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How ‘Aspie’ Is Misunderstood, Mistranslated and Misused In Japan

asupe

Asupe, a Japanese slang term for Aspergers syndrome. From original image widely shared on social media.

A recent interview with a popular Japanese manga creator provides insights into how the term “Asperger” is both little understood in Japan, and at the same time widely appropriated by Japanese internet subculture.

In early April, in an interview with the Japan-based pop culture website Niconico, popular manga creator Yamada Reiji (山田玲司) made comments about characters with Asperger syndrome in anime and manga.

Asperger syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder present in about one percent of the Japanese population. Yamada Reiji is the creator of the non-fiction manga series Zetsubō ni Kiku Kusuri (‘Medicine for Despair’). He says Asperger syndrome makes for the perfect protagonist for manga and anime:

最初に、ザックリ言ってしまうと、ちょっとイカれた変わり者が、何でもかんでも病名を付けられるというトレンドが、ここ20年ぐらいあるわけ。実際のところ、本当に障害なのか病気なのかは、定かではないし、専門家によっては、意見が分かれているんだけど、いわゆるアスペルガーヒーローみたいな人達が活躍する時代というのがあるのよ。

…To be frank, it's only been the past twenty years or so that the trend has been to label people who are a little “different” as having a clinical diagnosis of some kind.

While I'm not sure if it's a disease or a disability–it depends on what expert you're talking to–we're now into what's called the “Asperger Hero.”

According to Yamada, people with Asperger’s syndrome make interesting protagonists because they have high degrees of rationality as well as “analytical skills and intuition”, while lacking human empathy:

ザックリと特徴を言うと、ずば抜けた能力がある。これは、合理的な能力。分析力、直感力も含めて、能力は高いんだよね。スペックが高いという。だけど、共感力に欠ける。つまり、自分だけの世界にいて、美意識が高く、どこか人を馬鹿にしている。

Speaking very generally about the characteristics of people living with Aspergers, they have some super abilities, such as: high degree of rationality, analytical skills, logic and intuition. You could say they have “high specs.”

However, people with Aspergers lack empathy. It's because they live in their own world, and with a high aesthetic sensibility, which leads them to rub others up the wrong way.

“Asperger heroes” as dramatic trope

What Yamada calls “Asperger heroes”–characters whose intelligence makes them admired, but never really liked–are regular fixtures in Japanese manga and anime. According to the trope, the hero’s lack of empathy is tolerated because he (it is most often a young male) has a some sort of “super ability.” One well-known example is the character ‘L’ from Death Note, a police detective who doggedly and expertly pursues a serial killer known only as ‘Kira’. Sporting ill-kept black hair, L is perhaps an Asperger hero par excellence. His lack of social grace is tolerated because he is good at his job.

The dramatic trope of the “person with Aspergers as hero” is not limited to Japan. According to Yamada, the BBC drama Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch, with Martin Freeman as his sidekick Watson, is a representative example of this character-type:

例えば、名探偵シャーロック・ホームズを現代に蘇らせたと評判になった。英国BBCのドラマ『シャーロック』…アスペルガーっていうのはバディー物に向いてるんだよ。クールでバンバンやっていく人の横に、一般的な人情派が付く。だから、『シャーロック』は見事。

For example, there's the detective Sherlock Holmes, who has been been resurrected in the popular contemporary television series on the BBC… Asperger syndrome lends itself to “buddy dramas.” There's a cool character doing all this stuff and, standing next to him is a representative “normal” person. “Sherlock” is a perfect example of this.

Using “Aspie” as slang in Japan

The title of the Niconico article in which Yamada's interview appears is “Considering Why We Love Protagonists Who Are ‘Aspies’ Or Have Developmental Disorders” (Asupe Ya Hattatsu Shogai No Shujinko Ga Ai Sareru Riyu Wo Kangaete Mita, アスペや発達障害の主人公が愛される理由を考えてみた).

The Niconico article uses a Japanese slang term for Aspergers, asupe, which roughly translates into English as “aspie“, meaning someone who displays the characteristics of Asperger syndrome. Yamada uses the more clinical Japanese term “Asper syndrome” (アスペルガー症候群).

In Japan the term “asupe”  (アスペ ) is recognised as a playful insult and is often broadened to include people who behave differently from the majority, or act “weirdly”.

For example, one Twitter user uses asupe to make a derogatory remark about AKB48 teen music group member Ozono Momoko:

Her face just reeks of asupe.

This Internet trend in Japan was recently noticed by the Korea Times:

Japanese netizens in their 20s to 30s are using the term “asupe” to refer to a mentally disabled person or “those who behave differently from the majority.”

The Korea Times article quotes from a Japanese-language column by Japanese psychiatrist Hoshino Geinan.

Writing in the Japan-based weekly magazine Bunshun in late April, Hoshino wrote about the use of the term asupe, seemingly in response to Yamada:

簡単に「お前まじアスペ」とは言えないはずです。なぜなら、精神医学を専門に学んだ医師でも「アスペルガー症候群」と診断を確定するには相当な勇気が要ります。それほど難しい診断なのに、人と違っているというだけで簡単に「アスペ」と言うのは、ただの誤診です。

Simply put, you should never say “you're an asupe” to anyone. This is because, even clinicians with specialist training in psychology must be absolutely certain themselves before making a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome. Since it's so difficult to diagnose the condition, simply stating someone is asupe would be a misdiagnosis.

Hoshino also wrote critically of the term's use in insulting contexts:

その方々が、「アスペ」という言葉を聞いて、嬉しいと思うでしょうか。たとえ「お前まじアスペ」と軽い気持ちで言う相手が、通院などを要さない人であったとしても、周りで聞いたり見たりする人で間接的にショックを受ける人がいるかもしれません。それくらい繊細に考えるべきだと思います。

Will (people living with Aspergers syndrome) be happy to hear the term asupe used as slang, I wonder? Even if “you're a total asupe” is said in lighthearted jest to someone who may have been diagnosed Asperger syndrome, it may be shocking to others listening in.

5 comments

  • Derp

    Actually, we CAN feel empathy. Having Asperger’s doesn’t make you cold and calculating like Sherlock. It just makes you awkward and weird (as well as the sensory stuff, special interests, literalness, anxiety, etc.). The rest is filled in by your personality (GASP!!! ASPERGIANS CAN HAVE PERSONALITIES??!!!). I’ve got a friend, and she’s a lot like Anne from Anne of Green Gables (GASP!!! A FEMALE ASPERGIAN???!!!). She’s pretty much the complete opposite of Sherlock. So yeah.

    • Hi there, thanks for your thoughtful comment (I’m a co-author of this piece). You make very good points (you would know more than me!), and one thing we should have been more clear about in this piece is that “According to Yamada, people with Asperger’s syndrome make interesting protagonists because they have high degrees of rationality as well as “analytical skills and intuition”, while lacking human empathy” is just, in the context of this story, a perception held by Yamada, but is **not** intended to be an actual description of Aspergers itself. If that makes sense.

      As the clinician we quoted at the end of the piece notes, people without a background in Aspergers, whether they be clinicians or people who actually identify with and live with it, should refrain from making broad general statements about Aspergers. So that wasn’t our intention, but I can see how what we wrote could have been interpreted that way.

      • Derp

        Yeah, that’s fine. As long as you don’t have any negative intentions, that’s fine. Sorry if the comment came off as a bit harsh.

      • Derp

        I just hope more people learn about Asperger’s and realise that, at heart, we’re really just ordinary people like anyone else, and can feel emotions (empathy included) as well. Like neurotypicals, we can be very intelligent, average or unintelligent, we can be complete jerks, average or kind and friendly angels, we can be shy and submissive, average, or angry and dominating. It just depends on the person. I hope people get a better understanding of it, the way people know about blindness or cancer or whatever.

      • Derp

        Maybe you can add a bit to the end of the article saying something along the lines of “The views expressed by those quoted in the article are their views alone, are not necessarily accurate descriptions of Autism Spectrum Disorders and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or beliefs of the authors”.

        I mean, it’s no big deal if you don’t. This is just a suggestion, you don’t need to add it, because people can always read the comments anyway.

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