Why We Watch Anime, Part 4: Culture

Culture Means Civilization

I know I’m going to get into some controversial territory here, but it is for a good cause. This is, after all, called The Japanese Culture Blog. It is about appreciation of culture, and Japan has it.

My “people,” the Acadians of Nova Scotia, are said to have a culture. They have customs and traditions dating back hundreds of years; they have folk costumes that have been promoted as cultural legacy since the writing of the poem Evangeline which founded the consciousness of Acadians as a people rather than just a bunch of exiled French colonists, some of whom came crawling back to Nova Scotia, others who did not, and became the Cajuns. They have food specialties, local dialects, and various quirks.

But this is not culture.

Customs and traditions are just that. Crafts and folk costumes and local songs and so on, if there is a word for it, it is art.

Let’s take the Japanese word for culture: 文化 (bunka) . The first part represents the written word, and can refer to sentences, text, or more broadly, literature. (Thus, the written word.) The second part is like -ization in English. In other words, it makes “bunka” into that which is derived from the written word.

In other words, it is the trappings and legacies of civilization.

A bunch of isolated fishing, trapping and logging communities do not constitute civilization.

Consequently, and I do not mean this in any kind of mean way, but it is, to me, the plain truth: my people have no culture.

As a young man, this was greatly distressing to me on a fundamental level. My mind and my very bones cry out for culture, for the trappings of civilization, for things which are greater than houses lining a road running parallel to the coastline with the occasional store, fish processing plant and wood mill to break up the houses.

It is popular, in these “post-modernist” times, to treat every assembly of huts, every place where different customs and traditions and arts take place, no matter how small, as culture equal to well, to put it very bluntly, that which white people believe they hold. (I am French-Canadian and Caucasian, but I don’t have an attitude about it, god. It’s not like it ever helped me in life either. It just didn’t hurt much.)

So to again be blunt…

THIS is culture.

So is this.

This, too, is culture.

Of course, culture is more than monuments and landmarks. It is the complex human interaction that forms a civilized society.

Any good anime oozes culture out of every pore, whether this culture be completely fictional or based on Japan… or as often happens, is some kind of mix between the two.

Even just watching characters go to a Japanese high school adds an element of culture for foreign anime fans. It is something different that we do not have access to, so even just the curiosity and the urge to stare and take in all the tiny little details, like chores being assigned to the students according to a schedule (such as cleaning the blackboard) and the existence of “class representatives” to keep all this in line, these things are fundamentally interesting to the culturally inclined.

Now, some rather major parts of Japanese popular culture are actually taken from Chinese culture, such as the legend of Son Gokuu (“Son Goku”), the Monkey King, and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. After all, in that part of Asia, China is the regional cultural megalith. Even if Japan has a lot of culture in this day and age, for virtually all of its existence it was deeply in China’s shadow.

Then you have samurai culture, which I have written about in this blog somewhat, and really, all sorts of things that just reflect a sort of detail and appreciation of human interaction, both spontaneous and ritualized within the context of culture.

Beyond this, I’d really need to get into specifics, but if you look at the images I put in my last post on anime, I think you might start to understand what someone like me sees when I look at these images.

I see culture in every tiny detail, things that are not only art, but which are part of something civilized and sophisticated built up from traditions, customs, and knowledge from not just Japan, but from all around the world, brought together in the service of a finer, higher art.

For that is what anime is: art. It is art that is finer and higher than most other forms of entertainment, for the simple reason that it draws on immense culture, often multiple real-world cultures, mixed with fiction and creativity. This is what shines through the music and visual art used in anime.

It simply wouldn’t be what it is without the culture aspect. And we wouldn’t watch it to the degree that we do without the cultural aspect. It’s simply a core part of the charm.

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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