Japanese culture is more accessible than ever – whether that means eating sushi while listening to Babymetal, getting a tattoo in katakana you absolutely don't understand, or watching a Netflix remake of an anime with Western actors. This has naturally led to more J-culture obsessives. The internet retaliation: to call them "weeaboos".
Over the past ten or so years, "weebs" – or the "wapanese" – have been identified by commenters as essentially this Urban Dictionary definition: "A non Japanese person who basically denounces their own culture and calls themselves Japanese." People who want to be Japanese, but aren't. If you're still confused, YouTuber TVFilthyFrank posted "The Weeaboo Song" in 2014, which distills the essence of a weeaboo into a simple ballad: "Konnichiwa Senpai / Please notice me / I watch Asian cartoons / I'm a weeaboo / I live in my mom's house / I'm like thirty two / I collect swords and throwing stars / Yes, I'm a weeaboo."
So yes, it was a way to take the piss. However, recently, weebs have been reclaiming the term and proudly using it like a badge of who's the biggest fan of all things Japan. Last weekend, Hyper Japan – the biannual London festival that celebrates and sells food, anime, manga and loads of Sanrio stationary you definitely don't need but buy anyway – came to town yet again, so I went along, yet again, to talk to my fellow weebs about being weeaboos.
Jessie, 22, Surrey
VICE: When did you get into J-Culture?
Jessie: I started learning the language ages ago and went over there to do a language course for two weeks, and then got really into anime and fashion and stayed with Lolita. When I found out about cosplay I realised this is me now. Today I'm Isabelle from Nintendo's Animal Crossing.
Are you alone in this?
When I was at school not many people knew about cosplaying, but a few people knew about Japanese dances and K-Pop dances. My family is really nerdy and we do LARPing. My brother and his girlfriend work in the TV industry and work with leather to make all the costumes for shows like Game of Thrones. It's encouraging to be surrounded by geeks.
Have you ever been called a weeaboo before?
That's a flashback [laughs]. It was a thing when I was 16. When you had a fun hobby of learning the dances of your favourite bands, people would call you a weeb. People didn't want you to enjoy something that wasn't from your country, and that's so closed-minded, because if you had to stick to things from your country you'd have nothing. Get rid of all the food in your cupboards, get rid of the clothes in your wardrobe, then. Some people don't even understand the term.
If you actually came to one of these events you'd end up having a good time, but to mock it because you don't understand it… just get a hobby.
Jack, 23, Brentwood, Essex
VICE: Which aspect of J-Culture are you obsessed with?
Jack: I like everything about Japan – their folklore, their games, their anime, their festivities. It's just so beautiful. I got into cosplaying when I was 18. I was still at college. I saw some other people doing it at conventions and thought, 'If they can do it, so can I.'
Do you get called a weeaboo?
I've come across the term a lot. I have a mixture of feelings about it. It rubs other people up the wrong way, although I've never been called it myself. I'm more of an otaku [a Japanese word that essentially means "nerd who stays inside"], but not an extreme one. I do what I do because I love it; I don't care what you say about me. I've never really had any negativity coming towards me because of loving Japan – but I am usually the outcast. My family were sceptical at first, but now they're used to it. They're even used to me dressing up as a girl.
Is it freeing to cosplay whoever regardless of gender?
Oh, yeah. I truly believe that anyone can cosplay as any character they want, no matter what gender it is. If you want to take a shot at it then take a shot at it. No one is stopping you.
Fatima, 20, London
VICE: What's your interest in Japan?
Fatima: Me, my brother and mum watched Pokémon when I was a child. My mum's really into Japanese history and culture, too. I love to watch documentaries on Japan. I desperately want to go to Japan for the Olympics.
How can you avoid being a weeaboo?
When people say you're too obsessed with Japan, I think if you're having fun and being respectful it's OK. Something about this interest sets people off the wrong way for some reason. Basically, don't think that Japan is just anime and manga. It's still a country, with cultures and people going about their daily lives. Even me wearing this, I made sure I am wearing it correctly. If someone wore my traditional dress I'd want them to wear it properly. It's not that I'd go especially mad if they didn't; it's just polite that you've shown attempts to be respectful.
Weeaboo is more of an online thing. I think you're called a weeaboo if you reject your own culture and obsess over Japanese culture. I saw "The Weeaboo Song" and the full video of that guy talking about it, and a lot of people thought he was right for calling out the "filthy weebs". But I think it's people getting offended on behalf of Japanese people rather than Japanese people themselves.
Jasmine, 25, Middlesbrough
VICE: What do you love about Japan?
Jasmine: Japanese rock. Broken Doll are my favourite – they really inspire me. Sailor Moon first got me into Japan, and I came across Broken Doll doing a cover of Sailor Moon. What do you think about being called a weeaboo?
It's just being a super-fan. I think if you enjoy something, who cares. I don't really come across negativity towards me because of it. In fact, people are more friendly and open when I'm dressed up. I actually have an anxiety disorder and rarely go outside, and going here is nice for me because I feel in my comfort zone. Here, I've had a lot of compliments. I dress like this at home too because it's my shell to protect me. I feel safe. If I didn't wear what I do I would feel uncomfortable. This is me now.
Luke, 31, Romford
VICE: What are you into?
Luke: I'm cosplaying as Shinya from Psycho-Pass. I've got my little friend Muesli here. I got into Japanese culture after my friend sent me some anime when I was about 14. I really enjoyed it and kept watching it more and more.
Do you wear cosplay in everyday life?
I have my lazy day cosplays – you know, the easy ones. If I'm not going out anywhere I use my dressing gown as a Jedi robe. I might put on some Stormtrooper armour and do the cleaning. If I was rich enough, I would make my hallway the dressing room and have a different costume for every day. If I had money I could claim I was eccentric. If you're not rich, you're just mad.
Do your family think you're a weeaboo?
My family think I'm crazy. Mum hates how much space my costumes take up; she bans me from large costumes every once in a while, and then I still make them anyway. I keep selling them just to make space for the next project.
Can you defend weebs?
I've never been called weeaboo, but I know people have started reclaiming it. It's like, nerd used to be an insult; now it's a cool word. Everyone wants to be a nerd. You get people looking when you're dressed up, and some of the costumes look a bit iffy. I play Warhammer, and one of the characters looks a little bit like a certain group from WWII. I've had someone think I'm a racist, crazy person marching down the street, and then other people will recognise it and shout it out.
Hoshi, 24, Canterbury
VICE: How did you get into Japanese culture?
Hoshi: Like a lot of people, it was Pokémon. [I then got into] anime and the fashion. It seems to be that [Japan has] this thing going with culture constantly evolving and inspiring itself.
You said you didn't want to talk to me if this piece was going to show Japanophiles in a negative light.
In the 90s there was a publisher who was publishing anime intended for adults to use privately in the bedroom, but they were selling it as cartoons, and so maybe people had bad experiences, thinking it was OK for their kids or something. Shocker, it wasn't. They assumed that it's all like that, and that stigma has been hard to get rid of. Every fandom has its bad eggs. Football hooligans who smash up shop windows when their favourite team loses, for example. That gets broadcast in the media and the implication is that all fans are like that. The media seems to do that with anime fans.
What do you think of the term weeaboo?
Honestly, I think it started out as an internet joke and some people now have started to reclaim it as a positive word. Some people continue to use it as an insult. People will always find ways to insult others, and the reclaiming of terms happens in every community.
Where do you sit on the topic?
Sometimes I call myself a weeaboo as a joke. I mean, I want to live in Japan, so that pretty much – as far as some people are concerned – makes me that. I'll try not to take it too seriously.
Serena, 16, West London
VICE: Do you get a lot of hate for being a weeaboo?
Serena: Oh, I got merked and destroyed at school throughout year 7, 8, 9, 10. Kids in science would say, "Do you watch hentai?" It happens all the time, but it makes you a stronger person and it helps you to relate to other people into this stuff, because you've all been through the same thing.
How do you defend yourself against being called one?
I'd say, "I'm not, guys!" No, I'd wave it off because I get so much of it. I get called it more in real life at school. Even at anime club, at school, people call me it because I have a character on my lanyard. I'd say that weeaboo means someone obsessed with Japanese culture. I always get on guard about it. If someone called me a weeb, though, I wouldn't mind because it sounds so cute.
What's it like for you online?
Most bad hate you get comes from outside the community and online. One guy on Twitter with a blue tick said the other day that all black girls who cosplay are looking for a white daddy. I was like, "Excuse me." All of us went at him, but they're not in the community so they don't know jack all. It was a mess. And they used my friend's photo without her permission.
Lee, 35, East London
VICE: What drew you to Lolita fashion?
Lee: I just saw a picture on the internet and fell in love. On Facebook I found other people in London who are into it, and we meet up and dress up and go to the park or to museums – the other day, about 20 of us hit the Science Museum. I'm friends with people who I'd never have met otherwise.
Do you wear Lolita 24/7?
I wear a suit in the day – it'd be difficult for me to wear what I want to wear at work. I work in security. Lolita itself is multi-gender, but society is not always multi-gender. Here, I've had half a dozen positive comments and no negative comments. Outside, it's different. Plus, dressing like this takes a couple of hours to get ready. There are a lot of people out there who get to do it for a living.
Can you defend weeaboos?
If someone called me a weeaboo I'd just ignore them and carry on. Everyone here is obsessed with Japan in one way or another. It's to what degree they are obsessed. I know one guy who has collected so many models, he must have a couple of thousand pounds worth of them. This outfit in itself is about £300. That's about average for a full set of Lolita-style clothes. It's just a deep love of enjoying something. Just enjoy yourself! I like that quote: "You can't satisfy all the people, but you can satisfy some of the people some of the time."
[The full John Lydgate quote is: "You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time."]
Imi, 17, Finland
VICE: How do other people perceive your interest?
I had to change schools because people were so mean [about the fact] I was dressing Japanese and I apply my make-up differently. This is my fourth school – I'm at an art high school now, so all my friends are into Japanese culture. But in Finland generally I stick out; people sneak photos of me, they point and laugh at me and people come up to me and ask me if there's some kind of event happening. I say, "No, I'm just picking up my groceries."
Social media is a great place to be, though, because you get so much positive feedback now. People are always commenting on my pictures. One child who laughs at me at the supermarket doesn't really matter.
How often are you called a weeb?
Weeaboo is always thrown at me. I'm not trying to be Japanese or anything; I'm just trying to be myself. I think a weeaboo has to want to be Japanese, whereas I'm just dressing up the way that makes me feel the best side of me. I don't think I'm a weeaboo, but that's just my opinion. People who call me this are either really young or don't know what it means. I think it's lost its meaning now. Three years ago it was really popular to type in every comment, "You're a stupid weeaboo." Oh, memories.
What would you do if someone called you one right now?
When I was younger I was really insecure, so any term like that I was called would upset me, but now I just think, 'Fuck it.' Now, I would probably say, "Thank you."
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