"Japanese Anime: Factors Leading to Acceptance or Rejection" by Jake Simon

Japanese Anime: Factors Leading to Acceptance or Rejection

by Jake Simon, William Patterson University

Abstract: Anime has grown to be a worldwide cultural phenomenon over the past couple of decades. With the assistance of the Internet, its popularity has only increased through social platforms, which have enabled fans to share their interests around the world. Through its popularity, anime has grown to the point that it has built a community globally that appreciates the art form. Social scientists have started to explore the growth and significance of anime as an aspect of culture that crosses borders. In some countries, however, anime has also encountered resistance, or at least a lack of enthusiasm. Various social scientific models enable us to conceptualize the extent of growth in popularity of anime in various cultures and subcultures. One aspect of this research explores barriers to growth in popularity. In some cases, limitations can be caused by a stigma surrounding anime or even with the fans who support it. The goal of this study is to increase our understanding of the cultural perceptions of anime and also to identify the factors bearing on its popularity. The study examines, among other things, the visual appeal of anime as well as cultural, sociological and historical perspectives. An empirical component of the study will assess – in a pilot study – how potential viewers think and feel about anime. We will use Qualtrics to conduct the study supplemented by a sample of respondents recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk. Based on the results of the survey, we hope to construct a preliminary model of how individuals decide to partake or not partake in anime.

Literature Review

Abbreviated background of anime entrance into the global market

As early as the 1960s, American children became aware of Japanese anime through such television series as “Astro-Boy, Speed Racer, [and] Gigantor” (McKevitt, 2010, p.898). Interesting enough, these programs were not in the same form as our Japanese counterparts were experiencing. Instead, they were edited and denationalized from the original Japanese version for the American community (p.898). For example, Speed Racer and the early version of Pokémon “had references to Japan that were carefully erased” (Darling-Wolf, 2015, p.111) for the U.S. market. There were two main reasons why this occurred. The first one being that anime distributors had to make changes that agreed with the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) standards, which were different from regulations in Japan. This was done by “edit[ing] out the blood, [changing a cigarette] into a lollipop…[and] covering up the cleavage in someway,” (Crawford, 2019, 17:52). Additionally, “American distributors often underestimate the intelligence and [open mindedness] of [those interested in anime],” as they try to “cater to the lowest common denominator of American consumption,” (Price, 2001, p.164). One of the famous examples known by anime fans are the “doughnuts” that took the place of Japanese rice balls in the 4kids Entertainment version of the Pokémon anime, even if they do look like rice balls (Crawford, 2019, 18:56). The CEO of 4kids even mentioned the modification was important in his view so that the Western and English-speaking audiences could understand it better (19:35). However, the anime fandom (die-hard fan community) wanted to watch the content in its original version. They felt their intelligence should not be underestimated by government agencies nor video distributors. To understand its global popularity, one must understand its history and the origins of its creation.

Japanese animation programs, commonly referred to as “anime”, were developed not only for children, but also adults, showing different themes that affect one’s life. These themes explored “love and death, war and peace, the historical past and the far future” (Drazen, 2003, p.viii). It was inspired by one of the world’s most influential animators in history, Walt Disney. The “artistic technique and the humanist philosophy [of Disney influenced the] study as well as entertainment for...Osamu Tezuka,” (pp.4-5). His initial focus through Japanese comics, also known as “manga”, lasted more than forty years as a cartoonist with influence “not only by Disney, but also by [the] French New Wave [of] cinema.” (p.5), which was a film movement in the 1950s and 60s dominated by filmmakers that rejected traditional film conventions. This brought his cartoons, which depicted emotion in an art form from still-images on paper, to animation. In the 1960s in the U.S., such animated characters as Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, were popular on television and film. During the same time period, Tezuka created Japan’s first animated superstar, Astroboy. Prior to this time, he was published as Tetsuwan Atomu (The Mighty Atom). This robot that looked like a young boy became very popular with both Japanese and American audiences. Through the Astro Boy series, Tezuka showed the viewers that Atom dealt with his civil rights. Unlike Disney features at the time, Tezuka “consciously and deliberately mirrored the American civil rights struggles of the day” (p.6) into Astro-boy. By Tezuka focusing on a mature subject matter, he introduced to the American audience story themes that were not shown in locally developed animated series. He showed that anime expresses concepts that are not as typically child-oriented as his Western counterparts developed in animation.

Anime has included ideas that reflect the Japanese culture, gaining a mature audience who readily accept ideas outside of their own. As anime evolved in the decades following, it included an important trait of “ancient Japanese legend, myth and history...with a contemporary twist,” (Price, 2001, p.156). Shinto, which even though it is not an actual religion in Japan, has thousands of stories and ancient myths that the Japanese population becomes familiar with when they are young. While Shinto has worshippers that believe in the supernatural, this is more a form of practicing Japanese rituals and is mainly viewed as “an aspect of Japanese life. This has enabled Shinto to coexist happily with Buddhism for centuries...something that can't be done with more exclusive religions like Christianity or Islam,” (Religions - Shinto: Is Shinto a religion?, 2009). Many Japanese animators took stories from Shinto as their basis for creating their anime series. They included examples from their culture that Western counterparts would find surprising as they did not meet with their Japanese stereotypes. One example included “many wild, strong female characters in anime” as Shinto culture has represented female deities while Japanese history has had its fair share of “empresses, priestesses [and even] artisans” (Price, 2001, p.157). These traits can be expressed in many shōjo series, since the demographic sub-category is “typically written by female authors and features relatively empowered heroines,” (Ramasubramanian & Kornfield, 2012, p.190). A greater appreciation of the Japanese culture has emerged through the mass audience of anime across the world, even though it might counter the stereotypes that other cultures have created.

There is also a large amount of different genres that anime tends to tackle. A quick search into “Anime Genres” from TV Tropes, a wiki that documents different kinds of plot devices and character descriptions in any form of media, shows the vast amount of genres listed on the web page. While some categories are named based on the main demographic reach (shōnen and shōjo), there are a vast amount of different genres that feature specific topics such as military and warfare, gaming and sports, and comedy. In modern Japanese pop culture, erotica anime or their version of porn is called “hentai” (literally translated as “abnormal” or “perverted”) (Drazen, 2003, p.60). With so many different anime genres to choose from, one can expect a significant variety of programming for the different kinds of anime.

Anime is also unique in sound. Western animation has strong orchestrations in the background to stress dramatic effects and actions. On the other hand, “anime often uses Japanese instruments [such as the samisen and wood clappers] to invoke feelings of tension and impact” (Price, 2001, p.158). These sounds are similar to the sounds heard in Bunraku Theater which is a form of Japanese puppetry. Anime also brings in other symbolisms from the Japanese culture such as zen garden and the tea ceremony (p.156). While these sounds have a symbolic, historical significance to the Japanese audience, this cultural effect might not be commonly understood by Westerners. Through the unique qualities anime holds, viewers from the U.S. and other countries have a strong interest to partake in this art form.

Studies on the growth of anime as an aspect of culture.

Anime brings together the Japanese culture, other cultures and the fantasy aspect by considering race/ethnicity and gender characteristics of the characters in their stories. As mentioned earlier, in its initial distribution stage outside of the local market, “creators/producers sometimes minimize cultural references for marketing purposes for the global market” (Fennell, Liberato, Hayden, & Fujino, 2012, p.441) However many feel before any cultural editing, anime is tied to the Japanese culture (Azuma, 2009, as cited in Fennell et. al, 2012). For example, some characters of Tezuka Osamu’s anime have unrealistic large eyes to represent cuteness and innocence and others have blond-hair and light skin (Poitras, 1999, p.102). Interpretations from this look are that anime is showing characters from other cultures that look “‘Western’ or ‘White’” (Fennell et. al, 2012, p.442). This provides the opportunity for some Western viewers to have the sense of similarity when watching anime.

Another cultural focus in anime has been the shift of how Japanese women are shown differently from their “real” gender roles in society. While Japan is ranked as having the third highest industrial outputs in the world (according to Worldatlas.com), it is ranked only 101 among 134 countries in the level of women’s empowerment (Saito, 2014). Magical girl anime, also called majokko, targets pre-adolescent girls contesting the gender roles and identities that they are familiar with since childhood. Majokko or Majo shojo has been a genre that began in the late 1960’s with much influence from the American live-action programming such as Bewitched (p.147). Since its inception this genre has shifted from the magical freedom of adolescence prior to the gendered stage of marriage to motherhood to more recently in the 21st century of girl characters having a “female friendship … which forms a pseudo-lesbian community in which girls enjoy a carefree everyday life,” (p.159). “In Japan homosexuality is neither well accepted or looked down upon but something to keep private and not too open, but in anime a few gay and lesbian characters do crop up.” (Poitras,1999, p.87) There are also new programs where boys are transforming into magical girls, thus considering those who are gender crossing. Overall, this genre has challenged the Japanese culture of not only a woman’s role (defiance to marriage and domesticity) but more recently male gender roles.

While anime is an ideal way of story-telling bringing together characters, graphic art, and cinematography, it also challenges culturally relevant topics such as homelessness, economic, environmental, and mental health issues. For example, in Tokyo Godfathers, according to Napier (2006), three homeless people find an abandoned baby in a trash can on Christmas night. Throughout the story it exposes the viewer to different themes of mental health, poverty, and gender identity as one of the homeless is a transvestite. It brings attention to society’s neglect in these areas and the need to take action. People can also develop emotional connections with anime characters. MudanTV (2017), an anime YouTuber, has noted that when he grew up with Naruto, the show really resonated with his teenage life. He can connect the titular main character with his personal life, as they both grew up figuratively and literally. Anime has put into effect the use of identifying and sharing with the perspectives of these characters and “internalizing their view of the world” (Cohen, 2009, p.229; Cohen, 2001, pp.247-248; as cited in Ramasubramanian & Kornfield, 2012, p.193). This is a strong factor as how fans connect with the anime characters.

The main customers of anime are the Japanese citizens. They have played a significant role in ensuring that anime does not lose its origin due to mass distribution. These types of fans are called “Japanophiles”. They have “organized email or letter writing companies, advocate particular stay likes or relationships, … take out ads in Japanese trade journals, or hire billboard trucks to drive...in front of Japanese studios bearing signs demanding that their favorite series be continued,” (Levi, 2006, p.49). At the same time, these fans have taken opportunities to mount campaigns at American networks to keep their favorite series going by utilizing international distribution buying power. One of the most successful campaigns was “SOS (Save Our Sailors), which took place in 1996 when Sailor Moon...was cancelled due to low ratings,” (p.49). After a series of events, the Cartoon Channel picked up the series and dubbed 17 more episodes in English to increase distribution to not only the U.S. but Australia and Canada. In fact the success of Sailor Moon motivated the creation of similar programming such as The Powerpuff Girls and Totally Spies in the U.S. and Europe (Saito, 2014, p.144). The cultural acceptance of Japanese fan input for anime has had a significant impact on both local and foreign markets.

Growth in anime acceptance globally.

When anime became popular in the U.S., people started to associate anime with its own unique style. There were even anime that were considered to make big breakthroughs. Throughout the mid to late 90s, Sailor Moon had “hundreds of Web pages sprang overnight” with “legions of devoted fans;” Dragon Ball had released a “three linked [animated] series” (Drazen, 2003, p.11), to which its second series (Dragon Ball Z) has also nearly defined and inspired many shōnen anime to this day (Super Eyepatch Wolf, 2018); and the Pokémon anime series, which according to Condry (2013) “has become one of the most widespread TV anime in history, airing in more than sixty countries” (p.165). While these shows have been introduced to American audiences through their legal exports, Americans wanted to see more. Since these shows were far overseas, as well as in a foreign language, fans relied on an unconventional method to get their anime. Through the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, before the Internet became widely available, anime made its way through college anime clubs, which formed tape-trading networks and expanded anime’s availability and popularity (Cook & Smagorinsky, 2016). “Not only did [the Internet] allow for much easier communication between [anime] fans…[but] it allowed for unofficial subtitled anime...to be distributed very easily” (Yergin, Ferris, Rodger, & Walther; 2017; p.3). Fansubbers, enthusiastic fans who translate the Japanese language of anime and provide subtitled versions for other fans, are motivated from the fondness of anime, being part of the community, and helping to promote the anime industry by widening its accessibility (Lee, 2011). Through these services, they were even able to “discuss current content without having to wait until a company decided to license a series, which often took months before the first episodes were available,” (Yergin et al., 2017, p.4). However, it can create a significant threat to the distribution of the product, as it loses its original content for mass-distribution because the copying is uncontrolled and unprotected (Lee, 2011). To gain global exposure, anime creators need to consider utilizing distributors that will adopt their work to gain global acceptance without drastically changing its original message. Currently with the availability of streaming services such as Crunchyroll, reliance on fansubbing has decreased from previous years (Yergin et al., 2017). However, these services will not resolve the fact that there are still a significant amount of shows not provided through legal streaming. Thus fansub will continue to have an influence on the global distribution channels of anime until new choices are available in the future.

One of the most early recognizable examples of globally accepted anime was Heidi, Girl of the Alps, by the famous Hayao Miyazaki. He was considered as “Japan’s greatest animation creator” (Patten, 2004, as cited in Darling-Wolf, 2016, p.500) for many of the famous animated movies from Japan. His other highly acclaimed works included My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. As mentioned previously, anime as a whole utilizes a variety of different genres and demographics. Miyazaki goes as far as challenging “many of the shōjo (young female) stereotypes [by having his] girl characters [be] notably independent and active, courageously confronting the variety of obstacles before them” (p.504), and Heidi fits this characterization. The series “became a global success...broadcast[ing] in more than 35 countries throughout Europe, Asia, and Latin America,” (p.501). Heidi was also released as part of Nippon Animation’s World Masterpiece Theater series. A primary reason why this was accepted globally with the exception of the U.S. is that it was considered cheap animation import in countries that had lacked some animation industries domestically.

Resistance and challenges of anime.

China has taken extreme steps to ensure foreign animation programmes are minimally allowed on national television. Since the late 1970’s, China has undergone an economic, political, social and cultural transformation (Ishii, 2013). The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has sought to control the inflow of all foreign media, including books, newspapers and satellite television and the internet. It views anime as having negative effects on teenagers by providing an unhealthy amount of violence and obscenity (p.227). Foreign animation is not allowed on prime time hours when only Chinese animation is being broadcasted. Consequently, China has encouraged a strong and competitive international animation industry by investing an enormous amount of money in domestic companies. Their goal is to “help companies to create, develop, and communicate animation products which are practical, true to life, geared toward the Chinese cultural spirit,” (p.228). While a great amount of companies exist in China that make domestic animation, there is still a significant amount of the country’s population that is more interested in externally developed animation including anime. Studies have shown that older age groups who tend to be more patriotic preferred Chinese animation, while the younger age groups who have access to the internet would rather watch Japanese anime (p.238). As internet usage increases in China, the CCP will continue to have more difficulty controlling the influence of external media.

One of the most stigmatizing ideas that can lead to people not watching anime is the stigma of animation itself. According to Lamarre (2002), there is apparently a larger adult audience for live-action based on the “reality bias that...photography-based cinema inherently has greater reality effect than the drawings used for animation” (p.332). This makes animation feel secondary or inferior to movies or shows that are shot with live people acting out from the view of the camera. Animation is considered so inferior that it has been notably referred to as a genre. Rozanski (2018), a YouTuber who has studied Western animation for over half a decade, argues that people who appreciate the animation medium have a problem with those that consider it as a genre because it seems “limiting at both what is done with animation and how audiences receive [its content],” (1:02). The stereotypes made by the so-called “genre” often points that animation is mostly intended to be made for children and not meant to be taken in a serious manner. This stigma can be exemplified, as he argues that “the biggest animation companies in the world feel like it is trying to bury animation” (9:43) with repetitive formulas, as well as the Oscars making a “Best Animated Picture” category so they “would never have to nominate...animated film[s] for Best Picture” (13:05) against other live-action films. Although this argument tends to be more in-line with the perception of Western animation, it can also affect why certain people, especially those from the United States, do not like Japanese animation as well. When anime was introduced in U.S. rental stores, it was stocked in the children’s section, despite the graphic content it displays (Price, 2001). Going forward in time, criticism exists predominantly on social media. Andrew Tate—a professional kickboxer—has posted a few Tweets, even though they are deleted now, claiming that the anime community is full of losers (Gasai, 2017). With the use of social media, negative criticism about anime and its fans will reach out to a significant audience. Thus, it is not surprising why a stigma exists and more sadly that the increase of bullying arises as a result to those who just enjoy this medium.

Another problem that the anime community has experienced is the toxicity in its own fandom. This kind of destructive activity happens in different types of fandoms, and anime is no exception. Lefler (2018), a blogger who has studied anime for at least a decade, has mentioned three signs of how fandoms can be toxic. They are represented by possessiveness, entitlement, and superiority. Possessive fans act as if they own the content that they enjoy, and see it as their own property. Entitlement takes it a step further, as the fans feel that the creator of the content must do whatever they demand. Toxic fans who feel superior to other fans, those who are less intent or obsessive, have the tendency to call out “non-fans” through phrases such as ‘normies’ for not being part of this elite or exclusive group. This behavior of superiority is predominantly known to the anime community as many people online have mentioned many elitist picking fights with those casual, less obsessive fans on their choices of anime through the Internet. As people do have different ways of viewing anime, this can lead to constant bickering based on disagreement with each other without respect. The argument amongst those who prefer mainstream, popular, or non-mainstream anime is a prime example of this conflict (The RPG Monger, 2017). Through these signs, certain fans can feel as if they own the content, have the ability to change it, and feel superior to those who are casual fans. This kind of argumentative behavior that can spread across the Internet can factor into others perceptions of whether to participate in the anime community.

Craftsdwarf (2019), an anime YouTuber, has pointed out another issue with anime as its portrayal of sexual activity is considered disturbing by some, especially through hentai. The fear can be seen in Western culture that enacts censorship and has been known to blame new forms of media as motivators for violent and sexual acts of crime. One of the major fears is how a perverted male character in anime would “spread [the message] across the Internet and [make] some think this [kind of] behavior is okay,” (10:07). He mentions that the perverseness of the male characters is meant to display fantasy that the viewers would not express in a real life scenario. They are not supposed to be rewarded for such behavior that can harm others in a physical or mental way, hence the wrongness of the perverseness becomes comical when people laugh at them (1:07). However, having limited knowledge of the concept can lead to confusion of how to interpret the message. To further understand why these concerns exist, one must consider the difference between the Japanese and Western cultures. Using bathing as an example, Japan takes this act as a ritual for relaxation and can be a social public affair, while Americans take it more as a form of privacy and intimacy where the only public bathing is of a professional manner with the same sex (5:50). The difference in perception of how one culture displays a certain topic can lead to a misunderstanding with someone outside of it. This would mean that with anime showing a new perspective that may not have been perceived well with another culture, thus people from that arena may not take it too kindly of the different messages in the anime community. With anime being considered countercultural media that tackles topics many may not be ready for, this can result in the concern of what it could lead to, possibly in the form of demonization.

Caffrey (2008) has noted that an area of challenge for anime is audiovisual translation (AVT). DVD technology has the possibility to include over 30 subtitle tracks per DVD, thus not only supporting those who are hearing impaired, or need several language options, but in regards to anime it also provides the opportunity for “personal subtitling” (p.164). This would allow a same language viewer to choose to learn more about cultural specific references that would pop up and provide them an experience with a higher awareness of the story-line. When focusing on the AVT to written text (subtitles), this is where the challenge begins. Never mind if some of the storyline is “lost in translation” but there is also a concern on the perception of nonverbal items in translated films. For example, one must consider the nonverbal communication and the cultural meanings for a gesture and idioms. These visual nonverbal cues (VNC), defined “as a nonverbal item appearing in the image of an audiovisual text which has an intended secondary, connotative meaning,” (p.165) can be confusing to a foreign viewer who is not familiar with its cultural origin. As one who creates subtitles, one has the challenge of what should be addressed depending on the anime’s final distribution destination. If the anime will be distributed to a foreign culture who has very little exposure to the source language, then the person who creates subtitles will have more freedom as the viewer will be fully dependent on the subtitles to understand the dialogue of the film. The challenge is that this role must also consider the cultural signs that exist in the anime that affect the storyline and decide whether to include or ignore these items. The translation strategy the person who create subtitles uses can affect the acceptance of the anime in the foreign market, thus great importance is placed in this role to gain greater positive exposure in the international community.

Anime has existed for over one hundred years in Japan, capturing much of its cultural aspects with its viewing audience consisting of both adults and children. Over half a century ago, American children were made aware of Japanese anime from televised programs that were edited to take out the “Japaneseness.” In the 21st century, anime has gained recognition by viewers of all age groups around the world through modern distribution channels, including the Internet. While it is considered an entertaining art form to many, there are those who consider it as childish and want no part of the stigma it may carry. There have been great strides to continue its growth through fandoms, as well as studies from social scientists bringing out its increased awareness of its content and popularity.

Empirical Study Design

The goal of this study is to increase our understanding of the cultural perceptions of anime and to identify the factors bearing on its popularity. To gather updated information from the general public, this study utilized a survey from the survey distributor Amazon Mechanical Turk to help gain access to the survey created in Qualtrics. An attempt was made to locate those that live in the United States and are eighteen years of age or older. Two hundred of the respondents received 25 cents each while the remaining were not paid. The following questions were addressed:

  • What are the major contributors that can influence people to like or dislike anime?

  • For those who partake or not partake in anime, to what extent is their general view of anime?

  • For those who partake in anime, to what extent has it influenced their ways of life?

  • To what extent do they partake in anime and how does it compare with other animated content?

  • To what extent does the viewer’s demographic affect his/her perception of anime?

  • Are there any concerns of stigma from anime and its community?

The survey was formatted into two sections. The first part of the survey focuses on the respondents’ anime experience on a monthly basis. In this section, individuals were requested to provide feedback on the frequency of how many times they had watched anime in a given period. This provides an understanding of how many of the respondents are serious fans or just have a casual interest in anime. In addition, they were requested to respond on how they were introduced to anime in order to find out if there was a consistency of origin among the respondents considering anime is a foreign form of entertainment.

Another item of interest was what certain anime programs the respondents were most familiar with out of 22 possible choices and if they have any positive or negative feelings about them. These choices consisted of works in a variety of genres, with most of them being adaptations of other works. There are a few exceptions, as I also incorporated a few Studio Ghibli movies, considering it is a well-known film studio by the anime community. To mark their perception of anime in general, a bipolar scale was created that categorized their opinions. Among the categories that were reviewed were how cool, entertaining, and readily available anime is, as well as how intelligent people have to be to associate with this style of media.

As the way we view entertainment evolves over time, what type of source individuals use and how often they use it to view anime were considered. The survey also considered pirated websites in case people are not paying extra for a subscription. The next set of questions dealt with what genre and features in anime they have interest in. Out of the twelve different genres of anime that respondents would choose, they were requested to list their top three choices. From there, they were asked about potential aspects of anime that appeal to them. These included plot, quality of animation, relatable themes, soundtrack, and a few others.

Consideration related to any signs of negativity was also included in the survey, for example, if people have been ridiculed or criticized for being a fan of anime. Those who have agreed that it can happen, were then asked if they themselves have been ridiculed or criticized and provided in a short response as to how they would have reacted to such negative behavior. On the other hand, respondents were asked what other activities anime has led them to do and if they had viewing experience with animated content outside of anime. These two questions were optional to answer as it is possible that anime does not have an influence on other activities such as learning Japanese language or understanding its culture. Those who did not respond to any choice from the optional questions are assumed to not participate in any of the choices given, and it is possible to choose more than one item.

If a respondent did not watch anime, before moving onto general questions, they were asked if they have heard of anime. It is important to note that if a respondent had never heard of anime, the respondent would skip the anime questions all together and move straight towards their experiences with Western Animation. This was a way of filtering those individuals who are unaware of anime, in order for them to not fully participate in the survey due to their lack of experience with this medium. However, all participants were required to answer the second part of the survey. Overall there were eighteen questions in total. The first fourteen questions relate to anime and the respondent’s experience in other forms of animation. The last four questions ask for the respondent’s demographics; age, race, gender and education level (note that there was the availability of choosing more than one race). The survey concluded with the option for the respondents to add any additional comments.


Figure 1: Gender