Cyborg Dreams

An Intersection of Media, Japan, and Fandom

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Can You Teach Yourself Japanese?

I should make a disclaimer that I am only speaking from my own experience here. If this does not work for you, then by all means find another way. As long as you are learning that’s what matters.

I am writing this because as someone who studies Japan, it seems obvious that I need to speak the language. I have encountered a lot of people who are “experts” on a variety of subjects from other countries, but their only exposure is through the English language. This seems absurd; there are a number of subtleties, idioms, puns, and sometimes actual words that are lost in translation. For example; it is important to know why a female protagonist may become flustered or embarrassed if a male she is unfamiliar with refers to her using “kimi” instead of “anata,” otherwise a scene may just seem out of place. Language is an essential part of understanding a culture. Language determines how we think, how we view the world, and how we interact with others. Without an understanding of a culture’s language, we are just viewing it with our own prejudices and assumptions.

Like many people my age  my first introduction to anime, and subsequently Japan, came from Toonami. There were other instances earlier in my life, but Toonami caught my attention and had me hooked. Back in 2005 I made my first attempt to learn Japanese at university. It wasn’t quite a disaster, but it was definitely a failure. With a full class load and a teacher that insisted we study every minute we were not in class, including in the bathroom…well it was destined for failure. I dropped the class.

My next attempt came with the ever poplar Rosetta Stone, which was followed closely by the Pimsleur language series. I kept at these pretty faithfully for several months. Eventually though, near the end of the first 30 part lesson, my head was swimming with phrases; many I could not remember. I had no idea how to express what I was thinking, I was just a parrot (And a poor one at that). Additionally I was not learning to read at all, so I had nothing to keep my very visual mind occupied. Again I walked away having learned very little. I was at a loss. I assumed I was just bad at learning languages.

That’s when I friend of mine recommended TextFugu. A website, forum, and blog that posted the first section for free. I had nothing to lose so I tried it.


It is radically different and humorous. Not dry like textbooks; nor is it as boring as staring at the audio bar on iTunes. TextFugu is a mix of motivational speech, videos, flash cards, and short blog-like explanations. I was and am completely hooked. So how is it different?

  • First and most importantly is that it is entertaining. I am an academic at heart, but slogging through boring instructions still isn’t my ideal learning situation.
  • Second, TextFugu starts with the basics; hiragana kana. By learning the “alphabet” first, you are set up from the beginning to start expressing your own thoughts; to actually think in Japanese.
  • Each lesson builds on the last. This means that you are only learning new ideas aroudn 30-50% of the time. The rest is using previous knowledge in a different way.
  • Anki: A comprehensive flash card software that is also available for Android and iOS
  • Finally: it is difficult. TextFugu never claims to be easy or that you will know a language in thirty days.

Many times language learning software or classes claim that something magical will happen and suddenly you will be fluent. But learning to think and read and speak a language is difficult. Even as children we go through years of learning and experience before we are any good at communicating. Why would it be any easier now?

So will it work for you? I have no idea, but if you’re interested check out these resources:




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Nostalgia is a Drug for Geeks

Nostalgia from the Greek words nostos and algos, return and suffering. Literally, the suffering caused by the yearning to return to one’s place of origin.

After hearing neuro-anthropologist Dr. Daniel Lende give a lecture on how he was studying drug addiction and the culture and reasons behind it, I had the realization that much of what he was describing was exactly what I go through when I feel nostalgic. According to his study the basic breakdown of what is happening in the brain is this:

  • A shift in attention, paying attention to cues that let addicts know it is time to use
  • Feeling a desire, usually one that consumes their thoughts
  • Urges that happen beyond conscious control

Inevitably the things I find nostalgic are geeky; NES, Ninja Turtles, old D&D games, Megaman, the first time I watched Gundam Wing and Dragon Ball Z. And this led me to wonder; is nostalgia the geek’s drug of choice? While most people experience nostalgia, it seems to be especially prevalent among geeky/nerdy people. It is something we actively seek out; in a world with PS4’s and Xbox One’s we still seek out and recreate the 8-bit experiences of our childhood. Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, and JoJo’s Bizarre adventure are all getting remakes and new seasons while new and popular anime wait patiently for the next round. (Will Shinjeki no Kyojin resurge when I’m 50?)

Of course capitalism has something to do with that, childhoods are easy sells. But the geek childhood we see repackaged more often than most, markets thrive on our nostalgia. I haven’t seen a modern remake of Happy Days or I Love Lucy, but TMNT is on its fifth television incarnation, has had six comic series, and three live-action movies with a fourth just released. (I know I’m leaving some out, but you get the idea) Funimation releases Dragon Ball Z in some new and premium boxed set every, what, three years? And now there is Dragon Ball Kai.

So it’s profitable, and I think that’s because we seek it out more than any other sub-culture or age group.


A study titled “Nostalgia: Content, Triggers, Functions” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (91, 975-993) suggests that nostalgia is often onset by sad or negative feelings. Additionally, in a majority of those studied nostalgia acted as a cure or relief from those feelings. My theory is that because many of us grew up isolated from our peers and were shunned for our interests. The games and media we participated in brought us solace and a sense of community with other like-minded individuals.

If those activities helped us cope with the hardships of growing up as outsiders, or with the difficulties of growing up in general, then it would make sense that we would draw strength from those memories. But we do more than draw strength, we surround ourselves with it. Sing songs about it, plaster it all over our homes, purchase and repurchase original and reproductions of our childhood loves. We never tire of exploring Hyrule or of throwing a spirit bomb at Frieza.

I have found myself more than once watching re-runs of anime I grew up with when I was feeling down. Sometimes I think of it as “anime junk food” but what is actually happening here is that I am seeking relief from feeling depressed or worried. And it is not feelings of exclusion (I have grown up to have many friends in many circles) but the worries of the adult world; jobs, rent, bills, etc. And in those moments I have a sense of comfort brought about by reliving my childhood experiences.

Perhaps in a world where we “millenials” are often lost, underemployed, and in debt (read Sarah Kendzior’s great article about this) we seek to comfort ourselves by filling our lives with memories of a life less full of worry. Who needs narcotics and anti-depressants when you have Duo Maxwell?

If you’re interested in further reading check out these links:

Dr. Daniel Lende’s neuro-anthropology blog

Nostaliga: Content, Triggers, Functions

Sarah Kendzior’s blog

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Why Does Fansubbing Continue to Exist?

This will be the first in a series of articles exploring the fansub community, for those unfamiliar, please read The Anime News Network’s definition of a fansub.


The anime fansub community is something I have been involved with off and on for many years. My participation really only started once anime became readily available online (the early 2000’s), so I was not a part of what I like to call “the first generation” of fansubbers. Those veterans would do everything by hand using VHS recordings, collaborate through the mail, and all gather around static ridden copies of copies of copies to watch their favorite shows once every month or more. These days fansubbers have a much more sophisticated array of tools that allows for high quality and fast turn around time; the question I want to ask is “why.” In light of instant streaming services like and Netflix, that have a comparable turn around times and cheap or free access, why do fansubbers continue working and why are the fans still downloading them?


My theory is that fan translators are taking what companies have traditionally placed a monetary value on and turning it into social capital. Additionally, these fans have gone a step further and added both value and content to a product where licencors and media companies have neglected to meet the desires of the fan base.

The law is clear between Japan and America; fansubbing is illegal. But both proponents and critics of the practice (within the fan community) have eschewed arguments of law in favor of arguments focused on social and ethical practices. The question is often when and why is it allowable instead of is it legal. Jordan Hatcher, and intellectual property lawyer states in his paper Of Otaku and Fansubs that American licencors of anime are less litigious than most media companies, often sending informal letters to fansub groups or sending representatives to anime conventions to comment on the practice.

Fansub groups do not seem to care about money in so far as selling their products; the driving factor seems to be recognition for their hard work by their peers. Peers in this case are not necessarily the fans of anime, but other fansub groups (This can be seen in the contempt many groups show for fans in their FAQs or in their responses to fan criticism). The value here is not economic but social; recognition as experts in their field by others pursuing the same craft. At the same time, this reach for perfection has also subtly redefined what “normal fans” (Those who participate in the culture in different ways other than translation) value in their anime experience.

For example, many sub groups go out of their way to explain Japanese cultural nuances that many media companies either ignore, or gloss over by localizing a particular pun or reference, i.e., purposefully mistranslating dialogue in order for jokes and puns to “be more American” (At least in my case). These explanations are commonly known as translator’s notes, and over the years have become a valuable addition for many fans that seek a more authentic and genuine understanding of Japanese culture. As Professor Ian Condry of MIT points out in his book The Soul of Anime, the fansub group AnimeForever went through the trouble to provide extensive translator notes for the 2005 release of Samurai Champloo. They clarified uses of words, explained the hiragana syllabary so that an entire episode would make sense to American audiences, and gave short history lessons that put certain scenes into context. There were four other groups subbing the show at the time and Professor Condry expects they were in competition with each other. And none of this was for money, but social capital; a different value system.

Director Hiroki Hayashi apologies to overseas fans for prematurely ending the series.

Director Hiroki Hayashi apologies to overseas fans for prematurely ending the series.

Even some creators of anime in Japan have recognized and seem to appreciate the trouble fansubbers go through so that overseas audiences may see their creations. In 2004 director Hiroki Hayashi (surname last) apologized to fans, including those “outside the broadcast area who took special measures…and to everybody that watched it subtitled overseas without permission” for ending the show Battle Programmer Shirase early and not continuing with the second and third seasons.

What does this mean?

It seems clear that fansubbing is not going away any time soon, and while Netflix and Crunchyroll’s anime selection continues to surge, fan translators have carved a niche for themselves within a niche community. Not only are they not going away, but they have increased their value to a certain segment of the fan population (namely those that seek a more “authentic” Japanese experience). In addition to redefining the value landscape fan translators can bring certain series overseas that would never be released here; whether from red tape, licensing issues, or monetary shortfalls. This in turn leads to an increase in demand that fosters a sense of competition between groups seeking to be the best and have recognition from their (fansubbing) peers.

So what do you think, why do fansubs continue to exist?