Okay, apologies in advance for the worst post title EVER. But I couldn’t resist. I have the corniest sense of humor.
2008 marks the 100th anniversary of the popular period novel, Anne of Green Gables, written by my personal heroine and Canadian author, Lucy Maud Montgomery. If you’ve never heard of this book, then you’re either male or a very confused female. Just kidding about confused. I really meant that you’ll never be my friend in real life.
Written as a newspaper serial and published in 1908, Anne illustrated the life of a young red-haired orphan who was mistakenly adopted by Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, two siblings looking for help on their farm on Prince Edward Island. She arrives and chaos ensues, but Anne ends up capturing the hearts of the Avonlea townsfolk and then (in the next eight or nine books–depending on whether you count the shorts stories that Montgomery wrote up later in life) she becomes a teacher, earns a Bachelors degree (which was pretty unique at the time), falls in love, has A LOT of kids and basically leads the best live EVER.
Let me tell you. Anne of Green Gables has got to be one of my favorite books–I’ve read it about 13 billion times, I can probably tell you exactly what happens in each chapter, what the characters wore, why Ruby Gillis was such an airhead and how Anne got her bosom chum, Diane, accidentally drunk on raspberry cordial one time when they had tea. I know. Lame, right? This book led to my obsession with all things related to L. M. Montgomery (yes, including writing my diary entries to her–how’s that for embarrassing?) and wishing I could be a published author just like she was.
It makes me sad that her popularity has died away quite a bit in the young adult world; in place, we’ve got the younger “chick lit” novels (the 21st century version of our Sweet Valley High series) for girls that focus on the Gossip Girl-esque lives of the wealthy and superficial. I still always look for Montgomery’s novels in the bookstore to make sure their still there, but it’s clear that they aren’t flying off the shelves.
What does this all have to do with being Asian? No really, I have a point about this.
At first I thought I was weird for being such a die-hard fan of Anne and all of the companion books. I mean, does a Japanese American girl have anything in common with the life of a red-haired Caucasian-Canadian girl growing up in the 1800’s? Not really. I remember being a little shocked by one of Montgomery’s short stories, in which one of her old characters refers to the Chinese immigrants (working in the harsh settlements in British Columbia) in a derogatory manner. Wait, what did she just say? She’s talking about one of my (kinda sorta) people, here! But then I forgave her because issues of race never came up in Montgomery’s work (because she probably never knew any non-white people) and if anything, she was merely writing what a cranky old housekeeper would say.
Then I learned that the Japanese were one of Anne’s biggest supporters–and honestly, I did not enjoy this at ALL. This was supposed to be MY THING. I’m not even Japanese-Japanese. I’m AMERICAN. This was my North American identity coming to play. Why do these Japanese people have to be all up in my grill over this?
It was an infamous fact that hordes of Japanese tourists would visit Montgomery’s home province, Prince Edward Island, and as Newsweek stated in their commemorative article,
The Japanese are among the most ardent Anne-maniacs—they even plan weddings in the room where Montgomery was married
(Wait, what?? NO. That was MY ORIGINAL IDEA. But it’s alright. It’s cool. I can share.)
So here I wonder–and I know I’m not the first–where does Japan’s fascination over Anne of Green Gables come from? It’s suffice to point out that Anne’s popularity is global, but why specifically Japan, a country with a culture and race so presumably different from 1800’s Canada?
Even a New York Times article from 2003 describes the Japanese phenomenon, albeit with a bit of condescension:
As adults, they come by the thousands every year, a few with their hair dyed red and tied in pigtails just like Anne Shirley, the heroine of ”Anne of Green Gables,” Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel about the irrepressible orphan from the fictional town of Avonlea.
Many of these pilgrims break into tears of joy when they visit the house in Clifton, the town where Montgomery was born. They often seem to make no distinction between the author and her creation.
Listen, folks. Japanese people aren’t stupid. We invented the Walkman, for chrissakes. Of course we can tell the difference between a fictional character and the author. But the article brings up a good point:
Anne’s love of nature, they say, and Montgomery’s vivid descriptions of the island’s pastoral beauty appeal to an increasingly crowded, urban nation. But Anne has also served as a model for teenage girls seeking to break out of traditional roles.
I think all of that is true. You can’t help notice Montgomery’s passages that focus on nature and life. Yuka Kajihara writes an interesting essay about the relationship between post-World War II Japan and Anne’s character. And perhaps it’s even Anne’s enthusiasm, sensitivity to beauty and cheerful outlook on life that finds a place in Japan’s kawaii culture. You can’t deny that in Japan, anything breathtakingly cute has a huge hold over the culture, from girly mangas, Gothic Lolitas, Pikachu, Totoro, Ayumi and so on. Anne of Green Gables acts in the same way, but through literature. Plus, they must have marketed the novel in the most ingenious way to target their Japanese fans.
Islanders began to hype the Anne connection in Japan five years ago; since then, Japanese tourism to PEI has increased 1,400 percent. The island, about 200 miles and two ferry rides northeast of Maine, ranked 16th in a Japanese poll of desirable destinations, ahead of such meccas as Hong Kong and San Francisco. (link)
On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if all this notice is only just the media’s fascination with Japan’s fascination over a published heroine. In other words–what’s the big deal? Perhaps the mere fact that a group of Anne’s most ardent fans are racially different makes others notice them more. It would be confusing and jarring to some to see a group of Asian tourists fawning over the Green Gables museum, or gleefully taking photographs with red wigs, though it’s clear that other, non-Asian tourists do the same. Why is there this huge distinction between normal Anne fans and the Japanese tourists? Does this media focus on Japan’s fandom stem on our fascination with the unusual tastes and traditions in Asian cultures? You know, Japanese people sell used panties in vending machines and have the weirdest game shows ever. Not only that, but they’re obsessed with Anne of Green Gables. Crazy culture, right?
But why can’t Japan just enjoy something without it being pointed out as unique or weird? Or am I just over-thinking this?