Author and translator Matt Alt runs AltJapan, an entertaining and informative blog launched in 2006. Calling it a “digital scratchpad,” the Maryland native writes about a wide variety of Japan-related subjects, ranging from the role of Lolita girls in military simulations to the majesty of Japan’s toy robot culture. His topics may be off beat but weirdness for the sake of weirdness is not his goal.
AltJapan is also the name of the translation/localization company Matt runs with his wife, Hiroko, in Mitaka, Tokyo, and the books that the two co-authored include “Hello, Please! Very Helpful Super Kawaii Characters from Japan” and “Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide.”
In this interview with The Japan Times Online, Alt talks about his love of Japanese toys, the explosion of otaku culture abroad and trying not to focus on some fat guy dressed as Pikachu.
So how did your interest in Japan begin?
When I was little kid there was this collection of all these Japanese giant robot shows that someone had translated and dubbed into English. That was part of what got me into Japan, but what really got me into Japan were toys. I was obsessed with Japanese toys — Shogun Warriors, Mirconauts — all of these different toy series that came out when I was a little kid. I had always been interested in robots, but when I saw the Japanese stuff, it was love at first sight.
I was kind of one of the first waves of kids in America who was kind of really into what was called “Japanamition” at the time. I was born in 1973, so at the time when I was growing up in D.C., there wasn’t anything translated or subtitled, there weren’t any manga in English. So really the only way to learn about this stuff was to actually learn Japanese. I was really fortunate that my high school happened to offer a Japanese program. So it was really just a lucky coincidence that I made the most of.
So where does AltJapan factor into this?
AltJapan is kind of my second life as a blogger. I first started doing things online in about 1998. I cofounded this blog — they were known as ‘Web sites’ back then — called ToyboxDX.com with this guy from Boston. We were both toy geeks, we just loved Japanese toys. He had already kind of started the site and I started giving him information because I was able to read Japanese books and Japanese magazines and stuff and it kind of snowballed. Over course of three or four years, that site just blew up, I mean we were getting like millions of hits a month at its peak.
How soon after this did you start AltJapan?
I didn’t start the AltJapan blog until 2004 or 2005. I really resisted it for a long time, because I kind of burned out on blogging or — whatever you call it — “websiting” for a while. Not because it was bad or anything, but it was a niche Web site, obviously. It was all about Japanese toys and it was very successful at what it did. But the problem is you can only write about that one topic. Nobody is really interested in maybe a deeper aspect or a side aspect of Japanese culture. They want to know, “When is the next toy coming out?” or “Why is this toy designed this way.” I love that stuff — I still love it even now — but it got kind of stifling after a while. It became a hungry mouth to feed, that I had to keep shoveling information into, and it just started feeling like a job after a while.
And so you moved from Japanese toys and expanded it to Japanese culture as a whole?
That’s the funny thing: I deliberately didn’t want to narrow the focus with this one. I’ve been there before, where I’ve been on a top site that’s getting lots of hits and I know what it’s like to be in that position. So this time I wanted to take it easy. Not that would ever compare Toybox DX to being in The Beatles or anything like that, but you have that experience of being a massive rock star or something so now you want to go off and do your side project. I wanted to just write about what I wanted to write about, instead of having to sit there and think, “Is this what the audience, what the readers really want today?” So it was kind of liberating from that standpoint.
Have you seen any changes in blogging since your started?
There are certainly a lot more blogs now. Over the last year or so the number of blogs people written by people in Japan or in Tokyo has really increased. It used to be that just by virtue of being a foreigner in Japan and having a blog, you were this unique voice, this incredibly unique voice. Now, for better or for worse, that’s not the case anymore. Now, you’re a gaijin in Japan — so what? What do you have to say that’s contributing to entertainment or knowledge on this topic?
What do you think are the effects of otaku culture spreading abroad?
When I was a kid, there was . . . it isn’t fair to say there wasn’t any otaku culture in America then, because there were clubs and things like that, but they were in big cities like L.A. and New York, and there weren’t any near me. And there was very little chance, except between my friends and I, to exchange any information with anyone else. There was no way to know what else there was in a given animated series. If we had access to Wikipedia back then it would have blown our minds — and it still does blow my mind to a certain degree when I log on to some of these sites and see the information they amassed on fictional characters and story lines and plots. The Internet is a great way for people to exchange information. It’s absolutely allowed that subculture to grow as a whole.
So subcultures are expanding into the mainstream?
I don’t know if you could really call otaku culture “mainstream.” I mean it’s mainstream to a certain degree here in Japan, but not so much in America. Now, people can say, “This is what I am — I am an otaku. I’m into these things and there are other people who are into them too.” In a certain sense it’s analogous to coming out of the closet. I’m sure everybody goes through that at some point in their life when they have something that they believe only they are only interested in, that only applies to them, and there’s this kind of awakening when they realize that there are other people who are into it too. And the Internet is absolutely a catalyst to that.
But isn’t that use of otaku a bit misinformed? It doesn’t really mean the same thing in English as it does in Japanese, right?
In Japan, it’s pejorative — it is absolutely pejorative. You would never refer to yourself that way or refer to somebody else in that way seriously. Certainly people say, “Oh, yeah — I’m an otaku,” but they are kind of running themselves down as a joke. In America, it’s become a badge of honor, because, obviously, the word doesn’t carry any connotations in English. It’s a loan word.
In Japanese, what it literally means is a polite way of saying “you,” almost like “master” or “your honor.” It developed into the way its used today because otaku who were very into these subcultures are very introverted and shy. They came up with it as a very indirect way to address each other. It’s a linguistic way of avoiding making direct contact, an indirect way of communication. These days, I don’t think anybody really uses “otaku” as a form of address anymore; that usage was kind of linked to a certain place and time in Japanese history.
Your blog actually seems to stray away from the popular blog format of ordered lists, which are pretty effective at drawing visitors. Is this intentional?
For me it’s much more important to craft a piece that has a personal interest to me and either entertains or educates than it is to draw readers. If a lot of people see it, that’s great — I want them to. On the blog, I will always write in the way that most appeals to me because in my line of work, when I’m actually writing books or translating something, I have to appeal to a specific audience.
If you simply want pageviews, you can simply post a photo and say, “Isn’t this weird?” You can get a million million hits off that, by taking a picture of some fat dude dressed in a Pikachu costume running around downtown or something totally out of the ordinary and get a million people linking back to it.
To me, that really isn’t an indicator of success. Yeah, you got a lot of hits — what are you going to do with them? I suppose, if you have a Web site with a ton of ads on it, Amazon referrals and stuff — great, you just made a couple of bucks off that. I make my money off my real job and I think that if I tried to make money off the blog, it would be a very different thing.
Can you name any other unfortunate trends in blogs centered on Japan?
There is this trend in America for “wacky Japan.” Somebody will take something totally out of context and write about or blog about it and say, “Aren’t Japanese people weird?” To me, it’s like, you can do the same thing for America. Take Sesame Street. If I take a clip of that out of context and I don’t tell you that it’s a kids’ show, you can just as easily say, “Oh, man — look at this bald guy talking to a monster in a garbage can! Americans are crazy!” When you start looking at it that way, you start to realize that Japanese people aren’t that weird after all. So a lot of the stuff I do is aimed at contextualizing things.
What blog posts have been the most popular?
This is ironic because this really isn’t a core interest of mine. Right now the most popular post is this piece I wrote on the video game Metal Gear Solid 4 from a psychological perspective, using the Lolita complex. I asked, “Why is there this little girl character in this military simulation? Why is there a little girl dressed in a maid costume cooking you eggs in this game? Why would somebody put a character like this in here?” It was a very short piece, only like two or three paragraphs long, I think, but it really took off and got picked up by a bunch of gaming sites and I was getting a lot of flack from people who enjoyed the game.
You and your wife have written two slightly unconventional books together — “Hello Please,” about popular Japanese mascots, and “Yokai Attack,” which is about creatures from Japanese folklore. Was there a link between the two topics?
We realized in the research for “Hello, Please” that Japanese people have been interested in illustrated characters for hundreds of years. If you look back to the first yokai encyclopedias, many of the yokai are very much in the vein of the cute characters you see everyday, because the cute characters are anthropomorphic versions of the things you see in daily life. That penchant for anthropomorphism has deep roots in this culture. There is a certain of species of cute characters called “warning characters,” which are the characters you see on signs telling you: “Don’t come in here.” We traced that directly back to the kappa, who was used by parents to scare kids away from water.
On the subject of Yokai and ghost stories: You and your wife dedicated “Yokai Attack” to Setsuko Hearn, the wife of Lafcadio Hearn. What the story behind that?
Lafcadio Hearn lived in Japan at the turn of the 19th century and passed away in 1905. What he did was he went around the country collecting ghost stories and all sorts of folk tales from Japan. He was the first person to make English versions of a lot of these folk takes, and he was, really, the first person to write a lot of these tales down. But he could not speak any Japanese and he relied heavily on his wife, who would pantomime out the stories to him. And he would edit them, write them down, and publish them.
It’s well known that Setsuko was his cultural interpreter, but no one had really said anything about it before. And my wife and I work together in much the same way, where she is a kind of cultural interpreter for me. She is not behind the scenes, though; we actually work together. Our translation company is based on a native Japanese speaker and a native English speaker working together to overcome cultural differences. So when we look at Lafcadio Hearn, we see a lot of ourselves in them, in this Japanese woman who obviously loves her own culture and is trying to explain it to a foreign person who also very interested in and wants to communicate it to his own countrypeople, not in a “aren’t Japanese people weird” kind of way but from a sense of love and interest and scholarship.
I would never call myself anything on the level of Lafcadio Hearn, but we definitely see a lot of ourselves in the way the two of them worked together. And that’s why we dedicated the book to them, and especially to her, because she doesn’t really get as much attention as he does.