Understanding Culture Blindness

A fish doesn’t notice water.

You can’t see the forest for the trees.

looking in from the outsideWhenever I visit Amish country, as we call the areas where the Amish live, I’m struck by how a group I’m familiar with can seem foreign to others. If you don’t know, the Amish is a religious group that eschews owning technology and otherwise living like the rest of the world. They get around via horse and carriage (or buggy as we call them), bicycle, or via an English (as the Amish call the rest of us) friend who drives. Most don’t have electricity in their homes.

There are many branches of Amish, each with their own list of safe technology and forbidden tech. But don’t misunderstand. They know how to use computers, the Internet, and other technology. Most use tech in their businesses.

In any case, whenever I go to Amish country to shop the stores (especially the bakeries!), I’m reminded how foreign they appear to people who live in cities, how unique this area is. I become blind to the richness around me. I’m a fish that doesn’t notice water.

anime meta jokes

Many otaku fans have the same problem. I’ve known people who were obsessed with getting to Japan. They were obsessed to the point of forgetting America’s unique otaku culture. Anime culture in Japan differs from the rest of the world. That isn’t mean the rest of the world isn’t as rich. If anything, American otaku culture is just as rich as Japanese otaku culture. We are just blind to it, and we can only notice this richness when we can see it through the eyes of another. Just as I don’t think about sharing the roads with Amish buggies or visiting Mennonite (another branch of Amish religion) owned shops, we take our interests and home cultures for granted.

For example, I’ve gained better appreciation for American culture, especially its positive aspects, through my studies of Japanese culture. I see the problems clearer, but I also see the positives. Unlike fish, we can learn to see the water around us. We can read and learn. That’s why reading widely and allowing yourself to be exposed to different cultures matters. It allows us to understand our home cultures better. We can’t understand anything without some sort of comparison.

waifu phone meme

Now, I suggested American otaku culture rivals that of Japan. Heresy! Well, as I’ve discussed in my article about the history of cosplay, American culture brought cosplay into Japan’s anime culture. Star Trek and science fiction, added with the tradition of Halloween, added to Japan’s pop culture. American cosplay has a longer history.

American otaku communities are just as creative as their Japanese counterparts. English fan-fiction websites teem with content. European otaku communities do just as well. But we can’t always see that because we live inside those communities.

anime tropes breast grab
Anime tropes like the (tired) accidental breast grab appear alien too.

 

For example, we take the design of anime–large eyes, small mouths, small noses–for granted. My library’s children-and-teen librarian has been trying to learn more about manga and anime. She wants to read manga because we have so many teens who are readers (and some are otaku). Yet, she just can’t get around how odd and off-putting the anime style is. They look like aliens to her. They look disturbing. However, the older styles from the 1980s and 1990s look a bit better to her. Compared to today’s style, they are more naturalistic with smaller eyes and more realistic proportions.

I haven’t given this much thought, immersed as I am in studying the otaku subculture. She’s right. Anime and manga does look off-putting. When I attempted to watch Clannad, the super-large eyes disturbed me. But I didn’t realize why Clannad and anime like it put me off until I had discussed anime’s design with an outsider wanting to understand anime’s appeal. I was too immersed in the culture, in the forest if you will, to see.

Kobayashi Dragon Maid bikini
For those of us who are used to anime, this is a pretty standard scene. But for new comers and outsiders, the stylized designs are just weird.

 

Anything we see or consume on a regular basis encourages blindness. Let me give another personal example. I grew up in the country, playing in corn fields, hiking, eating wild blackberries and raspberries. Although you wouldn’t peg me as country by any stretch. After all, I listen to metal, opera, classical, Mongolian throat singing (seriously, it’s amazing what they can do!), and traditional Japanese music. I grow bonsai instead of corn and so on. Not exactly country.

But when I had told an online friend who had always lived in large cities about a hiking trip where I stumbled across wild blackberries, he was dumbfounded that I could just pick and eat them while on the trails. The entire conversation struck me as a bit silly. I mean, of course you can! At least, as long as you know you aren’t eating pokeberries or anything else poisonous. But it wasn’t a silly question at all from his perspective. He had never been out hiking or playing on a farm. I had taken these aspects of rural culture for granted.

reading a book in orange anime

When I first started seriously writing for JP, I didn’t feel qualified. After all, I am not Japanese. How could I write about Japan and do it justice? But being an outsider allows me to view the culture better than I could from the inside. I can’t be aware of how different (or odd) American culture and rural culture can be because that is my pond. It takes someone from the outside to bring a different view. But that outsider view can miss important things too. Such as how the Amish get annoyed with urban English visitors, and how they don’t mind those of us who understand them better. We have to be aware that outsiders can’t see everything. But the outsider viewpoint is vital to better understanding our own culture.

Otaku culture could benefit from an outsiders view. As with many subcultures, it has grown insular and meta. Many jokes in anime center on the subculture, often acting as ironic meta-analysis that outsiders (and even some insiders!) can’t understand. Otaku culture creates an incestuous loop of consumption that limits what creators can do. At least those who want to make something other than moe-inducing anime or copies of copies. Many in the industry are anime fans themselves and cannot see the forest of the tropes (wince. I know, that was bad pun!). It would do well for non-anime fans to get into making anime.

Anime fans can be a closed-group from what I’ve seen. Not all of them are, but many communities on the Internet spend a lot of time trying to prove who is the truest of fans and who are just casuals. To be fair, politics, religion, and sports do the same thing. But these people tend to be the most blind. Ironically, those who are most passionate about a culture or subculture are the most open to outsiders. They understand the value of outside viewpoints for understanding their own culture better. Those who try to be “true” fans are often the least knowledgeable of their fandom because they are so insular.

We’ll always have blind spots, but reading, discussing, and learning can minimize them. I strive to be aware of my blind spots and work to minimize them. It’s a never ending process.

Can you see out of the trees? Are you aware of water?