Anime is a beautiful, beautiful thing.
And I don’t mean that ironically: anime has given the world some incredible, entertaining, intelligent stories. Through this medium, I’ve made friends, had life-changing experiences, and of course, I have been given some pure, simple entertainment. It’s been a good ride, all in all, one that I’m looking forward to continuing in the future.
But of course, I do believe that a healthy appreciation of anime is very different than obsession. Anime is a unique medium, in that it provides Western audiences a gateway into an that we are wholly unfamiliar with. However, this unique perspective given through anime, has created a culture in and of itself: an Anime Culture.
What is Anime Culture?
Simply put, Anime Culture, and everything associated with such a term, is a result of “commercialized” experiences of Japanese ethnic traditions, largely driven by fans of anime and manga in the West. It is the manner in which we, as Westerners, perceive the culture of Japan, using anime as a lens.
Because of the nature of anime, it is only natural for Westerners to take an interest in Japanese culture. We learn of a few key ideas: that the Japanese appear to be in a more naturally respectful environment, that there are different pronouns that denote different social relationships, and of course, that a Japanese high school is the most interesting thing to exist ever. Well, not that last one, but you know what I mean.
Japanese culture becomes interesting to those who only experience it through anime. Although this is not inherently bad, in and of itself, it becomes a bit contentious when such mediums become the only way in which people know Japan. Because, after all, Japan is a lot more than what anime makes it out to be, but at the same time, a lot less.
Anime’s Japanese Sensationalism
The specific ways in which our perception of anime has affected our perception of Japan are varied, and subject to a LOT of debate on the internet. You have people who grow to genuinely appreciate the culture of Japan through anime, and those who seem to believe that the tropes of anime carry over to real life. The latter are often classified as otakus, carrying their own stereotypes of being basement dwellers, living isolated lives, consumed only by their desire for anime.
I don’t believe these stereotypes (for the most part) are accurate, but rather, they point to a trend that’s rather annoying to me.
What really grates on me personally, is lifting up Japan in particular as a godlike, amazing, dream place to live, without any substantial knowledge of Japan outside of anime. It is treating Japanese culture like an object, an ideal, a commodity that one can change as they see fit, based only on broken knowledge about it.
There are stereotypes about Japan that people carry–that everyone watches, or has watched anime, so that it’s okay to be an “otaku” in public. That Japan is always on the cutting edge of everything, that the technology is amazing, and that everything wrong with Western commercialism can be escaped. And of course, when everything that we see of Japan is adventure, traditional festivals, and great food, it’s rather easy to create an image of Japan as awesome.
However, what this does is make Japan less than a culture. It becomes a personal idea, defined by what we think of it, rather than how it actually is. It becomes a commercialized, stereotype-based Anime Culture, defined in America by body pillows, maid cafes, and sushi. And of course, I can’t say too much about it myself, as someone from the West myself, but, I believe I can speak for others when I say this:
Doesn’t treating Japan as a commodity feel weird? Japan is not an escape, it is a culture, and equating the stories anime tells, with the culture of Japan just doesn’t seem right to me.
So What Can We Gain From Anime?
I spent a decent amount of words on why I really dislike Anime Culture, so let’s focus on the other idea, to contrast this: how should we perceive anime in regards to Japanese culture?
Similarly to how shows like Doctor Who, and The Big Bang Theory, or blockbusters like the Michael Bay Transformers movies don’t say much about their respective cultures, anime doesn’t say much about Japanese culture. From both mediums, we can receive general ideas about communication, social relationships, and values, but certainly not enough to say anything concrete until we see the country for ourselves. Rather, it is the cultural presuppositions of Japan that make anime and manga inherently different from any Western medium.
Anime, as America knows it, operates using different storytelling tropes, with characters such as the commonly known tsundere, the high school delinquent, or the Japanese salaryman. They also, on the whole, tend to focus on the serious emotions of its main characters, and thematic strengths, while their Western counterparts tend to focus on problem solving, with a far less serious focus. And it is for this reason, that many people gravitate towards one or the other.
Through these values, through these storytelling tropes, we can recognize that Japanese culture is a highly interesting, complex beast. However, it is so, SO hard to derive what Japanese culture is like from simply experiencing anime, that any attempts to do so come off as strange, outright wrong, or both.
Japanese culture is a lot more complex than that, and deserves more respect than being treated as a tool for our entertainment, just as anyone’s culture would be. Not that I’m going to bash anyone else for how they decide to intake information, but…personally, I think I’ll take the information I gain about Japan from anime, with a grain of salt.
Anime is beautiful: creating stories that touch a wide, wide variety of subjects in a unique way. But Japan isn’t anime. And I think it’s good to remember that, even if only in the back of our mind.