School centric anime and their importance in current day Japan


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As Goodman (2011) points out, the Japanese education system provided a clear connection for both male and female workers between success in education and the quality of the jobs they could secure (Goodman, 2011; 52). Generally speaking Japanese school children are made aware from an early age of the direct correlation between the size of a potential employer and the job security, salary, and status that employer would be able to offer. From the early Post-War period onwards, top employers would choose their new workers from top universities, which in turn chose their intake based on high school hierarchies, that in turn took students based on scores of the high school entrance exam that everyone sits when they are 15. The entire education system of Japan is based on a meritocratic structure that engenders high competition amongst students, and produces what Ronald Dore (1976) describes as a ‘very expensive intelligence testing system with some educational spin-off, rather than the other way around’ (Dore, 1976; 48-49).

Such a system works because the Japanese State has invested a substantial amount of effort in developing and maintaining the ideology that it Japan has an egalitarian society where class, ethnic and religious differences do not have an impact upon how you are viewed and the kind of jobs you can do. This ideology can be seen in the way Japanese education works, with a focus on group work rather than individualistic approaches to learning – something that is seen in school focussed anime. In series like Amagami SS, Da Capo and Fortune Arterial, characters live under the impression that with hard work and long hours of study they will be capable of getting high grades, and by extension get into a good university. Despite the existence of often highly intelligent and advantaged individuals that come from prestigious backgrounds with substantial social and cultural capital, the message of these series clearly ties into the ideology of an egalitarian society that the Japanese State perpetuates.

This message also differs from earlier anime like Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and Rumiko Takahashi’s Maison Ikkoku that present us with an image of the inequality in Japanese society and education. In Akira for example the main characters are in the lowest form of technical college reserved for delinquents and those who have been rejected by society and are told that if they were to fail there, then they would be cast out from normal society without any hope for salvation. Maison Ikkoku presents a similar message about the inequalities of education, although it focuses more on university education and the sorts of jobs that a ‘third rate’ Japanese university education can get you. While Akira is mostly focussed on the politics of post-war Japan, Maison Ikkoku tells the story of the main characters struggle to confess to his dorm manager, and to get a well-paid job with an education that effectively discounts him from any form of well-paid work. We are shown that despite the ideology of an egalitarian society, the type of university and high school that you attend matters, and that regardless of how well you may be able to do the job, Japanese companies almost exclusively choose their staff based on the institutions that they attended.

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While very few anime portray the shift from student life to that of a ‘fully-fledged member of society’, we are shown the precursors to that, along with the attitudes that are engendered within Japanese society. Anime series such as Amagami SS (2010), Fortune Arterial (2010), and Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai (2011) constantly reinforce ideas of an egalitarian and meritocratic society, one where hard work and effort mean more than wealth and status. The characters in such series are constantly reminded of students place in exam league tables, which are presented in such a way as to be seen as a form of motivation, something to aspire to though their hard work and devotion to their studies. In doing so anime ignores the realities of a hierarchical society where jobs, income, and social status are intrinsically linked, while also reinforcing the hegemonic ethos of the Japanese State. School as a setting in anime therefore becomes inherently problematic, as it exists as a space of socialisation, and the ideal time in life. A ‘good’ high school life is shown to be romantic and also idealised, a place where you do not have to worry about the rigours and demands of Japanese society and can focus on your studies and after school clubs. This alone is rather curious due to the nature of the Japanese education system that has created a period known as ‘examination hell’, a time from junior high through to the end of high school where the focus is almost exclusively on passing university entrance exams. In the real world it is university that offers a true place for socialisation and relaxation, one where the rigours of ‘examination hell’ have been left behind. That this position has been switched in the anime world suggests that in Japanese society it is school life that is prized more so than being at university, and despite the realities of entrance exams and strict learning, high school is viewed in a highly romanticised and idealised fashion.

School and education in anime becomes a moralising and socialising force, the physical place where Japan’s next generation learn about the social and cultural norms of society. The focus on group work, and creating a fun, and harmonious school life for all students, while also encouraging ‘friendly’ competition between students takes up much of any school focussed anime’s plot. For example, Amagami SS focuses on one particular period in the year, showing us the weeks leading up to Christmas eve, a time of romance in Japan, and in this case also a time for a ‘traditional’ school festival. Throughout the various story arcs we are constantly reminded of the importance placed on this festival, with every club taking part in order to carry on the schools, and in some cases, clubs traditions, while also handing them on to the next generation. Amagami SS is not unique in this, with other series such as Fortune Arterial, Da Capo (Ongoing franchise with series in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2013), and Hanasaku Iroha (2011) – to name but a few – all emphasising the importance of community and presenting moral imperatives to create a good and harmonious school life for all. These attitudes seem to fit with Okada’s (2002) discussion of the 1947 Fundamental Law of Education (FLE, Kyoiku Kihonho), and Japan’s Liberal Democrat Party’s (LDP) attempts to change it in order to champion ‘ traditional Japanese values’ by reinforcing the need for Japanese youth to receive a moral education, and learn ‘ true’ Japaneseness (Okada, 2002). For the LDP, revising the FLE and adding a strong moralistic element to Japan’s education system are fundamental to the continued success of Japan. As Koizumi Jun’ichiro points out in a speech to the 151st session of the Diet on 7 May 2001; ‘Education reform is necessary in order to engender in youth both pride and self-awareness as Japanese, as well as to help develop skills critical for rebuilding Japan’ (Asahi Shinbun, 7 May 2001).

This moral imperative to engender price and self-awareness as Japanese, along with developing skills to rebuild and continue the progress of Japan can be found in numerous anime series set in or around a school in the last decade, and perhaps even further back than that to varying degrees. A recent example of this push towards a moral imperative can be found in Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo (October 2012 – March 2013), a series that focuses on the trials and tribulations of a school dorm specifically designed for those who are gifted, but also rather eccentric so that they can continue to focus on their gifts free from the constraints of the other ‘normal’ dormitories. The main character Sorata is not particularly gifted, but is still sent to Sakurasou due to his tendency to collect stray cats (Pets are banned in the other dormitories). Underpinning the story of Sorata’s everyday school life is a narrative about becoming a hardworking and productive member of society, with Sorata, Manami, and the other Sakurasou residents all working towards their goals. We see these characters taking pride in what they achieve, whilst also developing skills that are supposed to help them once they graduate from high school. Running alongside this there is also the narrative surround those who are gifted that appears to simultaneously reinforce two key education reforms that the LDP see as essential to a prosperous Japan, while also maintaining the Japanese State’s ideology of an egalitarian and meritocratic society.

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Two particular recommendations given by the Education Reform National Conference (ERNC) in 2000 stand out as an attempt to return to a school system that attempts to nurture those who are considered gifted at the expense of everyone else. The ERNC suggested that there should be a reform of the 6-3-3-4 school system and establishment of a diversified education system which is suited to each individuals different abilities; they also recommended ‘special educational measures’ that would allow gifted upper secondary students to experience university-level education research in a scientific field (Asahi Shinbun 18 February, 28 March, 23 December 2000). These two recommendations are clearly designed to be tools to maintain Japan’s superiority in the global economy by exploring ways in which creative élites could more readily be identified and nurtured at a young age (Okada, 2002). While none of the characters in Sakurasou are involved in scientific study, they are still subject to this shift in ideology, with the very existence of Sakurasou as a dormitory specifically for those who are gifted suggesting that the prioritisation of the gifted over everyone else is already being carried out. The situation in Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo is however rather odd because while there is a clear emphasis placed upon nurturing the gifted, the series also continues to reinforce the Japanese State’s ideology of an egalitarian and meritocratic society.

These ideologies should arguably be polar opposites; in order to nurture those considered to be gifted you will create a system that breeds inequality, with those are not considered gifted pushed to one side, and in some extreme cases, treated like second class citizens. However, in this anime, there is significant emphasis placed upon the attitude that you can achieve your dreams through hard work and a ‘moral’ upbringing. But, while Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo seems firmly placed within the ongoing debate surrounding education and its place within Japanese Society, it neither questions current trends, nor explores certain problems with the Japanese school system that directly effect the current institutions of educations. Okada (2002) talks about the escalating of entrance examination competition (‘examination hell’), an increase in the number of dropouts or those refusing to attend school (toko kyohi), and increased bullying in schools. Like the majority of school focussed anime, Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo neither deals with, nor even mentions these problems, and while the series presents a fascinating juxtaposition between two very different approaches towards education, the series largely falls back upon its portrayal of a highly idealised and romanticised school life. Furthermore, even when the series dialogue turns to a world outside of high school, it is never truly engaged with, and the presence of family, while felt, is also largely ignored

What seems clear however is that the increased presence of school centric anime is as much a part of Japanese societies focus on the creation of a more Japanese education system as it is on the romanticisation of a time in everyone’s lives viewed by many to be the ideal. It is also particularly interesting when we look at the different attitudes towards becoming a ‘good’ member of society that reinforces the ideology of an egalitarian and meritocratic society, while at the same time we often see ‘exceptional’ students given preferential treatment. Many may complain about the number of school centric anime in recent years, but when we step back and look at how the school, and broader education fits into Japanese society, it becomes increasingly clear that there are a number of reasons for the increase in such anime. Furthermore, I would argue that the move from narratives exploring broader philosophical and political issues, to ones that focus on the politics of the everyday doesn’t mean that anime has lost its ability to tell complex stories. Rather, the stories have become increasingly more complex with the use of the everyday and the school as their setting, but they have also become more culturally specific and embedded, which can give the impression of more simplistic narratives.

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About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

6 Responses to School centric anime and their importance in current day Japan

  1. animecommentary says:

    Hmmm, could this idealized school environment, as presented in anime, have an analogue in an overarching idealization of childhood and what it means to have an education? Many societies that offer education (from primary school through university, particularly) have their own issues of instilling social harmony and “moral” values in a practical manner; bullies exist, as do those who feel like they’re on the outside looking in. Education is important for various reasons, but school life feels like a microcosm of life in general – unequal distribution of benefits, overly competitive people, the whole gamut of oddities attendant on school life.

    • illogicalzen says:

      Hard to say, certainly in the Japanese case we have to look at how anime and the focus on education fits into current debates surrounding ‘nihonjinron (Japanesesness, or Japanese Uniqueness) along with the current major problem for the Japanese state of Japan’s ageing society. Education and the school environment is important for all educated societies, but it takes on a very specific importance to Japan partly because many conservatives in the political establishment, and broader Japanese society view the current education system as un-Japanese and a product of the American occupation.

      Curiously, the period in life that is most similar with the one we see in anime is not high school but university; school is a horrible grind of ‘examination hell’, with constant exams to get into good middle schools, then good high schools, and then finally good universities, it is only when you are in university that you can relax and essentially do very little until you graduate and need to become a good member of society. I think we see the school environment, partly because this and wider education have become the central socialising tools of Japanese society, a place where you learn the social and cultural norms of Japan. This also fits into current moral panics surrounding NEET’s, Hikikomori and so on, with the education system viewed by many to have failed the youngest generation and be part of the current problem with Japanese society. As for moral values, this is partly to do with the form that the education system took during the pre-war period, and what some people consider it has lost since – basically, its a difficult one, especially as the education system is a central element to the creation and recreation of Japanese society.

  2. Cho says:

    This is certainly an interesting subject–there are probably several reasons behind the number of anime and manga set in school (and particularly in high school). There’s the target audience to keep in mind of course, and creating characters and a setting they can easily relate to–but there’s also the fact characters in this sort of age range are in a transitory period in life (and characters in general are more interesting when they’re undergoing some kind of change and dealing with a variety of new conflicts).

    I’m currently teaching English to students in Japan, but not at their actual schools (it’s through a company that runs its own English program with classes that parents of the students can pay for)–so it’s a bit difficult to fully gauge what their everyday school life is like. The fact there are so many extra programs such as this in Japan at least makes it clear how much education is valued, and how much parents wish for their children to “have an edge.” Some of the classes I teach are even specifically designed to help students prepare for standardized English tests the nation utilizes. Unfortunately this does lend an atmosphere of tests being much more important than actual level of ability, though I suppose that’s not something so unique to Japan.

    It seems there’s quite a few topics that could be explored in relation to the portrayal of school life in Japan. In Red Data Girl for example, there’s a definite theme of competition being employed–the different factions are all vying to gain every position of power and prominence they can in order to achieve a World Heritage status for their family/organization. There are plenty of other anime that deal with this sort of concept as well, to the point where it’s even a common trope for a character try become popular and respected by doing well on tests.

    Unity is another common theme in these school-based anime. For a bit of a silly example, in Valvrave the school banded together in the most extreme way possible (becoming its own country and standing against invading armies), with everyone’s school spirit culminating with a camp montage music video (I Know You are Hero in Your Life) showing the world how happy everyone was. This sort of atmosphere seems to show up in lots of anime though, particularly during school-wide events such as festivals and graduations.

    How much is any of this reflective of real Japanese school life, and how much is any of this that different from school life anywhere else? I suppose it will vary for every individual’s experience. Competition through tests and struggling to get good grades for the sake of entering a good college was something I certainly went through in America, and my school even had a number of clubs and extracurricular programs–not to mention special events quite similar to sports days and festivals (e.g. a Renaissance Fair). There are certainly some nuances and details that do lead to different experiences though, and it’s interesting to note them whenever they crop up in anime and manga.

    It might also be interesting to note those series that take the time to portray a different outlook on high school life–the two that come to my mind at the moment are The Flowers of Evil (which seems largely devoted to tearing off the mask of romanticized youth and everyday school life) and Watamote (in which the protagonist repeatedly fails to fit in with all her peers, and the theme of high school failing to live up to any of its “promises” is prevalent). I’m having a lot of fun reading Watamote at the moment, actually–it’s not too difficult to relate to the character who is a square peg in a school of round holes, at least, though your post does make me wonder how different a Japanese reading of the story may be compared to a Western one.

    • illogicalzen says:

      The reasons for the increase in school centric anime are clearly varied, I am also looking at attitudes towards gender and family life in Japan, but I couldn’t really fit it all into a single post otherwise it would be pretty long. While there is clearly an importance placed upon examinations and doing well in your school work in countries other than Japan, I do think that the specific emphasis placed upon education in Japan certainly differs from other countries. The resulting ‘examination hell’ for example is something that you dont really see in the west, at least, not to such a degree, so the various external forces at work are clearly important. As for a sense of unity, this is certainly something that we see in most anime, but as my research has progressed I am slowly beginning to see that in many ways, it is merely a facade, and there is a significant amount of individualism taking place underneath, without ever quite breaking through.

      The younger generation also has a particular importance to Japan due to its ageing society and the continued moral, and political debates about why Japan has such a society and who should be blamed. I am also looking at schools as a place where gender roles are created and recreated, along with particular attitudes towards your expected path in life – I think there is actually a wide variety of different attitudes towards education and Japanese society, they just aren’t necessarily obvious. Overal its an interesting subject to explore, and while the generation portrayal of a romanticised and idealised education system is problematic, there are also numerous points in many anime series where we can see the Japanese school system from a different perspective, and perhaps catch a glimpse of the reality.

  3. Nice article and have a good info in it…

  4. Pingback: Discuss the Manga! Watamote

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