Seeing Ourselves in Their Eyes; Japanese Visions of the West

December 13th, 2008 – Japan

One of the many interesting things I notice about anime is how they see us. Just as Americans have stereotypes of Japanese (and just about everyone else), the Japanese have stereotypes about us. This doesn’t show up a whole lot, but every once in a while the viewer can see a flash of the West. Now I don’t mean Western influence in terms of Disney or anthing; I mean the tall, blond character who speaks bad Japanese and seems to carry a lot of guns for no apparent reason (sound familiar?). There are a lot of flashes of American culture that appear in Japanese anime, good or bad, but the two that always stick out in my mind are the sterotype of the loud, violent American, and Christianity being used as exoticism.

Mr. K, in all his American glory

The Japanese sterotype of an American is pretty involved. The American is often tall and blond – makes sense, more or less. The constant carrying of guns is a little bit odder. Japan has a complete ban on guns, unlike America, and they seem to think that just because it is possible for someone to own a gun, they do so, and they use the gun at any possible oppourtunity. Mr. K, the absolutely ridiculous American from Gravitation, once forces the main character out of his apartment (or something like that; the setup is rather irrelevant) by going to the opposite building, going out onto the balcony, and sniper-rifling at the main character. This is also while the family who own the balcony look on in absolute horror. Granted, this is a comedy show, but even then, none of the Japanese characters would ever do this. The last part of the Japanese sterotype, and this is rather subtle and rarely shows up, is that Americans cannot work with anyone; they are incapable of caring about someone else. Keep in mind that this is a very rare aspect of the sterotype. From what I’ve read, this part of the sterotype comes from a fundamental difference between Japanese and American culture. Japan is incredibly group oriented, with limited tolerance for people who are unique or different. America, on the other hand, is incredibly geared toward individuality and personal freedom, occasionally at the expense of the group or community. This translates, in the Japanese mindset, to Americans being completely individualistic, and thus utterly selfish.

Lilith, and the spear of Longinus, courtesy of Neon Genesis

The second Western item that seems to appear a lot is Christianity. By that I mean not someone being Christian, but when ‘mythology’ of Christianity is used in a story. Ironically enough, it is often used in the same way that a Western writer would use Buddhism or Hinduism – simply to make the story exotic, without paying all that much attention to what the religion is actually like. The best example of this would be Neon Genesis Evangalion. Putting aside whether or not this is a good show (I’m not even getting into that) the use of Judeo-Christian elements is interesting. The Angels, Adam, Eve, the Spear of Longinus, even hymn music during fight scenes, Eva uses all of these things and more. And oddly enough, it works. It makes the story seem to be even more of an epic than it is. However, this show uses Judeo-Christian ideas outside of any sort of context; if you try and understand them and try to apply these ideas into the belief system, you will fail. This appropriation of Christian ideas without context happens a fair amount; Cross is built around it, with slightly more coherency than Eva. Yami no Matsuei uses this trope in places as well, and lets not even get started on Angel Sanctuary. It’s too easy.

Now, I take no offense (usually) at either the sterotype of Americans (being an American) or the use of Christianity for flavor (as a Roman Catholic). I simply find it fascinating to learn how other people think of us.

Note: this article was written with no research or authority. In addition, just as the views and ideas expressed may not be characteristic of Cornell University, they may not be characteristic of some members of CJAS. Ja ne!

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2 Responses to “Seeing Ourselves in Their Eyes; Japanese Visions of the West”

  1. Hett Gutt says:

    These American stereotypes are completely accurate… IN AMERICA!

  2. Dave says:

    I agree generally with the commentary on Christian exoticism, and I have heard that the creators of Eva were explicit that they did just that: used Christian imagery because it’s exotic to the Japanese. This is why I have an issue with people who refer to Eva’s “symbolism”; it isn’t symbolic of any of the themes in the anime at all. Compared to the actual visual symbolism in Utena (for example), it’s really just imagery.

    If you want to see an aspect of Christian (specifically Catholic) doctrine faithfully represented – without any overt admission of it – watch Haibane Renmei.

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