Analog Diaries V: The Social Network

Looking at the bulk of the stories I’ve been sharing on the pages of Diet via my Analog Diaries column, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a small shoutout to a period in my fandom that so few I speak with seem to mention, let alone talk about. It is something of a footnote in the anime and manga phenomenon that doesn’t get coverage in many places online, especially since the internet can be said to be the bomb that truly blew the fandom floodgates open. But before PCs were truly widespread, and bandwidth was reasonable, connieurs of J-culture had to resort to other means to gather information, and find friends around the world with commonalities such as these to chat up.

My first brush with folks who traded tapes, zines, and materials from Japan was through the friend of a relative who had once stationed in and around Okinawa. As it turns out, since his travelling back and forth from Japan had begun to slow, it became common for this guy to have a network of pals willing to share the wealth via parcels, and classic postal service methods. There was a romance to this as it was clear that it took effort to really make these friendships last. And what would come from a lot of this would not only be some truly cool buddies from all over, care packages of stuff would often land, granting him access to things I would not see anywhere for years. This person’s room was awash in pin-up art, figures, and videocassettes, and it was something that would likely leave a burn mark within for a very long time.

Flash forward to roughly the mid-90s, and I am essentially in the California desert, many miles from anything resembling hobby shops, let alone convention venues. Access was almost completely nonexistent, save for the occasional run-in with your local geeks at the local Suncoast, and buddies. And our pally from the service had long since vanished, so it was pretty much time to either pack it in, or doggedly keep seeking out others with similar passions. When it came to learning anything about such a medium such as this, about the best ways to do so would be to save up, head out toward the Los Angeles area to forage the popular haunts, and naturally, talk to folks who really knew what was up, the elder fans. However, as in anything geek, there were many times where it felt like the only way into such a world was to “know the code”, perhaps a secret handshake, or perhaps even a little blood sharing to just get a glimpse at something else made by Miyazaki, Oshii, or even Dezaki. The walls keeping the average, passtionate fan were many if you knew noone. Simply put, if you didn’t know anyone, anime fandom was near to impossible…

…Or so I thought…

Soon after anime on VHS was beginning to gather ground, and the ADVs, Central Parks, AnimEigos, and others of the world were beginning to see an upsurge of younger fandom, I had the good fortune to spark up a conversation with someone while chatting up a mutual admiration, the manga collective CLAMP. And that’s pretty much all it took to be introduced to an already long-established world network of not only shoujo manga & anime lovers, but an entire living, breathing faction of fans with a love of the written word, as well as a humongous DIY spirit. I was introduced to the world of Friendship Books, and pen-pal circles.

For those unfamiliar; pen pal circles are as they sound, and yet offered an interesting way to get to know others without the interference, and often static that an instantaneous internet can at times elicit. To begin, one would select a fictional moniker; a name for yourself that could either be original, or naturally be that of a favorite character. (we seeing the seeds yet?) And to spread awareness of your profile to those looking for new pals to write, one would create what was known as a Friendship Book.

Apologies for this not being the best example. More in storage.


As you can see, Friendship Books cold be made out of anything from construction, to washi, to standard line stock. These books would start with a page, often decorated with an anime/manga image, and a brief opener, describing the kinds of shows you liked along with one’s mailing address. The page complete, the book could then be sent to other pen pals, and sent randomly around to other pals until the book was completed front to back, at which time the book was sent back to its author. And to see where it went was often interesting, and even moreso, was to see the creativity expressed by those placing their profiles into it. It was a fascinating process that could become messy quite quickly should one not send a few out with every replied letter. Many would even come back from as far away as Japan, or even Germany.

But the friendships that formed out of this curious move were often very cordial, and fun. Especially when con season returned. One of the more notable events each year was to be able to meet some of these fellow writers, which naturally had its highs and lows.

In all this was a truly interesting time as it was also more possible than ever to hear about current shows, as well as swap tapes of series that either hadn’t been licensed for US distribution, or even favorites that the american market would never even consider. The fansub community was still in relative infancy, so it was also a peak time for the empowered few to take their Japanese skills, and shell out free cassettes featuring anime that for better or worse helped pave the path for how anime fandom was going to burst in the near future. I would even argue that prior to the internet’s massive impact on the anime industry as a whole (rise AND fall) , it was really up to a significant, and yet largely silent subculture within subcultures. It was how I was able to first begin reading Ginga Tetsudo 999 in Japanese, as well as see shows like Escaflowne, Gundam Wing, Wedding Peach, and many others before the companies began paying real attention. And the prime motivator for all of those I met throughout this time period was less about what one had, but rather who they could share their love of all of this with. There was no malevolence, or selfishness involved, it was merely enthusiasm.

It might have been slow, but in that came a sense of build-up. Of anticipation. Even if the show was so-so, there was something of an in-the bunker vibe that came from this kind of community that made every new major show something of an event. When was the last real time we’ve experienced this?

Long before I had a net connection, and a station to type from, it was all about pens, paper, glue, and a lot of motivation(oh, and stamps).

And it is something that I at times only wish to see more of as it has the world’s fans scramble for some kind of sense of community that feels lost at the moment. And perhaps this was all because of it’s rarity. Lack of access can do amazing things when one thinks about it. Perhaps it is here that answers exist. Of course there is no going back. But one can at least hope for the kind of long form love fans have for their interests, all in the name of finding others with the same affliction. Not in the name of a cure, but in the name of understanding.

 

Understanding via creation. Isn’t that what much of this is all about?

23 thoughts on “Analog Diaries V: The Social Network”

  1. It’s a great read as always, I enjoyed it. It’s great to know what pre-digital otakudom was like. We need more of this to know.

    Friendship Book. Wow, that’s really cool!

    It’s true, no more stamps and Mr. Postman. Even love, it used to be letters. But now, it’s email and texting. For school kids, before internet and cell phone, lovers had a exchange diary, or koukan nikki. Friendship Book in a way was a koukan nikki then, among anime-lovers. I remember some classmates who were going out were exchanging diaries, ah, the last glimpse of analog-romance. Too bad I didn’t get to experience one…

    Yeah, otaku’s rarity, exclusiveness, elitism, was the past. Anybody can claim to be otaku now.

    And now the movie quality doesn’t deteriorate by copying. For VHS, it had to be the original, and whoever had the original VHS was the elite. Now, anybody can access to God, everybody got a key, so everybody becomes shaman, thus there is no more shaman.

    So, you can speak Japanese, since you read 999 in Japanese !?

  2. Thanks for your kind words. It was a very different era of media sharing and consumption. And we all seemed to be borne through it out of necessity. Oh sure some pen pals had an early internet, but to have real talks about favorite anime or manga characters, it was all about sharing long letters about them, and in many ways, it was a nice window into the character, and creativity of these folks. And as for my 日本語 back then , it was very basic. But pals with access to old manga, and knowing my personal interests would send me copies of vintage stuff in the mail. Not just fansubbed VHS tapes, but volumes of キャプテン・ハーロック, and even デビルマン were sent my way. I didn’t have a proper sensei at the beginning, but manga was my first teacher. And it was not so much about being elite, and yes there was that feeling among many older fans for sure, but it also felt like discovering rebel art, hidden from the masses. And we were going to help alter the world by sharing it. Little did we know of what was to come.

    1. That’s really cool. Manga was your first sensei. Learning Japanese by reading Matsumoto Reiji, how awesome!

      I watched few Hollywood films and Disneys back in Japan to learn English, but I couldn’t carry a conversation when I first arrived in America. Took me almost three years just to catch up a small daily chat. Still different cultural backgrounds put me up with miscommunication. I wish American shows had Japanese subtitles with reference explained like those fansub shows like Gintama. Thus, I learned language is a product of a culture.

      1. Awww now I feel a slight bit of envy/adminration, I didn’t have that as I grew up.. since a majority of my anime was avaliable in Chinese, and anime for me became a very insulated hobby since no one around me watched beyond what was general. Since Chinese always had subtitles, pre-97. There were subtitles in English as well. Now I am use to reading bits of subtitles in Chinese. I became very use to subtitles, to the point that I need it whenever I watch English media. That learning Japanese now for me has became a slight bit of a hardship with my crutch on Chinese. But looking at this Friendship book, reminds me of scrap booking, since there’s some paper crafting involve.

        I always tell acquaintances that the best way to learn another language or at least a familiarity with its sounds, is to consume English media. Hmm when I was in Panama a couple of years ago… English movies had Spanish subs, if the movie was playing before it can get dubbed into Spanish. (Great for me since I can’t understand Spanish either). But I digress… subtitles and cultural references are only moot points, since I believe that if there are already subtitles then that is a gift. In Chinese you don’t get references either, but it is for a large percentage of other dialect speakers to understand vice versa. So I still believe it is an extra responsibility for the watcher to research on their own what the reference points out, and consume other portions of Japanese media. Comedy is very different for every culture, hence if there are comedy shows half the time I probably will get it not

      2. I thought your first language was American, not Chinese.

        Comedy is in fact very different regionally, one of the toughest genre to understand. I don’t get what Osaka people are joking about, since I was from Tokyo. When Osaka comedians come to do comedy in Tokyo, they speak standard Japanese with Osaka accent. So, technically they aren’t doing Osaka comedy when they are in Tokyo media.

        Gintama is very much about insider jokes, so it’s impossible to understand if it doesn’t have references. But general anime jokes, especially romantic comedy genre, are pretty universal. You don’t need to know any reference for that.

        American humor is pretty hard. Though living in America as gaijin/immigrant for a long time, still a lot of things don’t make sense to me. I feel alienated at movie theater when the audience is laughing while I’m lost. When I was watching Scott Pilgrim, I had an acute loneliness, failing to share the moment. But the article of Scott Pilgrim written by Wintermuted helped me understand its cultural background. So, I need references when I’m watching American shows, so at least I can share the moment. One of the best way to learn the language is a kind that Gintama fansub does. It does a great job putting references together, so it would be nice to have American shows that has cultural explanation each time they crack a joke or humor. Therefore, this is not moot but very important, extremely valuable and helpful in language learning.

      3. Huh.. American? English? My first spoken language is Chinese.. though my mom said it is English.. I was educated in English since I began my schooling when I was around 3-4, but have always maintained speaking Chinese with my mom, and knowing how much dramas she consumes. Plus anime for me was dubbed in Chinese for years before I saw Japanese ones. But yeah I don’t get humor as much. I like Stephen Chow comedy as I was growing up. But outside of that.. not really. Bleh to Scott Pilgrim, I tried to read the graphic novel, and gave up at volume 2. Not a big fan of American comedy as well.

      4. I see. It seems to me that you’re authentic bilingual, both Mandrin and American, not like me an acquired bilingual. The reason I said “American” is that I don’t understand a word of English the Englishmen speak. I always want to be authentic bilingual, a bridge between cultures. So, I envy multilingual people like you and Wintermuted.

        Well, you perfectly understand American cultural references but don’t think it’s funny. That’s a matter of taste.

        I don’t think a lot of American comedy have made it to Japanese market. The only comedy from America that made a huge hit in Japan was probably Sex And The City. Japan is saturated with Hollywood films, but not American TV shows.

        For the same reason, I thought Gintama wouldn’t be popular in America, but fansub does a great job, even crunchyroll puts good explanation. And alas, Americans got a taste for it! That’s what they need to do if they want to sell American comedy in Japan. I may have a taste for American humor.

        Yeah, Kung Fu Hustle was very funny, I think Chow’s comedy is universal. I’m not Chinese, but I can laugh at it really hard. Anime humor is the same way, pretty much universal, that may be why it has gained a huge popularity around the world.

      5. You wouldn’t believe the difficulties I get through in trying to aquire a job. Here, if you speak Chinese, they expect you to know more than one dialect, and I flunetly speak 1, but partially understand conversational for about 2.5 others. At times, knowing two languages is a plus, but at times it is a nuisance. I actually don’t speak Mandarin which is the national language of China, so I speak Cantonse. Stephan Chow is originally Cantonese, and Kung Fu Hustle is okay, but I prefer his earlier movies, such as Justice My Foot, All in the Family, 60 Million Dollar Man etc. Not sure this time about popularity of American comedy, everyone seems to love House and 24 when I was at Tokyo. Of course Sex and the City made it, they had NYC as the backdrop, but it was also a chick program.

        Gintama is really great in its satire, and parodies. I like it a lot more than Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei which has a much more darker humor. Ehh.. so you like American Humor like Will Ferrel or others that have been popular? I can only handle it so much, before I get bored. Anime humor is great. hmm, I really like older time comedies like slapstick comedy. I see that in cartoons a lot. So I enjoy that more.

      6. Of course, I don’t question the difficulties you’re going through. I also been struggling in a dog-eats-dog survival of the fittest, winner-takes-all capitalist society. We’re all having tough times now.

        I didn’t know you don’t speak Mandarin. So, Cantonese and Mandarin aren’t similar enough to communicate? Yeah, I hear Chinese dialects are more like different languages. Cantonese, a language of Bruce Lee. That’s cool you can understand 2.5 others! How envious… In turn, Japanese is very limited, I can’t understand any other languages by knowing only Japanese. But English, you can communicate with people all over the world instantly, that’s why I really wanted to master English. Ironically, it’s a product of colonialism and slavery. English, Spanish, French, all colonialist languages.

        I haven’t checked Chow’s earlier films. Sex And The City was probably the only comedy I understood without references. And it was very funny. Another is L-word, which I had to do a little reference research by myself.

        Wow, so you have a complete Japanese humor taste. It’s great that you love Gintama. I liked Zetsubo Sensei also. But the taste of mine is romantic comedy. Romance = divinity, thus romantic comedy is divine comedy! Lovely Complex!

        I don’t know if I like American humor or not, because I fail at first stage, getting references. Will Ferrel is okay, making fun of Bush. Bill Maher is pretty good. I liked his film, “Religulous,” because religion is something we can all relate to.

      7. Nah… my Mandarin at this point exists at a High school foreign language requirement status. Well let’s just say that when Mandarin tries to speak Cantonese there’s always an accent and vice versa with Cantonese. English is English.. it has became a lingua franca. I don’t mind Japanese humor. ^_^ Hmm.. I never try to get American humor, because I never watch them. People say that Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Steve Colbert are funny.. but not really sure.

      8. I see… So, Mandarin and Cantonese are that different.. Lingua anglica. A product of colonialism. I still want to call English we use “American,” just like John Wayne did. Just like Cantonese speaker listens to Mandarin, I don’t understand what Englishmen are saying. And they look down upon us for not speaking “proper” English. Typical colonial master’s attitude. So I want to claim it’s a different independent language.

        I tried to watch Jon Stewart, Steve Colbert because my American fellows I use to hang out were watching them. I studied up their references and found out it mostly came from FoxNews, very 3-D news. But I found FoxNews much more interesting than these comedians. I particularly like Glenn Beck, his psychoanalysis of Obama was really interesting. Bill Maher is great, his take on religions is awesome, because I used to be religious at one point too. But now, I’m a moe otaku gone hiding in 2-D catacomb.

        It’s really great that you understand and also find Japanese humor funny! Not many people can appreciate that. Oh yeah, you’re a manga otaku, so no wonder!

      9. Interesting tangential discussion happening here. But I would posit that not understanding American humor is selling matters short, as there is no single style in the west. To be fair, there may be at least up to 40 different styles of comedy in the west. The thing is, we’re in a era of dry, meta & sarcastic; meaning noone means what they say unless it’s meant to cut deep. And since Scott Pilgrim is actually from Canada, that de-regionalizes everything.

        But yeah, it’s less about whether or not a region’s humor works for one or not, but rather if the individual’s style speaks for the viewer. But yes, much of this humor is largely based on post-modernism, meaning, without context, the jokes just don’t hit. It expects you to know. But again, this is merely one style among dozens.

      10. Well, I should say North American region rather than “the West.” So, dry humor is a trend, hu?

        40 different styles! That many! So, North American comedy is pretty diverse then. Well, diversity is what post-modernism promotes, endless différance. But see, you guys already know what’s making people laugh, even though you may not think it’s funny. Like meta-humor, you already know the original humor they’re referring. Mine is having no idea what’s making them laugh. If I knew, then it’d be a matter of taste, whether a certain comedian’s style clicks for me. Gintama is full of meta, and it explains well. So, maybe American comedy shows with Japanese subtitles explaining references would be helpful. Then, it would entirely depend on my taste.

      11. Physical distance is quite large, thus there is a lot of languages. Although people tell me it is easier to grasp Mandarin if you’re Cantonese speaking. I don’t watch Jon Stewart or Steve Colbert, since they are comedians on cable, and I don’t watch cable. Ugh to Fox News.. Not so much of a fan for Fox News, since I like other news channels more. I never thought of myself as a manga otaku… since I am a bibliophile.. but sure.. ^_^

      12. Of course, there’s always the common thread that it has nothing to do with cultural dissonance so much as taste that simply doesn’t match. Laughter, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And there are things that simply won’t ever be funny to me, but connect with a large audience. I can think of dozens of anime and manga that fail to make me laugh, and it has nothing to do with culture. Same thing goes for styles, and attempts here. And explaining it defeats the purpose in many ways.

    1. They were. And it was one of the ways that filtered out so much noise, and reached the heart of the fandom. And it also opened my eyes to many things, BL material included. ;)

      It’s also what opened my eyes to the Sailor Moon musicals!

      1. Ahhh Sailor Moon Musicals. ^_^ I have experience in that as well.. since I love performances of Ai no Senshi. I wish I can see Phoenix Wright as how the Takarazuka did it!

      2. It was a wild time. Especially since one had to time what to send and to whom since stamps would run out from time to time. And it was also a really good way to become exposed to the DIY community of fans from cosplayers, and so on. And yeah, we were walking a fine line sometimes with what we were doing. But in those days access was only just beginning to become easier. And it was also a great way to just throw oneself into something without knowing everything. It was much like discovering, rather than merely sharing what we knew. As for learning Japanese, this was especially tough for me in those days since there were nearly no places near where I lived that could provide lessons. But through several pals, it became something of an extension of matters since many shows we would share would be raw. It’s how I first saw many a film from Mononoke, to The End Of Evangelion. If I was going to get the gist of the show, I had to start hitting the books.

      3. That is a very practical way of thinking. Paving your way when there is no other options. That reminds me of an argument between long time fans vs. the newer fans. Never to take it for granted on how much avaliability there is for what there is to love about a hobby. I can still remember how excited I was when scholarly anime books started to be publish, and that was something fun to read, and collect. Similarily if there is no budget for the glossy magazine finish that can be achieved by money and fancy printing, there is xerox, pencil or zine printings.

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