The ‘Family’ in School Centric Anime


The world of dreams and fantasies that school centric anime portray further allows them to explore the complex nature of the Japanese family and its place within Japanese society. The ‘Japanese Family’ is full of diversity, with differences and differentiations depending on social class, historical cultures, legal cultures, and economic conditions (White, 2011). There is not a single, all-encompassing ‘Japanese Family’, although the Meiji Government (1868-1912) attempted to create one with their reinterpretation of the ‘ie’ household (extended family based on patrilineal descent). This version of the Japanese family became a matter of state concern in the establishment of a modern nation, but it only exists because of the force of ideology and power promoting it; it is a dream of what a family should be, rather than what it is (White, 2011; 129). The family is often viewed by the state as a continuation of its power, ideology and morals, a unit that recreates social and cultural norms and can pass down a sense of belonging to something substantially larger than itself. It is therefore essential to have a solid family structure in place in order to create society, and to engender the moral imperatives of honour, self-sacrifice, and pride.

But, as anyone who has watched anime may know, family is noticeable by its absence, its presence may be felt, but, like examinations and studying, family is often ignored by anime films and series. A family life between blood relations is more implied than shown, with the central characters time at school or with their friends shown to be more important, or more significant. It is the process of school that is central to the lives of these characters, with the school clock and timetable regulating their lives, this reinforcing educations place as a liminal space where people can grow and learn. This also suggests that the Meiji ideal of a family that is integral to the Japanese state doesn’t exist (assuming it ever did), and that there are other institutions, which take a greater role in the growth and development of Japanese children and teenagers. Furthermore, the absence of parents and a family life underpins the dream world as a place for escape, with series and films existing within their own bubble, mirroring real life, while also appearing oddly detached, a ghost of the complexities that exist in the daily lives of so many Japanese.

As we have seen to greater or lesser extent in recent anime, the Japanese education system is a place of immense pressures and expectations, a system that reinforces social rigidity, and results in a period of what amounts to constant examination and study. The family may also be a place of similar pressures and expectations, often reinforcing the socio-cultural hegemony that the education system and state ideology creates. We therefore have two system that appear to mutually reinforce each other, creating a period in ones life that is perhaps more stressful and devoid of play than any other. School centric anime can thus be viewed not only as a break from the realities of the Japanese education system, but also as a space within which the role of the gamily and its place in society can be reinterpreted and reshaped. The almost total absence of family in many anime series and films with characters spending the majority of their time in a school club of with friends points to the redrawing of social boundaries, with the school and broader education taking on the primary role of socialising force and space. The communal space of the school grounds becomes the focal point of self-discovery and growth, and any scenes set in characters homes can be viewed as the space between school and the necessities of socialising with friends.


The increased focus on school as the central place for socialisation coincides with growing pressure on the Japanese Family and its place within the Japanese State’s ideology and rhetoric. In Japan the normative concept of ‘Family’ is far from the normal family life as it is lived on the ground. Public rhetoric and political agenda for the family are based in a combination of older scripted ideals, honoured more in texts than in life, and the economic and social needs of the state (White, 2011). The dual problems of declining birth rate and ageing population have put even greater pressures on the concept of the family that policymakers want and need (LeBlanc, 2011; White, 2011; Thang, 2011). It is this family, the singular good family that upholds traditional, Confucian ideals and attitudes, that appears to the policymakers to be endangered by change. Official and conservative criticism focuses on the falling birth-rate and the rising rate of the elderly in the population – both seen to be contributing to the future decline in economic stability and growth, and to a weakening of the social fabric of Japan. And women are seen to be selfishly rejecting their responsibilities in both cases and have become the object of the official critical gaze (white, 2011). While most families continue to create useful, productive, and emotionally satisfying lives for their members, some public figures view families today as producing a national crisis of demography and morality, simply by having fewer or no babies (White, 2011; 130).

School centric anime both reinforce, and question the underlying ideology surrounding the ‘Japanese Family’, presenting moralistic attitudes towards the idea of family, whilst simultaneously ignoring the family in a traditional sense. With the increased importance given to the education system, it is hardly surprising that school takes up such a large chunk of the day. The general absence of family in anime can therefore be partly attributed to the necessities of the Japanese Education system and the pivotal role it now plays in the creation and recreation of Japanese society. But, school centric anime mirrors the Japanese education system, while largely ignoring examination and studying, unless it is necessary to the narrative structure of a specific series or film. The educational landscape of Japan is shown to be rigid, and without the ability, or scope, to cope with the myriad of different attitude, ideas, dreams, and goals that Japanese youth have. By either ignoring family life, of presenting difficult, fructuous, or just different family relationships, anime demonstrates the restrictive nature of the Japanese states ideal family, suggesting that such a rigid structure may be detrimental to Japanese society as a whole.

Series like Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai (Love, Chuunibyou and Other Delusions) provide an insight into a culture that reinforces traditional, highly restrictive attitudes towards family, while simultaneously demonstrating the multiplicity of Japanese family life. The series focuses on Togashi Yūta, a high school student who, during junior high school suffered from ‘Chuunibyou’ (adolescent delusions), believing that he possesses supernatural powers and dubbing himself the ‘Dark Flame Master,’ thus alienating himself from his classmates. Finding his past embarrassing, Yūta attempts to start off high school where he does not know anyone, free from his old delusions. This proves to be difficult, however, as Rikka Takanashi, a girl in his class who also suffers from ‘Chuunibyou’, learns of Yūta’s past and becomes interested in him. The presence of a stable family in the case of Yūta is portrayed as a positive force, allowing him to become a more mature individual as he grows older, while also allowing him to enact his fantasies from within a safe, understanding environment. Conversely, the absence of a stable family in the case of Rikka is seen as the root of her immaturity, and the reason behind her inability, or unwillingness to live in the real world rather than her fantasies.


This good family/bad family dichotomy is one of the central strands of this series, but the real focus of the story is actually the relationship between Rikka and Yūta, and the importance of their afterschool club as a place of socialisation and play. Significantly, the club (called ‘The Oriental Magick Napping Society in Summer’) appears to become a surrogate family for the central characters, with figures of authority, i.e., the ‘parents’ – Togashi Yūta, Nibutani Shinka (who alternate between mother and father roles) – and the ‘children’ – Dekomori Sanae, Takanashi Rikka, Tsuyuri Kumin, and later, Isshiki Makoto. The rituals of education and a fixation on play are at the heart of such series, and it is the afterschool club, rather than formal education or traditional family that is at the center of these characters growth and experimentation. The ritual of family life is replicated in the liminal space of the Japanese school, bringing with it the moralistic approaches towards life that coincide with the Confucian ideology that the Japanese estate wish to reinforce. However, rather than reinforce these attitudes in their entirety, Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai demonstrates the multiplicity of the Japanese family, providing a glimpse at the complex nature of the ‘family; as an idea and demonstrating how limiting and reifying the Japanese states version can be.

There are also other aspects to the representations of family in Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai that help to demonstrate the interconnectedness of education and family, and how important a healthy family life is viewed to be in Japanese society. The dream world that anime invokes places significant emphasis on play, with series largely ignoring the realities of the education system in order to focus on a particular afterschool club, or social group. Play is a fundamental process of creating social order, both in humans and animals, but in the human case it is also about the problems of order, the limits to it, the dispensability of impermanence of it. in many cases these opposing functions operating at different moments, in some instances being mostly pattern affirming, while in others being pattern defying (Lowell Lewis, 2008). In some cases human play can do both at once; it can be a process both of reinforcing social normativity and simultaneously contesting it. The afterschool club in Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai as a space of play serves to reinforce family structures, while simultaneously demonstrating the failings of the states model for example.

When play is organized into special events such as afterschool cubs, and school-wide activities like the school festival, such activities can be seen to increase social cohesion. However, insofar as many games and sports highlight competition and a healthy group ethos, they can also be divisive, inciting fans of opposing trams to violence, or creating a system that rewards selfishness, and breaks from the moral traditions of school. In this respect, it is the club as a pseudo-family that is deemed to have failed, and in the same way that a real family must take steps to teach their children proper manners an attitudes, the club has to start again, reinforcing social cohesion and punishing selfishness. When playfulness breaks out spontaneously, be it in ordinary life, or in a situation like school on the other hand, the same double-edged character can be observed (Lowell Lewis, 2008; Rowe, 2008). Jokes, irony, and the many forms of verbal and non-verbal play such as ‘Chuunibyou’ may point to social problems, to the inconsistencies or strictures of social order, to the limitations of normative social habits.


Takanshi Rikka’s Chuunibyou is seen to be a consequence of her family keeping her fathers illness a secret (we assume it is cancer), it is therefore an escape from a world and set of social structures that have let her down. Her role-playing is viewed by her family as disruptive and dangerous, she has removed herself from the normative social structures of Japanese society, and lives in her own world, a dreamscape apart from society (Appadurai, 1996). Some experts fear spoiling children will become a problem, while others point to issues including the well-publicised moral panics surrounding ‘NEETs’ and ‘Otaku’, who are seen to be fixed to their computer screens, thus becoming poorly socialised and potentially dangerous loners (Tuuka, 2011). Rikka’s individuality is therefore a threat to the social fabric of Japan, but it is her absent mother’s inability to deal with the loss of her husband that seems to be blamed Rikka’s current state. The assumption is that she should be the person to teach Rikka manners and the values of society; Rikka’s delusions are thus attributed to some sort of mother-child disconnect, which has led to a poorly adjusted individual who is unwilling to grow up and accept responsibilities in any form.

On the other hand, the laughter that spontaneous play produces can create solidarity and friendship among the small-scale groups sharing the humor. The afterschool club provides a space free from the pressures of society for Rikka and Dekomori to play, to explore their individuality, safe in the knowledge that they will not be judged as failures. The snide, and sarcastic comments that Yūta and Nibutani level at these individuals becomes part of the act, part of the play, thus reinforcing the club as another family where these characters are allowed to explore their individuality and grow because of it. Thus when play is bounded, and when it is spontaneous, in both cases it rends to create ambiguities between social cohesion versus social dissolution or critique (Lowell Lewis, 2008; 48).

‘Family’ in anime becomes a malleable concept that does not correspond with the Japanese state’s vision of what a family should be, although this vision of the family may still be referenced in passing. One key feature of family representations in anime is the absences of the main character’s father, who is either away at work, or dead (in this case the entire family may also be dead as an explanation for certain plot points). This absence of the father, the traditional head of the family (at least under Meiji ideology) leave the women in charge, and it is they who ultimately wield the power and authority within family structures sound in anime. Throughout anime like Hanasaku Iroha and Summer Wars we are given an insight into the authority of women in the family, and how malleable the concept of ‘family’ really is.


Hanasaku Iroha centers on Ohana Matsumae, a 16-year-old living in Tokyo, who is left in the care of her estranged grandmother, following her mother’s elopement with her boyfriend. Ohana arrives at her grandmother’s country estate to realize she is the owner of a Taisho period Ryokan called Kissuisō. She has to start working at Kissuisō in order to earn her keep, but finds herself at odds with many employees and customers at the inn. Initially feeling discouraged, she decides to use her circumstances as an opportunity to change herself for the better and to make amends with her deteriorating relationship with the Kissuisō’s staff for a more prominent future. The normal family structures do not exist for Ohana; her mother does not follow the principle of ‘wakaraseru’ (meaning ‘getting the child to understand’) (Vogel, 1963; 245), and is neither in tune with her daughters feelings and behaviour, or paying constant attention to her daughters growth. Ohana is therefore stuck between her childish ideals, and the realities of a working life that her grandmother (Sui) expects her to accomplish. The liminal space that Ohana occupies is particularly complicated as it is between family and responsibility, school and work, adolescence and adulthood, a space where family structures exist in a difference context from those considered to be normal, it is a world-within-a-world.

Grimes (1995) has described this world-within-a-world as ‘a moment of ritually generated limbo…an antistructural moment of reversal’ (Grimes, 1995; 151). While in this antistructural context, liminars experience the suspension of at least some elements of normative social structures. The roles and rules that normally define acceptable social conduct may be suspended or inverted, thus encouraging a range of behaviour and expression to fully available within the boundaries that conventionally organize and restrain daily life (Lowell Lewis, 2008; 128). Ohana’s circumstances arguably allow her to grow in ways that a traditional family structure wouldn’t allow, furthermore, over the course of the series, she acquires family relationships, with Kissuisō’ staff providng her the space within which she can learn, experiment and grow as an individual. She also has a second social group made up of those who also work with her and who go to the same school. The duality of Ohana’s family relationships, and the forms that they take further point to the malleability of the ‘gamily’ in Japan, and how the antistructural suspension of the ordinary establishes a context in which an alternative mode of relation, or communitas, emerges among liminars (Rowe, 2008).


This ‘suspension of the ordinary’ in which an alternative mode of relation, or communitas can be established is also illustrated in the film Summer Wars, an anime that provides us with one of the very few depictions of the ‘ie’, or traditional extended family that the Meiji government placed so much emphasis on (Bernardes, 1997; Gubrium and Holstein, 1990; Takeda, 2010). We are introduces Kenji Koiso is a young high school student with a gift in mathematics and a part-time moderator in the massive computer-simulated virtual reality world OZ along with his friend Takashi Sakuma. Invited by Natsuki Shinohara to participate in the 90th birthday of her great-grandmother Sakae Jinnouchi, Kenji travels with her to Sakae’s estate in Ueda. While there, Natsuki introduces Kenji as her fiancé to Sakae. Kenji’s family is absent for entire film, but, as the story progresses, the Jinnouchi family gradually accepts him as one of their own as he demonstrates similar beliefs, ideals, and attitudes. Family bonds in Summer Wars, while also through blood relations, are created through common goals, attitudes, and ideals, it is therefore complex and not easily defined.

Concepts of ‘family’, and what it is vary between these examples, but what they share is the complexity of family life in Japan when we take into account social structures and institutions. One key aspect that these anime also share is the position of school in their lives, and how comparatively little importance is placed upon the institution of education and all that it encompasses. Instead, the school grounds, or school as a time or idea are what becomes important as a liminal space within which family relationships are created and reshaped. The dream world that school centric anime creates also demonstrates how frail, or brittle the states ideal family is, and how family is more a process of the social and cultural space that you inhabit, rather than a specific fixed entity that can be easily defined. Released from daily formalities that regulate social life, the liminal space of school found in anime encourages the deconstruction of societies conventions and structural elements ‘into cultural units which may then be reconstructed in novel ways’ (Turner, 1985a; 160; Rowe, 2008). School centric anime reveals the disjointed realities of the everyday in Japan, and in creating a dreamlike space allows for the restructuring of the self, and new expressions of social relationships and ideals.



Routledge Handbook of Japanese Culture and Society (2011) – authors, Robin M. LeBlanc, Merry White, LEng Leng Thang.

Japan’s New Middle Class (1963) – Ezra Vogel.

Talking about Japanese families: discursive politics of the familial (2010) – Hiroko Takeda.

Family Studies: An Introduction (1997) – Jon Bernardes.

What is Family? (1990) – Jaber F. Gubrium and James A. Holstein.

Victor Turner and Contemporary Cultural Performance (2008) – edited by Graham St John – authors used: J Lowell Lewis, Sharon Rowe.

The Anthropology of Performance (1987) – Victor Turner.

From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (1982) – Victor Turner.

On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience (1985a) – Victor Turner.

Beginnings in Ritual Studies (1995) – Ronald Grimes.

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

2 Responses to The ‘Family’ in School Centric Anime

  1. animecommentary says:

    This makes me think about School Rumble and Azumanga Daioh, where the central characters’ families aren’t physically present (but are implicitly there). An exception to that would be Tenma and Yakumo from School Rumble, as they are sisters, but their parents don’t feature in the story at all. Without a traditional “ie” unit available, Tenma and Yakumo rely on each other; they run the house by themselves, which is unique as they’re both girls – another example of how anime can present alternatives to traditional notions of family dynamics.

    With Azumanga Daioh, the central figures become their own “family,” becoming close friends thanks to sharing a homeroom. The homeroom (overseen by Yukari-sensei) is the liminal space for them; they can participate in various games and go on vacation as a cohesive unit. Of course, Tomo becomes the “idiot” of the group, and her occasional rivalry with Sakaki shows how offbeat she can be when she puts her mind to it.

    • illogicalzen says:

      I would say that almost every school centric anime has an absence of blood related family, and by that I don’t necessarily mean that we never see them, more that the family isn’t essential to the story, or to the characters lives. Broadly speaking you can even describe the school ground as a ‘family home’ because all of the major action and decisions that effect these characters are made on school grounds, usually in an after school club, or during a lunch break. I think that in many ways anime mirrors the lack of real ‘family time’ in Japan for those in white collar families since their parents may be out working late, so the school and their friends become the key social group. Whats interesting actually is the lack of working class Japanese families in anime, as they would likely be the ones with stronger family lives – we just have to look at Tamako Market for example to see how a small, family run business is central to the characters lives. But what I see in anime, as I argued in the post, is how complex family life in Japan is, and how it doesn’t really conform to the national ideal, and this is mirrored in anime and its presentation of family.

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