Thursday, June 9, 2011

School Life

Whether Japanese or American, many would agree that the time spent in school, especially high school, is precious. Some would say that they are your golden years. Well, it seems as if the Japanese take that further and it may be lost on some westerners. The amount of anime, manga and novels that are written about Japanese school life is astounding. They often focus on these young characters living out the remainder of their naive youth, not having to worry about the grown-up world around them. Shows such as Cromartie High School have the most absurd stories written, all which is happy-go-lucky and inconsequential.

These golden years, however, are a bit of a paradox. High school in Japan is also notorious for being extremely stressful. The entrance examination required to get into a prestigious high school require extreme amounts of time to study and prepare for, and the pressure is very high to make it into these schools for if they don't then they can count on never getting into a prestigious university as well. This is also covered in many popular stories that is targeted at Japanese youth and these stories seem to reinforce how the Japanese feel about their school life and school culture.

Many of these stories make their way into the U.S. Regardless of how well these stories are translated, without an understanding of how the Japanese view their school culture, much of the emotion that is trying to be conveyed is lost. Even the attire that is worn by the Japanese students is something very foreign to most American students. Understanding the innocence, and sometimes the extreme stress, of Japanese school life is important in getting the most out of shows like Cromartie High School or Azumanga Daioh.


The story of Buddha is a popular one in Japan with around 90 million Japanese claiming to be Buddhists. It's history started officially in Japan in the 6th century CE, coming from China, and has grown since then. The influence that Buddhisms has in Japan is not always strong or obvious, but when the works of people such as Tezuka Osamu is looked at the influence can become more clear.

Tezuka wrote this manga over the span of eleven years, making a total of eight volumes. It tells the entire story of Siddhartha and embellishes many famous events from his live in great detail. To those who are not familiar with the story of Buddha, Tezuka took some liberties and changed some events as well as added new characters. Tezuka did not try to hide this fact, rather this was just his interpretation of the story. The manga has many childish similarities with Tezuka's Astro Boy comics, but there is also much about the manga that makes it more mature, such as nudity. Despite the some of the mature themes, it is obvious that Tezuka is attempting to target a wide audience and is focusing on the youth of Japan.

The changes that Tezuka made to the story are easily recognized by many Japanese, and the youth who are reading the story also have their parents to consult with. Many Americans, however, do not have the same background in Buddhism that many Japanese do. Without an understanding of the original story, some western readers might mistake Tezuka's version as an accurate interpretation when it is not.

The manga in the U.S. has received critical acclaim, but it does not gain as much attention as other mainstream American comics. In Japan, however, Tezuka is mainstream and his comic is widely published and consumed.   This gives Tezuka a strong influence over the Japanese youth and is a large experience with the story of Buddha for them. Even just this year, the story has been adapted into an animated film and is advertised not as the story of Buddha, but as Tezuka's Buddha.

So, we can see here that Tezuka has a strong influence on the Japanese youth and their experience with the story of Buddha. They may not take his story as complete fact (just as with the previously mentioned Samurai Warriors games and how they embellish Japanese history) but he is still an introduction to the story.

The Pacific War

History classes in the U.S. absolutely make sure to cover WWII, but more attention is always given to the European conflicts, with the Pacific War taking a back seat. When the Pacific War is mentioned, it is usually just to talk about either Pearl Harbor or the atomic bombings. Those obviously are important events in our history, but there was much more to the American and Japanese conflict during the Pacific War than those popular events.

Pictured above is a section of Tokyo after being firebombed by the U.S. These firebombings are not as popular of a topic to cover about the war in the U.S., but in Japan they remain a topic discussed in history classes. These firebombings happened frequently all over Japan during the war and the civilians of Japan dreaded every siren that went off, signaling a bomb warning.

Grave of the Fireflies is a movie and novel that depicts the lives of war orphans who went through the firebombing of Kobe. What makes this story exceptionally powerful is how much detail is given describing the misery of the orphans' lives, no matter how horrible. In Japan, these movie was marketed along side My Neighbor Totoro, a children's film. The intended audience of the film says a lot about the education of Japanese on topics such as this. This film was my first encounter with the firebombings in Japan and, not knowing the history that I know now, I can say it only becomes more powerful with the more you learn.

This is just one example of the Pacific War as taught to Japanese youth, but it is a very effective example. The people who watch it, regardless of nationality, are moved by the efforts of the characters and their struggle. Even if Americans can be moved by the story without being familiar with the historical setting and significance, it is important to look further into what happened in the Pacific War for the film to have its full impact.

Samurai Warriors

Samurai have become familiar to many outside of Japan especially through mediums such as film, anime and video games. A good example of this popularity can be seen through the Samurai Warriors game series. To many westerners, the games are nothing more than interesting and fictitious samurai dramas put to a hack-n-slash style combat system.

What is often not known by western audiences is that the Samurai Warriors games are actually based on historical events with a majority of the cast being historical figures in Japan. Some of the most notable of these characters are Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. These three men are known in Japan for unifying Japan in the 16th and 17th centuries. History classes in Japan teach about these men just as Columbus is taught in American schools.

The Samurai Warriors games do not stay completely true to the events and figures, but they still help with learning names of people, places, important battles etc. Samurai Warriors is not exclusive in using historical characters and events in games, there is also a series of games going back to the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo named Nobunaga's Ambition.

To me, I would think it would be odd if I played a game similar to this only with American historical figures. Playing as Andrew Jackson and defending New Orleans, to me, just sounds odd. However, In Japan these games have a large following and they even see regular releases in the U.S. With the knowledge that not all of what is said in these games is a lie, it adds to the playing experience.

Amaterasu, Okami and Shintoism

In a previous post I mentioned Amaterasu, who is the a sun goddess in Japanese folklore (pictured in the center of the above painting). She was created to rule over the world by Izanagi and Izanami, the two supreme Japanese deities in Shintoism. Her brother Susano-o (pictured below) is the god of the sea and storms and both of these gods are very popular and well known throughout all of Japan.

With these characters being so popular in Japan, it was not difficult for the youth of Japan to recognize the obvious symbolism in the popular game Okami. However, American and European audiences for the most part knew nothing about the symbolism behind Okami and today that's what I hope to shed some light on.

In this game the main playable character is a god in wolf form named Amaterasu. Another main protagonist, though he's not playable, is Susano-o. The story told in the game is Clover Studios own version of some Japanese folktales where Amaterasu and Susano-o are on a quest to save Nippon (this is the Japanese name for their own country) from being destroyed by Orochi, who is an eight-headed dragon from the same tales and folklore that Shintoism was born from. The story in Okami is very playful and light-hearted, which has a funny contrast to the serious characters and their normal stories from legend. The story, when translated into English and other European languages, was not changed despite the creators knowing that the symbolism would be lost on most of the non-Japanese audience. What they hoped would happen from this is that the western audiences would become curious and look into these characters for themselves and at that point they would truly understand the depth of the game. Well, they were somewhat successful in that since my first big experience into Japanese folklore was from this game.

Aside from the characters, the name of the game as well as the art style also has more depth than most realize. The name of the game, Okami, is Japanese for wolf which seems fitting since the character is in a wolf form. The title also is a pun, with okami also translating as "great deity." The art style of the game is very similar to that of old Japanese woodblock prints as well as sumi-e (ink and brush) style drawings.

All of these aspects combined make Okami deep with symbolism, lessons and insights into Japanese culture. If you haven't played this game yet, now would be a good time to start and don't be afraid to do your own research while playing the game as questions arise!

Sources: A lot of information was taken from sources listed on Okami's wikipedia including interviews with translators and creators.

Also, see the Kojiki and Nihonshoki.

Main Idea

This probably would've been more helpful as a first post, but it's better now than never. So, the main thing I'd like to accomplish with this blog is revealing to American audiences how Japanese youth are taught about their history and culture through various mediums. Many non-Japanese consumers of Japanese books, games and movies do not realize that there is so much more depth to what they are reading, playing and watching and I hope to encourage and inspire my readers to look into more deeply into them.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Imperial Regalia of Japan

The sword, mirror and jewel make up the imperial regalia of Japan. They are said to be gifts from Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess, given to Ningi-no-Mikoto, her grandson, when he was sent to pacify the Earth. In turn, Ningi-no-Mikoto passed them on to his grandson Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan. They are proof that the emperor was a direct descendant from the gods, or so the story goes. This story and it's symbols are heavily ingrained into Japanese folklore and mythology

So how is this legend still used today and taught to the Japanese youth? The stories these items show up in are so popular, it is likely that many Americans are very familiar with them as well, even if they don't know it, and that is through The Legend of Zelda video games.

So now, I'm sure this is starting to click with a lot of readers who are familiar with the game. The playable character of the game, Link, uses a sacred sword to fight evil, he carries a mirror (sometimes in different forms such as a shield in Ocarina of Time), and collects jewels or pendants on his quest.

Now there's more to this. Each of the items represents something different. The sword is power, the mirror wisdom and the jewel is courage. That ties into another aspect of the Zelda games, which is the triforce.

As seen in the picture, the triforce is made up of three pieces, each representing something different: power, wisdom and courage. Link, the playable character of the Zelda games, carries the courage triforce. So, that means that he is the embodiment of courage and as he adventures he collects pendants, which represent courage. Oh the symbolism!

Anyway, the imperial regalia has found its way into modern Japanese youth culture, and in turn American culture as well.