Manga and Anime Culture in Japan: It’s Everywhere!
A while back, I wrote a list of tips for mastering the Japanese language. In it, I suggested reading Japanese manga and watching anime as a quick way to mastering informal Japanese.
It did not go down well with some readers. Uniformly, those who disagreed insisted there are far more educational things to read or watch. Some also pointed out that many Japanese people actually dislike both manga and anime, or are oblivious to them.
With all due respect to these critics, I feel they miss the point. I suggested manga and anime because there are so many titles to pick from and because both art forms are inseparable from modern Japanese life. Just as manga and anime often draw inspiration from Japanese daily life and beliefs, many Japanese industries and organizations rely on them to communicate or sell, largely because both art forms are so beloved.
The following are some of my “manga and anime encounters” in Japan during my latest trip there. From these, I believe you can see that while the Japanese might not universally fond of both, most would at least familiar and comfortable with them. Many might even see them as inseparable aspects of everyday life.
1. Welcome to Fukuoka!
Let’s start with something simple. I encountered this robotic mascot on arrival at Fukuoka’s Hakata Station. If you are unfamiliar, this is Kansenjya, the official mascot of Japan Rail West. (The Shinkansen service for JR West terminates at Hakata Station.) From the looks of him, he is probably capable of transforming into a bullet train too, namely, JR West’s 500 V8 model.
For a major railway operator to opt for an anime-ish mascot, does it not tell a lot about the popularity of anime culture in Japan? For a tourist like me, this mascot is entertaining, quirky, and so symbolic of modern Japanese entertainment.
2. Message From Osaka Metro
I headed south to Fukuoka from Osaka and during the rush to catch my bullet train ride, I jogged past this billboard. Do you recognize the characters shown? Or have you at least seen some of them before? All are creations of Osamu Tezuka, widely considered internationally as the Godfather of Japanese manga. That’s Black Jack off right, with his signature half-covered face. In the middle is, of course, Professor Ochanomizu, with his, signature … huge nose.
To go into details, the manga and anime adaptations of the master’s works are so beloved in Japan, they are nowadays considered as cultural icons of the Showa Era. In fact, at a certain Tokyo train station, you would be constantly reminded of Tezuka’s popularity. The JR Takadanobaba Station uses the opening song from the anime adaptation of Astro Boy as a departure chime for the Yamanote Line.
\Like the design decision for Kansenjya, does this not hint at manga and anime culture being an inseparable part of Japanese daily life? I’m sure if you travel all over Japan hunting for them, you’d find many more such anime “cameos.” Needless to say, for any fan, seeing just one is already a great thrill.
3. The Ultimate Muscle Man
Ah, Kinnikuman, the adorable, bumbling superhero wrestler from 80s manga and Anime. I photographed him at Spa World Osaka and truth be told, seeing all those muscles made be more than a little shy to undress when using the onsen pools later! Also, Spa World Osaka hosting a mini Kinninikuman exhibition in its lobby is a celebration of local talent.
The creators of the manga, Takashi Shimada and Yoshinori Nakai, were both born in Kansai’s most vibrant city. Throughout Japan, many cities and towns honor their most successful manga and anime talents this way; read on to discover how else Japan celebrates its best artistes.
4. Yikes! Yokai Are All Over!
Yokai, or Japanese supernatural spirits, occupy a strange position in Japanese culture. They are seen as terrifying, but often, they are also beloved, to the extent many are nowadays used as tourism and retail mascots. Much of this curious phenomenon stems from the enduring popularity of GeGeGe no Kitarō, a Yokai manga created by in 1960 by Shigeru Mizuki.
In remote Shimane, a prefecture famous for its many supernatural and religious associations, GeGeGe no Kitarō souvenirs are widely sold. Were you to visit Shigeru’s hometown of Sakaiminato, you’d even find Yokai lampposts, art sculptures, and Yokai trains.
5. I’m From the Future, and I Love Japanese Snacks!
Speaking of souvenirs, Doraemon’s distinctive face and color grace all kinds of packaging too. Apart from product endorsement, the quirky robotic cat from the future will also be one of the ambassadors of Tokyo Olympics 2020. Other ambassadors include the above-mentioned Astro Boy, Son Goku of Dragonball fame, Naruto, Sailor Moon, and Luffy from One Piece.
In other words, all are manga and anime characters. For the Japanese government to pick these characters as cultural ambassadors for Tokyo Olympics 2020, is proof positive of how proud the country is of this part of its culture.
6. I Can Talk, but I’ll Pretend I Can’t
This one requires little introduction if you’re familiar with Hayao Miyazaki's movies. For near 30 years, the whimsical movies of the master animator have taken the world by storm, and within Japan, you don’t need to travel to a Studio Ghibli outlet or theme park to encounter his characters.
Many shops use Studio Ghibli characters as window displays or welcome mascots, and while shopping in malls, chances are, you’ll hear soundtracks from the movies playing in the background. I myself have heard these compositions while walking past a car park, while in a bookstore, and while in an elevator. Miyazaki’s artistic presence is truly everywhere in Japan.
7. Sengoku Heroes
It’s hard to say what popularized historical Japanese warlords internationally. Was it bestselling video games like Sengoku Basara and Onimusha? Or was it the numerous Sengoku manga and anime produced over the years? Or did all three mediums benefit from each other, having enjoyed a symbiotic relationship for years?
I found myself pondering these questions after seeing the above pop-up display at Nagoya Castle Park. In more ways than one, the sighting made my visit much more enjoyable too. It also affirmed my belief that manga and anime culture is an integral aspect of the Japanese tourism industry.
8. Pika Pika Pika!
Time for an appearance by a world-class superstar! Pikachu himself! This banner highlights the route to Pokemon Center Yokohama, but truth is, you will find it hard to avoid sightings of the adorable one when in Japan. He’s on posters, confectionery, toys, clothes … The little rascal is positively everywhere!
9. Pika Pikaaaaaa …
Like Black Jack (see above), Pikachu busies himself with various side hustles too. Here’s, he’s part-timing as a model for an art exhibition.
10. We Love Asakusa. You Love Us as Heroes
Here’s a question. Who do you think is the target audience of this mural in Tokyo’s Asakusa District? Foreigners familiar with these classic anime characters? Or Japanese adults with fond memories of hours before the TV, cheering for these heroes as they battle for justice and love?
I think it’s more of the latter. To repeat what I wrote above, not all Japanese adults might still be reading manga or watching anime, but a good many have childhoods inseparable from the valiant stories depicted. A good many Japanese dads and moms would surely grin at the sight of this mural, while their children ponder over who the heroes are.
11. The World’s Smartest Boy Detective
So far, I’ve avoided mention of famous Otaku i.e. geek haunts like Akihabara. Coming to the end of this write-up, I guess it’s only appropriate of me to include at least one mention. Allow me to say, one hour in any of these districts will give you a crystal clear idea of how popular manga and anime are within Japan. How thriving related industries are too. And even if you’re not a fan, you might still find something to swoon over at this geek haunts. The figurines sold are all so beautiful. So realistic!
12. Mecha Guardians
To end, a montage of two mecha guardians in Tokyo. The retro one is in the Odaiba Entertainment district. The modern one is at Haneda International Airport.
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© 2019 Kuan Leong Yong