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Things Japanese that you may wonder about

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This page contains explanations of Japanese cultural practices that one will often observe in anime. We present these notes as an aid in deepening your understanding and appreciation of what you are seeing.

If you like this sort of thing, check out Gilles Poitras' Anime companion.

Since this document will be growing for some time, we'll put dates on the entries to help you find new stuff.

Please send corrections or comments about the contents of this page to .


Ai yori aoshi


The phrase Ai yori aoshi, translated literally, means ``bluer than indigo'' (though the anime by that title is, presumably, punning on the sound ai's other meanings, which include ``love'' --- the femail lead's name, Aoi, is also a word for blue, and she writes her name with the Kanji for blue). Since the advent of the anime, googlespace is pretty polluted when it comes to other meanings for the phrase, but here is a nice explication:

	Newsgroups: sci.lang.japan
	Date: 1999/10/30
	From: Charles Eicher
	Subject: Re: Jp proverb about ai (indigo)

	> " (ai ha ai yori idete) ai yori aosi. "
	> i think this proverb usually refers to when a student surpasses
	> his/her teacher, as in the expression "shuturan no homare".


	The saying is strongly associated with buddhism, and the "blue
	deeper than the indigo plant" is a reference to deepening one's
	faith. The association goes back to Chinese buddhist writings that far
	predate buddhism's introduction in Japan.  Yet it is a phrase that
	would be known to almost all modern buddhists (that's the context
	where I first heard it). For example, here is a translation of one
	very famous passage written by Nichiren:

	TCiiiien-tCaaaai states, "From the indigo, an even deeper
	blue." This passage meansthat something dyed repeatedly with
	indigo becomes even bluer than the indigo plant itself. For us the
	Lotus Sutra is the indigo plant, and the growing intensity of our
	practice is "an even deeper blue."


Paper men


Paper men appear in both Abenobashi Maho Shotengai and Miyazaki's Spirited Away. There is a mystical practice known as onmyoudou, dating at least from the 10th century (and drawing inspiration from China). Adepts are known as onmyouji, and are belived to use paper figures (hitogata) as familiars (shikigami). The Abenobashi mahou shotengai page has a bit more detail on onmyoudou.


Big Eyes


Fred Ladd, who imported Astroboy to national television in the US during the 1960s, explains that anime characters got their big eyes from Betty Boop, one of Osamu Tezuka's favorite characters. Tezuka's Astroboy (in Japan, Tetsuwan Atom), was a runaway success in Japan, prompting other studios to imitate what Tezuka was doing, including the eyes.


Anime fan jargon


Here is a brief glossary of terms you will encounter among anime fans.

A ``digisub'' is a digital ``fansub'' (q.v.) often down-loaded from various places on the net.

In Japan there is a thriving fan culture that includes the creation of fan-produced homages to anime and manga series. Here in the US, we have ``fan-fiction'' (fanfics), fan-written stories set in the universe and using the characters of a series. Japan has fan-produced manga, these manga are known as doujinshi.

There are conferences to trade doujinshi, the biggest is known as Comiket, and it is huge with thousands of participating doujinshi artists.

The series Comic Party is about the struggles of a young doujinshi artist.

A ``fansub'' is a fan-subtitled tape or digisub (q.v.). Before there was much commercial anime in the US, anime fans had little recourse but to trade fan-subtitled tapes (before there were fansubs, anime fans watched unsubtitled tapes and simultaneously read a translated script, if they were lucky, or a plot summary, if they weren't).

Technically, fansubs are copyright violations. However, there is a (sometimes uneasy) truce between the commercial anime distributers and the fan subtitlers. Most commercial distributers started as fans themselves, and they recognize that fansubs often serve to promote interest in titles. Commercial companies also use the popularity of fansubs as an indication of the potential commercial popularity of a title. As part of this truce, ``legitimate'' fan-subtitlers charge only enough to cover their costs, and pull any titles that have been licensed by a commercial company. People who charge more, or who continue to distribute licensed materials, are boot-leggers, and are probably doing more harm than good to anime.

It is certainly the case that fansubs do little to reward the creators of anime (perhaps they do so indirectly, through the sale of art-books and character goods). The club does have fansubs, but it is our policy to pull those tapes from the circulating library when a title becomes available in commercial form in the US. We also have a policy of replacing the fansubs in our master library with licensed material as quickly as possible.

``Original Animation Video'' or ``Original Video Animation''. OVAs are direct-to-video forays into animation. They're produced speculatively, in hopes of making a hit. They're usally produced with a bigger budget and more relaxed schedule than a TV series, so the animation quality is often higher.

Sometimes a popular OAV will go on to spawn a TV series (for example, the first four episodes of the You're under arrest TV series were a repackaging of the OAVs, while the four episode Kodomo no omocha (Child's Toy) OAV expanded to six episodes in the TV series.

Sometimes this doesn't work. Fairy Princess Ren ends with a plea for more money to support making the next episode. Mighty Space Miners ends with a maddening clifff-hanger and no second episode.

OAVs can be pilots for potential programs, but they can also be additions to a studio's portfolio, to experiment with new techniques (many believe FLCL was done by Gainax largely to work with new computer animation techniques) or for a studio to demonstrate its proficiency.

Otaku is a highly-formal way to address someone (it literally means, ``your household''). Through a sort of linguistic inversion (one that is not uncommon with Japanese forms of address) or through frequent sarcastic use, it has turned into a derogatory term for a excessively-focussed fanatic (which is the origin of the word ``fan'' after all). An otaku's focus on his or her subject matter might, for example, be so intent as to exclude such mundane concerns as personal hygiene, nutrition, or normal forms of social discourse. In Japan, the focus is on the fanaticism, not the topic: one can be a games otaku, a computer otaku, or an anime otaku.

Otaku, in the United States has been adopted as something of a label of pride in a sort of anime-fan meritocracy.


Japanese baths



Japanese baths are a sensual experience. One takes a bath to relax, not to get clean. Since the bath is often shared, one scrubs oneself squeaky clean before entering the bath. You see Satsuki scrubbing herself, rinsing off with water poured from a bowl before hopping into the tub in My Neighbor Totoro.


Historically, bath-houses (onsen) were public, community affairs. One would stroll to the bath-house carrying one's soap and shampoo in a little bowl, pay an admission price to the old lady in the booth, then go off to scrub and then soak in large tubs or pools of water at varying temperatures.

Traditional resorts still have public baths, often with water drawn from geothermal springs with minerals thought to have restorative powers --- in Starship girl Yamamoto Yohko Ayano speculates about the wonders a 31st century hot-springs might hold; the Hinata Inn in Love Hina is a hot spring resort; towns may also have public baths such as the one that features in Niea_7.

Mixed bathing

Until prudish Westerners came along, public baths were also mixed-gender. Now the sexes are usually separated by partitions, though not always in older hot-springs (an old-fashioned, unseparated bath plays prominently in a later episode of Maison Ikkoku). Attempts to find chinks in the partition through which to peek are a common ecchi trope, Yotsuya does it in Maison Ikkoku, Tenchi's father does it in the Tenchi Muyo OAVs.

Heat exhaustion and dehydration

Japanese baths are also, as a rule, very hot. To allow themselves to remain immersed in hot water, people will often put a cooling cloth on their head. However, you risk heat exhaustion if you stay immersed for too long! We see the wobbly-legged, eye-spinning effects of this when Yukina confronts Minato in Martian Successor Nadesico, when Godai discovers someone else in the onsen resort in Maison Ikkoku, and when Misako traps Mitsuru in the bath in Koko wa Greenwood.

After soaking in a hot bath for a while, you can get pretty dehydrated, so it is customary to drink something as you are drying off.


The meaning of FLCL


The meaning of the term ``FLCL'' was explained in a talk with Kazuya Tsuamaki, the director of FLCL at the 2001 Otakon.

Anime fans at Otakon wanted to know what the letters FLCL meant. "FLCL means fooly cooly," [director Kazuya] Tsuramaki replied. "I thought that meant `fool and cool.' At the time we needed a title desperately, so we used that. I always wanted to make a title from an English name made shorter, like `pocket monsters.'"


Forms of address



You'll hear the term sempai in many anime, particularly those having to do with school life (such as Koko wa Greenwood), but also in other places. Milly Thompson usually addresses Meryl Stryfe as ``sempai'' in Trigun, and Kazuki addresses Mizuki Sanada the same way (with ``sempai'' usually translated as ``Sanada'' in the subtitles) in Dual.

You're probably familiar with the term sensei, used to refer to teachers or doctors.

Sempai is a word one uses to address one's seniors in an endeavor --- someone who is, or may be, one's mentor. Younger students at school have sempais in the older students at the school; junior members of a firm (such as Milly Thompson in the Bernardelli Insurance Agency) may address their seniors as sempai as well. To the senior person, the junior person is a kohai.

Mentor/mentee (sempai/kohai) relationships are very important, and may well last for one's entire life.

The use of titles instead of names

In Japan, it is more respectful to address another by their role, rather by their name. Milly addresses Meryl as sempai, while Meryl, having a bit more seniority (and therefore a bit more status) has more flexibility in addressing Milly.

Younger siblings will refer to older siblings by their role e.g., oneesan (older sister) or oniisan (older brother) --- while the older sibling will refer to the younger child by name. People will address their spouse as ``wife'' or ``husband''.

(Added 10/15/2001) Obasan (aunt) and ojisan (uncle) may also be used to refer respectfully to any older woman or gentleman stranger. They can also be used somewhat rudely, with a meaning something like "old bag". It's all in the tone of voice and one's attitude.

Everyone at Ikkoku-kan refers to Kyoko as Kanrinin-san (``Ms. Manager'') and Kyoko's father-in-law is addressed as ``Mr. Landlord'', not ``Mr. Otonashi''. Teachers are Sensei or Tanaka-sensei, not Tanaka-san.

Honorific suffices: basic -san

You're probably familiar with the -san suffix one uses as an honorific when speaking another person's name (one never refers to oneself with a -san). The -san may be applied to a first or a last name (though the use of the last name is far more common).

Using a name without a suffix implies a fair amount of intimacy --- students who are peers and have been in the same class for years will do this. Even then, it is usually last-names, unless the relationship is very intimate. For example, in Kare Kano, even after a year of romance, Yukino Miyazawa was still referring to her boy-friend as ``Arima'' --- they hadn't even gotten to a first-name basis! Not even in her private thoughts about him!

In Whisper of the Heart, Maison Ikkoku, and other anime concerned with the development of relationships, the form of address the characters use for one another often reflects the evolution of the relationship. A change in the form of address can be a significant plot point! (This is seen in Whisper of the Heart, as Seiji moves quickly from ``Tsukishima-san'' to ``Tsukishima'' to ``Shizuku'', at first too quickly (Shizuku objects, ``You talk as though you've known me for years!''), but later the change in form of address seems natural to her, too, signalling a mutual agreement about the new nature of their relationship.

In Maison Ikkoku, Godai addresses Kyoko by her job-title, kanrininsan through most of the series. Later, as lovers, it is still Kyoko-san, and does not become Kyoko until their wedding day.

Other suffixes: -kun, -chan, -kanchou

As you watch more anime, you'll hear other honorifics in use:

Used by a superior to respectfully address a much younger subordinate (usually male, but not always). Sanada probably addresses Kazuki as ``Yotsuga-kun'' in Dual. A boss will address a junior employee named Tanaka as Tanaka-kun.

Also used among friends and associates, particularly in high-school anime. Usually used for young men, though it can be used for young women as well (more familiar than -san, less intimate than -chan).

An affectionate diminutive. It is usually used by adults to address young children, and it is also often used by young women to address their closest friends.

Occasionally you'll hear it among adults. In Neon Genesis Evangelion, Kaji meets Ritsuko at a wedding reception, and refers to her as ``Ri-chan''.

Since it is used to address children, calling someone -chan can irritate them. Yahiko, the kid in Rurouni Kenshin goes wild when addressed as ``Yahiko-chan'', he's too old for -chan. In Bubblegum crisis: Tokyo 2040 Nene Romanova teases Leon by referring to him as ``Leon-chan''. Later, she uses other diminutives that irritate him even more, ``Leon-pea'', ``Leon-pyon''. (I believe -pyon is a sickeningly cute affix for couples. I am not sure about -pea.)

Used when addressing nobility or gods or to display exaggerated respect. Megami is ``Goddess''. The Japanese title of Oh, my Goddess! is A! Megamisama!. In Nausicaa, everyone refers to Yupa as ``Yupa-sama'' (sometimes translated as ``Lord Yupa'' in the subtitles).

In Whisper of the heart Shizuku's friends attempt to placate her by referring to her as ``Shizuku-sama'' when asking to see her translated poem.

``Captain''. In Nadia Captain Nemo makes it clear to Jean that he is to be addressed, not as Nemo-kanchou (with the implication that the Nautilus was a warship), but as Nemo-sencho (the Nautilus is just a ship, though one bristling with weapons).

You'll occasionally hear other titles with meanings like ``section chief'', ``plant manager'', ``squad leader'', etc.

In addition, there are affectionate suffices, -rin, -pon, -tan which you might seen used for very young children.


Kissing (and indirect kisses)


Traditionally, kissing has been viewed as a very intimate act (perhaps this view derives from the concerns with cleanliness and purity that are important in Shinto). Parents won't kiss in front of their children. Kissing in public is somewhat risque. In older anime, one's ``first kiss'' is a very significant thing, and it is common for characters to want to reserve their first kiss for someone very special.

You may notice that characters seem to view a shared straw or glass (or soda can) as somehow exciting or illicit, particularly in older anime. The Japanese have traditionally had a notion of an ``indirect kiss'' which consists of touching lips to the same object in succession (I think Naota's changing feelings for Mamini are reflected in the way he first rejects, then later in the episode agrees to share a soda can with her in the first episode of FLCL). You will often see characters regard a cup, can, or straw for a moment before sharing it.




Often in anime two characters will discuss a third followed by a jump cut to the third character sneezing (often with a ``Hmm, must be coming down with a cold'', or ``Hmm, must have caught a draft''). In Japanese folk-belief, a sudden sneeze is thought to mean that someone is talking about you (in US folk-belief, ``burning'' (warm or reddened) ears are thought to mean the same thing).




The frequent nosebleeds (and subsequent embarassment) of male anime characters are related to a folk-belief that sexual excitement in men leads to a change in blood-pressure, which in turn can cause a nose-bleed. There's a subsidiary belief more profuse the flow, the greater the excitement.

In an early episode of Koko wa Greenwood, Kazuya is extremely embarassed by a nosebleed prompted by a surprise encounter with his sister-in-law. He is rescued from his embarassment by his sempai. If you don't understand about the hidden meaning of nosebleeds, Kazuya's embarassment (and the generosity of the excuse proffered by his sempai) seems rather odd.


Verbal rituals


As you watch anime, you'll hear a number of polite phrases that are translated variously, because their literal meaning doesn't convey how they are being used.

Sometimes referred to as the ``Japanese `grace''', spoken before eating. Often (in anime, at least), spoke with great enthusiasm and gusto. Its literal meaning is ``Let us partake'' or ``I will receive''.

The end-of-meal counterpart to itadakimasu, it means, roughly, ``thanks for the food''. One says it in excusing oneself from the table.

tadaima/okaeri nasai

ittekimasu (``I'm off'') is what one says when one is leaving for the day. The people remaining in the house reply, Itarassai (``Take care'').

tadaimasu (``I'm home'' --- literally, ``it's now'') is spoken when entering the door of your home. The people in the house reply, okaeri nasai (``You have returned'').

In the third Gunbuster OVA, Okaeri nasai is used in a way that has an incredibly powerful emotional impact.

(There have probably been a number of times in Japan's war-torn history when it was a good thing to announce who is coming in the front door, and who, in turn, awaits them.)

Fox-spirits can't say this (I don't know why they can't say it), so announcing moshi moshi when you pick up the phone identifies you as human. Ha! You laugh! Alexander Graham Bell invented the word ``Hello'', for much the same purpose (his original thought was to use the word, ``ahoy!'').

When a character is particularly distracted, someone trying (and failing) to get their attention will sometimes say Moshi mosh... in much the same way that we might say, "Earth to Tom, Earth to Tom, can you read me?".


MIT Anime Club

Last edited 8/19/2004 by Melanie Goetz
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