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Everything you didn't realize you wanted to know about the non-Japanese people who love Japanese pop culture.
While I was in Japan over the last two weeks, I asked some local startup founders, VCs, consultants, and random friends whether they had ever heard the word “weeb”. Not a single one had. I was pretty stunned, because Japanese cultural products have given rise to a whole worldwide subculture, and people in Japan itself are barely aware that that subculture even exists. It’s not like it’s a fringe thing, either — the latest volume of the anime Spy X Family was the bestselling book in North America this week, and soldiers at the front in Ukraine do Pikachu dances to relieve stress. Japan became a cultural superpower almost by accident.
Anyway, I ended up directing the aforementioned founders, VCs, etc. to this post I wrote about weebs two years ago. It’s still the most fun entry in my ongoing “subculture” post series, and in fact it’s one of my favorite posts of any kind that I’ve ever written.
「し」抜きで いや 死ぬ気で!” — Sengoku Nadeko
The term “weeb” is a shortened version of the word “weeaboo”, which is a nonsense word from a webcomic. At some point, people on 4chan started using it as a term for “wannabe Japanese” — i.e., non-Japanese people who idolize Japanese culture.
June 30th again
above the Pacific
across the international date line
heading home to America
with part of my heart
I know that feeling very well.
But while some people refer to anyone who loves Japan as a “weeb”, the connotation of the term is usually more specific. It generally means someone who loves Japanese pop culture — cartoons, comics, video games, music, costumes, and so on. Cartoons above all; it’s hard to imagine a weeb who isn’t a fan of anime.
(“Weeb” has largely come to replace the term “otaku” in this context. “Otaku” is a Japanese word meaning “geek” — a startlingly direct translation actually, right down to the mid-00s shift from a negative to a positive connotation. For years Americans referred to anime fans as “otaku”, but the fact that the word had a different meaning in Japan eventually forced a switch, and so “weeb” it became.)
But in fact, “weeb” has a more complex connotation that goes far beyond Japanophilia or anime fandom. It’s an entire subculture — an extremely complex, intricate, unique, and in my opinion beautiful subculture.
My contact with that subculture has been extensive enough for me to realize that I’m not a weeb, and will never really be one — just like you can go to punk rock shows and realize you’ll never really be a punk. It’s more than just the fact that I don’t watch a lot of anime, or like most of the mainstream offerings. It’s that my own relationship to Japan will always be very different from that of weebs. And yet despite the fact that I’ll never really be a part of weeb culture, I want to understand it, to theorize it, to bring a taste of its beauty to the wider world.
Weeb culture is a diverse gathering place
This is a crucial point. You can’t understand weeb culture without understanding how much of a meeting point it is for Americans of all different backgrounds — and for people of other countries too.
A common misconception is that most weebs are White (or even that the word implies whiteness by definition). In fact, though I can’t find statistics, my personal experience suggests that weebs are disproportionately Asian, and have a strong Black and Hispanic contingent as well. A quick internet search will reveal that many nonwhite people self-identify as weebs, often enthusiastically so:
This is not to say there aren’t systematic differences between the ways that White people, Black people, and Asian people experience weeb culture. There certainly are. For a taste of the Black weeb perspective, I recommend these 2015 Vice interviews with Black anime fans, and this blog post by Stephanie Pichardo. These interviews confirm my personal impression that weeb culture is generally an extremely welcoming and tolerant space, though as with any subculture these days there will always be a few online trolls.
There has been some attempt to litigate the question of whether non-Japanese Asian people can be described as weebs (“You’re Asian, so liking Asian stuff isn’t weird and different”, etc. etc.). But as so often happens, the steamroller of self-identification has simply rolled right over this discourse; many Asian people do in fact describe themselves as weebs, so weebs they are. Again, the experience of Asian weebs is going to differ in some systematic ways from that of White or Black weebs, but that’s going to be true of any subculture.
It makes intuitive sense that fandom of Japanese pop culture would be something that would bring together Americans of all races. Japan exists outside the traditional Black-White binary of American race relations, and to some extent outside of all American race relations. It’s an advanced civilization not built by European colonialism, so paying homage to its cultural products — especially its modern-day fantasies — has little valence in terms of the racial history and politics of Western nations. (For Asian countries it’s a little more complex, given Japan’s own colonial history in the early 20th century.)
In other words, to some extent, weeb culture provides a neutral gathering place where Americans can escape the bruising, grinding social conflicts that comprise our daily reality, and just be human beings who enjoy some cool fantasy stuff.
I should also say something about the stereotype that weebs are rightists: This is completely ignorant and wrong. The stereotype exists due to Gamergate’s heavy use of anime avatars back in the mid-2010s, before the alt-right abandoned those for frogs and old Greek statues and pictures of Trump. In fact, there is a small contingent of anime Nazis, just as there was a small contingent of Nazi punks back in the day. But they’re pretty much all online; you won’t meet them in real life, at an anime or cosplay convention or other weeb space (or if you do, I guess, you won’t know, since they’ll keep their damn mouths shut). In person, weebs will mostly be a mix of libs and leftists, with a few libertarians and conservatives thrown in — basically a cross-section of American youth.
As usual, this is probably best explained with a meme:
Weebness is also a somewhat international phenomenon; Japanese pop culture has reached all over the globe, and produced similar reactions in many countries. The subculture is extremely popular in Indonesia (where it’s spelled “wibu”), Taiwan, and various other Asian countries. Anime fandom is huge in Italy, France, and Latin America. Again, the weeb cultures of various countries aren’t identical, just as punk culture isn’t the same in different countries. But it’s recognizably similar.
The one thing weeb culture isn’t, of course, is Japanese. It’s derived from Japanese products, so of course it’s inevitably influenced by Japan in a bunch of subtle ways. And most weebs are interested in Japan in some way, shape or form. Some learn Japanese. Others take trips (pilgrimages?) there. In my experience, though, relatively few weebs move to Japan.
Why not? The reason, I think, ties in to my general theory about the appeal of weeb culture.
Weeb culture is romantic
In fact, I’d been wanting to write this post for a long time, but what finally made me sit down and do it was a meme I saw the other day:
It reminded me of my theory that weeb culture is, in some way, about reclaiming romance that people missed out on.
Now, this theory is just something I thought up. It’s ethnographic, it’s not based on data; I can’t show you any charts proving that This Is Why weebs are weebs. In fact, if you interviewed weebs themselves, I think only a few would get at this idea, and only obliquely. So take it with a few grains of salt; maybe a whole shaker full.
But anyway. One thing you immediately notice about weeb culture is how romantic it is. Not sexual, per se; there’s a difference. If you look at the art weebs draw — whether stuff on sale at conventions or their own doodles on their Instagram pages — there will be a lot of scenes of young lovers holding each other tenderly, girls gazing up at the moon, young men brooding, and so on. This has nothing to do with the raw, exaggerated, pornographic sexuality of hentai. It’s the dream of young romance.
Romance, as I see it, is about self-image and the narrative of one’s own life. Sex is part of it, but it’s more about feeling sexually desirable than about the actual attainment of pleasure. Love is part of romance too, but it’s less about the emotional relationship itself, and more about the narrative of how you come to love someone — and being a person worthy of love.
And those are experiences that many Americans feel were denied to them in their teenage years. Part of that is just because actual teen love usually isn’t anything like the idealized version — it’s awkward, furtive, guilt-ridden, emotionally immature, and driven largely by worries about social approval combined with hunger for sexual experience. But part of it is specific to America — we’re the most violent rich country in the world, and that violence extends to our junior highs and high schools. American youths use violence to police the boundaries of sexuality and romance; the bullies who kick your ass will also tell you that you don’t deserve a girlfriend or boyfriend. And that violence is deployed especially against people who are generally marginalized — gay kids, trans kids, racial minorities, disabled kids, kids on the autism spectrum, kids who aren’t conventionally attractive, or kids who are just shy or physically weak or nerdy or weird in some bespoke way we don’t have a name for.
If you hang out with weebs, it won’t take long to realize how many are drawn from those populations.
As you graduate high school and get out on your own, of course, America gets a lot better. But lots of Americans are left with a feeling that they missed out on something crucial — the chance to be a romantic, desirable young person.
Japan, to many Americans, feels like a place where people don’t miss out on teen romance. A little of that is probably real. Japan is the least violent rich country in the world, and though it has its share of bullying, ostracism, and social exclusion, they generally don’t take the form of a punch in the head. And the stereotype that Japan is less uptight about sexuality, while mostly false, is not entirely false. These things do make it a little easier to be shy and still have a love life.
But mostly that perception of Japan is an illusion — when they watch anime, Americans are actually consuming the wish-fulfillment fantasies of Japanese creators. The real Japan might not be a place where even dorks and nerds and marginalized people always get to feel desirable and deserving of love, but anime is such a place. If you’re from Japan, you know you’re watching a fantasy, but if you’re from somewhere else, maybe the world of anime romance feels like a place you could really go.
And here’s the thing: It sort of is. But that place is not Japan; it’s weeb culture itself.
To wax preachy for a moment, the key fact about young love is that you didn’t really miss out, because while the high school years may be the time you want romance the most, they’re almost certainly not the best time to actually have it. As an adult you get to live on your own, do your own thing, be who you want to be. That’s just a lot more conducive to romance.
And weeb culture is one of the spaces where adults get a chance to live that romantic life. There are many reasons for this. Yes, one is that weebs, or at least the type who go meet up with other weebs in real life, tend to hook up a lot (that’s the question you really wanted to ask, right?). But that’s only a minor piece of it.
Another piece is that weeb culture is an extremely gentle, nonviolent culture. You’ll see fights at punk shows, but I’ve never even heard of a fight at an anime convention; a polite but heated argument is about all you’ll get. On top of that, weeb culture tends to be fairly welcoming and non-judgmental, as I mentioned above.
On top of that, there’s the fact that fandoms offer people the opportunity to develop a personality — to define themselves by finding stuff that they like. A strong sense of individuality is an essential input into romance; once you know who you are, it becomes a lot easier to believe that someone else could fall in love with you. Things like cosplay also give weebs a chance to express their individuality (while also giving many an excuse to dress up in sexy outfits).
But a big reason weeb culture is romantic is simply that anime and other Japanese pop culture gets everybody thinking about romance. It’s just the motif.
Perhaps this is why Japanese people themselves tend to be somewhat mystified when they encounter weebs. It’s a very odd thing to have your country’s pop culture used as a platform for a bunch of foreigners to create a real-world facsimile of a romantic youth they imagine you got to enjoy. And perhaps this is why weebs don’t often move to Japan (and those who do often find it unsatisfying); for most, it’s not the place they really want to go.
Because Japan isn’t actually the place that lets weebs — or at least, the ones who aren’t too shy to leave their rooms — live the romantic dream. That place is weeb culture itself. America and other countries where the culture has taken root didn’t ape Japan; they created something entirely original.
Weebs and America
Weebs, as a group, are slightly marginalized and resisted by the rest of American culture. “Weeb” is slowly shedding its negative connotation, but it’s still a mildly derogatory term, associated (entirely unfairly) with hentai pornography, deviant sexuality, right-wing politics, and various other taboo things. Cartoons and cosplay are themselves are still seen by some as a childish pastime or a form of escapism. Much of this, of course, is a cover for the general American tendency to try to seek out and bully shy misfits; in a time when it’s getting less acceptable to persecute people because of their race or their sexuality or their disability, it’s still fair game to bully people for liking cartoons.
But this mild exclusion is fading, as the generations turn over and a larger and larger percent of Americans grew up enjoying Japanese pop cultural products. Just as “geek” became a positive thing when the Star Wars generation came of age, “weeb” will probably shift first to an ironically positive word (“LOL, I’m such a weeb!”), and then finally to something lots of people want to be. And that will lead to a dilution of the subculture — weekend warriors showing up en masse to anime conventions, until those transform from subcultural refuges to corporate marketing stunts. In fact, this is already happening. And the internet makes every subculture more porous. Hopefully this will have an upside, as TV creators and filmmakers and novelists start to depict weeb culture in the stories Americans tell about ourselves.
But the true, hardcore weeb subculture will live on. It’s too cool and creative to die out. And it serves too important of a social purpose for the people in it.