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It doesn’t matter if you are a recent otaku or a veteran. The idea of visiting Japan has surely crossed your mind. No money? No problem, you keep studying and/or working hard. You repeat often “one day, I will go to Japan”. It surely is a great experience, but did you know that being in Japan can also help you understand anime better? Let’s take a look to the reasons why.
Foreign impressions of Japan
For new otakus or non otakus that see anime for the first time, some things can look weird and quite out of place. Anime can be so colorful and over the top with positive feelings! (Lucky Star or Himouto! Umaru-chan, anyone?). The characters can look exaggerated and grotesque (many scenes in Naruto and the entire crew of One Piece come to mind). Or perhaps it is just the story that is too bizarre, like in Arakawa Under the Bridge. On the other hand, we have anime that are too gory or depressive for first time viewers (Gantz, Higurashi no naku koro ni, Berserk, etc.). Sometimes anime can be only about cute people and things being mainly, well… cute. Examples include Strawberry Marshmallow, Hanamaru Youchien and Tamako market.
How about the first time you went to an anime convention? What about all those excited people waiting to get inside in the entrance! There were a lot of people were wearing costumes of the most varied kinds. Some had elaborated garments, accessories or perhaps giant weapons that took months to recreate. You found several guys dressed up as girls too! You also saw one or two kigurumis (fluffy costumes complete with giant heads), to complete the kawaii effect. There were even a few attendants were listening to anime songs or playing cards or videogames based on their favorite anime.
Inside the convention, everything tries to grab your attention at the same time. There are lots of kawaii merchandise, the latest anime, and that soundtrack or artbook you wanted to get… Some food stalls sell takoyaki, sushi, and fried rice. And oh, the technology! The latest Nintendo controller, a new gaming platform, karaoke machines, dancing machines, virtual girls, high pitched voices… You get out of the convention thinking that you got a taste from Japan… and that it is a wonderful place full of technology.
First-hand impressions of Japan
So one day, you finally saved up enough to make a trip to the mecca of anime itself. You pack light, charge up your camera, grab your passport, and one or two airplanes later, you are right there in the land of your dreams. What is the first impression that you get?
Well, it looks like Japanese people are generally very polite to tourists and visitors. In recent years, there has been a great interest by the Japanese government to facilitate things for foreigners, especially if they are tourists. That’s due to the Olympic games, which are going to be celebrated in Tokyo in 2020. Anyway, this means that most people will try to answer your tourist-like questions in English. And oh, the streets are super clean! People and transportation are so orderly! Now you are understanding a few of those anime scenes that show perfect coordination in these regards. Remember the service at the ryokan in Hanasaku Iroha?
But wait a moment. You went to that famous temple everyone recommends in internet guides, right? And you tried the street food too (udon, ramen, real takoyaki and real sushi…). You also tried those anime themed desserts (Gundam café, yei!). And talking about anime themed stuff… You HAD to go to Akihabara, right? And to the Ghibli museum. Or even to the Manga Museum in Kyoto. You simply had to fill yourself with all the otaku experiences you could. But wait. After all those wonderful experiences, you still don’t get why Totoro is so weird, or why the Japanese love some anime types so much. You can find the characters even on the toilet paper sometimes! But the mystery is still there… until one day, you decide you can’t leave away from your beloved anime anymore and move to Japan.
Living in Japan and experiencing anime here.
It is difficult to assert when you have spent enough time in Japan to see things in a different way other than “fresh”. Depending on how immersed you are in the culture, you will be more or less habituated by your second year here. And with immersion we don’t mean to go to every single matsuri and temple you find. See, there are several reasons why people come to Japan for the long term, broadly divided in study, work, or family. Expat partners (mostly women) who do not have permission to engage on economic activities usually do not get much contact with Japanese, so we can concentrate on the study and work reasons.
It does not matter if your school or company has a high number of foreigners. Sooner rather than later you will have to interact with Japanese. You will soon notice how they are serious when there is an objective involved, and how there is an established hierarchy. You get senpai (upper level people) and kouhai (below level people), and depending on how strict your school or company is, you have to remember who is who in order to not insult anyone. On a side note, if you want to check a bit of the Japanese work experience, we recommend you to watch Working!! and Aggressive Retsuko.
Going back to the topic, rules are everywhere, including cleaning before and sometimes after work/study by yourself too. Japan is so competitive, that those who are not successful get the bad things in life. That is why anime such as Baka to Test to Shoukanjuu show us how the guys who get F grades get worn out classrooms, supplies,etc. Actually nearly all anime (specially school themed anime like Great Teacher Onizuka, Toradora or Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Comedy wa Machigatteiru) have references to the entrance examination periods for universities and big companies. Also, they tend to show spring as the start of the year, not January. This is because April marks the beginning of the school and company year, but that’s something you fully appreciate only once you have been here and either watched the students suffer throughout the exams… or have been examined yourself!
Another important aspect of Japan is that it counts with a highly cooperative society. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but this comes from those old times when Japan was an isolated island. Everything that came from outside was looked with suspicion. Yes, we know we had the Shogunate and civil wars here and there for a long time. But what happened after the sad defeat of Japan in World War II? It was either live or die, so most Japanese worked together to rebuild the nation. Because of that painful (and traumatic to many) experience, we also have many anti war themed anime. Just watch Hotaru no haka (Graveyard of the Fireflies) or Saikano.
School and work are such a big part of life in Japan, than when it is time for entertainment, Japanese do it big, expressing themselves the most. And what is anime other than entertainment and expression? Anime like Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita and Sekkou Boys remind us that life can be fun… On the other side, Japanese have several hobbies, and some of them are strongly tied to school and work. One of the most loved is karaoke, which also helps us understand why there are many anime where songs are so important (like White Album and the Macross series).
Living in Japan would not be a full experience without reading books and newspaper articles, or watching T.V. news and documentaries about various national topics. This does not only help you to survive, but deepens your understanding of anime, as some shows have strong cultural or historical themes. To watch The tale of Genji, Rurouni Kenshin or Mrs. Hokusai with at least a little background will make the experience more enjoyable. Also, some anime can awaken your curiosity towards an specific topic that is a current issue for Japanese people. It could be suicide (Bungou Straydogs), hikkomoris (Welcome to the NHK), environmental concerns (Pikaia!), women in the workplace (Hataraki man) etc., etc.
You definitely do not have to come to Japan to enjoy anime. Some stories, especially the good ones, have universal themes after all. However, living in Japan will help you to understand the stories, graphic style and even the people who make anime better. The great geniuses come from an ancient culture that has advanced rapidly since World War II through hard work and cooperation. It is worth to recommend that, if you have the opportunity to come to Japan, you can experience the culture beyond what is otaku related. This will help you understand anime better and even impress your friends 😉
How do you think living in Japan can help you understand anime? Do you think we miss any important aspect in this article? You are welcome to comment away! See you soon!