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Sometimes, we as otakus can not help but look back to that (hopefully) distant day when we started watching anime. The journey has been long but amazing, with all those memorable characters and great stories. They can seem so real to us, that we fantasize about sharing their daily life. By now, we know a lot about Japan thanks to anime, so we can get through if we visit the country, right?
If you are lucky enough to have visited Japan for up to 6 months, you might be ready to assure that it is the best of the best. The streets are clean and people are friendly. You also had the chance to sleep on a futon, wearing traditional clothes, eating ramen, going to karaoke, and shopping at the biggest anime stores in the world. Ok, all of that is great. But what happens when you come to Japan for a longer stay?
A lot of people have suffered from what is known as a cultural shock because, oh surprise! The beautiful country that is portrayed in anime is a caricature of the real Japan. And let’s be fair here, Japan is a beautiful country. The thing is that there are several differences between the idealized representations of anime and reality. Wanna pick up some of those?
The anime life!
A lot of anime start in the same fashion: the main character wakes up, rushes down the stairs, eats breakfast (or just grabs a toast) and runs towards the school. He/she has a crush on the popular guy/girl, who is unbelievably hot, talented, intelligent and rich. He/she also has a gang of friends as companions for their adventures. And then something exciting happens.
Sometimes the life of the protagonist becomes amazing because of a great encounter with a club or new friend. On other occasions, the supernatural comes to life! Or maybe it’s a combination of both. Anyway, on the school realm, we usually have a safe and clean space where the protagonist can participate in all sorts of activities. And oh, those summer and winter camps! Who has not fancied their favorite anime when a good ghost story or a push to the romance comes around? How about the traditional festivals? (matsuri). Then, we get Christmas (which is focused on couples) and Valentine’s day with chocolates. The worst thing that can happen is to be rejected by the crush in turn, but hey, your friends and/or family will be there to support you when that happens.
And when you work? Well, your workmates will also be there for your adventures in the office. Technology is everywhere, and both human and machines will be efficient enough to make the world go round. And when you come back home, you will be received by your lovely wife and children. Or, if you are a woman, you will count on a devoted husband who works hard for you.
The real life
We have mentioned in past articles that Japan still has a hierarchical society, which is directly reflected in their school and working system. Japan is also obsessed with quality, thus its emphases on education. The type and status of the school you attend influences the type of University you will be accepted in… which in turn, will influence which company will most likely hire you. That is why parents are so… determined about their kids education. And that is why teaching is among the most respected professions in Japan.
So, sorry my dear otakus. Teachers might be funny in anime and perhaps a bit in real life too, but they are definitely not amateurs, and will try to form a connection with their students in order to provide a better and more integral care. Classes for Japanese kids last around 6 hours, but once they are finished, everyone heads to their clubs, lessons… or the parents’ favorite, the cram school. Especially in the last years of high school, these cram schools are essential to pass the University exams. Sometimes you have seen glimpses of this in anime. Cram schools are those sadly looking square rooms where students hit the books for hours.
Also, English language schools are favored, as globalization has been taken seriously by the Japanese government. This means Japanese students have a very busy life schedule starting when they are toddlers. One common strategy to make them learn as much as they can is to start their education earlier and earlier… although there are several scientific studies that have disproved this method. Parents are simply too worried that their child will be left behind, as competition is high in Japan.
All that pressure builds up inside the students, of course. Many Japanese are afraid of becoming a failure for their parents and their society. Do you remember the name that is given to people who fail the University entrance examination? They are called ronin, the same name samurais without master used back in the Edo period. A lot of anime portrait ronins as comical guys who somehow manage to enter to the University and conquer a gorgeous girl on the way. Reality is not always that merciful, though. Ronins sometimes go to special camps that take them away from society only to hit the books for months in a row. They get part time jobs to pay their special school fees and are extremely worried about failing again.
So, congratulations! You made it to University! Although you will be as busy as before, you will get one step ahead of others to find the job of your dreams, find a lovely match, and raise a family! Um… not precisely. The Japanese government has found that nearly 40% of the population between 20 and 30 years are not interested in having a romantic relationship. The lower their economic level, the less interested they are. Once again, the race for success is the main aim for the Japanese. A romantic partner is seen as an obstacle and not as the reason to live usually represented in anime.
Let’s suppose you graduate and start at a company. You also find someone to marry thanks to the intervention of your family, a speed dating restaurant, the internet, or just by sheer luck. It is not an arranged marriage, you chose your spouse! Surely it will work, right? Well, according to some polls, around half of the marriages in Japan are sex-less marriages. The reason for the guys is that they are too tired due to work, while the reason for the ladies is that “sex is bothersome”.
And don’t even start me on interracial couples. The pressures society put on them sometimes are too much to bear. This situation is slowly changing, but perhaps the main barrier such couples face is their own mutual incompatibilities, which are not so obvious until they have known each other for years and/or share a life together. Thus, the typical anime where star crossed lovers conquer everything is, once again, a beautiful tale. The reality of Japanese marriage is usually more monotonous and challenging.
Let’s not forget about work. In some aspects, it is a follow up of your studies. Especially in large corporations, you have little free time, and as a newbie, you will be paid little. Japanese start low from the basics and rely on their senpais to teach them the tricks of the profession. You will also have fun times with your workmates out of obligation. You are expected to have a linear path, especially if you are a man. So… a change of career? Something like what happened in Uchuu kyoudai, where the salary man that is our protagonist is accepted in the national spatial training program out of the blue? Nope, that is very unusual stuff.
Let’s not forget that there is this perception that Japan is safe, clean and full of technology. Of course most of the country is known for having a higher level of safety, but crime can occur. Especially if you are a woman (sadly). Some dangerous areas include Kabukicho, Ueno, Roppongi (who would say that with such a luxurious building as the Roppongi Hills?), Kamagasaki, Shinsekai in Osaka, Susukino in Sapporo, and Nakasu in Fukuoka. Most of them are entertainment districts that should be avoided at night.
Yet anime usually depicts the great cities as fabulous utopias with skyscrapers, modern transportation and characters dressed up in the latest fashion. Sailor Moon Crystal did a good job in representing Minato-ku, the rich neighborhoods surrounding Tokyo Tower. Surprise, surprise! Usagi and her friends are from a middle-upper class. Her house is too big for a common salary man, and her boyfriend Mamoru has a neat apartment with the famous Tower on view. Even the smallest of apartments in Japan has a costly rent, my dear otakus, because the population is too big and space is scarce.
The other side of the wealth is Sanya, a neighborhood where the poorest people in Tokyo live. They usually are elders, long gone from the work force and relying on poorly paid jobs or begging to survive. And guess what? Japan also has their “invisible people”. Those who do “dirty” jobs (like leather factory workers) and should not mix with the rest of the population. Their descendants, still called burakumin, populate poor neighborhoods not far away from the cosmopolitan ones.
Finally, if you are in the countryside, you will find a totally different world. A lush, fruitful world with huts, rice fields and people who might not understand English. This is not a place where you can play Pokemon Go. Maybe the people will be friendly with you if they notice you are a tourist, but try to move in and you will find it hard at first to fit into societies that have been entangled together from past generations.
Somewhere in between?
This article does not pretend to attack anime as a misconception of real life. Anime is fiction and entertainment after all. Our aim is to go a step further and show contrasts in the real daily life in Japan that are not depicted in most anime. In such tales of heroes and enemies, can we find glimpses of the real Japan portrayed in anime?
Well, of course there are. If there is something Studio Ghibli has been recognized for, has been on their realistic capture of Japanese people, mainly children. We know this films play with fantasy, but they have a good basis on characters that you could meet in real life. Remember that Chihiro from Spirited Away was based on a real girl, for example. This girl is displeased with regular life, just like Chihiro in the first part of the film. And how about Shizuku from A Whisper of the heart? Her family lives in a typical Japanese department which, of course, is not luxurious. The story is also more into the slice of life, as Shizuku is feeling the pressure of having to deliver good exam results vs achieving her dream as a novelist.
Other good and recent examples are on the works by Makoto Shinkai. Although he has done sci-fi and also fantasy, he tends to mix them with daily life situations that every Japanese can identify with. It is not just the realism of the natural environments or the housing and transportation. The situations of bullying in schools, the family traditions and the country side life have some glimpses of reality, as shown in 5 Minutes per Second, The Garden of Words and the most recent Your Name. Japanese find them enchanting and that is part of the reason of his rising success.
So there you go, my dear otakus. Real life can be more challenging than what you see in the daily anime life. So, if you are in love with Japan and are planning to come for a long season, inform yourself well and get prepared. And of course, enjoy. Once the initial shock goes away, everything is gonna be ok 🙂 And please do tell us, which aspect of daily life in anime do you find must strange? Don’t forget that we are open to all your comments. See you soon!