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Beyond Cultural Illusions: Anime and the Western “Japanese Culture”

Sarah Bensetiti



Via Getty Images

In the vibrant world of anime where storytelling and visuals collide, a cultural phenomenon emerges, transcending borders and captivating audiences worldwide. From the stereotypical allure of ramen, cherry blossoms, kimonos, and karate to the ubiquitous sushi rolls, anime weaves a tapestry of Japanese culture that, in turn, becomes a focal point of fascination for Western enthusiasts. Yet, this newfound interest prompts us to question the depth of Western understanding of Japanese culture and its heavy reliance on anime as a cultural guide. 

My explanation is nuanced by the notion that anime, as a medium firstly created by and for the Japanese, is believed to offer a genuine reflection of modern Japanese culture. Consequently, there is a prevailing assumption that the cultural elements depicted in anime accurately mirror the intricacies of contemporary Japanese society. This assumption solidifies the conviction that the knowledge gleaned from anime is not only comprehensive, but also represents a more authentic understanding of Japanese culture. Therefore, people value specific elements of Japanese culture presented in anime because they truly believe these to  accurately represent the country they originate from. 

This idea even prompts me to delve into the intricate connection between this perception and the characterization of anime as “underground.” In this narrative, anime assumes the role of a symbol conveying exclusivity. This hinges on the belief that possessing knowledge derived from anime imparts a heightened level of experience and exposure to Japanese culture, nurturing a subtle sense of superiority. Therefore, by presuming that whatever is portrayed in anime is an accurate reflection of Japanese practices, enthusiasts of the genre might unwittingly entrap themselves in a false sense of cultural knowledge. This perception may lead them to believe they understand a culture solely through their regular consumption of series like One Piece, Death Note, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, without ever having direct experience with it.

This article refrains from being a fact-checker for the cultural accuracy in anime. It is crucial to recognize that, like all forms of media, anime undoubtedly exhibits both strengths and limitations in terms of representation. While basic aspects of Japanese culture are likely accurately portrayed in anime, it is the constraints of that portrayal and the simplistic Western assumptions that all of Japanese culture can be distilled into those depictions that I aim to address.

In fact, the article serves more as a catalyst for discussing the importance of exploring why specific cultural elements in anime resonate so profoundly and stir excitement among Western audiences. It prompts reflection on the curious dichotomy wherein individuals take pride in certain facets of Japanese culture while simultaneously feeling a sense of alienation from it. The underlying question emerges: What fuels this paradoxical relationship with Japanese culture, and how does anime contribute to shaping these perceptions?

Essentially, as exemplified by my prior explanations, and admittedly a certain degree of laziness — an aspect I acknowledge in myself as well — we frequently abstain from delving deeply into the content we consume. While anime serves as a captivating lens into various facets of Japanese culture, its primary focus is often on crafting a compelling narrative. Consequently, it may not thoroughly explore the intricacies of the cultural elements it portrays. As we become immersed in the narrative, we tend to overlook the fact that beyond the anime world lies a reality far more complex than the seemingly straightforward imagery of ramen and cherry blossoms.

Culture, by nature, is an exceedingly diverse and intricate concept that cannot be distilled into a mere handful of common items. Even if certain customs are prevalent in specific cultures, it does not warrant these customs becoming the defining features or exclusive representations of that culture. In its entirety, it is multifaceted and defies reduction to simplistic representation through a few selected elements. Not many would treat French culture as being simply revolving around baguettes and berets; thus why do we allow ourselves to reduce Japan in that exact same way?

Hence, instead of engaging in thought-provoking inquiries about Japanese culture that would allow for comprehensive appreciation, we tend to commit to memory specific and generic elements encountered in every anime out of pure ignorance and lack of stereotypical awareness. We then label these generic elements as our “knowledge of Japanese culture,” when, in reality, a more inquisitive approach is warranted. Why do the Japanese include bowing in their customs? What exactly sets a kimono apart from a yukata? These questions underscore the imperative for a more nuanced and in-depth exploration of the cultural intricacies depicted in anime. This media stands as a significant gift from Japan; perhaps it is time we delve deeper into their culture as a sincere gesture of gratitude.


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