It’s not hard to spot trends in Japan. Stationery, clothing, masks, keychains, and pin badges often show the owner’s current passion. If you look at the snacks section of the supermarket, many have characters printed on them. TV shows often pay homage to the fandom and feature special guests. Walk into Daiso (100 yen shop) and—ah, it’s that song again. Perhaps you’re thinking popular bands like BTS or NiziU. I’d like to turn our attention to something a little more 2D today.
I’ve loved anime (a-ni-may) for over 20 years and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I owe much of my Japanese proficiency to it, and it’s helped me dissect and understand the Japanese culture. Many of my friendships have bloomed over this common interest. Perhaps you echo my sentiments, or maybe you’ve just rolled your eyes and thought “Oh no, not another one of those.”
I know what you mean. Here’s my favourite Japanese missionary quote: “We don’t need another Japanophile here (insert eyeroll).” And we don’t. Becoming a missionary requires much more than being a Japan fan. I ask for just a little open-mindedness today as we consider the anime following, because the extensive influence it has on society should not be taken lightly, and nor should we turn a blind eye to the opportunities this genre presents.
First, anime is a brilliant conversation starter in Japan. People are brought up with it and anyone with children knows big names such as Anpanman, Doraemon and Chibimaruko. They probably watched it themselves growing up. Have you watched Demon Slayer (Kimetsu no Yaiba), which has taken the country by storm?* Speaking from experience, if you know this manga series you can strike up a conversation with almost any child in Japan right now because of how popular it is. One Piece, Gundam, something from the latest season’s offerings . . . regardless of age or societal position, you’re bound to find common ground.
Anime makes money and moves the economy. Take the Demon Slayer movie. At the time of writing it had already raked in almost 40 billion yen (368 million USD), taking it to a comfortable number one in all-time box office sales. This is within Japan only, over six months and with a COVID-19 handicap. This is just one movie and I won’t start on how anime boosts tourism and creates revenue from music and merchandise.
Anime has immense artistic value and there’s much to admire from a purely artistic point of view. At its core, anime is storytelling in a unique art form, historically made by Japan, for Japan, but has found much favour across the globe in recent years. Animation is art and art and beauty are important to the Japanese. Children doodle these characters and good drawers are highly praised and prized.
Not fond of Ghibli? Try a series instead of a movie and admire the work gone into bringing it to life. In particular, anime music is so significant it is its own genre. Professional orchestras perform anime soundtracks sometimes and popular artists often provide songs for anime series (sometimes that’s how fame starts). Pay attention to the rankings next time you watch Music Station* (a weekly Japanese television program that’s been running for 35 years this year) or go to karaoke.
Anime is entertainment, but can also be educational if you’re willing to ask good questions. Which era is this? What’s the food, clothing, housing like? How about language? How do different ages interact? What are the views on life and death? Good and evil? What do Japanese people think about this show? You never know what doors this new knowledge can open. Have you ever heard of the Hakone Ekiden? Neither had I, until I watched Kaze ga Tsuyoku Fuiteiru [Run with the wind], an anime television series of a novel. It’s about an annual 200+ km relay race for university students, held over the New Year period. Last year, I was invited to watch this with a Japanese friend who happened to be a fan.
Anime’s place in society is undeniable. It’s here to stay and will continue to influence society on a multitude of levels, from clothing to ethics. There’s obviously something about anime that resonates with the Japanese heart and I strongly believe there’s much to learn from it when it comes to potential for contextualisation and gospel presentation. I’m still in the process of putting my finger on what that is and would love to hear from you if you have anything to share.
By Hailey, an OMF missionary
* Due to violent scenes, caution should be taken when watching the Demon Slayer movie, especially with children. It is worth noting that US has given the film an R rating.
Stay tuned for the second part, where Hailey addresses what wisdom and discernment we need to apply when viewing anime.
Will you pray for Japan?
- Pray that missionaries would be diligent in learning about Japanese culture so that they can make connections with Japanese people.
- Pray for wisdom for missionaries in learning from anime about ways the gospel can be contextualised in Japan.
- Pray that God would bring Christians to Japan who love Japanese pop culture.