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It’s Cool 2 Be Asian
January 26, 2022
Demon Slayer: Mugen Train, a movie from the hit anime series Demon Slayer, aired in theaters across North America just this past year. BTS, the incredibly acclaimed K-Pop group, is a grammy-nominated artist for Best Pop Duo/Group in 2021. Genshin Impact has amassed 2.67 million monthly active users internationally, including users in the United States. Although it has been a slow and steady incline that took place over the course of a few decades, it is finally safe to say: East Asian media is finally mainstream in the United States.
This is a wonderful development. For previous generations in the U.S., the popularity of these forms of media was mostly constrained to Asian-Americans; those inside and outside of this demographic often recount tales of bullying throughout middle and high school due to these interests. So the American population’s newfound interest in foreign—particularly, Asian—entertainment is a progressive step toward destigmatizing media that was previously considered an oddity. Although East Asian media still occupies a certain niche among the general population, there are a few acts that capture tremendous attention, such as Squid Game.
There are, however, a few drawbacks to East Asian media’s newfound popularity with an American audience. Because of the U.S.’s cultural dominance all across the globe, it is rare for Americans to be confronted with their own limited perspectives.
Thanks to its unique history, the U.S. enjoys a form of political secularism while the public culture remains entrenched with Christian norms and references. The result is that media analysis is unconsciously understood through a Christian framework, or with respect to Western ancient civilizations such as the Greeks and the Romans. A New York Times Best-seller on literary criticism called How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster supports this idea. Its numerous chapter titles outlining classic tropes and symbols in American literature paints a vivid picture of the pervasiveness of Christian imagery throughout American consciousness—and, more specifically, American art.
With this understanding of how the U.S.’s history has influenced the culture reflected in its entertainment industries, it is only logical that East Asian media would follow the same template, as per the histories and cultures of their own respective countries. But the thing about the general American population unconsciously understanding media through a Christian framework is that their understanding is unconscious. The average American is not calling into question the way they intuitively analyze books and movies—because they have never had reason to before.
As a result, the messages and themes of Asian art are dissected rather superficially by the general public—through no fault of their own—and themes/symbols of cultural significance are often lost in translation. Cultural barriers are inevitable, so this is not inherently a bad thing. The downsides only really kick in when there is no self-awareness about one’s lack of knowledge, leading to ignorant fans arrogantly claiming the authority of knowledge on any of the East Asian cultures (most notably about Japan or South Korea).
In short, the increase in mainstream interest toward East Asian media is commendable, but it has led to inaccurate portrayals and perceptions of the countries they originate from due to cultural barriers between the intended and the American audiences that are never critically examined.
Of all forms of East Asian media, anime has become the most pervasive in mainstream culture. Coming from a medium that Western audiences are not entirely used to, anime carries a certain appeal to Americans by exploring subjects and concepts that their domestic genres do not tend to deliver.
“The art style is unique from modern Western media animations and usually, the storylines/plots are more interesting since (most) anime comes from manga adaptations, meaning only the best stories are selected to become shows,” explains Jonathan Tran, a senior at Huntington Beach High School. “Western media that is animated usually only gets forwarded through processes, including producers [and] show-runners. However, with the existence of manga, most anime already have public backing [from the manga’s existing fanbase], and followers expect the show to meet its full quality, while Western cartoons do not have [as many] bars to meet.”
Morgan Delgadillo, also a senior at Huntington Beach High School, expresses similar enthusiasm for the medium.“I love anime, especially the art and the plot[s] as a whole. After watching the third season of Riverdale, I completely gave up on most modern television,” says Delgadillo. “This is when my brother introduced me to anime, stating, ‘It’s so much better than you’d imagine.’ He was so right. The plots are intense, well-written and the character development in anime is incredible. As a writer, I appreciate a well-written story.”
The conception of anime dates back to 1917 in Japan, although it only began to resemble the anime we know today through technological developments in the 30s and 40s. Because anime’s evolution only really began to take place during World War II, the intentions of these first few anime movies were not necessarily just to entertain—but to propagandize on behalf of the government. In the 1960s, the first anime TV series, Astro Boy (鉄腕アトム), was aired and globally, thus inciting the first glimmers of anime’s popularity in the U.S. NBC, the American broadcasting network, even partnered with the creator of Astro Boy, Tezuka Osamu, to produce the first full-color anime TV series (Jungle Emperor or Kimba the White Lion), which was then broadcast to network television in the U.S. and met with success.
With anime establishing itself as a profitable market in the 60s, the 1970s led to anime firmly entrenching itself in Japanese popular culture… eventually leading to the advent of the “Cool Japan” strategy.
The “Cool Japan” strategy was essentially Japan realizing its marketability as a country thanks to the popularity potential of its various cultural products (including, but not limited to anime, fashion, iconic characters like Hello Kitty, etc). With this strategy, starting from around the 1980s, Japan launched a campaign to disseminate the attractive factors of the country—largely based in youth and pop culture—to a global audience, basically investing in its cultural soft power (a country’s ability to influence other countries without the use of military force, typically with economic or cultural power).
Thanks to this strategy, Japan is highly appealing to a youthful audience. It is a dreamland full of unique innovations, art, cultural traditions, and more—devoid of the societal faults that plague their own respective countries. This new reputation is a sharp deviation from previous perceptions of Japan. Especially during World War II, Japanese imperialism resulted in many atrocities and was thus regarded with a certain wariness by older generations. In this sense, the “Cool Japan” strategy has succeeded.
Further compounding the fact that this strategy has achieved part of its goal is that, to many young Americans, Japan produces media that is apolitical in nature, perceiving it as a refreshing break from American entertainment that is often rife with sometimes inflammatory social commentary. This reveals the harmful side of American audiences’ lack of cultural awareness regarding Japan.
Japan, like any other country, boasts its own share of societal issues that require redress. From a rampant culture of misogyny and anti-feminism to a long period of lack of accountability when it comes to pedophilia and child sexual exploitation material (CSEM), to a growing number of right-wing provocateurs (uyoku dentai)—Japan is far from the apolitical dreamland it is perceived to be by people whose only interaction with the culture starts at anime and ends at aesthetics.
It is important to keep in mind while engaging with Japanese contemporary culture that it is a country like any other, that its societal problems and stigmas will be reflected in its cultural output, and to consume this content critically in order to avoid fetishization.
The Korean entertainment industry has taken the world by storm. From music to films to cosmetics, the Korean wave, known as Hallyu, has recently reached a new and astonishing level of interest across the globe—especially to the fascinated American public eye. Many students at Huntington Beach High School have expressed interest in Korean entertainment.
“I’m not the most avid listener [of K-Pop] but I have been getting into STAYC, HEIZE, some other girl groups, and solo artists,” says Sarah Hart, a senior. “I feel like while the music is formulaic at times, there is so much creativity that some artists put into their music. … [T]here’s just something about the way the music triggers the right dopamine release in our brains that makes it so fun to listen to,” Hart continued.
“I love watching K-Dramas because I am a hopeless romantic,” says Kayla Nguyen, also a senior, “and I also enjoy watching thriller shows like Voice with my family.”
Ezra Romley, a senior, expresses similar sentiments: “I love K-Dramas because I am a sucker for romantic comedies. The storyline of how these characters fall in love is what I love watching, similar to romance dramas in anime.”
The Hallyu wave is a global, frenetic phenomenon—and much of the frenzy is apparent in the United States. Much like with fans of Japanese media, non-Korean fans’ fascination with South Korea’s cultural outputs has led to a strange idolization of Korean-ness. Notably, in 2019, an American girl videotaped herself following a family around Target, her interest in these people stemming solely from their Korean origins. Tangentially, a white British internet personality dubbed Oli London has gained notoriety for their multiple cosmetic surgeries to appear more similar to BTS member Jimin and for supposedly identifying as a “transracial*” Korean person.
Despite Korean media’s powerful emerging presence in the U.S., a lot still gets lost in translation. With regard to film, wildly popular pieces such as Parasite and Squid Game are created with the context of Korean capitalism and rapid urbanization that occurred as a result of regional destabilization caused by the United States after the Korean War. Tone-deaf recreations of the conditions of the Squid Game characters by multimillionaire influencers such as Mr. Beast have not only sparked controversy but also demonstrate the superficial way Americans interact with foreign media. South Korea’s exploration of wealth inequality stems from its unique history and fairly recent relationship with its current economic system, whereas Americans tend to engage with this topic by viewing it as a permanent fixture of life.
“I can say that, based on Parasite only, the film brings different social problems based in Korea [to light] which may not be as apparent to Americans. The issue of wealth-gap has been covered numerous times within American films, and often within all types of genres, the protagonist emerges victorious/better off than they originally started (rags to riches troupe, etc),” Tran aptly comments on this disparity.
“The difference with Parasite is that it doesn’t attempt to glorify the issue with poverty and the wealth-gap society brings, as many American films do,” says Tran.
“Although both industries may present the obvious lavish lifestyle of the rich, Parasite differs by grounding the individual to reality, and that the issue still exists no matter what a person does. … [T]he director is not afraid to show that these stories that reflect the harsh reality of the world do not have a happy ending, which most American movies end with,” Tran adds.
Beyond the fact that Americans are often missing cultural context when engaging with South Korean media, there is also an odd phenomenon of infantilizing South Korean idols when it comes to the inverse.
K-Pop as a musical genre is in actuality a blend of Western and Korean influences, rather than a purely Korean cultural output. A majority of songwriting and production is outsourced by these K-Pop companies to Western—and in particular, Black— songwriters and producers. With many primary influences from R&B, hip-hop, and trap, K-Pop is largely an industry built on the innovations of Black music and culture.
As CL, solo artist and former member of the popular girl group 2NE1, once said on her Instagram in June 2020, “Artists, directors, writers, dancers, designers, producers, stylists in the K-POP industry are all inspired by black culture whether they acknowledge it or not.”
As a result, many K-Pop idols tend to try and emulate the Black artists they look up to, resulting in insensitive actions such as cultural appropriation or singing along to racial slurs. When delving further into genres such as K-Hip-hop and K-R&B, the offensive actions become more potent. The sad thing is, fans of these artists will often try to absolve their idols of all responsibility for their actions, pointing fingers at stylists and companies or emphasizing lack of malintent and ignorance. This stems from the fact that the dehumanization of Asians in the United States has always involved infantilizing the entire group, as well as exotifying and hyper-sexualizing Asian women and emasculating Asian men.
However, conversations around cultural appropriation and various other controversies within K-Pop have been happening for years. It’s become clear that the South Korean and American music industries are locked in a twisted balance of irreverent cultural exchange. While Korean artists fail to respect the cultural origins of the innovations their industry is driven by, American fans—notably those that are not part of the affected groups—perceive their idols as softheaded children who must be protected from the impacts of their actions just because these idols are Asian. Coupled with the fact that South Korea lacks anti-discrimination laws and anti-Blackness is particularly rampant, this does not paint a pretty picture.
In short, the Hallyu wave comes with a plethora of issues. Americans must confront the fact that the way they engage with themes in media is not universal and varies all around the world. On the part of white Americans who hold cultural dominance over minority groups in the U.S., they must also be wary of the way these music artists partake in the appropriation and bastardization of Black culture and be sensitive in conversations surrounding it.
(*This is not actually a real identity or the correct use of the term. Being “transracial” is most commonly used in the context of adoption.)
To a lesser extent, Chinese media has begun to achieve a certain amount of popularity with Western audiences. This is mostly centered around video games since China is dominant in the industry, but has recently been extending toward dramas and web novels. “I can’t stop playing Genshin Impact. I sold my soul to that game,” jokes Delgadillo.
Chinese dramas have also somewhat started making waves with younger generations in Western countries, even drawing references in American pop culture publications such as Vox and WIRED. Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, the anonymous author of three wildly popular Chinese web novels in the Boy’s Love (BL) genre, has made it on the New York Times bestseller list three times with the officially-licensed English translations of her novels. Donghua, Chinese animation, is even beginning to draw a niche audience—although this might be because it is commonly mistaken for anime.
There is, however, one thing preventing Chinese media from becoming truly mainstream to an American audience.
When it comes to Japanese and South Korean media, Westerners feel free to cherry-pick aesthetics and parts of either culture that they find appealing to enjoy whilst removing all historical and political context tied to them. This is impossible when it comes to Chinese media, because to Westerners, specifically Americans, China is inherently political—whether they realize that they think of it that way or not. It is impossible for Americans to view Chinese culture (and consequently its cultural output) as isolated from its political context.
Given what has been discussed throughout this article, Americans’ inability to separate Chinese culture from Chinese politics may seem like a good thing; the main gripe thus far has been about American ignorance when it comes to engaging with East Asian media after all. The problem therein lies in the fact that the American understanding of Chinese politics is outrageously flawed.
American media outlets are rife with the anti-Chinese sentiment, to the point where observers have made cheeky remarks about the way these outlets frame news about China.
Historically, racism against Asian-Americans has mostly stemmed from proximity to Chinese-ness, as demonstrated by the fact that the racial slur “chink” specifically targets Chinese people but is used indiscriminately against all people of Asian descent, especially those with East Asian features. Even now, during the Covid-19 pandemic as hate crimes against Asian-Americans rise to terrifying levels, it all circles back to sinophobia—as shown by the attribution of the virus to Chinese people in themselves and the pejorative nickname “Chinese virus” coined by the former President.
Any enjoyment of Chinese media is soured by the undercurrent of hatred for all things Chinese that is deeply ingrained into American culture. Even while playing games such as Genshin Impact, in which elements of Chinese culture are beautifully celebrated through character design and story elements, American players will make scathing comments conflating Chinese people and companies with the Chinese government and never question whether the criticisms they are parroting are backed up by either fact or propaganda.
It is important to keep in mind that general Chinese cultural practices, traditions, and beliefs will be prevalent (and with its thousands of years of history, there is a lot) while engaging with Chinese art. It is also equally as important to pay attention to internalized biases people have about China in itself by putting in the work to counteract them through critical thinking and research.
Impact on Asian-Americans
East Asian media’s current booming popularity has had a profoundly strange impact on Asian-Americans. Years ago, being an Asian person in the U.S. was an othering experience, but nowadays Asian-ness is almost trendy in a way that strips the idea of “being Asian” down to its aesthetics and commercialized art.
Hana Homma, a Japanese-American senior at Huntington Beach High School, says, “I think [people who enjoy Japanese culture, aesthetics, and anime] are fine, but I can’t help but question their intentions a little. Especially with anime, it feels as though that is the only thing Japan is good for. It seems like the country’s accomplishments such as world-class vehicles, technology, etc., are overshadowed by this art. But then again, I like seeing the support for anime.”
“Talking to people who were obsessed with anime made me feel as if I wasn’t Japanese enough because I don’t consume its media,” she adds. “I would consider justifying myself with my cultural experiences but would refrain, realizing people didn’t care about that aspect as long as they were getting their episodes.”
“I often say ‘I’m Japanese but I don’t like anime’ to either make the other person feel comfortable or to justify that a Japanese person’s identity doesn’t [need to] revolve around anime,” Homma says, “even though a non-Japanese person’s concept of Japan [usually does revolve] around anime.”
Ellee Nakamura, a senior who is half-Japanese and half-Korean, has analogous accounts of her own experiences. “I think it’s fine to enjoy things from other cultures, but there’s a point where it feels a little off. If you’re only watching something because it belongs to a certain country, then maybe there’s something to say about that,” Nakamura says. “Also, I feel like some people glorify pop culture and criticize traditional culture. Don’t post your dalgona you saw on Squid Game but then talk about how gross blood sausage is.”
“I’ve been told I’m less Korean than a person who likes K-Dramas. I’ve been told I’m less Japanese than a person who learned Japanese because they learned from anime. Like it’s a competition,” she continues. “I find myself needing to prove that I actually am Korean and Japanese in front of my closest friends. It’s weird because just a few years ago many Asians felt like they needed to not talk about being Asian in order to fit in.”
“I have also been told I’m ‘so lucky’ because I’m Korean and Japanese of all ethnicities. I don’t even know how to feel about that,” states Nakamura.
“I think celebration [of pop culture] is much better than racism. It sucks that people of my ethnicity are fetishized and idolized, but at the same time, I hope that it leads to a world where Asians are more accepted. Just the other day, someone called out ‘Ni hao!’ to me and my friends while driving past us as we were walking on the sidewalk,” Nakamura says. “We clearly have a long way to go. I also feel for the people of other ethnicities that get pure criticism. I don’t know how I would deal with the blatant racism Chinese people dealt with while Covid was at its peak.”
East Asian entertainment being so popular has also narrowed down American perception of Asian nationalities: if you do not fit into one of the three categories, your culture does not have as much mainstream value and is therefore essentially nonexistent to the public eye. This is both a blessing and a curse; while non-East Asians do not have to deal with the frequent fetishization faced by East Asians, the issues that uniquely affect them do not receive as much attention.
Ultimately, the popularity of East Asian media is a double-edged sword. Appreciation for foreign art and entertainment is always a good thing, but in many cases, it comes with a slew of ignorance from American audiences that remains uncritically examined. The media’s popularity has also subsequently led to the popularity of (a superficial idea of) Asian-ness as a whole, leaving Asian-Americans in a bit of an awkward position. From here on out, navigating the advent of East Asian media in the American mainstream will be a tricky balance between respecting cultural/historical contexts and sociopolitical realities in these countries, as well as coming to terms with the fact that there will always be nuances within the media that Americans will fail to ever understand as foreigners who grew up without an intuitive understanding of the cultures.
But one thing remains clear:
…It’s cool to be Asian now.
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