Making content about anime is a labor of love and of wanting to share that love with others. Best of all, the entry barrier is low: you only need passion and a blog (or YouTube channel, podcast, etc.). But as my own work begins to tend more and more towards talking about anime culture, a giant elephant has taken up residence in my room.
The problem I’m facing is how to respectfully discuss Japanese culture as an outsider. It’s a topic I seldom see discussed amongst those who write about anime despite how it undoubtedly hangs over Western discourse. Yet, addressing one’s own place in this dichotomy of cultural ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ is an important part of establishing your perspective and credibility to an audience. It gives readers a concrete idea of what a writer can and can’t speak to. But what exactly is this fine line one must walk?
Let’s first define what it means to be an insider or outsider. The culture in which someone is raised shapes their understanding of the world. They perceive other cultures through the lens of one’s familiar concept of society. Those principles, imbued within us in our formative years, color our perception of everything we’re faced with. Because of this, it’s impossible for a person raised in one culture to share an innately profound understanding of another’s, and vice versa. Belonging to a culture on a personal level can’t be learned. I’m not saying this is a negative thing as we’re all simultaneously insiders and outsiders. It’s just important to be conscious of it.
In writing about anime (and other cultures in general), the objective becomes to find ways you can write about another culture as an outsider. A good first step is to try your best to throw away your own ingrained perceptions. This is nigh impossible to forgo completely (again, these values are ingrained within us from birth) so the goal should be to view another culture from the perspective of those within it. Try to paint a portrait through the accounts of insiders, texts, art, and so on.
But then comes another complication: that ‘portrait’ can’t be anything more than an incomplete picture, a blurry set of snapshots (especially those filtered through an insider’s artistic license). The translated versions of cultural artifacts we engage with are imperfect representations as dialect and slang can have no direct equivalent across languages. Even if you’re fluent in a language, living outside of a culture where it’s predominantly spoken (and spoken casually) makes fluency in dialect very difficult to achieve and maintain. Something will always be approximated (and lost) in translation.
Understanding this disconnect is the key to being able to write about anime and related mediums credibly. An established outsider perspective should be a mutual understanding between the writer and reader that what’s being conveyed is — again– a perspective or the fullest picture that an outsider can present. Yet while speaking to the cultural understanding of an insider is beyond an outsider’s pay grade, I don’t believe this forbids them from using a written voice of relative authority. When framed properly, outsider perspectives are no less valid or valuable. Viewing Japanese art through a western lens can portray its contents and meaning in new ways. Bringing a different sociopolitical mindset with distinct sensibilities to the table furthers the fluid discussion about any form of art, especially one exclusively created by one culture (though there’s an argument to be made that this is changing). Without outsiders weighing in, discourse stagnates or ceases to exist.
In fact, what makes the anime content creation scene so rich is that it allows a diverse array of voices to flourish. Be it anything from genre preferences and self-identity to varying areas of niche expertise, the variety of people talking about anime are constantly increasing as the medium gains ever-increasing prominence worldwide. Those creating anime are even looking beyond insider culture to appeal to those expanding demographics, making the views of outsiders of direct creative value to the art form. For examples, look to the western influences on Trigger’s body of work or how foreign companies like Crunchyroll are getting directly involved in production committees. More than ever, western anime discourse plays a pivotal role in the industry.
Most of all, there’s one thing that anime fans worldwide share regardless of cultural differences: a love for the medium. It’s a universal language that allows us to talk about these stories despite our cultural past. Insiders and outsiders are incredibly alike despite their differing backgrounds. We all watch the same stuff, and our discussions create a healthy melting pot of ideas. Yes, it’s important to be cognizant of the way you discuss another culture but don’t let that stop you from bringing your own perspective to the table. The fine line comes down to but one thing: respect.