Anime: From Cult Following to Pop Culture Phenomenon

By Samantha Nicole Inëz Chambers
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2012, Vol. 3 No. 2 | pg. 3/3 |

IV. Findings and Analysis

The Otaku stereotype was a prevalent theme in almost every literary work from the literature review. However, it seems that the negativity toward Otaku culture progressively lessened as the articles approached modern times. There is still a slight negative stigma to anime, despite attempts to educate people on the nature of anime, and people still believe anime to be a violent art form (Borrelli, 2002). Acceptance of Otaku culture and the anime wave has become more acceptable, however, as more scholarly research is conducted and more libraries stock anime (Halsall, 2010).

Fansubbing was another issue altogether that was addressed in some of the articles. In the earlier articles, fansubbing was touched upon lightly without alluding to the fact that the practice was considered piracy simply because the content was not available in the United States (Animation, 1991). As time progressed, more articles were published regarding the controversies surrounding fansubbing, thus suggesting that it was becoming more of an issue.

A 2006 study of fansubbers conducted by Luis Pérez Gonzáles of the Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies at the University of Manchester stated that over 200,000 fans worldwide participated in the fansubbing phenomenon either as translators or as benefactors. Gonzáles also noted that the illegal nature of fansubbing earned it a negative stigma in professional realms (2006).

More recent articles containing information on fansubbing have even said that this participatory media fandom has unsettled the global media landscape by providing an alternate form of content distribution. The motivations for English-speaking fansubbers were indicated as the strong desire to perpetuate the anime culture and provide accessibility in other countries, thus reaffirming that fansubbers generally receive little to no payment for their work.

The reactions from publishers and producers has been mixed (Lee, 2011). Some producers see the perpetuation of anime through fansubbing as a way to access remote markets through merchandising, which would recover some of the profits lost through fansubbing. Other companies are opposed to the idea because of its illegality (Sugimoto, 2009).

Survey participants were asked to answer how familiar they were with anime as a style of animation. Among the five choices of extremely familiar, very familiar, moderately familiar, somewhat familiar, and not at all familiar, only 19.4 percent of the participants said they were not at all familiar with anime. Most of them acknowledged that they were somewhat familiar with anime at 32 percent. In response to another question, 40.8 percent of them said that they still watched anime as adults.

The participants were asked to check off any of 58 anime or anime-influenced titles that they saw as a child or young adult. All these were at one point aired on television in the United States. The response was that 85.1 percent of those surveyed had seen at least one of the shows on the list, and the rest had never seen any. Of the shows listed, the top shows were Pokémon, Avatar: The Last Airbender (an American-made show with heavy anime influences), Sailor Moon, YuGiOh!, Dragon Ball Z, Digimon, and Full Metal Alchemist. What is intriguing is that all of these shows, with perhaps the exception of Full Metal Alchemist to some extent, are shows that were initially heavily Americanized when they first appeared on American television screens. One of the most notorious changes made in the films listed above was in Pokémon, when the 4Kids and Warner Bros. studios rotoscoped, or traced over, the original film frame by frame to add new elements to, or hide old ones in several Pokémon episodes. Most of the rotoscopes involved changing traditionally Japanese food into American foods because the studios worried that American children would not make the connection that items such as a rice ball were food (Lunning, 2007). Another example from Pokémon is that all the characters were given American names despite their Japanese origins (Ladd, 2009). Although Japanese animation certainly made an impact on the survey participants, it was mainly through shows that had been filtered and redubbed by American stations.

In order to address the stereotypes about anime, the participants were asked to write as many adjectives that they associated with anime as possible. The researcher chose the seven terms that were mentioned by at least 4 percent of the participants: interesting, colorful, dramatic, artistic, Japanese, weird and violent. All the terms, other than Japanese, indicate people's perceptions of anime in American culture. The two terms 'colorful' and 'artistic' are telling because many people who have never been exposed to anime do comment on the heavy detail and colorful nature of most anime. 'Dramatic' makes sense as a term associated with anime because of anime's origins in Kabuki theatre and because American audiences perceive certain Japanese social cues as over-the-top (Napier, 2007). The two terms that are most interesting are 'weird' and 'violent'. It seems that the negative typecast from the 1970s and hentai have carried on to modern times, but these terms were relatively low on the list of the top terms associated with anime. While these terms still have an association with anime, the other terms in the list appear to have cast a more positive light on anime as a style of animation.

Fansubbing was the next topic to be addressed in the survey. Through a series of questions regarding piracy and distribution as well as the importance of accurate translations, participants in the survey spoke about their participation, if any, in fansubbing and piracy as well as their opinions on subtitled works. The first question in the series asked whether or not accurate translations were important even if the direct translation had a cultural reference that did not translate well into American culture. Among the participants, 79.4 percent said that it was important that the integrity of the direct translation be preserved. Regarding questions about piracy, the overwhelming majority (88.3 and 93.2 percent respectively) stated that they had neither received nor given copyrighted DVD copies. When it came to Internet distribution, only 60.2 percent of people surveyed said that they did not participate in pirating shows online. Of those who had pirated video content from the Internet, 20.8 percent of that content originated from Japan. When asked for justification for pirating, survey participants listed free content as a motivator, followed by the content being unavailable for purchase in the United States.

Anime's soft power as a factor in America was analyzed through questions regarding merchandising of anime shows, as merchandising is one of the key ways in which anime makes its money. Merchandise in this case extends to apparel, trading cards, figurines, action figures, or anything with a logo or design associated with one of the 58 anime or anime-influenced titles mentioned earlier. Of the 107 surveyed, 54.4 percent of people said that they had bought merchandise from an anime series for themselves. Some had purchased anime merchandise, but only as a gift for a friend (8.7%), and others had never bought anime merchandise for themselves but had someone else who had purchased it for them (6.8%). This indicated that, even though fansubbing and piracy does have a strong presence in the international anime industry, merchandising is popular enough to recover some of those costs.

V. Conclusion

For organizational purposes, this section will be broken down into three parts.

Dated Stereotypes

The secondary research and the survey confirmed that anime still conveys a negative image associated with violence and fringe culture, even though many advocates of anime clearly state that "anime wasn't all blood, guts, and porn" (Borrelli, 2002). However, new terms are being used to describe anime in today's culture. Terms, such as 'colorful' and 'artistic' used by the survey participants to describe some shows in the survey, indicate a shift that people see anime as more of an art form than tasteless violent film with no redeeming qualities. The secondary research also portrayed anime as more of a misinterpreted art form, especially when it comes to the misunderstood Otaku culture, which is more prevalent than the average American consumer would think. The majority of news sources cast anime into a favorable light, saying that anime provides entertainment for everyone (Halsall, 2010). Consumer behavior as portrayed in the survey indicates that anime has more of a following than people may have imagined with over 80 percent of people surveyed ages 18 to 32 having watched anime titles. This data matches with news articles published during the time period, which indicated in the past that anime "has a very serious foothold on the edge of American culture" (Borrelli, 2002). This foothold has expanded out beyond the edges of American society. The data reveals that there is a shift in perceptions and stereotypes of anime in America and that people are turning the peripheral culture into a more mainstream popular culture, but that four decades may be too short a period of time for strong negative labels to dissipate completely.


In the case of fansubbing, both the literature review and the survey showed that, even though many saw the ethical dilemma of fansubbing, it was still practiced without substantial repercussion. The survey showed that piracy, though not overly common, was still practiced in the case of Japanese media. The two main reasons for piracy were cost and lack of material in the United States, though participants also said that accurate translations is a factor as well. While fansubbing and piracy of anime is a substantial issue, most major studios are not taking the time to impede these fansubbing movements because fansubbing perpetuates their brand into places they would otherwise have not been able to reach and because merchandising can help recover the profits lost on film sales.

Anime and Soft Power

Soft power is reflected in a wide variety of consumer behaviors ranging from purchasing items from different countries to adopting the mannerisms and cultural values of foreign countries (Otmazgin, 2008). Anime does carry some soft power because Americans are attracted to the content of these Japanese films, and anime is prevalent in American society, The soft power is, of course, somewhat diminished by the extent to which Japanese films are typically Americanized, but some Japanese ideals have still been preserved even in the Americanized versions of the films. The American Otaku culture is a perfect example of how soft power can greatly influence a group of people in a different country. Otaku generally use mannerisms they picked up from anime and share those same social ideals within other groups of anime fans (Ladd, 2009). The most compelling example was the amount of anime merchandise purchased by participants in the survey. The large percentage of people have spent money on anime merchandise, which indicates clearly how anime wields soft power in the form of economic presence within the American market. Some scholars even implied that while the influence is not yet a financial windfall to American entertainment companies, it could amount to something more impressive in the next few years (Borrelli, 2002). Anime's journey to America through legal television broadcasts as well as illegal modes of fansubbing and piracy has given anime a strong economic foothold in American culture.


First and foremost, the author would like to thank God, through whom all things are possible. The author would also like to thank her family, who instilled in her a value for anime. She would like to thank Ms. Jennifer Levenbook for her guidance. Thanks go to Dr. Michael Frontani who first allowed the author pursue anime as a topic of study and to Dr. Byung Lee for allowing her to pursue the topic a second time. She would also like to thank the Otaku at Wake Technical Community College for their inspiration, support, and constant reaffirmation that Pokémon is still totally cool. Special thanks go to Jonathan Smith, Pamela Andrea Laukaitis, Anne Marie Glen, and Michael Hart.


Animation fans go Japanese. (1991, February 2). Post-Tribune, p. D1.

Bolton, C., Csicsery-Ronay, I., & Tatsumi, T. (2008). Robot ghosts and wired dreams: Japanese science fiction from origins to anime. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Borrelli, C. (2002, October 13). Everything anime -slowly but surely, the Japanese style of animation is gaining a foothold in America. The Blade, p. B6.

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Ladd, F., & Deneroff, H. (2009). Astro boy and anime come to the Americas: An insider's view of the birth of a pop culture phenomenon. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc.

Lalor, P. (2002, June 1). Turning Japanese, I really think so how Australia embraces the old foe's exports. Daily Telegraph, p. 036.

Lee, H. (2011). Participatory media fandom: A case study of anime fansubbing. Media, Culture & Society, 33(8), 1131-1147.

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Napier, S. J. (2007). From impressionism to anime: Japan as fantasy and fan cult in the mind of the west. (1st ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Newitz, A. (1995). Magical girls and atomic bomb sperm: Japanese animation in America. Film Quarterly, 49(1), 2-15.

Otmazgin, N. K. (2008). Contesting soft power: Japanese popular culture in East and Southeast Asia. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 8(1), 73-101.

Pérez Gonzáles, L. (2006). Fansubbing anime: Insights into the 'butterfly effect' of globalisation on audiovisual translation. Perspectives: Studies in Translatology, 14(4), 260-277.

Severin, W., & Tankard, J. (2001). Communication theories: Origins, methods, and uses in the mass media. (5th ed.). New York: Longman.

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