but I can confidently say “had struggled.” Depression no longer troubles me. Now, it is an old friend that visits for a few hours to tell me something is wrong before leaving again. The trick with depression is embracing Zen and Christian meditative tradition and practice. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t instant. It takes years of work, but depression can be embraced, even welcomed. If you have problems with depression, I urge you to learn zazen and practice it. Again, it requires persistence and patience and time. I write this personal post with the hopes it will inspire you, lift you. I want you to know that you are not the only one who struggles with stigma from those who fail to understand anime and Western interest in Japanese culture. But you can thrive despite the stigma. Only those with narrow minds and dull lives fail to understand how Japanese culture and anime and manga can fascinate. Have sympathy for such people.
How has anime influenced you? What stigmas do you face as a fan or researcher? Have you wrestled with depression?