Hybridity and Global Influence on Japanese Manga and Anime

The country of Japan is a master of cultural syncretism. On the one hand, Japan is widely recognized as one of the most westernized countries in Asia. Its complex history mingled with western participation and its intimate relationship with the western countries offer every reason for it to resemble the imported customs and cultures. On the other hand, Japan highly respects traditional oriental cultures and norms which is deeply rooted in its society. It exerts much efforts in preserving cultural heritage, physically and non-physically, and traditions in religions and code of conduct, such as Buddhism and Bushidō ( "way of warrior-knight") shapes the country's national spirit and social hierarchy.
This fascinating re-mix nature of Japan is also reflected in its proud manga and anime industry, which not only develops under the national cultures but also helps define the social characteristics. Japanese manga and anime are considerably influenced by imported cultural concepts and trends, which it also well absorbs the essence of local cultures. In other words, it's able to "Japanize" exotic flavors to better apply them to local, and at the same time come up with an easy way to introduce its own cultural products to the world.

This project will try to take a look at the Japanese manga and anime culture from the perspective of syncretism. It will begins with an overview of manga and anime's impact within and outside of Japan, and then examine the tradition of cultural fusion by discovering evidence in its history. After that it follows with some example of hybrid symbols and images in popular manga and anime.

Japan is a country where anime and manga its unique style are embedded in every aspect of daily life. The country in general has a mysteriously amazing power of interpreting everything in the way of this special contemporary pop art and deeply enjoys the simulacrum they create. There's hardly any other country which can develop such a world class cultural industry based on imaginary characters and can further leverage the influence to improve national strength economically. According to the Animation Market Analysis Project that the market for domestic and foreign animation in Japan increased 5.8% to 229 billion yen (about $2.55 billion) in 2010, the second annual growth in a row after a 1.6% increase the previous year.

Besides the economic benefits Hello Kitty and Pokemon bring, manga and anime also serve a significant source of cultural and sociological phenomenon in Japan. Interactive with traditional and imported cultures, national spirits, widely applied technological advance, social conditions such as employment pressure and strict social status hierarchy in school and workplace, and so on so forth, Japanese manga and anime represent what people in this country experience yesterday, think today and expect tomorrow. Manga and anime, together with other forms of modern pop art, are great vivid introduction of Japanese society. Meanwhile manga and anime mirror the society and develop based on social happening, they are also driving forces of some certain groups of people and social phenomenon, such as Otaku. It generally refers to, but no limited to, a category of Japanese young people who are obsessed with creations in manga, animee and video games and try to escape from the reality which is too much different from the fantasy. Otaku is often seen as one result from what takashi murakami called a superflat society with postmodern characteristic. Studies on this unique subculture have been paid attention in recent years by many local and western researchers. Interestingly, while as a product of a manga and anime occupied culture, otaku at the same time inspire creative works in the industry. A story named Densha Otoko (translated as Train Man) is a perfect example of this mutual impact. The movie, TV programs and manga of the same title are appropriated from a true story of a otaku chronicled on a BBS. The shy young otaku bravely stopped a drunk man from harassing a woman on the train, and a few days later the women, who was later called "Miss. Hermès", got back to him for appreciation. Having an affection for "Miss. Hermès" but no idea how to express due to lack of experience dealing with real women, the otaku asked for suggestions on the Internet. Following the numerous responses of encouragement and advices, the otaku successfully dated "Miss. Hermès". Then a publish agency organized the posts of this story into a book, which was later represented on various other media platforms. Use of the words "train man" and "Miss. Hermès" have since been extended to respectively refer to kind but extremely shy otaku or nerd, and well-educated gentle woman from a wealthy family.

It will underestimate the power of manga and animee on a national or local level. In fact they have long extended their influence to out side of the country as a vehicle of Japan's emerging "soft power". Douglas McGray discussed it in regard of cultural influence that “From pop music to consumer electronics, architecture, and animation to cuisine, Japan looks...like a cultural superpower.” (2002) He described the phenomena as the “gross national cool.” It's surprising to observe how strong the impact is, no matter in international trade, language learning, psychological recognition of Japan, or others. In 2007 a Japanese manga series about wine called Kami no Shizuku (Drops of God) resulted in increased imported wine sale in Japan. What's more interesting is that its Chinese and Korean version similarly prospered the purchase of wine in the two countries (Hardach 2007). In addition to traditional East Asian and the U.S markets for manga and anime, now there sees great potential of acceptance in Europe. Data shows in 2007, manga were the largest share of all titles translated for French readers, and furthermore in 2006 the European comic markets had already surpassed the US in market range estimates as the largest international market for manga (Comi Press 2006). Japanese government has obviously noticed the advantage it can take from the fantasy culture. It launches the "Japan Cool" project in the goal of promoting the nation's manga, anime and video game industry as a strategy to drive the whole industrial chain and overall economy. In December 2010, the government's ambition was to generate ¥12 trillion to ¥17 trillion from exports of manga and anime related products in the coming years.

Syncretism and hybridity in history
Japanese syncretized culture has been gradually established along with the development in religion, social norms and cultures, economy and modernization and post-modernization. Japan sees its born desire to invite foreign values and cultures back in its early religious practice. In C. Scott Littleton’s book “Shinto", which discusses Japanese faith and beliefs in Shinto spirituality, he describes that “the nation’s deep-rooted tendency to adapt and transform what it borrows from other cultures manifested itself... the end result being quintessentially Japanese, a seamless blend of foreign and indigenous ideas, customs, rites and beliefs.” (2002) Although Shinto was the national religion in Japan of Yamato period, it encountered many religious and philosophical schools, mostly from China, that heavily shaped the landscape of beliefs and thoughts among people of that time. Its active interaction with China helped import Buddhism in the 500s, as well as Confucianism and Taoism which came later. As Earhart comments, “although it is possible to distinguish the religions as formal traditions, each tradition is shaped in part by the other...individuals are more interested in the totality of a ritual or cult than its historical influences.” (1971) It was during this period that early manga in the form of caricatures first appeared.

It was until about 1400s and 1500s that western cultures was introduced into Japan by traders and missionaries. It was by no means a smooth introduction as the self-protected feudal society based on oriental values regarded western world as a source of corruption and scare. However, the country was completely shook with the entrance of kurofune, or the Black Ships, which forced the Japanese society to rapidly adopt western values, religions and practices. In spite of the painful transition and sacrifice in the precess, Japan benefited from its growth into modernization and therefore turned its external pressure of syncretization and pluralism into inherent pursuit. By following a successful path of modernization embracing western experience, it defeated, or at least had the leverage to bargain with, the once undefeatable China and Russia and the United States who took it into the modern world.

As Kiyomitsu Yui argued, "the basic task of modernization in Japan is quite different from that of the West" (2010). Unlike a self-discovering path in western countries' modernization, Japan set the goal of "catching up". It is described that "in Japan, since acceptance, adaptation and a short-term catch-up strategy were the key issues, Japanese syncretism, and a patchwork of religious movements had some functional relevance. Thus Japanese modernity already had some elements of post-modernity in its own modernization process, and now these elements are coming to the fore." This "catching-up" strategy actually also well articulates the early development model of Japan when it communicated and learned from other Asian countries. Thus, the open-minded national development strategy through its entire history provides the foundation for a hybrid culture in today's Japan. It's worth noting that though westernization and rooted local tradition are apparently crucial in Japan's development and art and culture have been continuously influenced by them, what's shaping the Japanese culture is not limited to the two forces. What's more important here is well elaborated by Yui that "due to Japan’s pattern of importation, the authentic borders or distinctions between genres, areas and hierarchies said to be typical of western modernity, had already been blurred during the era of Japanese modernization." (2010)

Post-modern and globalization
A reading of Japan as a site of the postmodern is not new. Rajyashree Pandey presents two approaches to this reading that one argues that Japan possesses the characteristics of the postmodern from internally with "the decentring and dispersal of modern subjectivity, the absence of logocentrism, and Japan as the empire of signs", while the other views it as "a cultural correlate of late capitalism and Japan is seen as satisfying many of the conditions that are symptomatic of the postmodern world—the complete commodi. cation of culture in which the distinction between high and low variants collapses, the proliferation of hybrid forms which lack depth, historicity, speci. city or narrative closure, the fragmentation and decentring of the subject and so on."(2001) Thought in different directions, they both agree on Japan's identity as a postmodern society where the once strict boundaries are repeated challenged. This effacement of boundaries provides countless opportunities for creative convergence of elements from diverse groups as powerful delivery of people's self-expression. As an essential part of Japanese culture and society, manga and anime with the help of technological progress embrace many characteristics of the post-modern. To identify the post-modern representations in Japanese anime and manga, Yui points out four conditions and features:"fragmentation of time and space", "aesthetisation of daily life", "de-centralization of the self or deconstruction of the subject", and "de-differentiation of borders". (2010)

All of the four criteria by Yui are closely related with globalization, which is also a key trend of post-modern. Particularly with the increasingly general adoption of new communication technology, the production and consumption of manga and anime come across geographical borders for global reach and appreciation. Readers and audience from diverse backgrounds are now actively involved in the entire chain of manga and anime. Cultures are further intertwined through people's curiosity and exploration into other countries and places encouraged by penetrable globalization trend and convenient communication tools. Advances in technology and fandom are two major driving forces of Jthe global success of Japanese manga and anime (Bryce, Barber, Kelly, Kunwar & Plumb, 2010). Government and organizations also play an important role in promoting its growth. For example, in order to avoid loss of humor in translator, Japanese government and some leading entertainment companies have taken action to facilitate co-produced anime with U.S partners. By the two sides collaborating in early stages of production, humor that make sense to local audience can be injected instead of awkward translations. (Stewart, 2006)


Shinigami is the personification of Japanese death god. It's generally recognized as the Japanese interpretation of western concept of death. It's origin remains uncertain that some believe it comes from China while others think it as an imported word from Europe where once features Grim Reapers and soul collectors. One of the studies presents a relatively specific origin of the word saying that it first appeared in 1876 when a rakugo kaidan (scared play) debut in Kyoto. The play was appropriated from an Italian Opera where an ominous fellow was named "Shinigami". The traditional Japanese culture didn't have an exact equivalent of this concept, so the word stayed and evolved to fit the local culture. Modern Japanese manga and anime seem to favor the image of Shinigami that not a few popular works are of the theme of death and death god.

It looks these manga and anime which focus on the stories of Shinigami are exclusively outputs of Japanese cultures and values. Most of the characters wear traditional Japanese outfits; Japanese style warrior swords are frequently used as weapon and sacred artifacts; the art of calligraphy and typical Japanese settings in the manga and anime further confirm its lineage with authentic Japanese flavor. However, this .way of thinking proves to be completely incorrect once the different understanding of death between Japan and the West are introduced. The Shinigami-centered manga and anime which portray the death god as evil and outrageous are in fact generated by the imported western values and beliefs. They are hybrids from increasingly deepened cultural communication.

Unlike the horrifying attitude of death in the West, Japanese appreciates the peace and beauty of death. The Japanese religious system influenced by Shinto, Taoism and Buddhism teaches people to respect yet not be scary of the end of life. Japanese people value the spiritual connection with the passed away ancestors, who are expected to protect and bestow luck to people alive. Death is perfectly mixed with gentleness and good wishes in Japan. With this cultural background, Shinigami of genuine Japanese culture should be more like a concept of harbingers or gatekeepers. It should take the similar role of its counterparts in Eygptian or ancient Roman and Greek mythology: protect the balance between space for the dead and the living and help spiritual communication between the two worlds. Nevertheless, many Japanese manga and anime take the opposite direction in the representation of Shinigami, which is closer to horror of death in western culture.

For example Death Note tells a story that a Shinigami purposely leaves in the world a supernatural notebook which is able to kill anyone whose name appears on it. The dark frightening atmosphere and thrilling plots in the book establish a figure of shinigami that is very much like the mysterious force of death in American movie series Final Destination. It's too early to jump to the conclusion that Shinigami in Japanese manga and anime are inspired by or are produced to meet western views of life and death, but it's fair to say that the fading borders between various cultures on the same concept or item provide growing opportunities to artistic creations.

Moe phenomenon and Loli
The creation and diffusion of Moe phenomenon constantly involves globalization and Japanization, which makes it a good example to demonstrate cultural interactions in Japan's manga and anime.

Moe is a Japanese slang word, which was used for the growing condition of sprout in the early years and then was borrowed by manga and anime fields as complementary words for cute pure underage girls. Since Moe as a collective cultural phenomenon was first recognized in 2003, the word has been widely extended to describe anything or anyone of pleasure and loveliness, regardless of age, gender, or origin. Young females with strong Moe characteristics are specifically classified as Loli, Japanese way to say Lolita for short. The term was originally brought from Vladimir Nabokov's book Lolita, which later inspire several movies and TV series including the classic Leon. The original story is about a middle-aged man being obsessed with an underage girl. The pursuit for adorably attractive images and the implied sexual fantasy coincide with the taste of modern Japanese culture contributing to the fast and wide spread of use of the word.

While the concept was from the West into Japan, it has been successfully localized and, more importantly, exported as a Japanized product to other parts of the world. Otaku and amateur comic artists should get the credits for pushing the digestion and re-production of Moe culture. Once Loli and other cute images have been favored in Japan, the power of cuteness fast storm neighbor countries such as China and Korea, and march into western markets in the recent years. The application of cute girls is not necessarily limited to a specific geographic location, but mostly for things that are globally accepted or used. For example, fan create Wiki-tan and OS-tan as avatars for Wikipedia and various major operating systems, such as Window-tans, Apple-tans and Linux-tans. More interestingly, each personification is portrayed based on the general comments and criticism on the operating system she represents. For instance, window XP-tan is known for wearing tight clothes and has large breasts, a representation of sarcasm on Windows XP being a bloating system and good-looking but not useful. And respond to user criticizing Windows XP fast running out of memory storage, XP-tan is always seen carrying an empty bowl labeled "memory".

Another Japanese comic as a Moe-style demonstration of global influence and Japan's own cultural system is Hetalia. It's an allegorical representation of political and historic events after World War II. The main countries involved in, the U.S, German, Japan, China, Russia, France and UK, are the exact major characters in this manga in the form of stereotyped anthropomorphic figures. And the conflict and plots in the manga are loyal to the historic facts between members of the Axis powers and Allies of World War II, only in unique Japanese visual arts.


Other examples:
An Japanese manga and anime style interpretation of Harry Potter

French actor Jean Reno's (known for Leon with Natalie Portman) and American singer Britney Spears' experience with Japanese manga and Amine
Traditional Mexico cultural art incorporate into well-known comic images

While Japanese manga and anime culture is usually acknowledge as a typical representative of contemporary Japanese culture and society, this paper argues that it is in nature a marriage between local and global cultures. Post-modern personalities of re-mix and hybridity, particularly represented in global influence, are embedded in the Japanese manga and anime. An unique history always interweaving with the rest of the world, both in the East and West, enables the country a strong ability to flexibly cross between its own culture and imported cultural concepts and values. With the recent progressing globalization pace which has a strong influence on Japan, the country's manga and anime industry start to further embrace the international cultures. Many cultural symbols and phenomenons in manga and anime which are long taken for granted actually reflect the co-existence and collaboration between local and global perspectives. Two examples, the image of Shinigami and Moe culture in manga and anime, are selected to analyse the syncretized elements included. Though not comprehensive, the examples and reviews of Japan's history and existing academic studies of relevant topics hopefully can serve as evidence for the hybrid argument of Japan's manga and anime.


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Earhart, B (1971 )Recent publications on the Japanese new religions., History of religions 10 : 375-385

Hardach, S. (2007) "Manga Spreads 'Drops of God'in Asia", Reuters News, UK, June 4, retrieved from __http://uk.reuters.com/article/entertainmentNews/idUKT29578320070604__

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Pandey, R. (2001) "The Pre in the Postmodern: The Horror Manga of Hino Hideshi", Japanese Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3

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