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In defence of Weebs Japan obsessives are nostalgic for a long-lost Britain

Weebs are undoubtedly a bit weird. Eduardo Parra/Getty Images

Weebs are undoubtedly a bit weird. Eduardo Parra/Getty Images


December 7, 2023   7 mins

When I moved to Japan in the mid-2000s, a friend of mine generously suggested that I was a romantic underachiever doing the equivalent of what thwarted job-seekers in the finance industry referred to as FILTH: Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. Exhibit A, he argued, were the distinctly unbalanced couples to be found walking the streets of Tokyo: geeky young Western men wearing whatever they had woken up in that morning, arm-in-arm with Japanese women who seemed to understand and respect high-end fashion while scorning nature’s hierarchies.

Japanophiles had it tough back then. Tell someone you’re a Francophile, and they’d assume you liked the food, the literature, or had a favourite holiday spot. An Anglophile might stand in cultured awe of Shakespeare, or indulge a misty-eyed reverence for Churchill. By contrast, the “phile” in Japanophile — linked with an assumed attraction to cutesy, submissive femininity within Japanese pop culture — suggested something unhealthy, even unnerving; the need, possibly, to be on a register of some sort.

Since then, however, Western appreciation for Japan has blossomed. Netflix has ramped-up its Japanese offerings, while ever more shelf-space in bookshops and supermarkets is given over to the fantasy worlds of My Hero Academia and One Piece, slightly disappointing sushi, and ingredients marketed with faux-Japanese fonts and logos. This Christmas, white-bearded octogenarian Hayao Miyazaki will gift us his final film on Boxing Day: The Boy and the Heron. It caps a career that has helped to define “Japan” in the West: from ancient, spirit-filled forests to presentations of ordinary urban life in which the transcendent seems always about to break through.

Today, Japan seems more firmly entrenched than ever as a cultural superpower: up there with Italy, France and the United States. And yet something of that old suspicion remains. Express too strong an interest in Japanese culture — and in anime and manga especially — and you risk the accusation of being a “weeb”. The origins of the term lie with the 4chan online imageboard in the early 2000s, where Japan-obsessed white Westerners were derided as “wapanese” — a portmanteau of “wannabe Japanese” or “white Japanese”. Things got heated, and 4chan moderators replaced “wapanese” with the word “weeaboo”, from which “weeb” derives.

Twenty years on, however, there are signs online that the word “weeb” is at last being claimed, with gentle irony, by lovers of Japan across the board. And it’s about time. Extreme anime fans who adopt the clothes and mannerisms of their favourite characters, or give themselves made-up Japanese names, are undoubtedly a bit weird. But high-culture purists can be equally clichéd in their devotion to Japanese art, architecture, martial arts or the good old tea ceremony. And they have more in common with the lowly weebs than they’d care to admit: all are heirs to a history of Western fantasy and longing.

You have to go back nearly 500 years to meet the first weebs. Jesuit missionaries struggled to be taken seriously as bringers of profound metaphysical revelations when Japanese feudal lords saw that they kept livestock in their homes, turned up for meetings in shabby religious attire, lacked various social graces, and rarely seemed to wash. It was under the tutelage of such critics that the Jesuits learned to use chopsticks, take small bites, speak Japanese, appreciate (and indeed perform) the tea ceremony, and dress in a Japanese variant on the traditional Jesuit cassock and cloak.

The Portuguese missionary Luis Fróis was among the greatest of this generation, befriending the legendary warlord Oda Nobunaga and pioneering some of the first cultural comparisons with the West. “In Europe,” he wrote in 1585, “baring even one’s foot before a fire to get warm would be considered strange; in Japan, anyone standing before the fire to get warm unabashedly bares his entire backside…”

In the early 1600s, the Tokugawa shoguns banned all Europeans save the Dutch from trading in Japan in a feat of early-modern border control which Westerners rather conceitedly interpreted as “seclusion” — Japan in fact continued to trade with its nearer neighbours. Being cut off added enormously to the romance of the place, and the first generation to step across a newly reopened Japanese threshold in the 1850s was determined to make the most of it.

Barriers of language and culture enhanced Japan’s exotic appeal. Visiting in the 1870s, the travel writer Isabella Bird commended Japan to her readers as offering “as much novelty perhaps as an excursion to another planet”. The British designer Christopher Dresser was meanwhile perplexed to find the otherwise “genial” and “loving” Japanese indulging the “barbaric cruelty” of slicing a live fish into quivering, edible chunks — a form of cuisine known as ikizukuri. And Irish-Greek writer Lafcadio Hearn, one of the first people to be called a “Japanophile”, described his adopted home of Japan as “a world of lesser and seemingly kindlier beings… the realisation, for imaginations nourished with English folklore, of the old dream of a World of Elves”.

Yet there was a strong sense, too, that the West was polluting Japanese culture. When the British ornithologist and plant collector Collingwood “Cherry” Ingram first visited Japan in the early 1900s, the country appeared Eden-like in its lack of “smoke-begrimed cities” and the cynicism they bred. A few years later, he declared it to be suffering a “violent aesthetic indigestion”, born of taking in too much, too quickly. Plenty of visitors who followed in his footsteps ended up equally disappointed, travelling thousands of miles in search of a pure, pastoral romance long-since lost back home, only to find a far-Eastern Britain under construction.

The desire to catch up with the West, industrially and militarily, seemed to have resulted in purpose crowding out meaning. Children passed through schools having factory or office skills bolted on. Music lessons were motivational: brass bands and singing in unison — the more whimsical Japanese flute and shamisen were deemed shamefully uncivilised. Clocks were everywhere. The Emperor’s personal tutor spoke for a great many Japanese conservatives when he worried about adopting too much from “foreign civilisations [whose] only values are fact-gathering and technique”.

Indeed, Westerners whose love of Japan was premised on its vaunted depth and purity were not short of allies among the Japanese. They included Okakura Kakuzō, author — in English, for such was his target audience — of The Ideals of the East (1903). He claimed that modern Japan was uniquely placed to steward the “Asiatic soul” and replenish its desiccated Western counterpart. Similar ideas were put forward by Japanese advocates of Zen, and Buddhism more broadly. Some even went on lecture tours of America and Europe, marrying critiques of modern Western life with classes on how to meditate.

This sort of thing annoyed some Japanese commentators. While they were pleased to see their country garnering respect abroad, they worried that a reputation for kindliness and passivity risked holding it back. The Indian poet and friend of Okakura, Rabindranath Tagore, visited Japan on a speaking tour during the First World War and lauded a “culture that enjoins man to look for his true wealth and power in his inner soul”. One Japanese critic in the audience pointed out that Japan had lately done rather well out of wealth of the economic sort, and power of the kind that went “bang” — just ask the Russians, defeated by Japan’s modern armed forces in 1905. Another dismissed Tagore’s message as “the song of a ruined country”.

On that same tour, Tagore warned his hosts about succumbing to the temptations of European-style nationalism. Heading down that very path in the mid-20th century, Japan suddenly found itself short on Western admirers. When eventually they returned, it was for much the same reasons: Japan as a place of stillness, spaciousness and quiet. Dignified longing was offered up in the films of Yasujiro Ōzu (Tokyo Story, 1953) and the novels of Yasunari Kawabata, Japan’s first Nobel Prize laureate for literature. And Japanese cultural diplomacy steered artfully clear of the country’s recent history, leaning heavily instead on peaceful, timeless art-forms: ikebana (flower-arranging), the tea ceremony, calligraphy, sushi.

Japan’s radical art of the Sixties and Seventies — from painting to performance — struggled to find a mass audience in the West, perhaps because it was too familiar in its forms and political concerns. Instead, manga and anime became the first elements of non-traditional Japanese culture to travel westward, pioneered by artists who had lived through the war or its immediate aftermath, who sought to show Japanese children just how compromised and corrupt the adult world could be. Osamu Tezuka (“godfather of manga”) was part of that group, as were Hayao Miyazaki and Yanase Takashi — the latter not well-known in the West, but adored in Japan for his children’s superhero Anpanman. Japan’s centuries-old tradition of visual satire and storytelling — myths, ghosts, jokey takes on everyday life (one of Japan’s oldest surviving cartoons depicts a fart battle) — was reworked to create fantastical characters and worlds, in which childlike innocence was shown capable of winning out over darker forces.

Japan’s political leaders slowly cottoned on to the potential of enhancing Japan’s reputation abroad while providing a counterbalance to American cultural imports. Talk emerged in the early 2000s of “cool Japan”, and politicians began taking awkward photos alongside anime characters like Doraemon. Western critics pointed out the disparity between the fun, vibrant and ultra-modern on-screen fare and Japan’s creaky political situation, under which the economy sputtered and women struggled to be taken seriously in the workforce. Was there not something a little wrong, they wondered, with filling the pockets of Japanese culture industries whose job seemed to be to supply just enough comfort and creativity to keep moral or political despair at bay?

A defence of weebery may be exactly what we need, as it looks like it will be a major ally of Britain for years to come. At its best, anime shows us how people in different parts of Japanese society imagine and understand themselves. Cultural diplomacy may even be easing Japan’s relationships with its East Asian neighbours, balancing out the strong anti-Japanese sentiment in education systems and political discourse. It is perfectly possible to love My Neighbour Totoro and hold unforgiving views of Japanese colonialism and war-making in the 20th century. But surveys suggest that Japanese pop culture, combined with tourism, is encouraging young Chinese and Koreans to think about Japan primarily in terms of quality entertainment (more relatable than American fare, given shared cultural roots), tasty food, politeness, convenience and good shopping. Far more Chinese can name a Japanese pop-culture classic than the other way around. If dishing out Belt and Road money turns out to be a flop, China’s leaders may find themselves desperate for the Chinese equivalent of a weeb debate.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once warned, with Western fans of Indian culture in mind, that “every man has a fairy-land just beyond the compass of his horizon”. But to wonder whether life might be better elsewhere is surely to wonder whether life could be better, full-stop. Whatever your views on weebery, that is surely the sort of wondering with which we ought never to lose touch.


Christopher Harding is a cultural historian of India and Japan, based at the University of Edinburgh. His latest book is The Light of Asia (Allen Lane). He also has a Substack: IlluminAsia.
drchrisharding

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Pat Davers
Pat Davers
7 months ago

I lived in Japan for a couple of years as a young man and it was a fascinating and life-enriching experience.. Once thing that became apparent quite quickly though, is that although the Japanese were friendly, welcoming and polite to fault towards us foreigners, we were always considered as “outsiders” and that they would never seriously entertain the idea that that a foreigner could integrate into Japanese society, with all its complex social hierarchies and delicate nuances, which only someone who had been born and raised in such an environment could possibly understand. This was even a serious barrier to learning the language, in which these social niceties ae deeply embedded. Indeed, any foreigner who didn’t conform to the stereotyped “gaijin”, and who tried too hard to become Japanese was treated as a bit of an oddity, or even with suspicion. This contrast quite starkly to the West, where incomers are expected to integrate, and those was do not are resented.
I think anyone who has been paying attention over the controversies generated over to deal with mass migration will have noticed that in spite of being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Japan had taken on very few immigrants and refugees, and that furthermore, there is very little outcry from NGO’s and other bodies about this, who are otherwise so vociferous that Western societies should accept “diversity” as an unalloyed good. It’s nothing to do with demographics either. Japan is undergoing the same pressure in terms of declining birth rates and an ageing population as the West, perhaps even more so, and yet no one is insisting that they should take in immigrant to make up the shortfall in the labour market.
I think Japan is aware, either explicitly or implicitly, of its cultural uniqueness, and that the intricate social ecosystem could be irreparably damaged by allowing in foreigners at anything more that a trickle, and that any resulting demographic issue issues will have to be handed internally in their own way. Good luck to them, I say. I wish we could be as farsighted.

Sophy T
Sophy T
7 months ago
Reply to  Pat Davers

‘Japan had taken on very few immigrants and refugees, and that furthermore, there is very little outcry from NGO’s and other bodies about this, who are otherwise so vociferous that Western societies should accept “diversity” as an unalloyed good’.
Interesting point. Why is there no outcry from NGOs? Is it because they think any sort of criticism of East Asians is racism?

Pat Davers
Pat Davers
7 months ago
Reply to  Sophy T

I think the more likely explanation is that it simply wouldn’t work, so they don’t bother. In spite of having a colonial past (and quite a brutal one at that), Japan seems to be wonderfully unburdened by colonial guilt.

Quite why that should be the case, is another discussion!

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
7 months ago
Reply to  Pat Davers

Colonial guilt is a western phenomenon. I can’t think of a non-western civilization with a similar appetite for self-flagellation and self-righteous guilt over things that happened long before any of us were born. In the US we don’t do colonial guilt either, but only because slavery is so much more convenient, since the descendants are still present to serve as objects of our collective guilt and recipients of our misguided attempts to dispense historical justice. Justified or not, such guilt does nobody any good. The things that happened cannot be undone, and attempts to redress historical wrongs invariably create further resentment and perpetuate conflicts into the future. The Japanese are to be commended for their rejection of pointless self-flagellation, not criticized. Perhaps the reason their culture is so appealing to so many outside Japan is the fact they don’t apologize for being Japanese. Nature abhors a vacuum, and people who reject their own culture will tend to gravitate towards others.

Chipoko
Chipoko
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

“Perhaps the reason their culture is so appealing to so many outside Japan is the fact they don’t apologize for being Japanese.”
Quite so! The Japanese are not interested in diversity as an end in itself. They have a pride in their culture and identity and don’t want this to be diluted by foreigners who don’t have any interest in them inherently. This in stark contrast to western nations (e.g. UK) which have actively sought to deride and dilute their own identity and heritage.

Tom K
Tom K
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Japan could do with a bit of colonial guilt. There’s been no cultural reckoning whatsoever about their bloody and brutal 50-year colonial adventure in Korea and Taiwan, and later in Manchuria and across former Western colonies in South East Asia.

Harry Phillips
Harry Phillips
7 months ago
Reply to  Pat Davers

Word on the ground is that numbers of all types of foreigners are booming – Chinese looking for property, Indonesians working in factories and services, Indians in IT, and various other ex-pats.

Crucially, they are on visas, which can be revised or terminated. No citizenship and permanent residency increasingly hard to get.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
7 months ago

Japanese culture is attractive because (in part) contemporary Western culture has become so unpleasant. I see it as an escape, a fresh and different perspective. The amount of translated Japanese books and subtitled films in high street book and music shops is certainly growing.

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
7 months ago

An excellent article from a very thoughtful writer.
I should like to add that in addition to the famous Indian poet Tagore, Japan was also a source of great inspiration for Indian art in the early 20th century. The poet’s nephew Abanindranath Tagore was fascinated by Japanese landscape and portraiture in his evolving of the Bengal School of art. India’s own complex 20th century history has meant a close socio- cultural bond with the Japanese ethos unlike other parts of Asia which saw the violent manifestation of Japanese imperial power.
Japan has also been a draw for its cinema. The work of Kurosawa and Ozu has been as impactful as French New Wave and Italian Neo Realism.

David Yetter
David Yetter
7 months ago

Modern Japanese culture is fascinating to Westerners, I think, because it is both exotic and familiar. Japan is the only country which adopted modernity on its own terms, rather than having it imposed either by colonialists or Marxist revolutionaries. The Meiji revolution which overthrew the Shogunate and reinstalled the Emperor as a functioning head of state, adopted what they deemed the best versions of Western institutions, copying the British Navy and educational system, the German military, and American technology (including the Gattling gun) and business norms, but all the while maintaining the vast bulk of traditional Japanese culture.
If wanting to look Japanese is now a fad in the West, it is returning the favor they paid us in wanting to look Western: adopting Western-style attire in many contexts from the mid-19th century onward, making the Japanese look less oriental than the Russians in their propaganda manga at the time of the Russo-Japanese War, and setting many of their current pop-culture manga and anime in a Japan with a Caucasian-looking population (with even wilder variation of hair-colors).

Pat Davers
Pat Davers
7 months ago

Double post deleted

Last edited 7 months ago by Pat Davers
Tom K
Tom K
6 months ago

‘By contrast, the “phile” in Japanophile — linked with an assumed attraction to cutesy, submissive femininity within Japanese pop culture — suggested something unhealthy, even unnerving; the need, possibly, to be on a register of some sort.’

This is utter rot. Anyone familiar with Japan in the 80s or 90s (by which time I was UK based but working for a Japanese company) won’t recognise this at all, nor would any decidedly unfeminine men drawn to Japanese culture by the practice of martial arts.

I think this says far more about the writer than about Japan or indeed wider western attitudes (at least among adults) to Japan.

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
7 months ago

The Romanticism which in western eyes shrouded Japan was the result of the failure to kill the inhabitants, convert them to Christianity and steal the land. As such they could not be reduced to servile (India) or savage (Africa). This failure had to be attributed to the Japanese ‘martial prowess’, ‘superior culture’ etc. The Japanese came too late to the party and their own attempts at colonialism were considered too uncouth.