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Why Do So Many Anime Take Place in High School?

by Justin Sevakis,

Julian asks:

After watching a lot of Anime, depending on the demographic, a good chunk of it tends to take place in a high school setting or the characters, while not always, range from the ages 14-17. This has led me to believe or assume writers of Anime or Japanese fans think high school is the highlight of their lives and that they think they are already mature at that point in time. If this is true, why is that? High school here in America is arguably an important time in our lives, but things don't really happen for us until after high school when we go get careers and jobs, but the way Anime portrays it feels like there is nothing but a boring behind-the-desk corporate job after high school with no time for anything fun. Could that be true or is Anime, being all fiction, just exaggerating on life after high school?

You know, I wish I had a definitive answer for you. I've been trying to get to the bottom of this question for decades now, discussing it with friends both Japanese and Japan-obsessed. I've studied the country and the underlying psychology. I got nothin'. Well, I have a theory or two, but nothing I would call definitive.

First I should point out that Japan's obsession with teenagers and high school extends well beyond anime. A good percentage of TV dramas take place at high school and involve teens. Same with movies. The pop idols that absorb a significant portion of Japan's acting roles end up playing high schoolers well into their late 20s. This is a genre of entertainment known as "seishun" (青春) or "youth." That kanji literally means "green (with youthful implications) spring (season)" -- and that's basically how the culture views adolescence: a fleeting, beautiful time in which the foundation of one's life takes root, and things start to sprout. It's basically the life trajectory equivalent to cherry blossoms.

So many unexplainable Japanese quirks emerge from Japan's obsession with all things seishun. The deep, unshakable love of cute. The questionable high school uniform fetish. The middle-aged women in professional roles pitching their voices up high and dressing in a way that appeals to this particular phenomenon (so maybe a little young for their age). Teen idols, male and female, and the eerily provocative ways they're often photographed.

The thing is, if you ask someone who lives in Japan about these things, they tend to not notice them much at all. It's only when most of your knowledge about a country comes from the popular culture that it seems like a national obsession. Most people go about their daily lives, consumed with the minutiae of their jobs and raising their kids. All the stuff we love over here from a distance is mostly just background noise that they partake in occasionally, much the same way as whatever's currently on rotation on a Top 40 radio station.

Personally, you couldn't pay me enough money to go back and live my teen years over again. They were a hormone and depression-fueled hell from which I could not escape. Life got way, way better afterwards. And while a good chunk of my favorite anime involve teenagers, I'm pretty tired of hearing the same stories about them over and over again. I'm pushing 36 over here, and can only marinate in that era of my life for so long.

But the daily grind for a Japanese salaryman is pretty punishing, with long hours, next to no non-work-related fraternization, the stress of child rearing and all that. Many people do look back at those years fondly, when choices were simpler, when you didn't have to worry so much about losing your job or keeping food on the table. When you already looked cute without having to spend a fortune on cosmetic products and weight loss programs. When you had boundless energy, relative freedom, and an active social life. When you actually had time to hang out with friends. And the small things like your after-school club and the school festival were such fun times, in retrospect. The draw of nostalgia is strong if your daily life is stressful and your youth wasn't a sodden, miserable hellscape.

Ultimately, I like to compare Japan's obsession with seishun to America and our superheroes. If you look at the movies and TV shows we make, we're clearly obsessed with them, and that obsession is obviously pointing to something deeper. One wonders from the outside if we're all waiting for some deus ex machina figure to come along and save us all from our doom, or if we fantasize about becoming a normal person with deity-like abilities ourselves. And there's likely something to those theories. But as much as one might be able to infer about a culture from the myths it creates, it's very hard to apply those underlying theories to the daily lives of real people. Because to most of us, at the end of the day, it's all just entertainment.

Or is it?

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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