J-list’s “Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend” shirt has spawned quite a bit of controversy, including at least one angry blog post and manga critic Deb Aoki’s nomination for inclusion on a list of things to never wear. Asked if in her opinion men could never wear it ironically and explain it as such, Aoki responded:
@moritheil I’m just saying you can tell yourself you’re wearing it “ironically” all you want. It’ll still look douche-y.
I think this response is worth examining. The meaning of art generally hinges on the interpretation of the viewer. However, if you’re trying to assess why someone wore a specific clothing article, it’s their intent that really matters. On the one hand, a literal wearing of the shirt means that the man is indeed a fetishist for Japanese women. It’s not hard to see why some women might consider that problematic. (Not all women, of course – women being perfectly capable of being only interested in sex.)
On the other hand, many other rationales are possible. One could wear it to an anime club and make the statement, “I’m such a Japanophile, I want to marry into a Japanese family so that my descendants can be Japanese!” A man could be playing with the idea that fetishism is so ingrained in society that it could be thought acceptable to wear these shirts. Yet another twist occurs if the shirt is worn by a Japanese man – that entirely does away with the “exotic fetishist” angle, doesn’t it? There are more possibilities; I suppose a revealing question to ask people would be, “Do you think that there would be more ironic wearers of that shirt or literal wearers?”
Aoki is right in that many Asian women would infer a male wearer’s message to be: “I think things that offend you – and by extension, your feelings – are a great source of material for jokes.” But is that the first and best conclusion? Doesn’t that assume a certain amount of forethought and insight on the man’s part being exerted just to offer a snub? It’s by no means certain that a man has worn it specifically because he understands that a Japanese woman in the West has to put up with unwanted advances from fetishists, after all.
Looking for calculated insults seems to be a particularly masochistic form of sabotage, especially if you aren’t the intended audience. Perhaps seeking faults is justifiable behavior on a date, but there are surely many other contexts to run into someone wearing this shirt. I think that in manga/anime fan circles, there are a lot of people who would genuinely not understand beforehand any anxiety such a shirt would cause women around them, merely thinking it hilarious or cool, and that this is a very different phenomenon from deliberately wearing a shirt to discomfit others and being an asshole.
@moritheil @owen_s @kiriska @jake_w @edsizemore i have yet to hear a single JP gal say that she’s charmed when she sees that on a guy.
@debaoki And for good reason, I think. That shirt reeks of creepiness and desperation, even when not worn seriously.
Certainly anyone can refuse to date anyone for any reason. I’m not saying that the shirt has to be seen as a plus, universally, and I don’t know precisely how it feels to a Japanese woman in America to see a man wearing this shirt. But here it seems there is a rush to jump to the worst conclusion. I can agree there is a lack of social skills if that shirt is worn on a date, and that is not usually a plus – but being unskilled is not being malevolent. I don’t see that there is something inherently creepy or desperate about wearing a shirt with an absurd message in a general setting – it’s funny because it’s an absurd invocation of stereotypes, and only if you are willing to deny them any decency do you assume they literally mean they don’t care about women as people and only care about specific body types.
Turning it around – does a software engineer get very upset if his date wears an “I ❤ nerds” shirt? Should he? Does a black woman get upset if her date wears a shirt indicating a preference for black females? Should she*? Would an atheist be bothered by her date wearing a shirt proclaiming that he can’t stand to date religious women and only wants to date atheists? In all of these examples, wearing the shirt strikes me as a little weird, but a far cry from desperate or creepy. (Incidentally, this is the sort of shirt I think could be ironically worn on a date: “My marxist-feminist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard.” On a literal reading it’s threatening, but it’s really absurd, and serves as a good litmus test for humor.)
[*A major issue in America. Black women have written numerous articles accusing black men of being more interested in other women, and decrying the situation.]
All this analysis is taking things rather seriously, but no more seriously than the detractors already take it: Aoki herself labels it a deal-breaker on behalf of all Japanese women, and starrycloud9 believes the shirt is responsible for rape. I think these assessments are missing the most salient point – more time is wasted on dating due to effective fakery than due to excessive and clumsy honesty. If a man really does think that women getting offended is funny, and that is the reason he wears it to a date, we aren’t doing the women he dates any favors by telling him to not wear the shirt.
This article was originally written on December 8, 2010. Since then, new variants have been created. Maybe girls could wear a variation to show that they have a sense of humor about such things – “now seeking a gaijin boytoy”? Would that resemble real life too much?
Of course, one hears about women wearing the original shirt, as just a shirt.