A Japanophile who has survived 15 solo trips to Japan. His visits focus on discovering the country’s lesser-known attractions.
A while back, I wrote a list of tips for mastering the Japanese language. In it, I suggested reading manga and watching anime as a quick way of learning informal Japanese.
The tip 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 manga and anime, or are at least oblivious to both.
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 and pop culture.
Manga and anime not only often draw inspiration from Japanese daily life, many Japanese organizations also rely on them to communicate or sell. Some cities even use anime to educate, or to honor the achievements of residents, or to promote tourism.
The following are some of my own “manga and anime culture encounters” in Japan during my latest trip there. From these, I believe you can see that while the Japanese might not universally be fond of both media forms, many are at least familiar and comfortable with them. Some might even consider them as inseparable aspects of everyday life, or as representative cultural icons.
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.) As you see, he is obviously capable of transforming into a bullet train too; namely, JR West’s 500 V8 model.
Of note, transforming and intelligent robots are staples in Japanese anime. One could almost consider them as icons of the art form.
For a major railway operator to opt for an anime-ish mascot, does it not tell a lot about the popularity of anime in the country? How well-loved it is too? For a tourist like me, this mascot is entertaining and quirky. It is also 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, Osamu’s works are so beloved in Japan, they are nowadays regarded as cultural icons of the Showa Era. In fact, at a certain Tokyo train station, you would constantly be reminded of Tezuka’s popularity. The JR Takadanobaba Station uses the opening theme 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 inseparable from Japanese daily life? I’m sure if you travel all over Japan hunting for them, you’d find many more such “cameos.” Needless to say, for any fan, seeing just one is already a great treat.
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 me more than a little shy to undress when using the onsen pools later!
Jokes aside, 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 also honor their most successful manga and anime talents this way. Read on to discover how else the country celebrates its best artists.
4. Yikes! Yokai Are All Over!
Yokai, or supernatural aberrations, occupy a strange position in traditional and modern Japanese culture.
They are seen as terrifying, but often, they are also beloved, to the extent many are nowadays used as tourism or retail mascots.
Much of this curious phenomenon is thanks to the enduring popularity of GeGeGe no Kitarō, a Yokai manga created in 1960 by Shigeru Mizuki. In remote Shimane, a prefecture famous for supernatural and religious associations, GeGeGe no Kitarō souvenirs are widely sold. Were you to visit Shigeru’s hometown of Sakaiminato, you’d also find Yokai lampposts, supernatural art sculptures, and believe it, or not, even Yokai-themed 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 throughout Japan. Apart from product endorsements, the quirky robotic cat from the future is also one of the cultural ambassadors of Tokyo Olympics 2021. 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 representatives for Tokyo Olympics 2021, is it not proof of how proud the country is of its manga and anime culture? How popular these fictional heroes are within the country too?
6. I Can Talk, but I’ll Pretend I Can’t
This one requires no introduction if you’re familiar with Hayao Miyazaki's movies. For near 30 years, the whimsical stories of the master animator have taken the world by storm. Within Japan, you also don’t need to travel to a Studio Ghibli outlet or theme park to encounter his characters.
Like the above picture, many Japanese shops are fond of using Studio Ghibli characters as window displays or as welcome mascots. While shopping in malls, chances are, you’d hear soundtracks from his movies too – I myself have heard these compositions while walking past a car park, while in a bookstore, and while in an elevator.
In short, Miyazaki’s artistic presence and his contribution to Japanese anime culture are truly everywhere in the country.
7. Sengoku Warlords in Anime Style
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 series 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 are integral engines 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, 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 the hours before a television, cheering for these heroes as they battle for love and justice?
I think it’s more of the latter. To repeat what I wrote above, not all Japanese adults would still be reading manga or watching anime, but a good many would have childhoods inseparable from the valiant stories depicted.
A good many Japanese dads and moms would also grin at the sight of this mural, while their children wonder who on Earth the stylized 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 for me to include at least one mention.
Allow me to say, one hour in any of these Otaku strongholds will give you a crystal clear idea of how popular manga and anime are within the country. How thriving related industries are too.
And even if you’re not a fan, you might still find something to swoon over at these 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, while the modern one is at Haneda International Airport. When visiting the Land of the Rising Sun, know that such sentries will constantly be watching over you.
© 2019 Yong Kuan Leong
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on March 27, 2020:
Hey Chris, thanks for commenting. I hope you get to go to JP soon and experience Anime at every corner. Not exaggerating, but it's hard to go about any major city without seeing Anime posters, products, confectionery, everywhere.
Chris Martine on March 26, 2020:
Great write-up! I hope to visit Japan soon and see these icons for myself. About watching animes to pick up on the language, I agree that it's not enough learning material. But you do tend to pick up some useful phrases especially if you've been watching anime for a long time. I watch anime mostly for entertainment and for picking up cultural hints about this fascinating country.
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on July 08, 2019:
Hey Mary, Liz, thanks for reading! I hope the pictures, esp dazed Pikachu, entertained you.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on July 03, 2019:
I enjoyed reading this article. It's a world I seldom visit but your description drew me in.
Liz Westwood from UK on July 03, 2019:
This is a thorough and interesting article. You have found an impressive collection of illustrations.