Friday, September 07, 2007

Japanese Pop-Culture’s Popularity in the West: What does it mean for missions in Japan?

This post is my column for the fall issue of Japan Harvest magazine. The readers are primarily career missionaries serving with established mission organizations in Japan so the article is written specifically for that group.

Some definitions (adapted from

Manga (漫画) is a Japanese word for comics and print cartoons. Outside of Japan, it refers specifically to comics originally published in Japan.

Anime (アニメ) is an abbreviation of the word "animation". Outside Japan, the term popularly refers to animation originating in Japan.

Otaku (おたく) is a complicated word that in Japanese slang refers to a narrowly focused obsessive person. In English “otaku” is often used to refer specifically to fans of anime and/or manga, but can mean "geek."

J-Pop is an abbreviated form of “Japanese pop” and refers to popular Japanese music; it is often featured in anime.

Hayao Miyazaki is a famous creator of anime and manga. Ghibli Studios, co-founded by Miyazaki, has been called "the Japanese version of Disney."

For further information go to the The Anime and Manga Portal on wikipedia

After WW II, there was a surge of missionaries to Japan, many of whom “connected” with Japan because of the war. The current popularity of Japanese pop culture in the West may be the catalyst for a new surge of young people coming to Japan as missionaries. These young people are “connecting” with Japan via anime, manga, and J-pop. They tend to be bright, creative, media savvy, unconventional, and many aren’t interested in raising support; some young adults who fit this profile are already showing up in Japan. And, there are signs that many more will follow.

Murray Trim represented TEAM Japan at the last Urbana missions conference where he was extremely busy meeting with students interested in Japan: “I was amazed at the number of young people who came to talk to me regarding possible service in Japan who said their interest began due to their involvement with anime and/or manga.”

I sent a survey to a number of young Westerners who are, or have been, involved in Japan-focused missional activity. Eight of fourteen respondents said they are fans of Anime and/or Manga. Of those eight, four said that manga/anime was a factor in them being involved in missions in Japan.

What these young adults said:

Jesse Gillespie (artist in his twenties):
Anime is becoming more popular each year here (in the USA), and I'm amazed at how many series are being translated in print and video. There are not many series, which Americans aren't able to get in English.

Bryan Davidson (musician in early 30s):
As manga is embraced by all ages here (in Japan), understanding and caring about what our neighbors enjoy will often show we love them. To not observe the art (pop or otherwise) of a culture is a foolish and unloving mistake for any missionary to make.

Jessica Stebbing (college student):
Just like any media, people have to be careful and mindful of what is good and pleasing to God. I think some people are a little overboard and assume it is all pornography, and tend to come off as condemning of the people who are interested in it. I think it’s good to have an understanding of the good aspects of manga and anime so they can approach discussing the bad elements in a less condescending way.

Scot Eaton (graduate student):
For me, anime, manga, and video games really helped raise my awareness of Japan. They also helped me to start understanding the (Japanese) world view.

Miwa Isomura (college student):
It is very interesting that much of the manga/anime has a lot of spiritual aspect in it, more than it has in the past.

Stephe Halker (artist):
I have found no better way to understand the Japanese spirit than through its commercial arts. Couched inside every fight scene and comic situation is a myriad of epic, culturally based, moral, and ethical positions. I think it would be very difficult to learn about Japanese culture without having comics and cartoons as treasure maps and porters.

Missionaries who want to learn about manga and/or anime deal with a massive amount of material, some of which is perverted, so it is difficult to know where to start. My suggestion is to start with one of Miyazaki’s films, which are available in Japanese rental stores. In particular, I recommend “Princess Mononoke” 『もののけ姫』There is violence, so it is not appropriate for young children.

How we respond to this new surge of young adults arriving in Japan is critical. One response is to wring our proverbial hands in despair over their faults and criticize them. If we do that, we will lose the strategic opportunity to invest in the lives of these gifted young people. Instead, we need to ask constructive questions:
  • How can we help them grow and to be effective?
  • Are they going to fit into current structures and programs? Should they?
  • Should we expect them to sit through long meetings?
  • How can they contribute to media related outreach?
  • What special contributions can they make to building up the church?
These young fans of Japanese pop culture need people who believe in them, accept them as they are, guide them, and nurture them. Wow, what an exciting opportunity!

Links to pertinent articles:

Weekend Beat: Cashing in on over-the-counter culture

Manga Demographics

What's hip, fresh and appeals to young readers? MANGA!


Robin said...

Good insights. I really hope to see our missions organizations capitalize on this trend.

Paul Nethercott said...

Thanks Robin, just looked at your blog, lets keep in touch, hope to meet you sometime too.

Scot Eaton said...

As Paul said before, a lot of these people are not interested in raising support. That means a lot of us (myself included) are not involved in any organizations.

In my case, I wanted to reach out to Japanese people through the arts. It was divine appointment that Paul and I met each other outside of Japan. However, I didn't feel like I needed to be in a missions agency in order to be effective. So, I've simply gotten a job in Japan (English teaching for now), and I will be moving over there shortly. I actually hope to support myself through manga and anime translation once I learn the language.

I would love it if missions organizations started capitalizing on this trend. I would listen, and most likely join.

John W. Morehead said...

Paul, thanks for viewing Japanese popular culture with missional eyes. This is truly an opportunity for missional engagement with the Japanese people. Now that globalization has made anime almost a worldwide phenomenon, and given it's huge popularity in the West and America, I believe that this represents an opportunity for missional engagement in the U.S. as well. It is indeed time to raise a new generation of Christians who put together mythic apologetic that interacts with archethype and symbol in anime in pop culture as the 21st century succesors of Lewis and Tolkien.