Why Do Westerners Make Assumptions About Japan Because of Anime?

by Justin Sevakis,

Hiroki asked:

I'm Japanese, and I'm wondering why so many Americans seem to analyze all of Japan through late-night anime that very few people watch. They get a lot of misconceptions, thinking that we won't kiss people we like because we're all shy, and that we're obsessed with high school stories because work life is so tough. TV dramas are 100 times more popular than late night anime, and the most popular TV drama is about bankers!

The West, and the US in particular, has come a very long way in its knowledge and understanding of Japan over the last 20 years. Anime played a major role in that. So has Japanese food, famous baseball players, and the internet in general. The sort of silly, extremely outdated stereotypes that I used to hear about Japan when I was a kid ("they only wear sandals!") are now a distant memory. People now know words like "bento" and "maki," and can pronounce most Japanese names without breaking a sweat. According to a 2014 survey, 76% of us have at least TRIED to use chopsticks! It didn't used to be like that. (I can really only fairly talk about America in this article. I'm sure some of these things are true in other Western countries as well.)

But the sort of knowledge that most Americans have about Japan is still pretty minimal. In major metropolitan areas like New York and Los Angeles, there are plenty of Japanese people and places where Americans can learn about Japan, from import shops to restaurants to cultural museums. But outside of major cities and away from our subculture, the average American has very little exposure to Japanese things. Most of our sushi restaurants are not Japanese-run. Brands like Nintendo and Sony and Toyota have been in the US for so long, people barely even remember they're Japanese. In some parts of the country it's possible for someone to live their whole life and never even meet a Japanese person.

It's not just Japan. Most Americans don't have a very accurate idea of what most countries are like. We probably have closest familiarity with Western Europe, particularly England and France. But only 36% of Americans own a valid passport (compared to 60% of Canadians and 75% of British and Australians). It's estimated that less than 5% of Americans travel overseas in a given year. And so, with so little experience in other countries, we must rely on the media we consume to give us an idea of what the rest of the world is like.

The news media is of very little help. The US is so huge and complicated that we seldom get much information or analysis on what's going on elsewhere. The American news media covers some international stories, but our own politics and problems tend to get almost all of the headlines. Often, the only time other countries make headlines is when something truly awful is happening there, like a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. (This might be one reason why so many people are afraid to travel.)

As for other kinds of media... there's really not much Japanese content to be found in the US. Only a small number of enthusiasts watch Japanese art films. Japanese TV dramas are difficult to license for distribution in the US, and the few attempts at bringing them to a wider audience via streaming haven't really taken off with a broader audience. While there are a number of passionate and enthusiastic J-Drama fans, as a whole they simply aren't on America's cultural radar.

But anime captured America's attention like nothing else, probably because it was just so different from anything we made ourselves. Anime is colorful, it's glamorous, it's attention-grabbing. In the 90s much of it was shocking. It presents an attractive alternate reality that we can easily relate to, even if we're not from the same country that produced it. It's something that Americans literally can't make -- believe me, we've tried. Out of every type of media Japan produces, only anime has really cultivated any sort of major following outside of Asia.

Anime isn't everywhere here, but it's extremely easy to find: it's front and center on mainstream video services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. There's at least a shelf full of anime at nearly every store with a significant DVD or Blu-ray selection (even if it's just Dragon Ball Z or Naruto). Even though few people watch late night anime in Japan, they are the country's only significant cultural influence in America. Anime and sushi are the ONLY Japanese cultural exports that can reliably be found in nearly every American town.

Nearly every American that approaches anime knows, of course, that they're cartoons and are not reality. But with many anime trying to depict life in Japan in a realistic way, it's not always clear to us foreigners what actually exists and what doesn't. A huge number of the questions I get for this column are from fans trying to figure out what details that they saw in anime are actually a "thing" in Japanese culture.

What's more, anime attracts a lot of teenagers. Teen years are rough for a lot of kids, and many spend their time daydreaming about being somewhere far away, doing something far more interesting than school. An anime or manga that might seem mundane by Japanese standards might seem glamorous and full of possibility to an American kid looking in from the outside. Anime and manga are, by their very nature, idealized versions of reality. For an unhappy American kid, they can be intoxicating. In their excitement about this far-off place, it's to be expected that they'll misunderstand certain things.

I can understand that, for someone Japanese, it might be very annoying that Americans assume so much about Japan from this small subculture. But anime is possibly the most important connection we have with Japan, and its fans here want nothing more than to learn, and to understand better. They work extremely hard to educate themselves, even when other people ridicule them for liking it and parents say they're wasting their time. I see their passion to learn every day in the questions they ask me.

It's easy to get things wrong about a country you don't live in. Nobody comes to understand something as complex as a country without going through an awkward stage where they make some embarrassing assumptions. As someone who does know and understand the real culture, it's helpful to try and guide these folks toward the truth. It also helps to point them toward media you think "get it right", films and books and albums you think capture something true about Japanese life. In my experience, they're extremely eager to learn. And for what it's worth, Japanese people tend to have some real misconceptions about America too. (Most areas here are quite safe, and only 30% of adults are gun owners, despite what you might hear.)

Ultimately, we're all just trying to learn. (Speaking of which, that show about bankers he was talking about is the smash hit 2013 TV drama called Hanzawa Naoki. And yes, it is a procedural about a loan officer at a bank.)

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original 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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