In the “Participatory Poland” report a group of Polish aca-fen makes a preliminary attempt towards defining the specificity of an Eastern European country’s participatory culture shaped both in the communist and post-communist periods. By placing the development of selected fan-based activities against a broader socio-historical background, we are trying to capture the interplay between the global and the local context of participatory culture, as well as take preliminary steps towards making its Polish branch available for academic research. Thanks to Professor Henry Jenkins’ incredible support, we are able to share the first, though by no means final, results of our investigations with aca-fen worldwide. The posts included in this report deal with several examples of Polish participatory activities, namely, the literary and media fandom of speculative fiction and role-playing games; comics fandom; fandom of manga and anime; historical re-enactment associations; and the prosumerist phenomenon of bra-fitting. While we are planning to continue and expand our research, we hope that its samples presented in this report contribute to the exploration of participatory culture.
Fighters, Martyrs, and Missionaries for Manga: The Early Days of Polish Manga and Anime Fandom
Katarzyna “Hitohai” Wasylak Karkonosze College in Jelenia Góra
In 2012, a manga convention Animatsuri in Warsaw featured a discussion panel entitled “True Fans Are No More.” The subject referred to the nostalgic commentaries frequently reiterated by middle-aged fans recalling the “olden days” when manga and anime market was hardly existent in Poland. The life of manga fans in the late 90s was filled with quests: to obtain VHS cassettes with Japanese animation, to get any manga in any language, to bring the existence of manga and anime to broader awareness, to create positive publicity for their hobby, to generate more fans and build a nation-wide network, to improve the availability of manga in their country, and finally, to find a partner who would accept their weird hobby. There were many hardships awaiting the fans: hostility experienced from the society and other fandoms, conflicts within their own fandom, expenses connected with importing manga merchandise, etc.
Since the data about the beginnings of manga in Poland I managed to gather may be incomplete, I will start with the first official record of the event at which Japanese comics and animation were presented to the Poles under the names “manga” and “anime.” The story begins in the early 90s, with Robert “Mr. Root” Korzeniowski visiting a computer fair in London, where he stumbled upon the anime Akira. In the year 1994, at the Amiga computers’ fans convention in Warsaw, Mr. Root organized a section “Manga Room” with the purpose of familiarizing the Polish audiences with manga and anime. Soon, Korzeniowski introduced a column under the same title in a computer game magazine Secret Service. Simultaneously, Paweł ”Mr Jedi” Musiałkowski started the section “Mangazyn” in the computer magazine PC Shareware. In 1997, “Manga Room” developed into an independent magazine about manga and anime Animegaido (closed down in 1998), and Mr Jedi became an editor-in-chief of Kawaii (1997-2005).
Although Polish channels had been already airing anime series (targeted mainly to children) like The Adventures of Maya the Bee, Yattaman, Princess Sarah, Battle Commander Daimos, or Captain Tsubasa, the first broadcast of the Sailor Moon series on public TV in 1994-1995 turned out to be a breakthrough for the popularity of manga and anime in Poland. Encouraged by Sailor Scouts’ success, J.P.Fantastica Publishing released Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon series in 1997, which constituted a significant step forward, given that till then, the only manga published in Polish was Riyoko Ikeda’s Ten no Hate Made; (Until the Borders of Sky – Poland’s Secret Story). As I have mentioned, the year 1997 also marked the launch of the first magazine devoted entirely to manga, anime, and Japanese culture—Kawaii. Apart from my personal experience as a fan and other fans’ accounts, in this paper I will draw heavily on the readers’ letters section of Kawaii in the attempt to give a brief outline of Polish manga fandom in the transitory period when fans still did not rely so strongly on the Internet to communicate and collect information.
Supernanny versus Pop Cosmopolitanism
In “Pop Cosmopolitanism: Mapping Cultural Flows in an Age of Media Convergence” (2006) Henry Jenkins refers to pop cosmopolitanism as “the ways that the transcultural flows of popular culture inspires new forms of global consciousness and cultural competency” (156). In the process, the texts of culture “are decontextualized and recontextualized at the sites of consumption,” which may result in “unpredictable and contradictory meanings” being ascribed to them (154). These mechanisms played a critical role for the perception of anime and manga shortly after they were introduced in Poland, as their medium itself was already connoted with particular meanings. Thus, many manga fans would be disgusted at the thought that Japanese animation for children or erotic hentai videos are called anime, just like, say, Mamoru Oshii’s masterpiece Ghost in the Shell. It becomes apparent from the letters published in Kawaii that for the majority of fans, manga and anime were primarily characterized by a deeply spiritual quality, while their entertaining aspect was seen as secondary or denied altogether, as being too vulgar.
On the other hand, the sarcastic term “Chinese cartoons” was typically used by non-fans to refer to anime in general. This confusion of medium and content, as well as the expectations about their fixed relationship (animation and comics are supposed to tell stories for children), constituted the source of constant humiliation for the fans (teenagers and grown-ups watching childish cartoons?), and aroused suspicion or even hostility toward manga and anime among non-fans.
In 2003, when manga market was in its first bloom, and it seemed that for a while nobody wanted to burn manga fans on stakes, one of Polish popular channels aired an episode of a journalistic show which stirred a controversy that came to history as “Bulma’s naked buttocks” case. In the program, a psychologist Dorota Zawadzka (nowadays known as “Supernanny”) relates how, to her shock and terror, she discovered “pedophile pornography” (Dragon Ball, Volume 1) in her teenage son’s comics collection. Apart from surreal special sound effects that accompanied numerous close-ups on the page where the heroine (Bulma) for a moment exposes herself in front of an old man (Keme Senin), the program featured the scene where children (approximately four years old) gathered to “read” the scandalous manga. While it is true that this episode of Dragon Ball may qualify as obscene, fans would not read it as pornography but as a comic device generally characteristic of Asian culture which, unlike Polish one, embraces more distanced and humorous approach to sexual innuendos. What is even more important, fans, as competent comics readers, would not offer such manga to a child, acting on the assumption a false assumption that all comic books are for children.
A large number of manga fans of the 90s connected their passion for manga and anime with the fascination for Japanese culture in general. Almost everyone dreamt about going to Japan and many of us knew more about Japanese art and literature than about Polish cultural heritage. This phenomenon was criticized in a letter from Halue, a half-Japanese, half-Polish fan living in Poland. The girl appealed to the readers that they should get to know and appreciate their own culture first, and only with such a basis may they take another step as Japanese culture’s aficionados (Kawaii 38:79). Another reader, who had been training karate for many years, warned other fans about the hardships of regular training, apparently to spare them disappointment in case they wanted to start training inspired only by their love for anime or Japanese culture (Kawaii 41:77). The same intention inclined Doppi-zoku to write an article about the Japanese Studies in Poland. The author confirmed that the professors in the Japanese Department were gravely prejudiced against manga fans and suggested that Kawaii readers should think twice before choosing Japanese as their major (Kawaii 36:83).
All these texts were written in good faith, however, they also reveal the background premise about the impracticality of fans’ knowledge and their inability to put the strategies they employed for hunting down the desired information to a better use. In this regard, manga fans’ pop cosmopolitan potential for enhancing their new cultural competences seems to be acknowledged only on the emotional level. Many fans wrote about how their identification with clever manga characters motivated them to be diligent at school. There are also numerous stories about fans who decided to learn a foreign language because of their love for anime series that was not available in Polish, or it was aired in Poland, but dubbed in a foreign language. This, however, leads to a question about the stability of such motivation—would they persevere in studying a foreign tongue after their favourite mangas had been finally translated into Polish?
Here, a broader social context comes into perspective. It is highly probable that if such fans decided to engage in fandom activities that involved, for instance, creating funsubs or scanlations, they would enter the network in which their knowledge would become currency and in order to upgrade their status in fans’ community or simply to share with others, they would continue to improve their skills. After all, perseverance is one of the most distinguished characteristics of a “true fan.”
True Fans, Otakus, and Obsession as a Beautiful Disease
In her MA dissertation Fans Practices as Symptoms of Society’s Changes in the Age of Web 2.0. (2012), Agata Sutkowska aptly notices that being a “true fan” is not supposed to be only about pleasure. This is evidenced in Kawaii readers’ reflections on how they define themselves as fans. According to these commentaries, “true fans” would not “abandon” their interest in particular anime even after its broadcast was terminated. Instead they would relentlessly pursue knowledge about new anime and mangas and devote most of their time to their hobby, more often than not sacrificing their social life and, as some claim, even sanity.
Sutkowska compares the construction of the “true fan’s” identity with the image of the “true Pole” cherished especially in the right wing environment. According to the author, they both rely on stereotypical behaviors, have no clear boundaries, and are predominantly ideological. Being called a “true fan” enhances one’s symbolic capital and saying that somebody is not a true fan becomes a form of offence (34). Finally, a “true fan” likes to display, rather than share, his/her knowledge and they often invest it with emotional and moral values. Thus such individuals are prone to confuse other fans’ flawed knowledge with flawed character in general. To give an example, an embittered fan Vanka relates that a “true fan” told her not to “disgrace manga” after he tricked her into calling a comics manga (Kawaii 33:79).
Although it is not clear from the fans’ letters how they discriminate between a “true fan” and an otaku, it seems that while the former term is used more often to refer to more active and conspicuous fans, “otaku” refers to these as well as to the socially withdrawn manga fanatics. The term “otaku” was popularized by Kawaii readers and at first bore a positive connotation, meaning a genuine fan, a nerd, or a geek. Nevertheless, after the publication of the article about Otaku no Video, which explained how this word is understood in the Japanese society, fans started to redefine it accordingly, as was reflected in many readers asking why at first being otaku was a source of pride and later—of shame (Kawaii 14: 12-15).
The discussion was heated up by many personal narratives appearing in the readers’ section—self-declared otakus defended their decision to escape from the “bleak reality” into the emotionally and intellectually fascinating world of beauty and the sublime. In response, apart from the messages expressing solidarity with these solitary dreamers, many letters were sent by the readers who wanted to help the “lost souls” to find balance between their hobby and social life, whereas some readers simply accused the “otakus” of cowardice and asked them to get a grip of their lives. In turn, the “otakus” were outraged by such a patronizing attitude—one of them suggested that being an otaku may be seen as a disease, but this would be a beautiful and harmless disease (Kawaii 28:80).
The metaphor for deep fascination with manga and anime as a disease had been relatively common among the readers. Some of them confessed that since they kept their hobby a secret, they felt as if they were hiding some embarrassing condition; others embraced their obsession with manga as a kind of mental illness. In the latter case, however, the fans often declared they did not want to be cured since their “disease” defined who they were.
The discourse adopted by the fans bears a strong resemblance to the one used in the nineteenth century to metaphorize tuberculosis or to talk about madness a century later, as demonstrated by Susan Sontag in “Illness as Metaphor” (1978). Firstly, the otakus’ “illness” was presented as not only mental but also spiritual condition that appeared “more soulful” (17) than depression or simply a social withdrawal syndrome. While for both obsessive manga fans and the Romantics “[s]ickness was a way of making people “interesting”” (30), by comparison, “[h]ealth [became] banal, even vulgar” (26). Many “true otakus” pointed out to the “normal” fans that the latter compromised their ideals with unsatisfactory life, which was also the argument for their otakus’ superiority over the “normals.” According to Sontag
Not TB but insanity is the current [20th century] vehicle of our secular myth of self-transcendence. The romantic view is that illness exacerbates consciousness. Once that illness was TB; now it is insanity that is thought to bring consciousness to a state of paroxysmic enlightenment. (36)
The fan that calls herself Tsubasa Ozora gained a lot of publicity in the readers corner by confessing about her extreme identification with the manga character, Tsubasa, not in terms of imitation, but rather with regard to incorporation or mysterious union—she claimed to love him so much that she imagined they were one. Although the fan stated clearly that at the same time she led a regular life and had caring (and real) friends, some readers speculated about her suicide (she never committed), and others felt alarmed by this case of self-transcendence, wondering whether or not she destroyed her own self in this process of extreme identification.
On the one hand, it is also true for manga fans that “the calamity of disease clears the way for insight into lifelong self-deceptions and failures of character” (Illness 42). Many “otakus” admitted to their extremely poor social skills and the fear of social situations that also contributed to their withdrawal into the realm of fantasy. On the other hand, as was pointed out to them by fellow fans, they often used their “disease” to draw attention to themselves and, at the same time, to excuse themselves from undertaking any action to improve their situation and ease their suffering. This takes us to another important factor shaping Polish manga fandom at the turn of the century—the martyrdom of fans.
Martyrdom of Manga Fans and Neon Genesis Evangelization
Equally common as the metaphorization of “otakuism” as a disease was the use of religious references to talk about the experience of being a Polish manga fan. As mentioned before, for many fans manga and anime already belonged to the sphere of sacrum (therefore, again, hentai could have been scorned by many of them as being profane). A fan A. d’A writes about “the holy war” he had been unwillingly taking part in as an RPG enthusiast and later on, a manga fan. He goes so far as to suggest that manga and anime are becoming perceived in the Polish society as a “religiously incorrect” hobby and tells other fans to prepare for possible future problems that this negative attention may entail (Kawaii 31:81).
His letter is one among numerous accounts given by (predominantly teenage) manga fans describing their suffering from intolerance experienced from family members, peers, teachers, or even shop assistants, because of their passion. There are several letters describing rather extreme reactions of fans’ parents who destroyed their children’s manga collections and attempted to force them to give up their “deviant” hobby. Other fans share their stories about being abandoned by peers who would sneer at their “childish” interests. There are also several stories about manga fans being discriminated at school for writing about or presenting on their “unworthy” hobby.Of course, these narratives are counterbalanced with plenty of inspirational stories told by the readers whose passion for Japanese pop culture had been encouraged by parents and teachers.
On the whole, however, manga and anime was undeniably receiving a lot of bad publicity in Poland in the late 90s and early 2000s. This incited a lively discussion about how to change the situation. Apart from organizing manga conventions, fans started congregating at “manga meetings” organized locally in many cities and smaller towns. Kawaii readers encouraged their fellows not to be ashamed of their hobby and stop hiding it. A lot of attention was devoted to the question about the ways in which manga and anime could be popularized among non-fans. Many agreed that the priority in preventing the numerous acts of discrimination should be educating non-fans about what manga and anime in fact are.
This was followed by what I would call “evangelization” initiative among Polish manga fans whose goal was to get through to their parents and peers by showing them how the fascination with exotic culture and Japanese art can be connected with their more “regular” interests. This also turned the fans’ attention to a broader cultural context of manga and their responsibility as representatives of the fandom. In this regard, many readers criticized the individuals who would damage the image of a manga fan by acting silly or odd (the appeal was particularly addressed the “otakus,” especially after “the Otaku Murderer” case had been covered by Polish media). The fans that succeeded in their mission would triumphantly describe their success, to which they would often refer as “converting” the non-fans.
In 2003 most of the editors in charge of Kawaii resigned from their function and started a new magazine about manga and anime—which, unfortunately, was closed down after a year. In her paper “Manga and Anime Fandom in Poland” (2006), Anna Czaplińska suggests that one of the reasons for Kawaii’s shutdown might have been that the magazine lost its previous function: the gradual infiltration of manga and anime into mainstream media, as the unrestrained access to the Internet gave the fans more independence in building social and information networks (21). It is not to say, however, that at present there are no print magazines about manga and anime. On the contrary, fans can buy magazines like Otaku, Kyaa, or Arigato in bigger bookstores and on the Internet. Nevertheless, the role of Kawaii for the development of Polish manga and anime fandom cannot be overemphasized. By offering its readers regularly featured sections devoted not only to anime and manga but also to Japanese music and traditions, drawing workshops, Japanese language lessons, and readers’ opinions and drawings, the magazine significantly aided the development of the fans’ pop-cosmopolitan awareness in rather isolationist environment.
Due to the spatial limitation of this paper, the transformations shaping Polish manga will become a subject of further research. For now, it must suffice to say that since Kawaii was closed down, Polish manga fandom has undergone a profound change: thriving on new possibilities offered by participatory culture, fans’ involvement resulted in organizing tens of manga conventions (and even a regular “Otaku camp”) featuring high quality cosplay performances, and copious production of fanfiction, fanarts, fanzines, dojinshi, AMVs, manga gadgets, etc.. From two leading publishers, Polish manga market flourished to host over seven manga publishings, including Studio JG which publishes, among others, works by Polish authors. Many fans have been actively participating in world-wide online communities devoted to fan productions; some of them now being internationally acclaimed manga artists. Although this seems to be the realization of the dreams dreamt by the fans of the 90s, however, most of us will never recover from the nostalgia for the times when manga and anime were still underground.
A.d’A. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 31. 2001.81.
Czaplińska, Anna. “Fani mangi i anime w Polsce” (‘Manga and Anime Fandom in Poland’). Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, 2006.
Doppi-zoku. “Japonistyka nienawidzi mangi” (‘Japanese Studies Hate Manga’). Kawaii. Vol. 36. 2002. 83.
Halue. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 38. 2002. 79.
Jenkins, Henry. Fans Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press: 2006.
KnP. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 41. 2003. 77.
Marcin “Tenchi” Świętoniewski. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 28.2000. 79-80.
Nowakowski, Witold, et al. “Otaku no Video.” Kawaii. Vol.14. 1998. 12-15.
Sontag, Susan. “Illness as Metaphor.” New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978.
Sutkowska, Agata. Fans Practices as Symptomps of Society’s Changes in the Age of Web 2.0. MA Thesis. University of Warsaw, 2012.
Vanka. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 33. 2001.79.
Katarzyna Wasylak received a PhD in Literature from the University of Wrocław for a thesis Monistic Cosmologies in Modern Mythopeic Fantasy: Rejection of Transcendence in Favor of Immanence in Selected Works of Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Pullman and Nancy Farmer . The main focus of her academic research is philosophy in fantasy literature for Children and Young Adults, manga, and anime. Alongside her academic work, Katarzyna Wasylak has worked as an illustrator and a graphic designer. She has also published several of her own graphic novels.