Japan has had a tradition of animated cartoon art for nearly as long as the U.S. Japan’s history of comic-book style illustrated stories and anthropomorphic characters predates Mickey Mouse and his friends by several centuries.
But, when America first encountered Japanese anime, most didn’t identify the cartoons as distinctly Japanese.
“I’m old enough to remember Astro Boy, Gigantor and Speed Racer being on TV, those we didn’t know were Japanese,” said Dr. Deborah Deacon, an art historian at ASU who specializes in the art of East and Southeast Asia.
It wasn’t until the late 90s with Pokémon that many people in the West figured out that Japanese animation was different and something interesting to be consumed, she said.
Anime and manga certainly exploded in global popularity in the 90s, but with one caveat: the art was considered base and shallow, meant only for children. In Japan, however, its consumers have historically been much more diverse.
“You can get on any public transport in Japan and see a 68-year-old man sitting there reading a comic book,” said Bradley Wilson, a lecturer in the School of International Letters and Cultures, specializing in Japanese popular culture. “We have not traditionally been used to media like that, that is theoretically made for children but is aimed at a broader audience.”
This Western stigma characterizing anime as childish could be a contributing factor to its American fanbase’s insular, divergent nature.
As children in the 90s began to discover Pokémon, some teenagers and adults gravitated toward anime that was more adult in its themes and content.
Outside the fandom, many Americans viewed adult fans of anime as odd and eccentric, effectively ostracizing the fans from the ranks of normative, conventional consumers of media. Within the fandom, this only encouraged American fans of anime to form a unique identity.
“In Japan, nobody wants to be associated with the term 'Otaku,' even if you watch anime every day or read comics every day,” said Wilson. “The Western fandom has really reclaimed and co-opted that word. They use it as a badge of pride.”
The American Otaku’s interaction with Japanese media and culture is not, however, always a positive relationship.
The line between appreciation of anime, and by association Japanese culture, and cultural fetishization, is a thin one to tread. Many criticize the more unsavory behaviors of American “Otaku” as an offensive and unrepresentative appropriation of Japanese culture.
Wilson, who lived in rural Japan after he received his undergraduate degree, agrees that anime can encourage an inaccurate view of Japanese culture.
“Those of us interested in anime and manga … have this fictionalized version of Japan that we see. It was oftentimes at odds with what reality was,” he said.
Then there is the depiction of women in anime, which is also criticized for hypersexualization and an exclusionary orientation to the male gaze, alienating many women as potential consumers. This hypersexualization of women is not universal in anime but is observable in a significant portion of the industry.
According to Wilson, Americans tend to overreact to sexualized cartoons because they typically assume they are exclusively aimed at children.
From the American perspective, it may seem like children are being exposed to pornographic imagery, but Japanese consumers understand that some anime is meant for adult audiences.
In a sense, sexualized anime shares similarities to the American live-action porn industry, though pornography objectifies and commodifies real people, rather than reproducing fantasies through illustration.
It seems hypocritical to criticize how the feminine is depicted in another culture without critically examining the way it is treated in your own first.
Still, the history of racist depictions of East Asians in white America has a lasting influence, even today. Japanese women in the media often tell shocking stories of the ways in which they have been objectified and fetishized in popular American culture.
It may be that some of these lasting racist sentiments subliminally inform the ways that Americans interact with Japanese art. Anime may be made in Japan by mostly Japanese artists, but that doesn't stop Americans from perverting its content and misinterpreting its message without the correct context.
Today, America’s relationship with Eastern media is continuing to evolve. Anime is quickly becoming not only normalized but often celebrated in popular culture. Even Kim Kardashian recently expressed her love of the genre and honestly, who’s more mainstream than the Kardashians?
Americans are historically used to consuming only their own media, and exporting their movies and music across the globe. As the consumption of media from Japan and other countries becomes normative in the U.S., Americans will be forced to broaden their perspectives and embrace a more diverse, and perhaps culturally challenging, catalog of films and cartoons.