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Volume: III, Issue: II, July-December 2012



The present study explores cultural representations in three prominent examples of contemporary Japanese animation, NarutoShippuden, Bleach, and Onigamiden. Lingering traces of Japanese exceptionalism (Nihonjinron) are still present in contemporary Japanese animation such as in the animated movie, Onigamiden. On the other hand two of the most popular animated series, Naruto Shippuden and Bleach, fit a cultural model characterized by hybridity and globalism. Japanese animation has historically reflected the cleavages and conflicts of Japanese society and thus serves as an extension of the public sphere. Japan’s aging population, its increasing heterogeneity, and the country’s economic woes, lead to a period of transition in terms of national identity and how that identity is expressed to insiders and outsiders.

Keywords Content


Japanese animation is one of the country’s few exports that has not been affected by the Global economic recession of the late 2000s [Iwabuchi 2008; Kelts 2006]. In fact, anime’s importance both economically and culturally are recognized by the government and anime has become part of a new campaign to promote Japan’s image as a producer of a large “gross national cool” [Drazen, 2006; Yang, 2010]. Nevertheless, this is only the tip of the iceberg since anime’s role as an extension of the public sphere makes it much more than just an export commodity [von Feigenblatt, 2010c]. Moreover, anime can provide a glimpse at the cultural trends currently vying for primacy in terms of defining Japan’s identity as a country as well as its relationship to the outside world [Chizuko 2010; Napier 2001; Reider 2003; Yang 2010].

This study explores how three representative examples of contemporary Japanese anime, Naruto Shippuden, Bleach, and Onigamiden, exemplify two important cultural currents, namely hibridity/globalism and Nihonjinron [exceptionalism]. At the core of each example of contemporary Japanese animation is an attempt at defining what it means to be Japanese and what kind of relationship Japan should have with the outside world. This debate is particularly important today due to the challenges and opportunities faced by contemporary Japanese society such as increased immigration, an aging population, a prolonged economic recession, deregulation of the market, unemployment, and a very low birth rate, inter alia [Ashizawa 2008; Chambers 2007; von Feigenblatt 2007; Lind 2009; Morton & Olenik 2005; Ryang 2010; Sakamoto 2008; Togo 2005].

The following sections provide a brief overview of the challenges and opportunities faced by contemporary Japanese society, introduce the theoretical framework explaining the two dominant cultural currents affecting Japanese identity formation, and describe and interpret the three representative examples of Japanese animation. A final section provides some conclusions regarding future developments in the industry and for Japanese society as a whole.

Contemporary Japan

Contemporary Japan lacks the confidence of the Japan of the 1980s when it seemed like double digit growth and development would continue indefinitely [Sakamoto 2008; Smith 1997; Togo 2005]. Highly developed economies tend to show lower growth rates than newly industrializing countries and therefore contemporary Japan’s painful introspection and self-doubt cannot be solely explained by changes in economic indicators. Other factors include the perceived failure of the Japan Inc. model based on lifetime employment, the seniority system, and a strong bureaucracy, as well as an aging population and increasing inequality [Sakamoto 2008].

Japan’s economy started to decline in the 1990s, saw a brief upturn in the early 2000s before it plunged into a new recession in the late 2000s [Sakamoto, 2008]. The importance of the previously mentioned economic downturns is not so much the effect they had in terms of industrial output and gross national product but rather the way in which they were interpreted by the Japanese public and how those interpretations shaped and continue to shape public policy and identity formation. The public’s confidence in Japanese exceptionalism and the Japanese way of doing business based on extreme loyalty to a corporation in exchange of job security and a stable identity was badly shaken [Yang 2010].

In the traditional Japanese post-war business model men were supposed to be loyal to their employers and in exchange the employer would provide lifetime employment and promotions based on a seniority system [Morton & Olenik 2005; Smith 1997]. This means that employers could count on a reliable and loyal workforce and thus would avoid unpredictable changes in the labor market. Productivity was virtually guaranteed due to the extreme loyalty fostered among employees and the long working hours [Kingston 2011]. This bushido [way of the Samurai] for business required almost complete devotion to the needs of the company and thus resulted in the strengthening of the patriarchal family centered on the breadwinner father and the stay at home mother [von Feigenblatt 2010b; Morton & Olenik 2005]. Moreover, these modern day corporate warriors developed their identities and social networks solely on their companies. The result was a very strong work ethic but at the same time a complete reliance on work for basic psycho-social needs such as recognition and belongingness [von Feigenblatt 2010b].

The Japan Inc model was also based on the social ideal of equality and implicitly defined Japan as a middle class society [Kingston 2011; Sakamoto 2008]. In order to have a middle class society certain assumptions had to be made regarding employment and social services. It was expected that most college graduates would have access to a stable job after graduation leading to long term employment and a stable middle class life. Since the structure of the system discouraged women from working outside of the home after marriage, the prevalent model was based on a single breadwinner [Chambers 2007; Chizuko 2010]. This means that the welfare of the entire family unit depended on a single earner rather than on two working parents. Due to the prolonged economic recession of the 1990s and late 2000s many people lost their jobs and therefore their families were left in precarious economic conditions [Kingston 2011; Morton & Olenik 2005; Sakamoto 2008; Togo 2005]. The result has been increased inequality in Japanese society leading many to question the traditional model of Japanese development and its implicit social contract.

The power of the bureaucracy and the seniority system were also put to the test during the difficult 1990s and continue to be in probation. Bureaucrats have enjoyed considerable power and prestige in the Japanese system due to their subject area expertise and long tenures in their posts they can usually guide policy with little opposition from popularly elected politicians [von Feigenblatt 2007; Miyagi 2009; Morton & Olenik 2005; Togo 2005]. Their power is further projected by the widespread practice of amakudari [descent from heaven]. Senior bureaucrats are hired by related companies after their retirement where they continue to exert considerable influence through their government connections [Kingston 2011]. Needless to say this leads to considerable corruption and also makes change very difficult. Countless corruption scandals as well as the prolonged recession have undermined the trust of the people on the bureaucracy and have also weakened the importance of stability in favor of thirst for change [Sakamoto 2008].

eniority is an important Japanese value that is connected to a cultural respect for elders. In the business realm this means that employees are promoted based on the length of their tenure in their companies rather than based on performance or other factors such as academic qualifications [Chambers 2007; Hook, Gilson, Hughes, & Dobson 2005; Morton & Olenik 2005; Togo 2005]. Due to the parallel value of lifetime employment and the prolonged economic contraction of the 1990s, most Japanese companies have become top-heavy. Meaning that due to automatic promotions based on seniority there are too many managers in comparison to entry level workers [Kingston 2011]. It should also be noted that temporary and part-time workers become more prevalent during the recession thus reducing the number of full time employees eligible for promotions based on seniority [Sakamoto 2008]. This inverted pyramid structure is very costly and inefficient while also exposing difficult truths such as that older employees have more benefits than younger employees while in many cases being less qualified [Smith 1997]. Many young employees are eager to take on leadership roles and to apply the skills they have learned in college but since the system is based in seniority, they will have to wait many years before they can exercise their problem solving skills [Smith 1997]. The wait was bearable when there was a realistic expectation of achieving the same level of job security and career advancement as their senior counterparts, however massive layoffs and the increased use of irregular workers has undermined those expectations making the system less appealing [Kingston 2011]. For millions of young college graduates it is not clear whether the system will be in place long enough for them to enjoy the benefits of seniority.

The aging population and immigration are two other important issues in contemporary Japanese society [Sakamoto 2008]. Due to very high life expectancy and an extremely low birthrate Japanese society is aging rapidly [Morton & Olenik 2005]. This means that a greater percentage of the population is older than fifty five than the percentage of the population that is under fifteen years of age [Kingston 2011; Sakamoto 2008]. Thus, Japanese society resembles an inverted pyramid with fewer younger people supporting a greater number of older people. This state of affairs has important consequences for the economy as a whole. First of all this means that the active labor force will shrink while the number of retired people will increase. Secondly this places considerable stress on the resources of the social security system since there are fewer taxpayers supporting a greater number of beneficiaries [Chambers 2007; Sakamoto 2008]. Another important consequence is that there is and there will continue to be a need for foreign workers to deal with the shortage caused by the aging population and low birthrate [von Feigenblatt 2007; Sakamoto 2008].

Demographic changes as well as economic exigencies have led to increased concern about immigration and the assimilation of foreigners [Ryang 2010; Yang 2010]. The relationship between the majority Japanese and minorities has historically been fraught with discord and characterized by inequality and discrimination [Bix 2000; Gottlieb 2010; Lind 2009; Ryang 2010]. This is partly due to the myth of homogeneity as well as the historical domination of the majority over marginal groups such as the inhabitant of the former Ryukyu Kingdom [present day Okinawa] and the native Ainu [Morton & Olenik 2005; Smith 1997]. Other examples include former subjects of the Japanese Empire such as ethnic Koreans who have faced continued discrimination since the end of World War II [Ryang 2010; Smith 1997]. More recent immigrants such as Chinese and Nikkei [South Americans with Japanese ancestry] have faced similar discrimination both inside and outside the workplace [Sakamoto 2008].

In terms of culture, Japan espoused the myth of cultural homogeneity based on the myth of a single Yamato people up to the period of American occupation after the end of World War II [Bix 2000; Smith 1997]. This translates into what Jan Nederveen Pieterse aptly calls domination ethnicity [Pieterse 2007]. The majority ethnicity imposes its culture on the minorities as the national culture and expects other groups to assimilate into the majority culture. In the case of Japan this current is most visible in the discourse of Nihonjinron [Japanese exceptionalism] which claims that Japan has a unique history characterized by homogeneity and racial purity [Reider 2003; Ryang 2010; Williams 2004; Yang 2010]. Needless to say this hegemonic discourse denies the histories of minorities in Japan and also obviates the need to incorporate their cultures into mainstream national culture since their very existence is denied. Thanks in part to human rights discourse and partly to the increased exposure of the Japanese public to foreign media and ideas, there is increased interest in minorities and their cultures [Napier 2001; Ryang 2010]. It is becoming increasingly difficult to deny that Japan has always been and is increasingly becoming multiethnic and therefore multicultural [Kingston 2011; Smith 1997; Yang 2010]. This increased awareness about multiculturalism is contesting control over the public sphere from proponents of Nihonjinron and other conservative pundits [von Feigenblatt 2007; Iwabuchi 2008]. The result is a contested public sphere in which essentialist discourses are interspersed with discourses about hybridity, globalism, and multiculturalism.

Nihonjinron, Hybridity, and Globalism

While the previous section provided a glimpse at the nature of Nihonjinron and hybridity, the present section provides a more in depth explanation of the similarities and differences between Nijonjinron, Hybridity, and Globalism. Essentialism and exceptionalism are the two main characteristics of Nihonjinron [Ryang 2010]. Closely connected to conservatism and nationalism, Nihonjinron emphasizes Japan’s alleged unique level of racial purity, cultural homogeneity, and history [Bix 2000; Shih & Huang 2011; Williams 2004]. There are several variants of the Nihonjinron historic-cultural discourse ranging from the ultra-nationalism and Shinto emperor worship of the pre-war period to a more subdued present version that simply emphasizes Japan’s unique culture and the value it places on harmony and conformity [Williams, 2004]. The important assumption of this discourse is that Japan has always been a homogeneous society, thus negating the histories of minorities such as the Ainu and native Okinawans, and that the very few migrants should assimilate completely into mainstream Japanese culture [Chambers 2007; Kingston 2011; Morton & Olenik 2005; Reider 2003; Ryang 2010]. Moreover, Nihonjinron, states that one needs to be born of Japanese parents in order to be Japanese. Therefore, there is an important bond between Japanese identity and blood lines. In addition to that, Nihonjinron stresses the importance of Japan’s culture and encourages its protection from allegedly corrupting foreign influences [Yang 2010]. Thus, according to Nihonjinron it is virtually impossible to transcend the divide between the in-group constituted by the majority Japanese and the out-group such as cultural and ethnic minorities.

Globalism tends to share one important characteristic with Nihonjinron, its hegemonic aspirations. This cultural model claims that there is a global culture modeled after that found in the international halls of power such as in the World Economic Forum, diplomatic conduct, and multinational corporations, which represents the global consensus of “best-practices” [Barber 1996; Marchetti 2009]. While there are several versions of globalism most agree that English is and should be the global language, that Western dress such as the suit and the tie should be the standard, and that the ideas and practices embodied in the discourse of human rights have universal validity [Eriksen 2005; Saul 2006]. Therefore, Globalism is opposed to cultural relativism and has the implicit agenda of spreading global culture in order to eventually achieve the assimilation of individual cultures or at least cultural convergence [Fukuyama 1992]. Thus, globalism is threatening to local cultures for a variety of reasons such as the dichotomy it creates between being a global citizen and therefore part of modernity and being a traditional subject and thus part of an outdated world [von Feigenblatt 2009a; Oke 2009]. This leads to the conclusion that if a local practice or custom is incompatible with this so-called global consensus then it is outdated and invalid [von Feigenblatt 2010a]. A clear example of this can be found in family law as practiced in Muslim countries, which is clearly incompatible with the norms and values encompassed in the global human rights discourse [Kim, Fidler, & Ganguly 2009; Liow 2006; Merry 2006]. Needless to say the ascendancy of the discourse of Globalism with the onset of Globalization has threatened local cultures and raises fears of silent historic-cultural oblivion for those who espouse traditional customs and practices [Benedek 1999; von Feigenblatt, Suttichujit, Shuib, Keling, & Ajis 2010; McCargo 2008; Swain 2009].

A third cultural model is the one proposed by Jan Nederveen Pieterse, cultural hybridity [Pieterse 2007, 2009]. This model views culture as more fluid and dynamic than the previously presented models. According to this model culture in our rapidly globalizing world is characterized by a state of hybridity in which traditional cultures interact and blend with foreign customs and practices [Mulder 1996]. Moreover, traditional practices are constantly reinvented and adapted to present conditions. Thus culture looks like an smorgasbord of cultural elements held together tentatively by a web of values and social norms. Therefore, this view of culture is not essentialist and recognizes the contingent and constructed nature of culture as it is constantly being reinvented depending on external factors and circumstances [Clark 1989; Murdock 1955]. At the same time, this view differs from Globalism in that no ideal final culture is envisioned nor is convergence predetermined. Nevertheless, Pieterse’s model has an additional strength, the way it explains ethnic relations. Pieterse mentions four Weberian ideal types. The ideal types are: domination ethnicity, enclave ethnicity, competition ethnicity, and optional ethnicity [Pieterse 2007: 40]. Domination ethnicity is also known as ethnocracy and it describes the relationship between a dominant ethnic group and ethnic groups [von Feigenblatt, 2009b]. The key characteristic of domination ethnicity is that the dominant ethnic group defines national culture and aims to negate the existence or destroy other ethnic groups. Any cultural expressions by cultural minorities are repressed and the full power of the state is mobilized in order to promote a single version of history [von Feigenblatt et al.: 2010]. Moving to enclave ethnicity one finds an equally lopsided relationship between the dominant group and other ethnic groups but with the important difference that ethnic minorities are allowed to practice their culture in highly circumscribed areas. Thus, ethnic minorities are relegated to separate enclaves where they live a marginal existence denied by mainstream media and historical accounts. It should be noted that in enclave ethnicity, national culture is still defined by the dominant group and that ethnic minorities suffer discrimination when outside of their enclaves. A third type, competition ethnicity, can be observed when other ethnic groups have enough power to contest control over the definition of national culture from the previously dominant group. This may lead to violence and to historical revisionism while in other cases may result in a smooth transition to a multicultural society. The final and desired state according to Pieterse’s model is called optional ethnicity. In this state, culture becomes fluid, situational, and optional. Members of ethnic groups have the option to reject certain parts of their cultures, to incorporate those of others, or simply to selectively choose certain parts depending on the circumstances. Therefore this stage approximately resembles ideal cultural hibridity unconstrained by hegemonic cultural narratives constructed by dominant groups and free from social and essentialist pressures from other group members of minority groups. In other words, power over culture is devolved to the individual.

Onigamiden, Naruto Shippuden, and Bleach

As mentioned in early sections of this paper, Japanese animation is an important part of the country’s public sphere [Morton & Olenik 2005]. Its relationship to the public and society at large is reflexive and mutually constitutive. Thus, Japanese animation provides a reflection of society while at the same time both influencing and defining it. Based on the previous insight about animation’s close and complex relationship to the country’s society and through it to its zeitgeist, it should be possible to observe some or possibly all of the cultural discourses discussed in the previous section, namely Globalism, Nihonjinron, and hybridity, in representative works of Japanese animation.

This section will attempt to identify and explore the deep cultural current currently flowing in Japanese animation through a brief interpretive analysis of two animation series, Naruto Shippuden and Bleach, and one animated movie, Onigamiden. The three examples of Japanese animation were chosen based on their popularity both at home and abroad as well as on their reviews in terms of quality. Each work of Japanese animation is treated as a case study in order to identify and track the underlying cultural currents and by doing that being able to take a glimpse at important concerns of Japanese society at large.

Onigamiden [The Legend of the Millenium Dragon]

Onigamiden also known as “The Legend of the Millenium Dragon” was chosen as a representative example of Japanese animated movies due to its historic-mythical setting in the Heian period, inclusion of both Shinto and Buddhist symbols, and prominent origin in the well known Studio Pierrot and co-production by TV Tokyo [Kawasaki 2001; "Pierrot Produces Onigamiden Historical Film for October," 2010]. The animated movie is based on a novel by the same name by Takafumi Takada and was released in the fall of 2010. ["Pierrot Produces Onigamiden Historical Film for October," 2010]. In terms of plot, Onigamiden deals with a young boy who travels back in time 1,500 years to the Heian period. The young boy, Jun, is depicted as a peaceful middle school student who tries to avoid trouble while at the same time holding a strong sense of justice. As he is being pursued by a group of bullies, he hides in a Buddhist temple where he meets a monk, Gen’un, who leads him inside and tries to recruit him to fight for his cause. Jun emerges in the ancient city of Kyoto where he observes the intricate aesthetics of the Heian period and is thrust into the complex politics of the period.

Jun is presented with a simplistic view of the world by Gen’un. According to the monk, the civilized world is being attacked by demons from the mountains and that Jun’s hereditary power to control Oroochi, a mythical dragon, due to his direct descent from the Magatama clan, can turn the war in their favor [Kawasaki 2001]. Jun initially refuses to fight until he is thrust into the heat of battle by the horror and carnage of the many confrontations between the monks and the oni. It should be noted that throughout the story, Jun develops strong friendships with several characters and later on discovers that the oni are really only marginalized humans who wear a mask to defend themselves against the encroaching monks. This realization is made even more poignant when Jun discovers that one of the monk’s best warriors is the child of parents from both worlds who eventually decided to join the monks in battle.

After spending some time with the oni, Jun realizes their humanity and legitimate needs and interests while at the same realizing that the city dwellers have equally valid interests such as security from raids. Nevertheless, the most important aspect of the plot is the way in which Jun ultimately uses the power he attains through the mastering of Oroochi. Jun harnesses the power of the dragon to play the role of the forceful peacekeeper rather than by taking sides. The movie revolves around Jun’s hesitation about whom to trust and offers an interesting depiction of intrapersonal and interpersonal conflict in both contemporary and ancient Japan.

In terms of setting and artistic style, Onigamiden follows a traditional naturalistic style that exaggerates certain features of nature while at the same time omitting others. This particular aesthetic style is characteristic of the Heian period and is considered to be at the core of Japanese aesthetics. Naturalistic representation of nature is not only present in the actual art work of the animation itself but permeates the architecture, gardening, and decoration of the early origins of Kyoto depicted in the movie. The choice of setting in terms of localization is also of particular importance. As the country’s ancient capital, Kyoto holds a special place in Japanese history [Morton & Olenik 2005]. It embodies the core characteristics of the Yamato people’s aesthetic taste and represents the early beginnings of a proud Japanese civilization. Thus, the choice of Kyoto is purposeful rather than coincidental and helps to create a mythico-traditional setting for the plot.

Nihonjinron and Hybridity in Onigamiden

Onigamiden is not considered to be one of the best animated films of the last decade however its prominent origin in Study Pierrot and international release by Sony make it a mainstream example of a flagship product of the Japanese animation industry. Moreover, the movie’s plot is characteristically Japanese due to the issues it explores. At the core of the plot there are certain recurrent themes such as the relationship between peace and conflict, the destructiveness of war, the importance of ancestry and tradition, and finally the definition of what it means to be Japanese. While those are the main themes there are many more secondary issues such as the role of women, the meaning of friendship, and school bullying in contemporary Japan, inter alia.

The movie attempts to break dichotomous thinking by exploring the relationship between apparent opposites and then showing how the two are one and the same. This process is similar to dialectical thinking but has a much older tradition in Buddhism [Donald S. Lopez 2004]. The first theme that is explored through this method is the issue of modernity versus tradition or now versus then. Early scenes of the movie showing Jun facing bullying and observing violence in the streets of modern day Kyoto are contra posed to the violence in ancient Kyoto. In other words, the journey through the Temple back into the past has changed only superficial aspects of society but not core issues such as violence, greed, and power.

Another important theme is that of marginalization and forceful assimilation. The word Oni can be translated as demon but has a much complex meaning than its English counterpart. Reider has explored how the meaning and popular depiction of oni has changed in Japan from “frightening and diabolical” to marginalized and rebellious, and finally to “cute and sexy” [2003]. The first transformation is the one that applies to the present discussion of Onigamiden since it focuses on the transformation of Oni from demons or devils to rebels and those outside mainstream society. According to Reider’s review of the literature, Japanese depiction of Oni started to incorporate those outside the fold of civilization due to the government’s attempt to dehumanize them and thus justify their exclusion, forceful assimilation, or at times even their virtual annihilation [2003]. Therefore, this transformation of the meaning and limits of the group defined as oni, occurred in tandem with the Japanese government’s civilizing mission aiming to bring a surprisingly vast array of cultural groups into a single cultural fold. Thus, the groups that were deemed to be oni constantly shifted and changed depending on the socio-political conditions of the time. At one point miners and those living secluded lives in the mountains were deemed to be oni due to their different cultural practices [Reider 2003]. At other times entire cultural groups such as the Ainu were considered to possess magical power and therefore were included in the oni label.

It is important to explore the reasons behind the transformation. As previously noted the purposeful use of the oni label to dehumanize those outside the fold of “civilization” was effectively used by the government in order to advance its centralizing and unifying mission. Nevertheless this ignores the parallel socio-cultural processes that took place in the public sphere. Average citizens dwelling in the cities and villages feared the unknown and due to the early weakness of the state, were frequently subjected to raids and attacks by bandits. Thus, the forests, the mountains, and the dark were both revered and feared due to their position outside of the circle of civilization.

Onigamiden’s central conflict revolves around the struggle between civilization as defined by those in power in the cities against those at the margins fighting to protect their way of life and cultural practices. In the movie, Jun is told by Gen’un that they are under constant attack by oni but after a few skirmishes he discovers that the supposed Oni are just humans wearing masks for battle. Symbolically, the Oni reside deep in the forests and the mountains and their traditional dress is clearly distinct to that worn in the refined cities of the Heian period. Therefore, the Oni in Onigamiden are defined as Oni by those at the center of power in order to justify their forceful assimilation.

Another important example of this struggle in the movie is that civilization is shown to be Buddhist while Oni are clearly animists or proto-Shintoists. Nevertheless, the separation of the two religious worlds is not as absolute as it seems since Gen’un and those in the monastery seem to recognize the power of certain Oni magic and of ancient deities such as the dragon Oroochi [Kawasaki 2001]. Therefore the dichotomy is not the separation between Buddhism and proto-shintoism but rather the institutionalization of religion in the service of the state. In other words, it is about the taming of religion and the spirits to further the elite’s civilizing mission. What is feared is not the spiritual itself but rather the untamed spirit of the mountains and the forests.

Jun’s internal conflict over whom to help and why embodies contemporary Japan’s struggle to find an identity. Notwithstanding the movie’s heroic representation of the Oni in their lopsided battle against the capital, the movie implies that a single culture emerges from the struggle, which is symbolized by Jun’s stroll through modern day Kyoto. This implied Japanese essence is at the core of the discourse of Nihonjinron. Therefore, Onigamiden is a modern day representation of Nihonjinron juxtaposed against the possibility of hybridity. While the movie shows the heroic struggle of the supposed oni against the capital, the result of the struggle is left open and the glimpse that we get of modern day Kyoto hints at the victory of the capital. Nevertheless, the victory of the capital representing civilization does not imply the annihilation of the marginalized but rather their assimilation into the new mainstream. Therefore even if Onigamiden is interpreted as an epic about resistance against centralized control, the result is not meant to be permanent differentiation nor long lasting separation.

Naruto and Naruto Shippuden

Naruto and its sequel Naruto Shippuden are one of the most successful animated series ever produced by Studio Pierrot ["Shonen Jump Naturo Shippuden": 2007]. Naruto’s success transcends borders as the series has been exported to Europe, Latin American, and North America. The original story was written by Masashi Kishimoto in 1997 for publication as a comic in Akamaru Jump ["Shonen Jump Naturo Shippuden": 2007]. Originally, the first Naruto series lasted for 220 episodes and was broadcast in Japan by TV Tokyo. In 2007 the sequel was released, Naruto Shippuden, which is still airing as of the writing of this study. Naruto was chosen for inclusion in this study due to its international success and also due to the way the characters blend international and Japanese cultural practices.

The plot revolves around the life and adventures of Uzumaki Naruto. Naruto’s childhood is marked by his strong urge to be acknowledged by the rest of the village. Right before his birth, the village of Konoha [also known as Hidden Leaf] was attacked by an evil spirit/demon known as the Nine Tails Fox. The head ninja [Hokage] defeated the demon and sealed it in Naruto’s navel before passing away. Due to Naruto’s identification with the demon, most villagers shun him and he has few friends. The animated series then follows his adventures as he grows up, goes to Ninja school and eventually joins a Ninja team and makes a few friends.

In terms of setting, the story takes place in an imaginary world with its own geography but that resembles feudal Japan in terms of political administration. There are several lands identified by an element, such as Wind, Sand, Rain, and Fire. Each land belongs to a feudal lord who is protected by hidden Ninja villages which are headed by a Kage or head ninja. The different lands maintain the peace through a delicate balance of power which at times leads to Great Ninja wars. Each hidden village is headed by a Kage who is appointed for life and has near absolute power over the village. Ninjas are divided by ranks into genins, chunins, and jonins with the latter being the highest rank. Each village has a medical team and the equivalent of a secret police.

The physical features of the characters range from clearly Japanese to dark skinned and possibly Middle Eastern. It is interesting to note that some villages show ethnic diversity with inhabitants showing a vast array of racial traits such as Chinese features and blond hair. Nevertheless in terms of food, Hidden Leaf Village appears to be Japanese as attested by the prevalence of noodles such as ramen. Written language does not reflect any existing language but rather original markings resembling simplified katakana. In terms of architecture, most buildings are neutral with the exception of the Uchiha clan house which is clearly Japanese.

Naruto and Globalism/hybridity

Naruto shows elements of both hybridity and Globalism in both the themes it covers as well as in the way they are depicted. Issues such as deference to authority and hierarchy, the meaning of honor and friendship, the relationship between war and peace, and loyalty are explored in a way that aims to transcend cultural barriers. The transnational way in which the previous topics are treated partly explains the global success of Naruto but at the same time some important Japanese cultural traces are evident which implies hints of an underlying hybridity rather than a pure globalism.

One way to simplify the difference between globalism and hybridity is by comparing a salad bowl to a melting pot. The proverbial metaphor comparing the assimilation of early immigrants in the United States to a melting pot implies that cultures are thrown into a boiling cauldron and something new results from the blend [von Feigenblatt et al. 2010]. Nevertheless it is important to note that the initial ingredients cannot be recognized after the product emerges from the melting pot. In contrast to this, the salad bowl metaphor implies that the initial ingredients maintain their defining characteristics even after becoming part of the resulting salad. In the case of Naruto it is possible to identify certain elements that can be attributed to particular cultures.

One example is the name of certain characters such as Rock Lee who clearly uses Kung Fu and shows a hairstyle that resembles Chinese culture. Another example is the skin color of the inhabitants of the Lighting Village who have darker skin and could possibly represent Middle Eastern countries. Even musical styles can be identified in the Naruto series, most music played in relation to Hidden Leaf village tends to be Japanese, such as traditional enka music. On the other hand hip hop is present in the Lighting Village. Therefore in terms of cultural characteristics Naruto closely resembles hybridity rather than globalism.

Naruto and War

Naruto explores one of the most frequent themes in Japanese animation, the meaning and significance of War. The plot talks about four great Ninja Wars that involved the entire Ninja world and resulted in great destruction and suffering. War is depicted as an undesirable event that should be avoided at virtually any cost. Nevertheless, Ninjas, as warriors are duty bound to protect their villages and to go to war if needed in order to protect their way of life. It is important to note that governance in the Ninja world is not democratic and therefore wars are fought for more basic needs such as protecting friends, family members, and their homes. There is an important element of honor and shame involved in the reasons for going to war. Examples of this include the main antagonism between Sasuke Uchiha and Naruto Uzumaki. Sasuke is a survivor of a prominent clan that was destroyed under the orders of the Hidden Leaf Village Leadership and he set about searching for power in order to get his revenge. His longing for power is partly in order to reestablish the honor of his clan. Even Naruto’s search for power is also a search for recognition and acknowledgement which is a form of honor. The centrality of issues of shame and honor is characteristic of Japanese culture and is shown as a powerful factor driving people to war.

Another important theme related to war is hierarchy and organizational behavior. As previously explained, Ninja villages, and the world in the Naruto series are very hierarchical. The overarching political governance is feudal in nature, with a Lord overseeing a Land or territory. Each village is in turn headed by an appointed Kage who usually serves for life and has virtually absolute authority. The Ninjas are in turn sorted into ranks, genin, chuunin, and jonin. Notwithstanding the series’ emphasis in hierarchy and clear high power distance, challenges to this hierarchical view of the world are also present. The best example of this is Naruto whose power at times rivals or even surpasses those of the jonin while at the same time he fails to rise through the ranks and remains a genin for most of the series. His friends get promoted faster while at the same time he takes the initiative to play a pivotal role in the life of his village. This shows how informal power may at times trump formal authority. At the same time this explores the theme of free will/agency versus destiny.

Naruto is the son of the fourth Kage of the Hidden Village but his origin remains a mystery to himself and to most of his friends for most of his life. Therefore he grows up thinking that he has a very low birth and that he has to gain respect and recognition through his own efforts. This leads him on a lifelong quest to prove that a person can construct his or her own destiny through sheer will power and effort rather than having to follow a preordained path. His conflicts with members of the Hyoga Clan and with Sasuke of the Uchiha clan are great examples of this pivotal theme. Another example of this is the case of Rock Lee who is a ninja of humble origins who could not manipulate chakra and who had to overcome considerable obstacles to become a Ninja. One of the key characteristics of being a ninja is the ability to manipulate chakra and his handicap was considered to be an insurmountable obstacle by most of the other ninjas. Therefore his dedication and will power to train to overcome his obstacle by concentrating in other skills such as hand to hand combat shows that there is such a thing as free will.

Naruto as both a Domestic and a Global Product

One of the interesting characteristics of the Naruto series is how it has both a domestic and a global appeal. The series is inherently Japanese while at the same time global in that it deals with universal themes and emotions through mostly neutral symbols. This peculiar universality can be understood when compared with Onigamiden’s strong Japanese essence. Both series are a product of well known Japanese animation studios and both make use of relatively similar animation techniques prevalent in contemporary anime, however the target audience for Onigamiden is clearly domestic while that of Naruto is both domestic and global.

There is no contradiction in Naruto being both domestic and global at the same time since works of fiction such as novels and short stories tend to have overlapping layers of meaning intended to reach different audiences, classified based on their levels of sophistication as well as on their degree of involvement in the culture supplying the array of semiotic symbols in use. One key sign that Naruto’s creators had both audiences in mind are the explanations provided for the few culture-specific symbols included in the series. The explanations are usually provided by other characters, usually older ones, who explain certain traditions as the way things are done in particular situations or in other lands. These cultural cues show that a certain sector of the target audience was not expected to be imbued in the web of meanings of Japanese culture. Thus, those explanations are there for the cultural outsider while at the same time reinforcing those same meanings for the insider. Another important evidence of the assertion of the intended global audience is the avoidance of Japanese characters/script and the instrumental use of religious symbolism always followed by an in-depth explanation for the implied outsider.

The previous discussion does not obviate the fact that certain aspects of the series have a culture-specific appeal. One clear example of this is the erotic humor [ero/hentai] surrounding Naruto’s teacher as well as himself. The reason for this is that perverted humor is more accepted in Japan than in other cultures [Kelts 2006]. This kind of behavior and of humor is considered to be innocuous and comical in Japan while it is considered highly offensive in countries influenced by a Judeo-Christian tradition such as the United States. Naruto’s placement in late scheduling and its rating as for 17 or above can be explained mostly by this culture specific sexual humor. Other examples include the drinking of alcohol by minors and by respected women, such as by the Hokage Lady Sunade. Her gambling and drinking are contra posed to her wisdom and power as a Ninja in a comical way that blurs the borders between good and evil in the Judeo-Christian sense. This kind of humor and trivializing of vice is particularly Japanese and thus targeted at a domestic audience rather than intended to appeal to a global audience [Chizuko 2010; Kelts 2006; Reider 2003].

Bleach and Hybridity

Bleach is another highly popular animated series. The aforementioned series has also enjoyed worldwide success but has a very different appeal than Naruto. Bleach was created by Tite Kubo and was produced by Studio Pierrot ["Bleach Anime Guide: The Creator": 2009]. This long running series has being airing since 2001 and is still ongoing. As usually happens with most animated series, Bleach first appeared as a manga and was then adapted to an animated format. In terms of distribution, Bleach is distributed internationally by Viz Media and is aired in the United States by Cartoon Network in its Adult Swim section ["Bleach Anime Guide: The Creator": 2009].

In addition to Bleach’s international distribution, it is also a highly popular series in Japan and thus enjoys both domestic and international success. The series is supported by longer movies as well as the manga series. In terms of demographics, Bleach appeals to a narrower international audience than Naruto due to the higher complexity of its plot as well as due to the religious aspects of the story. The following section will provide a brief summary of the story in order to delve deeper into the cultural characteristics of the animated series.

Bleach: The Story

Bleach has a very complex plot but the main story is centered on two pivotal locations, Karakura town and Soul Society ["Bleach Anime Guide: About": 2009]. Karakura Town is supposed to be located in Japan and is meant to represent the average Japanese town. On the other hand, Soul Society is supposed to exist in the spiritual realm. Soul Society is the mythical home of the Soul Reapers also known as the Shinigami. The job of the Shinigami is to put the souls of the dead to rest and to help them move on. In addition to that it is their job to hunt down evil souls and to purify them in the world of the living. They undertake their functions with a spiritual sword called a zanpakuto which is used to fight against the evil spirits.

At the beginning of the story a teenager called Ichigo Kurozaki meets a Soul Reaper who is fighting a lost soul also known as a Hollow. The Soul Reaper, Rukia Kuchiki, is hurt and transfers her Shinigami powers to Ichigo to fight the Hollow. The problem is that once she transfers her powers they remain with Ichigo. Ichigo always had the power to see dead spirits but tried to hide the fact from the rest of his friends. This partly explains his spiritual powers and his ability to absorb Rukia’s Shinigami powers. The rest of the story revolves around Ichigo’s quest for power in order to protect his friends from a vast array of spiritual and human enemies.

Bleach and Hybridity

Bleach is a very good example of the crosscurrents of Japanese cultural politics due to its dual nature, as an essentially Japanese product while at the same time incorporating global cultural elements. The core of the plot revolves around traditional Japanese beliefs about the afterlife and its interaction with the world of the living. Japanese traditionally believe that spirits coexist with humans and that those spirits can be good and evil depending on the circumstances [Morton & Olenik 2005; Yoshida 1984]. At the same time Shintoism posits the possibility of purifying evil spirits through charms, scrolls, incantations, and other rituals [Morton & Olenik 2005]. The Japanese nature of the religious plot of the series is clearly evident by the vocabulary that is used to describe it as well as the architecture and dress of Soul Society. Moreover, Ichigo’s school as well as his home town are clearly Japanese.

Notwithstanding the previously mentioned Japanese elements the series borrows heavily from foreign cultural traditions such as Christianity and Caribbean Santeria, inter alia. Spanish is favored as the second most prevalent language in spiritual vocabulary. For example the equivalent of Hell is called Hueco Munco which means abyss world. The main warriors of that world are called Espada which means sword in Spanish. Their special attacks are also named in Spanish. Moreover, one of the main characters, Sado, represents an often ignored minority in Japan, those of mixed Japanese and Latin American descent. Sado’s physical appearance shows traits from both ethnicities and his behavior fits Japanese culture while at the same displaying some foreign characteristics. In addition to that his special moves all have names in Spanish such as his strongest attack called “El Directo” which means the direct one in Spanish. Another example of a character showing a hybrid nature in terms of culture is Ishida who is supposed to be a human warrior with spiritual powers that he can use to mold bows and arrows to attack his foes. Ishida is presented as one of the last members of the Quincy an ancient group of humans who have fought against evil spirits for hundreds of years but whose numbers dropped drastically two hundred years ago and now there are only two members left. The Quincy are clearly inspired by the Christian Orders of Knighthood such as the Sovereign Order of Malta and the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher whose influence is shown in terms of the uniform worn by the Quincy as well as by the symbolism of the cross. Nevertheless it is interesting that Ishida is clearly of Japanese ethnicity and notwithstanding this factor his culture and legacy is European. This subtle separation between ethnicity and culture is also noticeable in other characters such as Ichigo and Shinigamis such as Rangiku Matsumoto. Both have Japanese last names and cultures but ethnically they display Western features such as light hair and in the case of Rangiku, light eyes. This is an important example of the weakening of Nihonjinron in Japan and the weakening of the concept of race, at least in this example of Japanese animation.

On the other hand there are important elements that clearly show Japan’s rich cultural heritage. The pride of place given to the sword as an extension of a warrior’s soul is one such example. Swords are supposed to house ancient spirits that need to be molded and subdued by the wielder in order to be effective in battle. This view of the sword as a destructive and purifying object at the same time is particularly Japanese in nature and resembles the view of the sword held by the ancient Samurai.

Parallel to this is the view of honor presented in the series. Honor is presented from a clearly Japanese point of view displaying both the sensitivity to public shame so prevalent in modern Japan but also the guilt present in ancient Bushido [The Way of the Samurai]. Several characters are motivated by the fear of public shame of losing in battle while others also have a very strong sense of honor in that they have to risk their lives to protect the people they love. In the case of Ichigo, the main character, he has a very strong sense of honor that transcends shame and includes guilt. Ichigo does not fight for glory but rather for his own sense of honor and duty to protect his friends as well as everyone around him. On the other hand other characters such as Kuchiki Byakuga have different values and fight mostly to protect their reputations.

War is a recurrent theme in Bleach as well as in large proportion of Japanese animation in general. Bleach presents war as an undesirable cyclical event with the potential to bring out the best and the worst in people. Some people will rise to the challenge and attempt to protect their loved ones as well as those weaker than themselves while others will fight for the sheer pleasure of fighting. In terms of destructiveness, Bleach depicts war as dangerous junction between destruction and creation of something new. Therefore, Bleach shows the traditional Japanese preoccupation with the destructive power of war as well as its capacity to cleanse and allow for the development of something new and improved. The present Japanese aversion to war can be traced back to the traumatic experience of losing the Pacific War [World War II] and to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagazaki. Nevertheless, Bleach’s depiction of war is not as pacifist and totalizing as the one that became prevalent in Japan during the post-war period. War can be justified in Bleach if it waged in order to protect important principles and values. In addition to that War is a great opportunity to show bravery and courage.

Bleach is an example of hybridity in Japan’s public sphere. The series does not present a harmonious integration of cultural elements leading to an integrated and assimilated Japanese culture but rather offers a cacophony of cultural traits in a constant state of flux. This is shown with a constant emphasis on time and the possibility of change. While Soul Society is in the spiritual realm it is not immune to time through the process of change. Therefore, Soul Society’s tribulations and challenges in a way represent Japan’s obsession with the past and stability while Kurokara town represents modern Japan as an unsettled salad bowl.


Japanese animation is a window to Japan’s public sphere and the three examples discussed in this paper provide a representative sample of the industry. Onigamiden, Naruto, and Bleach are some of the most successful examples of contemporary Japanese animation. Moreover, they represent ideal types in the Weberian sense in terms of cultural worldviews. Onigamiden shows the strongest traces of Nihonjinron while Naruto and Bleach display characteristics of both hybridity and globalism. It should be noted that the demarcation between one worldview and another is not as clear in reality as it is in theory. This reflects the Japanese state of mind encompassing a yearning for modernity, or postmodernity, as well as a strong nostalgia for the past, real or imagined.

It is interesting to observe the struggle between the different views of cultural identity as they are represented in prominent examples of Japanese animation. The results of the present study show that Japanese society is torn between an irrational attachment to an idealized and partially imagined past and a longing for a future as part of the community of nations. Thus, the Japanese want to both remain Japanese as well as to become more global. Nevertheless there is a problem with the previous set of goals. Japanese identity has historically being exclusivist which precludes the possibility of integrating it or transcending it in order to assimilate to a global or hybrid culture. This is the reason why it is so important to define or redefine Japanese identity in order to be able to solve the previously posed dilemma.

The core conflict between an exclusivist Japanese identity and the need to transcend it in order to join the global community is at the center of Japan’s socio-political development as well as its economic aspirations. Issues as diverse as regional integration, international trade, and education are affected by the conflict between the two forces. In the case of regional integration it makes it difficult for Japan to negotiate a stable and clear role in the international realm. This is something that was pointed out early by prominent Japanese scholars of the Kyoto School even before the end of World War II [Williams 2004]. Hajime Tanabe famously discussed the challenge of establishing a Co-prosperity Sphere among nations and the conflict between vertical and horizontal relationships among nominally sovereign nations [Williams 2004]. The tension between the national interest and regional goals can only be overcome through a clear and stable positioning as a benevolent hegemon that integrates the needs of the group of nations while at the same time keeping in mind its own interests. This can only be done by achieving self-understanding or subjectivity as Tanabe calls it. It follows that true regionalism can only achieved if Japan achieves this level of understanding which according to the present study, has not occurred yet.

In the economic realm similar problems are encountered such as the irrational policy in sectors such as Agriculture and the media. Japan’s protection of an inefficient farming sector is an example of the lingering power of Nihonjinron linking traditional rice farming with national identity. Issues such as the protection of the farming sector have made it difficult for Japan to enter into broad free trade agreement and initially slowed down the negotiations for a region-wide free trade area including the United States, Australia, and other regional economic powerhouses [Drysdale, 2010; Hwang, 2006]. At the core of the problem was the issue of a lack of a clear subjectivity and thus a temporary loss of purposeful agency.

In summary, Japan’s animation industry represents an important and dynamic part of the public sphere and thus it displays the contradictions, battles, and tensions over national cultural identity. The present study, based on three examples of recent works of Japanese animation, shows that Nihonjinron is still strong but is increasingly in competition with hybridity and globalism as alternative views of culture. Nevertheless, another important finding is that the three can coexist in a single sample representing a holistic and nuanced view of the contemporary Japanese mind.


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