Turning Japanese

There comes a moment (or several, if you’re like that) in everyone’s life when they turn around, go ‘oh shit!’ and finally realise that they’ve succumbed to something they swore they wouldn’t. Most times, this is an addiction or obsession. Like realising that you have to stop buying shoes because you have no money or space to keep them in any more. Like looking at the clock in the middle of a gaming session and realising you haven’t moved for eight hours. Like finding yourself covered in tattoos after you swore you’d only get ‘just one or two’. However, I think I’ve got something a bit more embarrassing than that. In my case… it’s an obsession with Japanese culture.

You just have to look all over the internet to see how shameful that can potentially be. Several satire sites on the internet tell the tale of the ‘weeaboo’ or ‘wapanese’ kids, who obsess over anime, call things ‘kawaii’ (potentially the only Japanese word they know) and import Pocky for ridiculous amounts of money. Those kids are, generally, scary. Some obsess beyond belief. Those are the kind that want to marry their favourite anime character or ‘bishie’. The kind that attempt to use any form of Japanese language they can, even if they know two or three words. And don’t forget the pictures. All over DeviantART, there’s bad fanart, creepy anthropomorphic cats, horrifically drawn doujinshi…

But, there are lots of cool elements to Japanese culture that say, ‘yes, you can overcome this initial fear, it’s not all a creepy world full of cat people and fat cosplayers!’ Because it really isn’t! I’ll be your virtual tour guide through some of this weird and wonderful world, but please, watch out for the tentacle rape hentai…

It makes sense to start at ‘A’, and cool thing number one? Anime. Anime is the Japanese word for animation, but most have taken this on to mean Japanese cartoons. For the most part, they’re more inventive, more wacky and a more central part of television than anywhere else. You’ve probably seen anime before, whether you like it or not. Virtually everyone in the Western world under twenty has watched Pokemon at some point in their lives, and can probably agree that it’s one part insane, three parts awesome (or lame, if you’re determined not to be a geek).

Pikachu – inspiring kids to paint their hamsters yellow since 1995

Dragonball Z started it all off for me, and I haven’t stopped since. The main problem is trying to get hold of it. Not all of the best anime is dubbed into English for the American market, and trying to find anime on television in the UK is like trying to find fightclubsandwich at a Less Than Jake gig. It’s an elusive beast. Luckily, there’s a lot of sites which host streaming anime videos and clips. You can watch the English dubs on some sites, or for the true Japanophile, there’s ‘subs’, where fangroups take the raw Japanese episode and subtitle it for the rest of the world. Personally, I prefer the subs, because the Japanese voices are generally much funnier in the comedy animes and English subs don’t get the same emotions coming through. It also gives me a chance to attempt to learn the hideously difficult Japanese language. Common phrases like WHYYYYYYY (doushite, if you were interested) and ‘but that means…’ (masaka) are now firmly embedded in my brain and I feel that if the opportunity to solve a mystery or fight supernatural forces arises with Japanese involved, I’m fully competent to handle the situation.

Recommended watching: Fullmetal Alchemist, Fruits Basket, Ouran High School Host Club, D.Gray-Man, Death Note, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Samurai Champloo, Bleach, Gantz, Blood+. Essentially, anything that isn’t Naruto.

The bands
Japanese bands are odd, sometimes creepy, often fantastic. J-rock and J-pop have been the cornerstone of every Japanophile’s music collection, and this can encompass a massive range in style. Dir en Gray, for example, don’t know who they should be, and neither do UVERworld, with their insane rapping guy mixed with pop-punkish guitars. Either way, Japanese music has this lack of boundaries that the western world tends to have, leading to some weird and wonderful tracks. Also, the lead singer often looks like a woman. A strangely attractive woman.

Yes. Miyavi is a dude. You’re free to feel ashamed now, boys.

Even if you don’t know what they’re singing about, Japanese pop music tends to be happier than ours, their metal even more frenetic, and their fans are twice as loyal. Attractive singers and musicians, often known as ‘idols’, are elevated to almost god status. Many bands provided the basis for new fashion movements like Visual Kei (we’ll talk about that later), such as Malice Mizer and X Japan. And to sum up… Japanese fangirls are even more devoted than My Chemical Romance’s.

Recommended listening:

1) UVERworld – great pop-punk. These guys do a lot of anime themes, so their music is pretty accessible.

2) abingdon boys school – fantastic rock music. The guitar in this is just awesome. Possibly my favourite J-rock band.

3) Orange Range – really light hearted pop-punk which is great fun.

4) Miyavi – an essential. He’s weird, but wonderful.

5) Polysics – these ones are a little more well known over here. Again, just plain weird, but fantastic.

6) L’Arc-en-ciel – mostly famous for their involvement in the visual kei movement, but really good stuff. Their ‘alter ego’, P’unk-en-ciel is also awesome.

The games
It would be virtually impossible for me to comment on Japanese culture without mentioning the video game industry. Almost every successful video game franchise has originated from Japan, as well as three of the most successful video game consoles of all time – the Wii, the DS and the Playstation 2. The video game industry is a huge presence over there and you can find Nintendo stores, gaming merchandise and Wii Sports bars (you think I’m joking, but I’m really not) everywhere.

The Japanese are famous for pioneering a bunch of genres and showing everyone else how to do it right. RPGs (role playing games) are probably the best example of this. Squaresoft and Enix – now joined as Square Enix – created the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series respectively, two of the best selling franchises worldwide. The Final Fantasy series are definitely some of my favourite games ever, combining a compelling story with interesting gameplay, and really, were the first games to do so. Nothing excites me more than a girly, angsty protagonist with a vengeance kick and a badass limit break. Of course, Nintendo have created almost everything worth playing, and Mario is indeed the most recognisable video game character ever. Much like our browser title says, my mum loves playing Mario Kart, and I don’t think she’s the only one. The Wii and DS have revolutionised the way we play together – a ‘games’ night in my house used to consist of playing Cluedo; now, we gather round the TV and try to beat each other’s bowling scores on Wii Sports – and have made video gaming a worldwide hobby for all ages.

As well as the ‘blockbusters’, Japanese game companies have produced some really quirky ones. Some of these have far out gameplay, some have the strangest stories and others… well, others involve you
peeing into a toilet with your Wii remote. Perhaps the quirkiest game I’ve played in a long time is The World Ends With You, a DS game in which you, playing as Neku, have complete some pretty strange objectives in order to win your life back from the Reapers. It’s got a battle system only the Japanese could think of – using pins/badges to destroy ‘Noise’, monsters trying to erase you from the world. Oh, and buying outfits that suit the trends of Shibuya. For those wishing to expand their collection of geek, Eye of Judgement for PS3 is a must – use the Playstation Eye to enact a card battle on your screen. Odd? Yes. Fun? Definitely, if you like CCGs.

There’s not much more I can say about games without revealing my true and geeky colours, and there’s still a lot more to talk about on our strange mystery tour around the world of Japanese culture. However, be sure to watch out for games from Japanese publishers on your travels around your local video game store, because I can guarantee that most of the time, they’re definitely the better buy. I may be stating the obvious here, but…

Recommended series/games to play: Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, Mario, Pokemon, No More Heroes, Legend Of Zelda, Tekken, Mega Man, Metal Gear Solid, Onimusha, Kingdom Hearts.

The fashion

Ah… Japanese fashion. Japanese fashion is definitely more daring than Western fashion in a lot of respects, but then again, the girls and boys there can usually pull it off better than we ever could. Nevertheless, Japanese fashion has inspired plenty of fashion movements around the world and looks incredibly cool. Harajuku and Shibuya are the main fashion districts, and tons of Western designers have taken cues from these places. So, what are some types of Japanese fashion?

Perhaps the most important Japanese fashion movement is Visual Kei. Many argue that Visual Kei is a genre of music, and while it was pioneered by bands, those bands don’t always have the same sound, just the same look. Therefore, we’ll call it fashion. Visual Kei bands used their appearance in order to attract attention… and they really did get it. Visual Kei bands were usually all male, and androgyny is still an important part of Visual Kei. Defining features are over the top hairstyles, shocking use of makeup (lipstick in particular) and bright, colourful and flamboyant clothing.

This is the band Versailles. To be honest, those costumes are BADASS. Also, they’re all men.

Another notable Japanese fashion movement is lolita. Although the name sounds kind of creepy (Wikipedia it, trust me), lolita is truly an adorable trend and ties in closely with the goth movement. Typical features of lolita include black (and lots of it), frills, sweet little dresses and bows. It’s influenced by Victorian fashion… but far less conservative. There are many subdivisions of lolita, and if you want to learn more, I highly recommend LolitaFashion.org. But seriously… this style is cute.

And who could forget cosplay?! Cosplay is one of the stranger aspects of Japanese fashion, where Japanese kids (and otaku) dress up as their favourite anime/manga/video game character. This has spread throughout the world now and people do this at conventions all over. However, we’ll never be as successful at it as the Japanese. It takes a lot of effort to get cosplay right. Many enthusiasts make their own costumes. Lazy people like myself order them from specialist cosplay sites. Either way, it can be incredibly fun. This year, I plan on dressing up as Yuna from Final Fantasy X. Just think… it’s like Halloween come early! For some awesome Western cosplay pictures, check out American Cosplay Paradise. If it’s Japanese you’re after, then JapanForum has some of the best.

The manga

And finally, on our tour, we have manga. Manga is the Japanese equivalent of a comic book, and different mangas are usually printed in a weekly magazine such as Shonen Jump or Shojo Beat. Stories are then collected into tankobon, which is generally the format that we find them in. There are many different types of manga, but the main ones are shonen, which is for boys, and shojo, which is for girls. Typically, the hardcore action happens in shonen and all the magical fashon stuff happens in shojo. However, allow me to take you through a few key characters you might encounter throughout your manga travels (while recommending you some killer titles at the same time)!

1) The ‘magical girl’ – this is the kind of girl that we all want to be. One day, the ‘magical girl’ discovers she has magical powers, and usually, she must use these powers to save the world! These powers can include flight, magic through the use of cards, super strength and more. She’s often got a hidden identity, making her even more cool and mysterious, but she can have a sidekick on occasion. This character can be written in any way.

Notable magical girls – Chi from Chobits, Sakura from Cardcaptor Sakura, Usagi from Sailor Moon

2) The bishounen or ‘bishie’ – an extremely attractive, almost feminine looking man. These are found all over the place in shojo manga and are usually the main love interest. They’re charming, intelligent, chivalrous and downright gorgeous. They’re often hip and cool too, with wicked fashion sense.

Notable bishounen – Tamaki Suou from Ouran High School Host Club, Yuki Sohma from Fruits Basket, Eiri Yuki from Gravitation

3) The ‘harem’ leader – Harem manga is usually comedic and involves a boy (or girl!) surrounded by beautiful men or women who are interested in them – not necessarily romantically. Usually, this character is awkward, oblivious, uncool, but also the point of major comedy. Harem manga is a lot of fun.

Notable harem leaders – Haruhi from Ouran High School Host Club, Keitaro Urashima from Love Hina, Tenchi from Tenchi Muyo

4) The ‘antihero’ – Much like in Western comics, the antihero is a big thing, particularly in shonen manga. Usually, these characters are stoic, abrasive and don’t see why it has to be them to save the world. To a lesser extent, these characters are seen in shojo manga as the ‘bad boy’ who doesn’t see why all the girls like him. However, towards the end of the series, their cold, hard exterior seems to crack as they find their true purpose.

Notable antiheroes – Kyo Sohma from Fruits Basket, Ichigo Kurasaki from Bleach, Ororon Gem Farrell from The Demon Ororon

5) The ‘pervert’ – The pervert can be found all over manga. They’re those cheeky little characters whose accusations and jokes go a little too far. You can usually find these guys sneaking a peek at the girls when they’re wearing something a little too revealing or groping a boob here and there. They usually get their asses kicked somehow, usually by the main girl character.

Notable perverts – Shigure Sohma from Fruits Basket, Hideki from Chobits, Roshi from Dragonball Z

Alas, it’s the end for our journey around the wonderful world of Japanese culture! This article has barely scratched the surface. There’s so much more out there, but hopefully, this will have given you a good idea of how awesome Japanese culture is. The more I look into it, the less I feel ashamed of a potentially geeky habit and the more obsessed I become. Sayonara!

PS: I’ve decided to include a glossary of some terms found within the article for further explanation:

CCG – collectible card game. Think Magic: The Gathering.

Hentai – anime porn. Yup.

Otaku – somebody obsessed with the geekier aspects of Japanese culture. And I mean obsessed.

Pocky – pretzel sticks with a delicious coating. Popular flavours are chocolate, strawberry, grape, banana and milk.

Doujinshi – self-published or fan manga.

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