I spent a good portion of my childhood squeezing myself into socially acceptable pockets. Growing up in Canada, I’ve prayed for my parents to pack me a sandwich instead of egg rice for lunch, I’ve been shocked by the casual address between my friends and adults, and I’ve refrained from discussing the television shows I watched because no one I knew ever recognized them.
There have been two separate versions of me ever since I started school: Miran and Mimi, one for home and one for school, where Miran was too hard to pronounce. I colonized my name and my identity to make them more palatable for people who would never even know that I’d done so. In time, as pretending to be something during your formative years does, that was who I became.
Now, all the interests that I used to strategically hide have become mainstream. Trendy. Accepted. East Asian media has infiltrated pop culture and has gained social acceptance. K pop has taken the world by storm, Genshin Impact has amassed nearly 65 million players by December 2022, and anyone who hasn’t watched Attack on Titan has missed out on one of the greatest modern-day storylines.
I used to ration how often I talked about my favourite shows with my very close friends. My whiplash when coming to university — where other Innis students often referenced Neon Genesis Evangelion and wore SpyXFamily merch — both delighted and confused me. People were comfortable with chopsticks. Kenshi Yonezu and Goose House were known beyond their TikTok sounds.
I felt that I lacked this cultural knowledge in both big and small ways. I do not understand Hangul or know how to read the Chinese names of my classmates. When my friends discussed the myth of Tanabata, a popular Asian story I wasn’t aware of, I felt out of the loop.
The decade-long stifling of my culture had caught up to me. There was a jealous twist in my stomach whenever people publically and shamelessly boasted about the life that I squashed. When I dove headfirst into East Asian media trying to chase down lost time, I came up with the bleak reminder that 11-year-old me was still right: cultural colonization is rampant. I was witnessing elements of culture becoming popular, then being thrown back in my face.
I breathe, and someone tells me two Sailor Moon characters are incestual. I’m gross for thinking the show is cute.
I breathe some more, and a man tells me ‘Asian’ women are the hottest, so I should date him. We could recreate a hentai scene.
I breathe again, and people love Squid Game, Haikyuu!!, and Parasite — but they mock my take on the material because they supposedly understand these media better than I do.
Of course, culture extends beyond the media we consume. It’s rich, touching everything in our lives from food to relationships, and it cannot be encapsulated well enough in one article. However, in this instance, the popularization of media opens the door to certain aspects of East Asian life that go beyond a screen, a book, or a song.
As larger audiences consume media, it’s only natural for a multitude of opinions and interpretations to come to light. As such, it can be hard to draw the line between appreciation and appropriation, and to respectfully understand the nuances of mainstream East Asian media.
History is watching
This is not the first time that Western audiences have given East Asian media a spotlight. In the 1970s and 1980s, a wave of martial arts movies from Hong Kong and Taiwan exploded across North America, launching actors like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee to success.
Since Warner Bros’ television show Kung Fu had been received well, in 1973, the company began importing authentic kung fu films and brought King Boxer — also known as Five Fingers of Death — from Hong Kong to America. Featuring classical martial arts narratives — including a training arc, combat choreography, and gory aftereffects, as well as a chivalric love interest subplot — the movie hit number one at the American box office and paved the way for other Hong Kong films to, although briefly, outperform Hollywood’s work.
The Karate Kid was the fifth highest-grossing film of 1984. The movie was a Hollywood rendition of the training trope — a mentor figure advising a disciple on how hard work and dedication pay off. It accurately represents Okinawan Karate and Korean Tang Soo Do, as the fight choreographer was a leader of that particular martial arts style. However, in 1978, Variety dubbed the martial arts genre “chopsocky,” which was a reference to chop suey with ‘sock’ inserted as a nod to the fighting nature of the films. This review reduced the genre to a play on words for an American-Chinese dish. The current, colloquial connotations surrounding the word “chopsocky” are still sometimes derogatory.
The current rise in anime echoes the martial arts wave, only 50 years later. Just as Warner Bros’ choice to administer King Boxer and the following martial arts films played a massive part in North America’s access to and consumption of East Asian media, Netflix and modern-day streaming services dictate how we receive anime. With approximately 223 million paid subscribers at the end of 2022, the already reputable Netflix holds significant sway with the production and distribution of anime to Western audiences.
Netflix’s history with anime viewership started with a mecha-dystopian original titled Knights of Sidonia in 2014; since then, the company has started supporting WIT STUDIO — one of the biggest animation studios in Japan — through an animator training program. In 2020, Netflix brought anime to about 120 million households.
In 2020, Taiki Sakurai — the chief producer of anime at Netflix — recognized anime’s niche-to-mainstream pipeline in a 2020 press release. “In just four short years… Netflix has expanded the reach and overall audience of anime — a category conventionally seen as niche,” Sakurai said.
Netflix has acquired the licensing rights to popular anime such as Attack on Titan and Demon Slayer, along with various Studio Ghibli films. This move attracted both veteran watchers and new fans of East Asian shows. On top of appealing to its audience with established titles, Netflix has taken strides in playing a part in the creation process of new shows. In 2021, Sakurai announced that Netflix would be opening an Anime Creators Base in their Tokyo Headquarters to focus on preproduction creation and conceptual art of new anime. During the announcement, Sakurai explained that Netflix’s goal for the base would be “to promote best practices and high production standards, to empower creators with the necessary tools and resources of anime production over time.”
However, on top of investing in next-generation animators and technology, the content Netflix has produced sometimes incorporates Western cultural elements in a traditional East Asian art form. For example, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners features a Western storyline and characters in a Japanese animation style; Great Pretender showcases international characters travelling around the world to commit crimes; and Violet Evergarden, an adaptation of Kana Akatsuki’s novel series, tells the story of a girl who becomes a letter writer after a war in Leidenschaftlich — a fictional country with heavy European influences.
In an email to The Varsity, Rafal Jaki, an executive producer of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners explained that in the series, “There were 3 pillars of inspiration: the [Western] books and film like Blade Runner or [Neuromancer], the video games like Deus Ex and anime like Akira and Ghost in the Shell.” From the underdog plotline stemming from shonen anime, to Cyberpunk aesthetics being a mix of both Japanese and Western culture, multiple cultural influences often reveal themselves in the show.
Jaki elaborated: “Anime is mainstream now — I think this is not an exaggeration. So as there are more and more creators outside of Japan and Japanese artists live in a shared global world this will happen more and more.”
Dub versus sub
It’s the age-old question. East Asian media companies have relied on translation services to communicate their shows’ dialogues to Western fans. Since we lack English equivalents to many words, after adapting the content of East Asian films and shows for Western understanding, the media’s content knocked down a peg.
In 4Kids Entertainment’s English dub of the first season of the 1997 Pokémon, there’s a scene in which Satoshi eats onigiri — Japanese rice balls filled with various fillings like pickled plum and salmon — as a snack. In the original Japanese-language version, when the main character is offered onigiri, the English subtitles read: “Well, you’ll cheer up after eating a rice ball.” However, the dubbed version — in which the show’s original audio was replaced with audio from English voice actors — reads: “Have a doughnut, that always cheers me up.” Another character then pitches in, holding the onigiri and saying, “These doughnuts are great! Jelly-filled ones are my favourite! Nothing beats a jelly-filled doughnut!”
As the onigiri are depicted onscreen, any viewer can tell that they are not doughnuts. When confronted about the script change at the 2019 Sacanime convention, Eric Stuart — the English voice actor for Brock, the character who says the iconic line — explained that the show “wanted to make Pokémon a universal show” and that “more people could relate to doughnuts than ‘sushi.’ ” There are two problems with this phrase: that onigiri is not sushi; and, when making shows more palatable for Western audiences, common East Asian food, names, and themes are lost. This extends to the names of the main characters of the 1997 Pokémon as well: Satoshi was turned to Ash, Kasumi to Misty, and Takeshi to Brock.
Translating media is not as simple as making a script into English. The writer’s original voice, colloquial sayings, and cultural references must all be taken into account. Given this, some cultural barriers are a little bit more tricky to tackle. For example, idioms and dual meanings present a new challenge when translating.
On August 1, 2022, the K-pop girl group NewJeans — managed by ADOR — released the third single of their first EP, titled “Cookie.” The song received controversy, as the lyrics could be interpreted to have sexual innuendos and the group’s members were all under the age of 19. Some lyrics included: “Made a little cookie / baked it just for you, this treat / But you know that it ain’t for free.”
ADOR explained the lyrics in an official English statement on August 27: “The song revolves around the paired idea of burning CDs and baking cookies, which share the same conceptual verb in Korean… The music video opens with a cookie rolling in and ends with a CD rolling out.” When translated, the Korean saying CD를 굽다 literally means “to bake CD.” As ADOR explained, “Words take on entirely different informal meanings in the context of different cultures, places, and at different times in history… as always, context is key.”
Regardless of how individuals interpret the single, it’s not easy to make informed conclusions about cultural metaphors without the whole picture. It’s a Korean song; listeners should take into account the Korean interpretations before passing judgement.
Lovers by choice, cousins by Western censorship
Clearly, there is a cultural barrier that occurs when adopting East Asian media in the Western world. So how can we as viewers work to understand meanings that we might be missing out on?
In the original Japanese anime and manga series Sailor Moon, characters Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune were open about their queer relationship, with multiple references being made to the romantic nature of their relationship, including Neptune’s first kiss. A silhouette of the two about to kiss is shown. However, when the silhouette is shown in the censored dubbed version, Neptune is heard saying: “I remember [my first kiss] vividly. It was with Brad, the cutest guy in the school.” To any viewer, this would be confusing.
Since the studio, Cloverway Inc., didn’t remove the visual representatives of intimacy or flirtatious conversations, the characters — whose relationship was altered to “cousins” only in the Western version of the show — come off as incestual. This, of course, also paints one of the most iconic queer couples as taboo to Western audiences, assigning them the same connotations that surround incest.
Jessica Chu, a first-year commerce student, discussed how, as viewers, we can work on identifying these issues. “When it comes to the localized versions… context is important,” Chu explained. “There is only so [much] that can be edited before it becomes janky in the content that it’s in.”
She added, “Being conscious of that while [I’m] watching has made me a better consumer of media in general.” In the same way that onigiri does not look like jelly doughnuts, cousins do not behave like lovers. Critical thinking skills can catch mistranslations or readaptations.
“If something feels off,” Chu continued, “That’s because it probably is.”
When all is said and done
With the fourth season of Bungou Stray Dogs released on January 4, and Alice in Borderland’s second season racking 61.2 million viewership during its premiere weekend, it’s clear that East Asian media isn’t leaving the Western world anytime soon.
As the Western world welcomes East Asian media, I ask for everyone to be an active consumer. The hour or so that viewers spend watching anime and K drama goes beyond the screen — the cultural elements that are often omitted or augmented are connected with a way of life in East Asian countries and deserve to be treated with more importance than just trendy entertainment.
Consumption of specific formats comes with the responsibility to respect the cultural roots and rich history. Work to familiarize yourself with the nuances you’re uncertain about, keep the conversation going, and above all, listen to the people that you can learn from.
11-year-old me will thank you for it.