What we can Learn about Japanese Culture through our favorite anime
Anime is quintessentially Japanese. Once almost completely unknown to the rest of the world, anime has become a global phenomenon, ubiquitous in the US as otakus and weeaboos run rampant at cons and anime festivals. But what can we learn about Japanese culture from our favorite animes? It turns out, quite a lot!
Showing Respect: Bowing
It’s hard to watch any anime and not see characters bowing. In Japan, bowing has many different functions, including as a greeting, expression of gratitude, or an apology, and as such can occur multiple times during a conversation. You can tell how much one person respects another based on the duration, speed, and depth of the individual bow (a general rule of thumb is, the longer and lower the bow, the more respect the person is showing).
You may have noticed frequently in anime that when the characters are about to eat they all say “itadakimasu!” This phrase means something like ‘I humbly receive,’ and at mealtimes is similar to the French Bon Appétit! The word has a long history, and ultimately comes from Japanese Buddhist roots, which emphasizes respect for all living things. To do itadakimasu at the table properly, put your hands together and while bowing forward say, “Itadakimasu!” then grab your chopsticks and dig in!
Matsuri are festivals that happen all over Japan during multiple times throughout the year, and are usually tied to a significant occurrence at a shrine or temple. Attendees often wear costumes and carry miniature shrines with them throughout the festivities. The most popular festival-time in Japan occurs every spring when the cherry trees, or sakura, are in full bloom, and are called hanami, which means ‘flower viewing.’ It is an embodiment of Japanese Buddhism as it emphasizes the beauty inherent in the impermanence of the briefly blooming flowers. Indeed, since the blossoms only last 1-2 weeks, the bloom times are carefully watched by hanami planners, and attendees stake out the best spots days in advance to have their picnics under the blossoming trees.
Yokai are a class of supernatural demons, monsters, and spirits found in Japanese folklore. They can be mischievous, malevolent, or bring good fortune to those who encounter them, sometimes in the guise of an animal, but most often they appear human in shape, and they usually have some sort of supernatural capability (like shapeshifting). One kind of shapeshifting yokai is a tanuki, or ‘racoon dog,’ that is known for being mischievous and happy-go-lucky, but also gullible and inattentive. In The Eccentric Family (2013), the Shimogamos are a family of tanuki, who can change their shape into anything they want. This series also features another yokai: tengu, or ‘heavenly dogs,’ demons with avian and human characteristics who fly through the air and cause trouble.
Medieval and early-modern Japan lived in a feudal system, a time when powerful families called daimyo and military warlords called shogun ruled the country with their samurai warriors. Samurai were members of a warrior caste who followed the ethical code of bushido, or ‘the way of the warrior,’ which stressed loyalty to one’s master, self discipline, and moralistic behavior. One of the most well-known anime that focuses on samurai is Rurouni Kenshin (1996) and tells the story of the wandering samurai, Himura Kenshin, who travels the country protecting the people of Japan and has vowed to never take another human life.
Sometimes called onsen or sento, Japanese bath houses are ubiquitous in anime, and it’s pretty common to find a so-called “filler” episode that takes place in a bath house. Traditionally, bath houses were the only way for Japanese people to get clean and had the secondary benefit of increasing social bonds between bathers. Contrary to what we might think, bathers actually clean themselves at showers and sinks before entering the hot bath, as entering a bath without cleaning oneself first is a sign of disrespect (as is bringing soap into the bath and horsing around). Thermae Romae (2012) is a whimsical anime that follows an ancient Roman architect, Lucius, through an underground tunnel into a Japanese bath house, and offers a fun snapshot of what these bath houses may have been like in ancient times.
Go and Shogi: Traditional Games
Go is an extremely popular board game in Japan and was invented over 2,500 years ago in China. The goal of the game is to surround more territory than your opponent, and is the oldest board game that is still played today. At the center of the anime Hikaru no Go (2004), is the Go board haunted by the ghost of master Go player, Fujiwara-no-Sai, who inhabits the body of young Hikaru so he can achieve the so-called Divine move,’ or Kami no Itte.
Shogi is another traditional Japanese game, and is often referred to as Japanese Chess. Possibly dating back to the 12th century, it was nearly banned during World War II. In an anime that at its surface is about clinical depression, the main character, Rei, of March Comes in Like a Lion (2016) plays shogi as a way to help him become a better person.
There are so many great aspects of Japanese culture that we can see in our favorite animes, so we couldn’t list them all! What are some other examples that you have seen in your favorite anime that you think we should have included? Let us know below!