Storytelling mediums, such as anime, are often one of two things. One is a reflection of the impossible that we desperately wish to be true. The other is a reflection of the world we live in, even if we do not wish it to be so. The former tends to be filtered into genres such as science fiction and fantasy. The latter is usually represented in genres such as slice-of-life and romance. And while it is true that the romance genre will also explore stories we desperately wish to be real, there are five common tropes and themes found that reflect the society of Japan.
We all know that feeling of frustration from watching a romance, where two people argue over something that could be solved easily if they simply…talked. From the more recent Fukumenkei Music to something classic like Kimi ni Todoke, miscommunication, or perhaps lack of communication, is a strongly ingrained theme of romance anime.
Yet, this miscommunication is actually deeply reflective of Japanese culture and is not meant to be an exaggeration at all. Japanese culture is heavily centered on personal image and is famous for being indirect, particularly in communication. People are required to not only hold their cool in public but also back at home. The very core of their conversation comes from beating around the bush with barely any direct confrontation.
Still skeptical? Check out Netflix’s Terrace House, a reality show featuring six strangers in Japan who live in a house together. Watching their interactions with each other feels exactly the same as watching a romance anime. Any advances towards a relationship are taken at a painstakingly slow pace. Girls constantly skirt around the topic. Boys constantly poke at girls’ possible interests but never directly confront (aside from one person who came from the US). And yes, the moment they hold hands is JUST as dramatic as it is in anime.
So the next time you feel ready to shout at the computer because a couple just can’t resolve their problems because neither would talk, know that it is something people in Japan face every day.
Celebrity Outrage/Celebrity Other Life
Those who stuck around in Fuuka should remember the painful episode where fans of Koyuki raided the concert Yuu and his band performed. They threw bottles at Yuu. They screamed terrible things. They flooded his twitter account with hate tweets. To many viewers of the anime, that was an exaggeration.
Only it wasn’t.
In Japan, idols are seen as “public”. Having a personal relationship with anyone is considered an insult. Because of the nature of the industry, fans feel an entitlement of imagining idols as their own personal idols. As a result, idols are expected to remain “open” at all times to “belong” to the people that support them. This is why many celebrities in Japan hide their personal lives, such as Hiroshi Kamiya. It was only a year ago that the award winning seiyuu announced he was getting married. However, he had already been with his now-wife for years and even had a son together. The day he announced his marriage, he issued a statement asking the fans to “forgive him” for his marriage and hopes that they could still support him even with the marriage.
Anyone else probably couldn’t help but wonder why he would even apologize for marrying someone he wants to marry. But in Japan, this is customary to any celebrity whose personal lives have been poked out.
Other examples include Hana Kanezawa, who also issued a former apology once it was discovered that she was dating another fellow seiyuu. Minegishi, a singer from AKB48, was even forced to shave her hair for hiding her boyfriend. Celebrities, both males, and females, are even expected to quit their careers once their personal lives became public information.
With such an immense amount of pressure to remain “available” to their fans, it would only make sense that they would guard details of their personal lives tightly. So what seems to be an overused trope of the “secret celebrity” is the very life celebrities have to live in Japan.
There are many confessions in anime expressed through a letter. Stemming directly from Japan’s tendency for indirect communication, most people resort to letter writing as a way to directly talk about their feelings without having to be physically there.
A friend who lives in Japan told me three confession letters were sent out in her school one month. One of which was to her younger brother. Even her parents and her parents’ friends from all over Japan recalled writing and receiving confession letters in their youth. In fact, her uncle wrote confession letters for his friends back when he was in high school. He wrote a total of ten in a single year.
While a love letter is a cheesy trope of romance anime and many other romance mediums, for the Japanese audience, it is the raw truth of how people confessed, especially in high school.
Backing into wall
Even I am still guilty of having my heart race whenever I see a guy back a girl into the wall. However, it is undeniable that anime uses this particular move more than any other literary medium. There have been many questions as to whether trapping a girl is even morally acceptable. From a personal standpoint, even if I enjoy watching it, I know for a fact that I would feel a lot more scared than attracted if a guy were to do that for me. So why is this move mostly used during a romantic scene in anime?
In a Japanese version of Seventeen, a poll was taken to survey what girls considered to be the most romantic gestures. Included in there were festival dates and hair stroking, two other commonly used gestures in romance anime. Of course, the number one spot for what girls find to be “most attractive” and “most romantic” is the gesture of guys backing girls into a wall. This particular gesture is called “kabe-don”.
This is a direct reflection of the patriarchal society Japan still operates in today. Men are expected to be dominant, confident, and even aggressive in order to become successful. And while in other countries, kabe-don could even be considered threatening, in Japan, it is the embodiment of good traits that Japanese society praise men to be.
This expectation that society builds for men spills into the expectations of women as well. As a result, even fiction male characters that are portrayed as extroverted, charismatic, and to a point, aggressive, come over more popular to the female audience compared to introverted, shy characters.
This last common theme in romance shows up in more than one genre. In fact, the bullying thematic can be found in slice-of-life, shounen, fantasy, and about any other genre out there. However, I am including this because it is an important topic, and romance anime has been more successful in spreading awareness on the problem.
Bullying in Japan differs massively to bullying in other countries. In a report by the Economist, bullying in Japan in school environments is much more psychological and often involves the whole class. Bullying of disabled, biracial, and/or people with different accents often results in no disciplinary action. Instead, the bullied simply transfers schools when it becomes unbearable. Two or three specific people might bully more than others, but often the whole class teams up to ostracize the victim. In a country where collectivism matters more than individualism, to not have any friends in school is much like a death sentence. Even worse, the country’s culture to not voice one’s thoughts and complaints prevent the victim from getting help – whether from their own family or from the school, or even seeking professional help.
Anime, particularly romance, has helped shed some light on this problem. ReLife mentioned Chizuru attempting to help a victim. But bullying isn’t only found in schools. It exists just as much in the professional world. Arata himself stood up for his boss when she was being not only bullied but also sexually harassed in the workplace. More famously, the recent critically acclaimed movie, A Silent Voice, had a direct focus on the impact of what bullying has on the victim. Other anime, such as Ao Haru Ride, do not explicitly state the protagonist’s bullied past but show it through flashbacks of how girls once ostracized her.
While it can definitely be painful to watch, anime is a medium that explores the weaknesses of society. Thankfully, bullying is now being used even more in stories to help shed light on the conflict and hopefully will eventually kick the country into action to fix this particular problem.
The five points I’ve chosen to expand upon are not the only commonly used tropes of romance, neither are they the only links to Japanese culture. However, in case you ever find yourself wondering why these particular five show up so often, remember that it is because they are directly reflecting the society of Japan and is, in fact, relatable to their intended audience.