Akira & Japan (chapter 1: Japan)

Chapter One


The only English words I saw in Japan were Sony and Mitsubishi.

– Bill Gullickson [American baseball player; http://www.brainyquote.com]

To understand anime, to even consume it as a media text it is worth knowing, and sometimes imperative that the consumer acknowledge the land it is produced and created in.  Academics in their studies of the media form need to look to Japan and its rich history to provide context to their studies.  Regular consumers may simply be led to the land of the rising sun out of pure curiosity, to find out what certain words mean in the subtitles, or why certain things occur in anime, but never in animated features from other countries.

There are cultural quirks and traits revealed in anime that may seem foreign to western audiences, such as the Japanese school system, portrayed in such anime as His & Her Circumstances (Anno, 1998, Japan), or the samurai way of life depicted in Rurouni Kenshin (Watsuki, 1996-1998, Japan).  To bring the topic more in line with this essay, observing anime from the sci-fi genre, witnessing such creations as mechanized robots, or large megalopolis dotted with skyscrapers, it will be interesting to chart a timeline of the last two hundred years of Japan, to see how Japan has changed over time, both physically in relation to technology and in attitude due to events that have befallen it, most notably the atomic bombings during the end of the second World War.

Part one of this dissertation will briefly chart a timeline of Japanese history and chart the birth of Japanese animation which has at times reflected it.  Details in both timelines need to be known in order to fully comprehend Akira’s depth.

After centuries of clan fighting, Japan settled into some semblance of peace in the 1600’s, with Ieyasu Tokugawa becoming Shogun of Japan.  Japan had been dealing with other countries to a small extent up to this point, most notably the Dutch and Portuguese, taking advantage of western medicine and technology, weapons such as rifles, but after the Tokugawa ascendancy, Japan closed off all relations with the outside world, becoming isolated and introvert from other cultures (Hane 2000: 46).

For two hundred years popular culture flourished in the Edo era (Edo being the old name of the now known Tokyo), art forms such as kabuki (Japanese theatre) and ukiyo-e (paintings) became very popular with people, while at the same time outside forms of culture, from China and Europe began to slowly seep back into the country, and the Tokugawa style government began to slowly decline.  This decline was in part due to the fact that the samurai way of life was built and partly based on conflict and fighting, it was spiritual as well as physical method of existence, and the peacetime may have played a part in the decline, just as natural disasters and frequent riots from farmers did also, people who were quite clearly at the bottom of the social hierarchy set up by the samurai.  In time this social order began to lose its relevance as merchants gained more power and the samurai began to wane.

The way of life the samurai led, called Bushido had many beautiful and at the same time seemingly barbaric qualities (such as ‘seppuki’, ritual suicide), this is one of the many aspects of Japan that have made it stand out from other countries and cultures, in much the same way the cowboy-infused history of America, or the knights of old England, have made them unique cultures.

Interestingly one of the art forms mentioned above, Ukiyo-e (which literally means “Pictures of the Floating World”) can be seen to be the earliest forerunner to manga, and thus anime (Hane 2000: 55).  They were made by the technique of woodblock painting, and instead of following previous conventions by being drawn on temple walls, they were instead used in theatres, teahouses, some were erotic and connected with geishas, some were used for satire.  The most famous example of this art is the woodblock called “The Great Wave” by Hokusai who was incidentally the man who coined the term ‘manga’, which literally means ‘whimsical pictures’, a reference to Hokusai’s own freeform method of drawing landscapes that revolutionized the art form.

The samurai way of life, one of the oldest in the world, survived in Japan for many centuries, though came to its inevitable end in the 19th century when the United States of America came to its shores.  Commodore Matthew Perry sailed to Japan’s shores in his black ships from America, in 1854, and demanded trade, thus forcing Japan to open a limited number of ports (Hane 2000: 60).  It is in this manner that Japan began to open up to the rest of the world, and this act has reverberated throughout the ages ever since, this harsh push into the limelight of the world’s developing economic system, brought on by The United States of America would be echoed again many years later in the aftermath of World War 2.

As more and more western interests came to Japan, anti-government feelings spread, mostly by the samurai class, and Japan entered a civil war yet again, with one faction wanting to defend the Tokugawa government, rejecting the foreign invasion of their land, and another faction seeing the benefits of western society and technology, who wanted to change Japan into a more modern society.  Eventually though, in 1867 the Tokugawa government fell, and power was restored to the emperor Meiji, thus hailing the new era of Japanese history; the Meiji Restoration period.  There was now a sudden rush to catch up with the rest of the world, and reforms took place over the country, class barriers were brought down, with the majority of samurai now reduced to the same level as farmers, and eventually after a few decades there was a strong level of patriotism flowing throughout the land, and this of course led to the rejuvenation of Japan’s military to defend itself and make it stronger in the eyes of the world.

Japan found itself in increasing number of conflicts, with Russia, Korea and China, its patriotism and the quick pace of its modernisation fuelled its desire to conquer other lands and spread its influence, and once the emperor Meiji died in 1912, Japan began to look more like its western counterparts, with parliaments and parties controlling the fate of the country.

Japan had only a minor role in World War 1, though leading up to the 1930’s it suffered a great earthquake and depression, and eventually it found itself in World War 2 fighting the allies, and becoming the victim of two nuclear bombs, dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that would forever change everything.

After suffering defeat in World War 2, America’s influence returned to Japan, this time in a more beneficial manner as the United States went about helping Japan recover from the devastation wrecked upon it.  The emperor lost all of his power, becoming only a symbol of the country, and a new constitution was written up, a pacifist doctrine was implemented, Japan would only be able to defend itself and contribute to peace-keeping duties, human rights were emphasised.  The American occupation went relatively smoothly, though it wasn’t without its troubles, most notably in the form of press censorship and other miscellaneous issues, though in 1952, the occupation ended and Japan was left alone to walk its own path.

Beginning from the 1960’s, Japan’s economy began to grow at a very fast rate, surprising the world.  There were many factors involved, from the work ethic of the Japanese people, which is notorious for its efficiency and loyalty to corporations, to the trade policies that gave Japan larger shares in western markets.  Japan was undergoing such a positive transformation, that ‘the growing sense of achievement, well-being and optimism had its most spectacular manifestation in the highly successful Olympic Games held in Tokyo in 1964…symbolically marking Japan’s return to world prominence’ (Smith 1995: 96).  This growth took Japan through the 1970’s and 1980’s, (not without its bumps, such as the student rebellion of 1968, and the ‘oil shock’ of 1973) eventually making Japan the world’s second largest economy, after the United States of America.  In 1989 however Japan suffered a stock market collapse which reverberated through the next decade, both physically and in the form of anime as will be analysed later on in this essay.  The anime Akira it will seem, not only reflected the past, but seemingly predicted the future too.

As is apparent, Japan has gone from various extremes throughout its history, and has twice been affected by America, for economic reasons, and that has in part shaped the Japan we see today.  The country that was humiliatingly defeated in World War 2 due to its fanatic urge to rise above other nations, fuelled from its interaction from the United States ever since Commodore Matthew Perry arrived on its shores decades ago.  Japan, the country that is the only one in the world to have suffered an atomic attack, and yet managed to work away, and become successful with high standards of living, and many opportunities for its citizens.  Japan, the misunderstood country which continues to be viewed as exotic and strange by the west, a land of martial arts, sushi, neon-lit cities, futuristic technology and of course graphic animation.  It is of course not a perfect country, but the effort involved by the people throughout the ages to raise the country to a high level has been nothing short of phenomenal.

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