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Anime, Manga, JRPGs, and High Schoolers

While I’m not anything close to an otaku, and my knowledge of anime and manga is often overshadowed by fans from the West, I nevertheless follow quite a bit of anime and manga. That, and the fact that I’m part-Japanese (although actually fairly marginal), means I often get a lot of questions regarding the silly hijinks that is the Japanese culture (by which I admit I’m hardly an expert, being very detached from my Asiatic side).

One of the most common questions I get, of course, come from those who know I watch anime, read manga, and play JRPGs: Why are so many of the protagonists high schoolers? Why do female characters constantly resemble twelve-year-old girls? (And are the Japanese pedophiles?) On a whim, I’ve decided I’m going to explain the answer here. I’m not apologizing for or defending anyone; this is simply my explanation of why things are so.

Starting from the easiest question, the reason why female characters look so young is really a matter of art style and a preference for cutesy designs. It’s simply on the other end of the spectrum when compared to the Western standard – especially American – where high school girls have a ridiculously large racks and a disproportionate amount of abs. Of course, this isn’t to say that Japan doesn’t necessarily dislike characters looking young, especially the girls; it signifies a combination of innocence and purity that the Japanese culture of modesty (which doesn’t actually mean they are modest as much as they appear modest, but that’s another story for another time) is more comfortable with when compared to overly-developed characters that look like they’ve been injected with testosterone. In other words, the Japanese prefer cute, tiny (hardly difficult, given the average Japanese build for ladies), modest girls who knows her group has accepted her, as opposed to the Western standards of overly-buff and overly-voluptuous girls with a need to show she’s one of the boys, if not better.

But this is just a matter of superficial differences, and it doesn’t answer the fundamental question: Why high school students? Why not older? The simple answer to this question is “because of the emphasis on university education, and the lack of horizontal or vertical social mobility in Japan”.

Doesn’t answer a lot, does it? Well, let’s go into a longer explanation.

There is, quite simply, a very pronounced difference in attitude towards university and college between Japan and the West. For the West, university is the continuation of youth; you’re suddenly eighteen, you can legally drink (unless you’re in the U.S.), have “adult sex”, do drugs, throw massive parties, and generally have a wild time while no longer worrying about your parents looking over your shoulder, telling you when to go to sleep, to get off the computer, have you done your homework yet, and such. For the Western individual, university is fun; projects and schoolwork is just kind of a distraction until exam week comes along (at least, for your undergraduate education; anything further is another story entirely). Many movies, television series, and other shows regularly depict university students as pranksters, troublemakers, and enthusiasts, and often give them that spontaneous, childish quality of enthusiasm and silliness.

This is not the case in Japan, which has very limited social mobility. The very university you go to determines what doors will remain open to you for the rest of your life even before you graduate with your undergraduate degree. Attitudes are slowly changing, but not that quickly, and there is therefore the general belief that “everyone person has his/her place”; the students making it to the best universities can expect to be snatched away as executives-in-training by the country’s richest corporations and put on a fast-track of promotions, while the students who go to not-so-great universities resign themselves to the fact that they will forever be stuck with relatively “proletariat” jobs that will barely get them by year after year, regardless of what they do later in life. Save the top tier, promotions are also sparse; there is no stigma in being a hotel’s doorman for all of your working life because, in the eyes of Japanese society, that’s where you belong, and every man has his place. But that also means vertical mobility is far and in between, and people are expected to be content with their lot in life. Combine this stark reality with the usual pressures, politics, and frustrations of adult life anywhere in the world, and it isn’t surprising that the Japanese see the start of university as the effective end of their innocence and childhood.

For a society that appreciates character development in their media, there’s also the Japanese psyche to consider. It is not entirely inadequate to consider anime, manga, JRPGs, and the like as the uncorking of their emotional repression. Remember the 2011 Japanese tsunami? The media was going over it quite a bit, but unlike many other coverages of other disasters, there was a significant lack of open crying or wailing compared to the reactions of other disaster zones. When interviewees or victims caught on camera did cry, it was a subdued thing, a quiet tear, a obvious sign that they were holding things back. This is not to suggest that the Japanese feel less than other people do, but simply that their society discourages outbursts of emotions and values the self-containment of emotions, just as they value ambiguity in their words as to not offend others, even when they are refusing or rejecting others (Honda Kiku of Axis Powers Hetalia says it best: “Commander! I, like a true Japanese man, will say ‘I’ll consider it’ or ‘perhaps next time’ or ‘we’ll use discretion’ and be as vague as possible! By all of which I mean ‘no’, sir!”).

If anime, manga, and JRPGs can be considered an escapist fantasy, then it isn’t entirely surprising to see why things are as they are. High school is seen as a hybrid of possibilities compromise: Young enough to be innocent and inexperienced, to believe in true friendship and not be entirely constrained by being surrounded by friends of convenience or politics, to be able to express one’s feelings openly and passionately but not be seen as overly immature, to still have a strong moral compass and a sense of justice, to be able to learn from older mentors and develop into a mature figure; but also old enough to understand complicated and complex concepts, to have begun developing evident and obvious aptitudes and skills, to go through puberty while experiencing forbidden and bashful romance and first loves of the possibly sexual nature (it should be noted here that the national legal age in Japan is thirteen, but most prefectures bump it to sixteen or eighteen), to see why the world can be seen in shades of gray, and so on. It’s the best of both worlds. College is too old; you’re an adult already, and therefore not entirely legible for exciting adventures. Middle school is too young; unless it’s a setting aimed specifically at children instead of teenagers, it becomes increasingly implausible and – when you include romance – gross even by Japanese standards. High school, therefore, is the perfect compromise age where characters can mature yet still be adventurous (which – I think – is older and burned-out writers being nostalgic with rose-tinted glasses at their pasts, because the reality of Japanese high schools is that most students are generally making insane preparations for the national university entrance exams, the one exam that will determine the rest of their lives).

(We are, of course, disregarding shows that feature all-adult casts; it is important to remember that anime and manga were initially marketed towards teenagers, and although the Japanese birth rates going down has gotten producers to continue to focus on their now-adult original demographic, it also means they’re sticking with familiar formulas and cashing in on nostalgia. There will always be shows featuring a predominantly adult cast, but the issue being addressed here is why casts full of high schoolers still remain so popular.)

There have been good works (in my opinion, of course) to come out of this tired and overused dynamic that represents why it seems attractive to the Japanese in the first place. The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi features protagonists having to maintain a masquerade to prevent a selfish, eccentric schoolgirl from realizing that she’s effectively God, attempting to deal with supernatural factions that are intensely watching over the status quo, and discussing high-level mathematics and philosophical theories that would make a polymath proud; but all of this is occurring to the backdrop of the fun high school life where such eccentricities and hijinks could plausibly happen in the first place such as a silly baseball match and an over-imaginative online gaming session with the world at stake (unknowingly to those who challenge them), as opposed to the real world where consequences in the “Muggle world” would likely be much more severe (although I suspect “end of the world” probably trumps that). So the dynamic, in my opinion, isn’t an unreasonable or failed compromise at all.

But, then again, most of the instances of this as of late seem to be cheap harem anime and h-games involving many girls after one guy for no other reason besides “he’s nice”, so maybe you might want to take it with a bit of salt nonetheless.

Categories: Anime and Manga, Gaming
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