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How Anime is the Doorway to Japanese Culture

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

By Michelle Guan

Image created by Jennifer Xia - Voices of Gen-Z.

Many people are familiar with anime due to popular 90’s Japanese cartoons, such as Dragon Ball Z and Pokemon, and well-known animation studios, like Studio Ghibli. Although anime is known for its different animation styles, its distinct story-telling techniques makes it stand out globally. This art is beloved by many people, especially Westerners; as a result, anime is extremely well-known in Western culture nowadays. One reason that they find anime intriguing is that it’s based on a different culture, which brings up the question: How well does anime reflect Japanese culture?

Slice of life and romance anime provide a realistic depiction of the daily lives of Japanese people. For instance, many take place in a school setting, possibly, because of the appeal to the Western audience due to the universal experiences (e.g: self-discovery and challenges) that everyone can relate to. One example of Japanese culture that appears in anime is school festivals. These events are animated with extreme detail to show how the Japanese celebrate them. Schools usually prepare for culture festivals, or bunkasai, by selecting a theme, then assigning each class to set up an activity that is associated with that theme. Festivals are taken seriously because they give schools the opportunity to display their best qualities and factors as a way to appeal to future students. Additionally, they exhibit the students’ artistic talents and the things that they have learned during the school year. Because of this, students are motivated to work for long hours in order to finish preparations for the festivals with little help from their teachers. In this case, anime accurately emphasizes the importance of festivals in the Japanese academic environment. Furthermore, anime that take place in school often show the students studying for exams and taking exams; they usually illustrate that students feel stressed during exam season due to the competitive environment in the university admission process, which is common among other cultures as well.

Many anime show the traditions and customs of Japanese culture. For example, some characters bow to others as a greeting or display of respect, which is a typical Japanese greeting; this contrasts with the typical American greeting of shaking hands. Japanese people prefer bowing to shaking hands because it is considered to be a “movement that comes naturally” without having physical contact. Respect is emphasized in other ways, such as using honorifics (e.g: chan, san, and kun) that are chosen based on the other person’s age, gender, and position as well as selecting the correct type of language to use in a situation. Although some characters may get into conflicts for comedic or plot purposes, it is typical to avoid conflict as much as possible because harmony is valued in Japanese culture.

Another genre, historical anime, usually focuses on events that happened in Japan’s past. Although some anime are more on the fictional side due to supernatural elements, other anime discuss more realistic events, such as the samurai era and wars. For instance, the Studio Ghibli movie Grave of the Fireflies is prominent for its depiction of the horrors that the Japanese experienced during World War II. However, it’s important to remember that most anime creators are Japanese, so their work is more likely to include bias that may be considered more favorable towards their country. This bias can be upsetting to non-Japanese people.

Although anime portrays Japanese culture relatively accurately, it is important to remember that this enriching culture is more than what anime can possibly show in twenty minute episodes. This type of art merely represents a subculture of Japan and may not be extremely informative, but it does an adequate job of introducing the culture to the outside world.

Written by writer Michelle Guan

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