American Anime Fans – An Initial Research Guide

An easy way to approach the presence of anime and manga in the U.S. is to think about “firsts” – the first Japanese animated film to be screened in American movie theaters, the first Japanese cartoon aired on American television, the first anime released on home video, the first published manga, the first anime convention, and so on. And there is certainly a lot of value to identifying these kinds of firsts and establishing the history of anime/manga in the U.S. For anime in particular, for example, Brian Ruh has done excellent work in this area with “Early Japanese animation in the United States: Changing Tetsuwan Atomu to Astro Boy”, in The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Miyazaki (pp. 209-226) and Transforming U.S. anime in the 1980s: Localization and longevity (Mechademia, v. 5: Fanthropologies, pp. 31-49).

But, what kind of research is out there on the “present” state of anime in the U.S., and in particular, on the audience for anime in the U.S.? In fact, a few days ago, I came across just such a request for recommended articles or other scholarship specifically on American anime fans. I immediately realized that there are actually very few out there – compared to commentary on particular fan activities and practices, such as anime music videos, cosplay, fan fiction, and fan subs. So, I think it will be useful to list several that I am aware of and can readily recommend.

To begin, for any understanding of American anime fans, a key source are a pair of essays by Lawrence Eng:

Strategies of engagement: Discovering, defining, and describing otaku culture in the United States. (pp. 85-104).

Anime and manga fandom as networked culture (pp. 158-178)

In Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, & Izumi Tsuji (Eds). Fandom unbound: Otaku culture in a connected world. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

In “Strategies of engagement”, Eng presents the way American anime fans adopted the Japanese concept of “otaku” for their own use and to apply to the specific American context. From this, he goes on to identify an “otaku ethic” – “a list of items…to define, somewhat platonically, an idealized portrait of otaku culture.” The components of this ethic, inspired by the concept of the hacker ethic as first suggested by Steven Levy and expanded on by J.P. Barlow include a particular approach to information (“information is the most important thing, but information does not have fixed intrinsic value”), information management, identity construction, and the use of networks.

“Networked culture” refers to the structures that support anime fandom – “local networks” (i.e., actual social circles and clubs), online networks, conventions, etc. It first specifically traces the history of these in the U.S., and then surveys the state of these structures as of approximately 2012.

Moving on, I can also suggest:

Allison, Brent. Interviews with adolescent anime fans
in Mark I. West (Ed.), The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Miyazaki (pp. 119-146).

Allison’s approach in his research is essentially qualitative – the main research question he presents is “how does Japanese animation fandom act as an agency of informal education?” To approach this, he conducts in-depth conversations with a total of twelve participants, and guides them to discuss their particular anime genre preferences, the extent to which they interact with other fans – and how, their relationship to actual Japanese culture, the opinion of Western/U.S. media, and several other similar fairly broad themes.

Cubbison, Laurie (2005). Anime fans, DVDs, and the authentic text. The Velvet Light Trap, 56, 45-57.

The emphasis in this article is on how American fans expected to actually “experience” or access Japanese animation from the late 1980’s to the mid-2000’s in terms of formats, technical specifications, language, and actual content. It surveys the interactions between media companies and fans during that period, noting that “[t]he relationship between anime producers, distributors, retailers, and fans can be quite contentious”, traces the way that much of the U.S. current anime industry actually grew out of fandom, and acknowledges that ultimately, at least at that point, “[t]he home video industry, from small anime companies to major distributors like Buena Vista Home Entertainment, have been forced to acknowledge anime fans as consumers willing to invest a substantial amount of money in products that meet their demands and scornful of products that don’t.”

Napier, Susan (2006). The world of anime fandom in America. Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and Fan Arts, 1, 47-63.

The actual scope of this article is a lot more narrow than its title suggests – it is a study of a very specific group of the American anime fandom – the members or participants in the Miyazaki Mailing List. Napier provides a demographic profile of the ML, the results of a survey of its members, and an overview of some of the conversations and discussions that took place on it in the early 2000’s. Beyond this, her goal is to answer two specific questions – “what is it about the imagined community that I call MiyazakiWorld that attracts such a variety of people?” and “what is it about Miyazaki’s message that has struck a chord with so many people around the globe?”

[ed. note: Prof.  Napier develops the Miyazakiworld concept  further in Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art (Yale University Press, 2018]

Two additional articles may also be useful for an understanding of American anime fandom. However, I have not read them, and so, cannot provide any commentary.

Denison, Rayna (2011). Anime fandom and the liminal spaces between fan creativity and piracy. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 14(5), 449-466.

“Anime fan subtitling and online distribution offer rare insights into the relationship between fan creativity and industry conceptualizations of piracy. This article attempts to de-polarize this debate (wherein fans are presented as invaluable amateur producers or, alternatively, as overt pirates) in order to examine the roles played by these liminally situated fan producers in relation to the wider anime fan and industrial communities. These active fans are now represented as good or bad dependent on other groups’ investments in their practices, and unpacking these conceptualizations provides a better view of how anime fandom may be indicative of larger changes in online fan community construction.”

Park, Jin Kyu (2005). ‘Creating my own cultural and spiritual bubble’: Case of cultural consumption by spiritual seeker anime fans, Culture and Religion: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 6(3), 393-413.

“The distinctive quality of Japanese animation (anime) in its descriptions of religious and spiritual realms – integrating symbols, themes, doctrines, and mythologies from various religious traditions – is a cultural manifestation of the Japanese integrative spirituality. This article demonstrates how important the religious aspect of anime is in explaining why some younger generations in the USA, who are characterized as spiritual seekers, become a loyal fan of the cultural artifacts. Anime seems to provide them with a cultural resource out of which they create their own cultural and spiritual practice, which is, they claim, not provided by the US mainstream popular culture. This article argues that since the religious aspect of anime is one of the most distinctive qualities in distinguishing itself from US pop culture, it would contribute to the more generally accepted ‘cultural difference’ account in explaining the cross-cultural popularity of anime.”

One thing that is immediately evident with all of these articles is that all of them are somewhat dated – they can be useful for the history of anime fandom in the U.S., and for how fans and fandom were in the mid-2000’s, but how useful are they for understanding the state of U.S. anime fandom – and who U.S. anime fans are, and what they do – in 2018? So perhaps first of all, each of them can be “updated”, or new authors can apply the same basic formats or methodologies used in these, but with reference to the present. Here, the work of the International Anime Research Project, in particular its series of publications based on recent surveys of anime fans/anime convention attendees, is definitely worth noting.

At this point, it is also interesting to note the very limited extent to which major recent academic writing on fans, fandom, fan cultures, fan activities/practices, and related topics addresses anime. The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom only has a couple of mentions. Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World includes a single chapter on “the ethics of fansubbing”. Similarly, in the Ashgate Research Companion to Fan Cultures, one chapter specifically discusses “the affective space of anime conventions” – but in my opinion, only deals with one aspect of the anime con experience – the space, but not the event, experience, and, for that matter, project with an economic impact. There is also the question of whether it can be generalized to the U.S. and to much larger anime conventions than those the author describes. So at least my perception is that generally, when most scholars talk about fans and fandom, they are simply not aware of or thinking about anime fans.

As usual, these suggestions are initial – and entirely subjective. Again, they are also specific to anime fandom in the U.S. And, as always, if you have any that you would like to recommend, or if you have any comments on the ones that I am recommending, you are welcome to do so!

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