The "Japan" in "Japanese Animation"

By Gilles Poitras, 2001

We watch anime because we enjoy it; there is no need for any other reason to watch anything. After awhile a normal part of viewing anime is the discovery that there are things which are obviously not from ordinary U.S. life. After all anime is a product of Japan and so Japanese culture crops up again and again. This article shall deal with a few of the more commonly seen aspects of Japanese culture in anime set in modern Japan.

THE HOME:

The Home As one enters a Japanese home, almost any home from a traditional farmhouse to a modern apartment, one is standing in an area lower than the rest of the home. This is called the genkan. The genkan is where you take off your shoes before going into the rest of the home. Usually you change into slippers, but socks and bare feet are common.

Meals in many homes are eaten a low table called a chabudai, kind of like a large coffee table. Or you could just be sitting at the chabudai drinking tea and watching TV. The chabudai was developed just over a hundred years ago as a compromise between a Western table and the Japanese custom of sitting on the floor. Before the invention of the chabudai each person would have a small tray with their food or drink on it. You sit on the floor on pillows called zabuton. In the winter the chabudai is often replaced by a kotatsu which looks like a chabudai except that it has a removable top and a heater underneath. You remove the top and put a quilted blanket on the frame then put the top back on. Tuck your legs underneath and the heater helps keep you warm. This is cheaper than heating an entire room.

SleepingSome rooms have tatami, large mats made of straw and rushes woven tightly. These are placed to fill up the floor of a room. Japanese traditional rooms are measured by the number of tatami would fit in them and are made wide and long enough so that the floor could be completely covered by these mats. Tatami make sitting on the floor easier as they are comfortable. Imagine you don't need a couch to lie down and watch TV, just lay on the floor. One thing, you never wear house slippers when walking on tatami, leave them in the hallway if you are wearing them.

When it is time to go to sleep you probably would use futon. In the United States we often speak of various foam mattresses on folding frames as futon but in Japan a futon consists of a mattress usually stuffed with cotton, and a quilt. Place these on the tatami and crawl in-between and you have a comfortable bed. During the day the futon can be folded up and put away leaving the room available for other uses such as sitting around the chabudai.

Besides eating and sleeping there are other bodily needs to take care of in a Japanese home.

Many modern Japanese homes have Western style toilets, but many also have the traditional Japanese benjo which is a toilet directly on the floor. You don't sit on a benjo but squat over it, the Japanese consider this more hygienic than sitting on a Western style toilet seat.

Another important aspect of Japanese homes is the bath, the furo. This is almost always in a different room than the toilet, after all the two devices have little in common other than a need for plumbing. A bath in a Japanese home is often composed of two rooms. The first room is used for undressing and may also contain a washing machine for clothes. The bathroom itself has a tile floor with a drain in the middle. You wash yourself before getting into the tub. Depending on the home you may use a bucket to poor water on yourself or a hose with a shower head on it. After you wash and rinse off you soak in the tub of hot water and relax. Think of it as a hot tub in the home, after all we got the idea for the hot tub from the Japanese bath.

SCHOOL:

Another part of Japanese life commonly seen in anime is the school. The school year begins in the spring, for example in the first Ranma ½ and Oh My Goddess! episodes the stories take place at this time of year. We know it is spring not because anyone says it is but because there are cherry blossom petals on the wind, a traditional symbol of spring.

Most schools are surrounded by a wall or fence, a tradition from earlier in Japanese history. There is a gate which is closed when school starts and late students are reprimanded by a teacher at the gate.

The school building also has a genkan, a much larger one than in the home. Students each have shoe lockers where they keep their shoes during the day and indoor shoes for wearing when in the buildings. The shoe lockers are often used as places to leave love letters and other messages, much like American students might slip a note into someone's locker at school.

Each student has a home room, but don't confuse this with the home room of American high schools. Japanese home rooms are the classroom the students stay in all day, except for classes with special needs such as P.E. science, music or art. The teachers go from class to class. Not only do the students have a home room they each have a single desk for the entire day. This means that the home room is the territory of the students not of the teachers.

School UniformsEach home room has a president who coordinates chores with other class officers such as cleaning the home room. Japanese schools have few janitors, most of the cleaning is done by the students and this is considered part of the learning process. Not only do the students clean up their home room but also other parts of the school including the exterior grounds and toilets, not a popular chore.

Many schools still have uniforms. The traditional boys uniform made of dark material with a tight collar is modeled on the uniforms of German military academies in the 19th century, girls uniforms were based on a combination of a sailor's uniform and a skirt, hence the name 'sailor suit' These uniforms are also very practical as they are not very expensive when compared to regular clothes since they are mass produced and are made of very sturdy long lasting material. Girls also have special clothing for physical education, a t-shirt and very short pants called buruma. Buruma is the Japanese way of saying bloomers, which is what young women in England and America often wore when doing P. E. in the early 20th century, around the same time girls began going to school in Japan.

Tokyo TowerTOKYO
During the Tokugawa era the city now called Tokyo was named Edo, the name was changed after the shogun's rule was ended in 1867. Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area of Japan, with a population of over 30 million it has more people than many states in the U.S. Culturally Tokyo is very important, imagine a city as important as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. put together and you have an idea how significant Tokyo is to the Japanese. For these reasons Tokyo often is the location of stories and Tokyo landmarks often show up in anime. The most recognized landmark is Tokyo Tower which resembles the Eiffel tower but is taller. Tourists line up to ride to the two observation decks for a view of the city.

Tokyo is also a city of trains as very few people have cars; automobiles are still a luxury item in many areas of Japan. It is common in anime set in Tokyo to see and hear trains and train crossings. This viewing of trains could be close as in the beginning of the first You're Under Arrest OVA or in the distance as in many of the night scenes of Maison Ikkoku. In many scenes you don't even see the train but hear it or a crossing. A major train station is Tokyo Eki which is modeled after the main station in Amsterdam. This station was completed in 1914 and heavily damaged in World War II, after the war it was restored and its main entrance made available for the general public, before the war ended only the Imperial Family could use this entrance.

Political buildings also show up in anime. The Japanese diet (parliament) building shows up in several anime where politics are important, such as Sanctuary, Blue Seed and Patlabor 2. More commonly seen is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices, usually the twin towered Office Building Number One. The buildings, which are interconnected, contain office space for about 13,000 workers. Keishichoo, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, also often shows up in many anime. This building has a wedge shape being narrower at one end. The height is 18 stories with a circular tower on top containing a variety of antenna for radio and microwave communications. Almost any anime involving the police in a major way will have a scene which takes place in the building.

The Ginza is another famous area of Tokyo which shows up on occasion. The name of this area comes from a mint which had been built there in 1612, gin means silver and za means mint. In 1873 a western style promenade and shopping area was built here for the foreigners who were now living in Tokyo. Today the Ginza is a shopping area during the day and an entertainment district at night.

Another feature of Japanese urban life is the coffee shop. It is not unusual to hear how expensive coffee is in these shops but in fact if you buy a single cup of coffee you can stay in the shop all day and no one will ask you to leave. Instead they will give you a glass of water and make sure it is refilled regularly so you don't get thirsty. You can then hang out, read a book, talk to friends, have a meeting or do pretty much anything else as long as you want.

AND THE SUBJECT OF COFFEE BRINGS US TO THE FINAL PART OF THIS ARTICLE: FOOD AND DRINK:

More common than coffee in Japan is tea, all kinds of tea including green tea, long a popular kind in Japan, Chinese style oolong and European milk tea. Tea is drink hot or cold, freshly made or canned and bottled, during the day or in the night. There is even a simple snack made of rice with some toppings with green tea poured over it, this is called chazuke, cha being the word the Japanese use for tea.

Perhaps the most Japanese of all meals is the traditional Japanese breakfast consisting of tea, rice, fish, miso soup and pickles. Rice has been eaten as a major food in Japan for centuries, for most of Japans history the value of a nobleman's or samurai lord's land was measured in bushels of rice. At one time commoners were not allowed to eat white rice, such being a status symbol reserved for nobles and samurai.

Fish is easy to understand, Japan is a group of islands about the same size as California with lots of streams and some very large lakes. Fish until recently was the major animal protein source for almost all Japanese.

Miso SoupMiso is made by processing soy beans by fermenting them and making a paste. Like tea and rice miso was introduced to Japan from China, possibly through Korea. The Japanese use it in several ways, the most commonly known in the West is to make soup from the miso paste. Tip: never boil miso soup, boiling spoils the flavor, instead boil the water and turn off the stove then add miso and stir.

Pickles, called tsukemono in Japanese, are an important part of any traditional Japanese meal or for that matter drinking as many bars will serve tsukemono and other snacks to stimulate thirst. The Japanese have a very large number of types of pickles, probably more than any other culture in the world. Some take just a few hours to prepare some take months. Not only vegetables are pickled but seafood and some kinds of meat are sometimes pickled.

Other than sushi the food most Americans have eaten and associate with Japan is probably ramen, usually in the form of cup ramen. Ramen is actually a Chinese noodle, introduced centuries ago into Japan it is still served in Chinese bowls with Chinese spoons. The Japanese have a tradition of doing things in traditional manners. A classic example of this is the use of the traditional Chinese ceramic spoon; this spoon is still only used for Chinese foods. You just don't see Japanese eating miso or Western soup with it.

An easy to recognize food is takoyaki, tako is the Japanese word for octopus and yaki is any food cooked on a griddle. Takoyaki is made from batter containing bits of chopped octopus poured into little molds and flipped with toothpicks until a round ball is formed then a sauce is used as seasoning. Takoyaki is often sold as a take out snack.

Okonomiyaki or 'Japanese pizza'Another easily recognized food is okonomiyaki a batter mixture cooked with shredded cabbage and any of several kinds of meat or seafood. A sauce is often used as a topping as is shredded seaweed. Okonomiyaki is sometime translated as pancake or even 'Japanese pizza' both of which are really not at all similar. This of course brings up a complaint of many fans in calling a Japanese food something other than what it is. After all anime is made in Japan so why not simply use the Japanese name for a Japanese food.

For really hot days a good treat to cool you down is shaved ice. Don't confuse this with snow cones, shaved ice has a very different texture, the ice is shaved very thin and topped with a flavoring. You eat it with a spoon, don't eat it too fast or you will get a headache.

Of course a discussion of Japanese food and drink must include a little information on sake, that most famous Japanese beverage. Actually the word sake is also used as a generic work for all alcoholic beverages. But lets talk about the type most commonly known outside Japan. Sake is sometimes referred to as rice wine, but it is not really a wine as it is brewed like beer. But it is very different from beer and actually should not be compared with either beer or wine. Traditionally sake is drunk chilled like wine, something which surprises many non-Japanese. The tradition of drinking heated sake started in the wintertime and people quickly discovered that really bad cheap sake tasted better heated than chilled. Personally I drink it both ways but the good stuff I never heat up. Sake also does not store well and should be drunk within a year of bottling, if you have some sake that is a little old and does not taste that good just heat it up. Usually a flask in a microwave for 30-45 seconds is enough; you don't want it really hot. Of course this assumes you are old enough to drink.

Well I hope this article has been informative and has given you a little insight into what you have seen when you watch anime or read manga. If you want to find more information of this type find my books The Anime Companion and The Anime Companion 2 in this catalog and order it. In fact order several and give them away as gifts.