Japan is packed anthropomorphic characters. Objects of everyday life, characters and animals have human characteristics. They are used to advertise various types of products or services. They are created by both public corporations and government organisations. If you think, it’s just a characteristic feature of Japanese pop culture, then you’re wrong. Anthropomorphizing of all kinds of things in a two-dimensional form is deeply rooted in the Japanese cultural heritage and to get to know this roots, it is necessary to go back over 1000 years into the past. It has evolved over the years and is now characterized by a new degree of realism, which is also possible thanks to modern technologies.
There are animated warnings at metro stations in Japan
Anthropomorphism assigning human features to non-human beings as well as to objects and phenomena. In Japan, anthropomorphic characters are everywhere. They have a promotional value. This is a way to draw the attention of potential customers. Most companies create characters for their products. Each city or region has its own character, which is usually the personification of the product or animal the place is famous for.
…or mascot. This is Kumamon, the official mascot of Kumamoto.
Experts in the field of character culture are saying that a worldview derived from animism, or the view that objects, plants and animals have a soul, is the basis of the contemporary feelings of the Japanese for the character. To reach the roots of this view, we have to go back one thousand years to the ancient books called Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. They contain mythical accounts of how Japan was created. Kojiki was written about 1,300 years ago and these are the oldest Japanese books. They contain the myth of supernatural beings of all kinds. Kojiki allows us to discover how today’s anthropomorphism arose.
Characters from Kojiki
It is said that Japan is inhabited by eight million kami, or ghosts and deities, which form the basis of Shinto beliefs. Shinto is a form of folk spirituality that is cultivated to this day. These supernatural beings and phenomena usually have a human face. When Buddhism came from China to Japan, it brought a new characters with Indian faces, hairstyles and costumes. The Japanese were very eager to receive new supernatural, mysterious symbols of the power of nature. They have had enormous impact on Japanese people and over time a merger took place between the native Shinto and the Buddhist way of thinking. This created the foundations for anthropomorphism.
The character’s culture has deep roots in Japan, but not all of these roots are religious. Yokai are Japanese monsters and they can even be everyday objects, like a pair of shoes or musical instruments. Once it was believed that ghosts of old home appliances can come alive and start behaving like people. The Yokai could even organize their own religious festivals and imitate the processions organized by people. This took place in Kyoto, where a festival dedicated to this legend is organized to this day. The main characters are yokai and during festival people sells books, figures and other items with Japanese monsters. Yokai are still present in Japan despite the fact that the progress of science has made people aware that monsters do not exist. People no longer believe in their actual presence, but Yokai still function in the fantasy sphere of modern Japan. This is due to the respect and love of the Japanese people for their cultural identity.
An umbrella or haystack could turn into a monster
The idea that all things are alive and soul lives in them is still the main point of the Japanese worldview. Even the cuddly toys are inhabited by spirits from the huge Japanese pantheon of deities. They are like Bodhisattvas and other guardian deities derived from Buddhism. They are not big and powerful but they comfort you in need. So it happens that people have real feelings for them, such as they have for their own child or friend. Thanks to this, the object is in some way gifted with the soul. This is one of the forms of animism. People rely on these toys, thanks to them they feel comfortable when they are sad or need support. These toys are no longer ordinary items. They are like yokai or small deities. Even hospitals or travel agency are created for cuddly toys. Trips and events for toys are organized, so that they can visit different places and take pictures of themselves. Toy owners treat them like their little friends with a soul, so they want them to be happy.
Cuddly toys on a trip 🙂
In Japan, a cuddly toy can be much more important than just an item you play with. They bring solace to their owners and are another example of universal Japanese perception that everything is animated by spirit. From the western point of view it seems childish but adult Japanese are very serious about it. Plush toys can inspire the same degree of love and tenderness as a child. In Japan, the world of children and adults is not clearly separated. If people see cuddly toys as small animated characters, then there is no difference between a child and an adult. One coincides with the other.
Japanese enthusiasm for the characters is still evolving. These days pretty girls style characters are in vogue. Just about everything is being anthropomorphised into a pretty girl. On the one hand we have the cute cartoon like characters. On the other hand there is a lot of kind of erotic depictions of young girls with improbably long legs and large eyes and breasts. And this is also incomprehensible for the Western world. However, people in Japan think differently about such things. In the old, Japanese anime for children, “My neighbor Toro”, the main characters are two little girls. Their mother is hospitalized because of tuberculosis, so they live only with their father and in one scene all three take a bath together. In Japan, this was not perceived as a sexually suggestive scene but in the West it was indignant. This scene had to be cut out so that the film could be distributed. In contrast, in Japan in the nineteenth century there were still mixed sex public baths. Such things were completely normal. Similarly, the rejection of pornography appeared only during the Westernization which took place at the end of the 19th century and again during the post-war occupation.
An anime character promoting the Sagano Romantic Train
Sexy, animated characters are often a source of indignation in the western world, especially among women. Japanese women usually react to one of three ways. Those who have a strictly Western worldview, hate this way of presenting female characters. Average Japanese women probably do not care about it at all. There are also women who really like it and even create their own work in this style. Not all sexy characters are the work of male artists. When an artist creates character, he or she knows how it will be behave, walk and how it voice will be sound. For artist, character is a living person. The source of these images are manga, in particular the Shoujo genre. This is a very popular category and almost every woman in these comics is presented with big eyes as a dream girl for male fans.
Shoujo means girl in Japanese and shoujo manga simply means a comic book with girls. Many are tales of high-school romance girls with a crush on handsome boys and they are typically willowy big eyed and pretty. The personification of these characters is the basis of today’s anthropomorphism. Shoujo manga moves you from everyday life to the fantasy world. Fans of shoujo manga think that if everyone were reading them, there would be no wars in the world. Manga Shoujo, together with Shonen manga, which are stories about boys, are very popular among adults. The popularity of sexy female anthropomorphic characters would never take place without the shoujo manga that paved the way for them. These comics generate archetypes that become a source of romanticism among teenagers, junior high school students and even primary school children. Young people exposed to these archetypes become very attached to them.
Nowadays, characters have enormous cultural appeal for people of all ages. Character business is a huge market worth over 2 trillion yen. There are also three-dimensional virtual characters, which can give concerts thanks to a synthesized voice. Hatsune Miku is a virtual reality idol. The word idol has been borrowed from English and has a very specific meaning in Japan. These are young women who serve as icons. They can accept all the devotion of their fans. This is how the word idol in Japan was defined. The Japanese term which is used by teenage boys, and even adults when they speak about their idols is ‘moe’ and it may also suggest an erotic infatuation. Why boys have feelings for virtual characters? Because they think that a relationship with a real girl generates too much trouble. Real girls may complain and have requirements. What if they fall in love with her? A real girl can also get sick and die. Loving real women causes problems. The imaginary character gives you 100% control and is immortal. That’s why it’s so easy to fall in love with one of these fantastic characters.
The presence of anthropomorphic figures everywhere in public space is not just a Japanese pop culture. It has its roots in beliefs and traditions that claim that everything around us has a soul. Human attributes are therefore suitable for objects and animals. People have real feelings for them. You can even fall in love with virtual characters and the relationship with them is much simpler than the relationship with a real people. In addition, animated characters are used to promote products and places. They are even used in public campaigns by government institutions. For the Japanese they are much more interesting and eye catching than real people.
- Japanese visual culture, Mark W. MacWilliams, 2008
- The moe manifesto: An insider’s look at the World’s of Manga, Anime and Gaming, Patrick W. Galbraith, 2017