Understanding Cultural References In Japanese Anime And Manga

Ever wondered why anime characters have big eyes or wear beads? This article gives you an insight into Japanese culture, as seen in anime and manga!

Most Japanese anime is, obviously, made for a Japanese market, meaning American viewers will be unfamiliar with much of what they see. While some of this unfamiliarity adds to the pleasure of watching, some facets of Japanese culture could stand to be explained.

The Eyes:

The large, shiny eyes that have become a staple of anime style are actually more a product of history than of culture. In the past, characters in American and European cartoons, such as Betty Boop and Felix the Cat, had disproportionately large eyes. This style was emulated by Tezuka Osamu, one of the most influential founding fathers of anime. Today, this distinctive eye style has become a matter of the animators' preference. Large eyes often appear on women and young children to make them appear more innocent. Although most American viewers are familiar only with this particular eye style, many of the characters in cartoons shown in Japan possess much more normal eyes.

Various Prefixes and Suffixes:

Although an anime may be dubbed in English, many Japanese "add-ons" are left attached to characters' names. These prefixes and suffixes do not have direct English translations, but their meaning is easily understood.

The suffix -sama is a term of the utmost respect, such as one would use when talking about the Emperor or God.

The suffix -san is used for general politeness.

The suffix -chan is a term of endearment, used only between family members, close friends, or romantically involved couples. The suffix -kun is often added to the end of a young man's name. The honorific o- added at the beginning of names and some common nouns has a duel purpose. It is used as both a term of respect and as a means to "soften" statements and requests that would otherwise sound too sharp.

Strange Hair Colors:

Outrageous hair colors are common in anime, despite the fact that no culture, anywhere, considers them the norm. The reason for this is surprisingly simple. When a manga series (Japanese comic book) or anime has been selected for U.S. release, the characters' hair color is often changed so that viewers will be able to tell the difference between very similar-looking characters.

Cherry Blossoms:

Cherry Blossoms ("sakura" in Japanese) are evident in many anime, including Peacock King and X 1999. In Japan, blossom-viewing parties and picnics are standard fare during the springtime, when the flowers fall as thick as snow. Cherry blossoms are also considered to be a symbol of a life cut tragically short and, for this reason, they are often added during a death scene to give the anime that extra dramatic flair. Sakura is also a very common girls' name.

Money-hungry Women:

In Japan, women are responsible for managing the household budget. Men bring home wages and women dole out allowances to their husbands. For this reason, women are often teased for being either overly interested, or completely uninterested, in cash flow. Nanami in El-Hazard, Lina Inverse in Slayers, and Sakura in Key the Metal Idol were all women out to make a buck"¦many bucks, in fact.

Prayer Beads:

Religious characters are often adorned with long necklaces of large beads. These prayer beads are similar in function to the Christian rosary and are used to keep track while reciting the name of the Buddha. Most of these necklaces have 108 beads, symbolizing the 108 evil passions denounced in Buddhism.

Women with Guns:

Stereotypically, Japanese women are seen as soft-spoken and shy by the outside world. Therefore, many viewers are amazed at the number of gun-toting women characters in anime and manga. Even though Japan is still highly gender-role oriented, what most people fail to realize is that women have a very large, very important position in Japanese culture. Throughout the country's history, many women have been featured prominently for their courage and compassion. By including strong female characters, anime and manga are helping to destroy the misconception that Japanese women are weak, meek, and mild.


Although this is relevant only to manga, it is very interesting and has been included (since most anime fans also read, or at least look at, Japanese manga). It may seem that characters in Japanese comic books are all left-handed, which has led many to think that left-handedness is either an extremely common or highly respected trait. It's neither. Just as in America, most people are right handed. And that's the way they are drawn in the comic books. The switch comes when these books are marketed for the United States. Because the Japanese read from right to left, their books open opposite of the way ours do. To put them into a format more comfortable for Americans, the images are switched to their mirror-image so that the book can be read. This means that someone driving on the left side of the road in a Japanese comic book will appear as if he is driving down the right side in the American version. The same is true for any character writing with his or her right hand.

While these cultural references may shed some light on particular anime quirks, some things still can't be explained. For instance, why are women characters so often obsessed with food, and why do so many (seriously, TOO many) men dress in drag?

© High Speed Ventures 2011