Japanese Fandom Through the Ages: Context

Warning: This post contains no pictures *GASP*.

Continuing from my introductory post, here I’m going to give some background that’ll be helpful, and that I’ll be drawing on, in future posts in this series. Note that I’m doing much of this from memory and so might get some of the details wrong, but it’s the big ideas presented that are the most important. I also try and explore what exactly “fandom” is, since upon closer inspection it proves to be quite a mysterious and perplexing entity.

Historical Context

So here’s a brief overview of the history that I’m drawing on in order to make some of my points, as well as some clarification on what I mean when I use some terms.

The Meiji Era (1868-1912)

The Japan that is espoused in many samurai/ninja-related shows, and what many think about when they think of “old” Japan, is the era of the Tokugawa shogunate. This is the era of the “samurai” class, where society was stratified by law and the state had a monopoly on violence and force. As many might know from basic world history, Commodore Matthew Perry comes in from the US in 1853 and forces Japan to open up its shores to trade with the West. Things in Japan had been a little bit shaky up to this point, and this event eventually triggered the samurai to lead a revolution of the elite in 1868, toppling the previous government. This new government undertook grand modernization campaigns and participated in an active relationship with the West. They sent citizens abroad (and imported foreigners) to learn Western ways and participated in festivals/expositions around the world.

The main point I want to emphasize here is that this is not a one-way exchange. While the simple picture is that Japan simply takes what it can from the West in order to prevent foreign powers taking over the country, in reality the exchange went both ways. While Japan didn’t export as many physical products or technologies, what it did export were ideals, images, and aesthetic values. These would go on to influence the Impressionist movement as well as modernist poetry (e.g. Ezra Pound), just to name a few. And it’s influence led to a huge craze for Japanese products in this era, with fans, woodblock prints, and other traditional good being shipped off to the West to adorn the houses of the elite.

Japan’s Postwar Rise and Fall (1945 – Present)

After WWII, Japan experiences an era of intense economic growth from around 1950 to 1990, with the 1960s-1980s being dubbed a “miracle”. This intense growth put Japan on the international stage as it out-competed US products and became the 2nd-largest world economy. But alas, things do not last. In a manner very similar to the 2008-2009 financial crisis, Japan experienced a property bubble that burst in the early 90s. The economy finally began recovering in the early 2000s, only to be stunted by not only the world financial crisis and recession, but the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

An important thing to note here is the attention that Japanese products receive in the 70s (when anime aimed at more mature audiences begin to emerge) and the fact that anime fandom worldwide has continued to grow throughout this entire period, regardless of Japan’s current economic condition (or in fact much of the world’s economic condition).


When I use the term “Modern era,” I’ll be referring to the period 1970s – Present. While traditionally it is used to refer to the Meiji period onwards, using something like the “late postwar era” seems a bit long and conjures up connotations I don’t want.

Another thing to note is the socioeconomic make-up of the two eras, because that is important to consider when seeing how their respective fandoms developed.

Academic Context

There are a couple things that are useful to know in order to get a better understanding of the framework I’ll be using to compare the “fandoms” of the two eras (the Meiji and Modern period). First, let’s get to the elephant in the room: What exactly defines a “fandom”?


So I’ll start by taking a stab at defining fandom as simply “a community of fans”. But this community needs to be (inter)active for it to qualify as legitimate fandom, otherwise something like “a group of Star Trek fans” could qualify as a fandom. Also, on that same note, we need the fandom to be all-encompassing – as in, it must include all smaller groups into one larger entity. And let’s have them identify with this entity.

So now we have “an active community of fans surrounding something.” But fandom usually is referred to a physical object (e.g. anime, a certain author, Star Wars, IKEA) and frequently involves consumerism (e.g. figures, books, episodes), while this definition is broad enough to include non-physical objects (e.g. philosophy, emotions, ideas). Debating and interacting with ideas doesn’t seem to qualify as a useful definition here though, unless they’re anchored to some physical object. And this object usually is one that gives us enjoyment and entertainment. So let’s use this to modify our definition and make it a bit more explicit.

Now our definition is “an active community of fans surrounding an object of entertainment” with “object” being defined broadly, as indicated above. Now, that seems relatively reasonable, although let’s make it a bit more explicit.

More explicitly, “an active community of fans surrounding an object of entertainment that engages not only with the object but also itself, which frequently displays consumerist and obsessive tendencies.” This definition still quite nebulous because we haven’t defined “fan” yet though, so let’s try to do that.

What does it mean to be a “fan” of something? We could just say that it just means you “like” something, e.g. “I’m a fan of Coca-Cola” or “I’m a fan of Game of Thrones,” but that doesn’t seem to get us many places (although colloquially it can be used this way), since we want “I’m a fan of water” to be different from “I’m a fan of anime.” So let’s add in something related to entertainment, like that you only can be a fan of something if it brings you entertainment value. This also lines up with the definition of fandom proposed above. And you also must identify with this enjoyment – if you enjoy something but don’t see it as an individual category (e.g. you frequently read “Young Adult” books but don’t see them as anything special over other genres) then it doesn’t count. Also, being a fan of something should not preclude active engagement with the source material – just because I’m a fan of Adult Swim doesn’t mean I must also be active on the forums, for example. So this gives us some working definitions going forward.

Fan: Someone who identifies with the enjoyment brought about by an object of entertainment. 

Fandom: An active community of fans surrounding an object of entertainment that engages not only with the object but also itself. Frequently displays consumerist and obsessive tendencies.

These are still not the best definitions for this type of thing though. As I find the concept quite interesting, I’ll probably be pursuing this avenue in the coming months and seeing what I find, with hopefully a post or two along the way.


This is an extension of the idea of a “landscape” – a setting/place created of land or scenery. The appendage -scape has been picked up by a number of academics to represent a kind of background to their work, such as “soundscapes” to refer to the spaces/backgrounds created by noise. Napier defines it best:

“Fantasyscapes then are the ways at which fantasy can craft spaces and backgrounds to build from. In the fantasyscape, play and setting are the two most important elements, creating a plethora of forms of virtual reality such as the densely constructed entertainment worlds of Disneyland and other theme parks, the intense involvements of video or online gaming, or the short-term but highly engaged gatherings of fan conventions. Fantasyscapes are inherently liminal worlds, temporary alternate lifestyles that exist parallel to the mundane, which people enter and exit when they please.”

Note that “liminal” is a term used in anthropology to describe the “quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes” (Wikipedia).

So fantasyscapes are places that exist parallel to reality – and derive their power from being so – but that also are ambiguous places themselves where interaction (active) and setting (passive) also become blurry. Applying this sort of things to anime fandoms and events like anime conventions is a very easy next step to take.

Soft Power

“Soft power” is a term, first coined by Joseph Nye, used to describe the ability to attract and co-opt. This is in contrast to “hard power,” which uses coercion, money, or force to accomplish tasks. Soft power can best be seen as a way of cultural clout, where nations make inroads into the minds of other nations’ citizens. By marketing yourself correctly or through chance, elements of one culture comes to become known and influences another. The expansion of anime in the international entertainment scene since the 70s is often seen as a form of soft power (both by the Japanese and by other nations); however, Japan’s actions during the Meiji Restoration (where it tried to craft an image of itself to display to Western citizens at world events) can also be seen in this light. This type of “power” is especially notable to Japan, which is prohibited by its Constitution from arming itself and spends very little of its income on national defense.


First coined by Edward Said, orientalism broadly refers to the relationship that has characterized Western studies of “Oriental” nations and how that relationship has affected imitations, depictions, research, etc. of these nations. This can most broadly be seen as one of superiority vs. inferiority as well as dominant vs. subordinate, which translates to things like “this is interesting but not as cool as ours,” “this is easy to imitate and not that special,” “I’ve never been to X nation but I can understand it better than they can,” and so on. This type of thing is still a big issue nowadays for nations in the Middle East and Asia. We can also look and see whether Japanese fandom (both in the Meiji era and now) contains such a relationship and how it affects the way we see things.

Globalization and Postnationalism

These are relatively self-explanatory and related. Globalization refers to the way that everything is going global and becoming interconnected, crossing national boundaries and so forth. Let’s again look at anime. It’s made in Japan, but with a large amount of work done in both China and Korea, with a global fanbase and foreign companies that market and obtain licensing rights. The economic interactions span borders.

Postnationalism can be seen as an offshoot of that, where members of a society less identify things with their countries of origin and themselves are less tied to them. For example, it is fine for someone to be a fan of Korean soap operas, Japanese anime, American television, and the BBC – they don’t explicitly identify all the media with the countries of origin, and neither do they themselves use their national identity to judge this consumption. Although they are tied to their countries of origin, their consumption is not viewed in a anti-patrriotic/patriotic manner. I probably could have said that much better, but hopefully you get the gist.


So these should be the main ideas we are focusing on. The next part of this post will be short reviews of the books I read through, Christopher Benfey’s The Great Wave and Susan Napier’s From Impressionism to Anime, which will hopefully be up within the week.


5 responses to “Japanese Fandom Through the Ages: Context

  1. Oh boy, this is quite the prologue. I’ll make sure my body is ready.

    And I like your definition of ‘fan’, by the way. The identifying-as thing was probably that vague something I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on in the past. Seems painfully obvious now, though.

    • That “identification” part took a while for me to work out as well. I spent a decent amount of time completely stymied before I made the leap, but once I finally did I felt the same way.


      (Credit: Subdued Fangirling)

  2. Pingback: Soft Power, National Branding, and the Process of Engineering Attraction (Part 3: Soft Power, K-Pop, and Anime) | Chromatic Aberration Everywhere·

  3. Pingback: Japanese Actors and the Threat (?) of Marriage | Japanese Film·

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