Nearly incandescent black bubbles float in an ocean of 50% sugar, milk tea; dainty girls on the television, cheeks rosy, eyes wide and twinkling with childish glee as their voices rise higher than ever before.
Over the past few decades, Japanese culture has slowly intertwined itself with that of America. We see a proliferation of so-called “weebs” and “otakus”, these self-deprecating yet affectionate terms describing the mass of fanatical devotees to and mimickers of Japanese culture. On the surface, this avid enthusiasm appears to be just another examples of teenagers and young adults embracing jumping from trend to trend or simply appreciating a foreign culture, but the darker origins of this obsession originate from a long history of fetishization of Asians in the west.
Animes such as Death Note, Love is War, Re:Zero, Toradora!, and Don’t Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro! have flooded the United States and given many teenagers and young adults an entirely different look at entertainment. This meteoric rise of anime can began in the ‘90s and early ‘00s when Japanese animation was beginning to be recognized in the United States as being distinct enough from American cartoons to pay attention to. Thus, in more recent years, other parts of Japanese culture have also migrated West. In urban areas such as New Jersey and California, bubble tea shops have spread like wildfire allowing Americans to get a "taste" of Japan, for example.
The generalized “Japanese aesthetic,” loosely imagined by most as a hazy atmosphere of bustling cities and youthful culture, has been heavily romanticized in pop culture. These little pockets of Japanese culture, from media to food to makeup styles, have developped cult followings.
Growing up as an Asian-American living in a majority-white town, Asian-Americans were often treated as social pariahs. There seemed to be some unspoken rule of leaving us out of conversation, excluding us from playing on the same playground, avoiding any form of contact with us unless absolutely necessary were the types of racism that dominated my childhood. However, there has been a noticeable shift in the way that we Asian-Americans are treated now that it has become trendy to fetishize and often steal from our cultures.
Asians in America have long held a “model minority” status, their success, used as an example of the "American Dream" in an attempt to hide the rampant racism still bubbling beneath the surface. This supposed success of Asian Americans led to new stereotypes for East Asian women in Western media to fall into: the “lotus blossom” and the “dragon lady”.
The lotus blossom stereotype portrays Asian women as fragile, quiet creatures that are in need of a “white savior” to complete them whereas the dichotomous dragon lady stereotype gives Asian women a sexually liberated, feisty flair, both of these tropes, of course, being incredibly harmful. American media's portrayal of East Asian women as enigmatic and hyper-sexualized planted a seed of fascination and fetishization with the culture that would fester over the decades to come.
An example of the latent effects of this phenomenon took place in the aftermath of the Atlanta spa shootings, where 6 women of Asian descent were killed by a gunman. Many news outlets were quick to depict the murdered women as having an immoral connection to prostitution and sex work.
As another example, Ariana Grande’s 7 Rings music video was accused of appropriating Japanese culture, taking the “kawaii aesthetic" and profiting off of it, displaying it in her music video amidst a display of monetary and sexual decadence. It is insulting to see one’s culture be debased and shoehorned into a mere sex symbol.
The obsession and mass consumption of anime has also led to a skewed view on Japan as many view it as having a superior pop culture, and believe that their society in general is much “better” than American society. This ignores the truth of Japanese culture and merely romanticizes certain derivative aspects without acknowledging the multidimensionality of an entire people and history, as well as the struggles they face the same as we do; Japanese society has overarching issues regarding mental health, overworking and productivity, and suicide rates, for example. By merely cherry-picking certain aspects of a culture to glorifiy, and by reducing Japanese people to mere stereotypes and boxes, one doesn’t get a full picture of what Japanese society is. They remain ignorant of the larger issues and the truth of a society as a whole. This also perpetuates the narrative of "otherness" that sparks racism and discrimination.
The perversion of Japanese culture in the West is incredibly damaging and serves only as a gateway for ignorance and discrimination to flourish. Societies, media and culture must be observed and understood holistically, without stereotypes, without fetishization and with the recognition of both their merits and their flaws.