The World’s First Novel: The Tale of Genji

the_tale_of_genji_-_1951_filmBack in the 11th century, a Japanese woman wrote the world’s first modern novel. The novel remained unknown in the West until after the Meiji Restoration and the rise of modernism in literature. In 1925, Arthur Waley’s translation of the work released, shocking novelists of the time (Phillips, 2010). The Tale of Genji stands as a cornerstone in Japanese literature and world romantic literature, but we know little about the author. Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978-1014) lived as a lady-in-waiting in the Imperial Court during the Heian period (794-1185) (Hirota, 1997). Sadly, that’s the only thing we know that’s certain. Many legends surround her. Ironically, the legends draw a contrast to the dalliances found throughout the Tale of Genji.  Stories surrounding Muraski rarely include romantic relationships.

These “biographies” are largely fiction. In almost all of them, she expresses loyalty her husband, regardless of the situation. The “Bunkai Bag of Wisdom for Women’s Education” (1749) prefaces one of her legends with (Hirato, 1997):

Murasaki Shikibu is the daughter of Tametoki, the governor of Echizen. Because her father Tametoki was a wise scholar, from a young age she read and studied books, and mastered the texts of Japan and China. She also conveyed the essence of then notion of “concentration and insight” to the scholar-priest of the mount of Tendai, and cultivated the essence of the Buddhist way.

The legend pegs her as a scholar of Tendai Buddhism.

Readers of Genji won’t be surprised at how little is known about Murasaki and how many legends circulated about her. Genji is a dense, difficult work to decipher. As a monogatari, or fictional story, Genji targets noble women. The story makes assumptions that noble women of the Heian period would grasp, but these assumptions leave the rest of us feeling lost. Genji is a part of romance literature designed to be read aloud by women to pass the time. As Prince Genji remarks in the story: “Sometimes I stand and listen to the stories they read to my little one,” Reading stories aloud was a part of Heian period noble lifestyle. Because of its assumptions and design, many Westerners outside of modernist circles viewed the work as trite. Basil Hall Chamberlain and other early Western Japanese scholars viewed it as “long-winded” and “devoid of interest” (Phillips, 2010).

The Setting of Genji


We must understand the Heian period to understand Genji. Chiefly, a fascination in Chinese culture marked the Heian period. The Japanese Imperial Court emulated Chinese fashion and customs while they pursued the arts. A noble was expected to be well versed in literature, poetry, painting, dancing, calligraphy, and more. Genji extends this list by being good at perfume making as well. Noble men used the Chinese language similar to how Medieval European nobles and priests used Latin. In Heian Japan, Women were not allowed to speak Chinese. The period expected women to remain separate from men. They would converse through fabric blinders dividing rooms. Genji shows how great the difference was between the genders by having characters fall in love with each other based on their handwriting.

Indirection defined the Heian nobility, much to our confusion. Murasaki’s lack of direct statements makes the Tale of Genji challenging. It even challenged Japanese scholars to the point where they adopted nicknames for the hundreds of characters in the tale. Murasaki refers to each character by their title rather than by a name. During the Heian period, proper names were considered too blunt for polite use. To make things more complicated, these titles would change over the course of the story. So Japanese scholars pinned their nicknames to clarify who was who. For example, Genji’s son is nicknamed Yugiri, which means “evening mist.” These nicknames appear in English translations as if they are a part of the original story, but Murasaki never used them (Phillips, 2010).

The tale formed a critical part of a noble woman’s education (Naito, 2014). Artists lavishly illustrated scrolls depicting the story, making the story expensive. Because of this, less well-off noblewomen dreamed about owning a copy. In an autobiography, Sarashina nikki (c. 1060), a noblewoman from a rural province writes about this longing (Hirota, 1997):

Brought up in a remote country father even than the Azuma Road, I must have been a terribly countrified child. Yet, how did I start longing for the tales whose existence I could barely imagine? At idle hours of the day or at evening gatherings, as I listened to my sister, stepmother and others talking about this or that tale, or discussing pieces from the Shining Genji, my curiosity increased. But how could they recount from memory enough to satisfy me? Frustrated, I had a statue of Yakushi Buddha built in my size…I prostrated myself and prayed, “Please let us leave for the capital soon. They say there are many tales there—please let me read all of them!

The tale continued to be copied and read by women up until the Edo period when printing techniques expanded Genji’s audience. Male critics panned the Tale. For example, Hayashi Razan (1583-1657) didn’t think the tale was proper literature because a woman wrote it (Naito, 2014).

Did you know cliff notes appeared in Japan? The complexity and length of the story prompted artists in the Edo period to create their own version of cliff notes with simplified plots and story summaries. The rise of woodblock printing widened the audience beyond noble women. The Illustrated Tale of Genji by Yamamoto Shunsho made the tale easier to read by adding punctuation, shorter annotations, and reading guides (Naito, 2014).

Understanding The Tale of Genji

toyohara_kunichika_-_the_tale_of_genjiThe reticence of Murasaki and her assumptions make the Tale of Genji difficult to understand.  On its surface, the story looks to be a fluffy romance filled with illicit love and a lot of sex. However, the novel has many things going on that can only be seen by looking at what is left unsaid. For example, Genji brings a young girl home with the intent of raising her. During one of these domestic scenes, he finds her coloring pictures. He dabs red paint on his nose to make her laugh. These moments of humanness speak about the lack of humanness found in the elegance of court life.

Under the facade of love, elegance, peace, and high aesthetics, Murasaki hints at a deep wrongness with court life. Genji appears to lack a plot unless you read between the lines. Murasaki does all of her plot work through layers of symbols and through the unsaid. Much of the story focuses on how Genji lost his favor in the Imperial Court and had to be removed by his father, the emperor. This was done to protect him from court politics. After all, his mother was a low-ranked consort. The powerful Fujiwara family pressured the emperor to name the child he had with one of their daughters as heir.

Under the first chapter’s picturesque scenes and romance lurks the threat of rebellion and civil war. Murasaki suggests this at the beginning of the book by alluding to a rebellion in China known as the An Shi Rebellion. This rebellion destroyed the Tang dynasty and left millions dead (Phillips, 2010). After this allusion, the conflict disappears. But its unspoken presence creates dread behind the facade and the character’s actions. They too are on the verge of a conflict that could end a dynasty.

At one point, Genji falls in love with his father’s new wife. Genji eventually seduces her, and people mistake his son for his Father’s son. The boy takes the throne later in the story. Despite not saying it, Murasaki suggests Genji regrets his seduction and how it betrayed his father. His act throws the entire line of succession in doubt. Throughout Japanese history, the emperor was thought to be a descendant of the gods. Genji’s son breaks this line for the first time in 1500 years (Phillips, 2010). While we miss the event, the significance would be evident for anyone who lived in the court at the time. The event casts a shadow over the underlying plot and behavior of the characters.

After his father’s death, Genji goes on and has an affair with a daughter of the Fujiwara family, who now controls the court as a regency. In a rare event, Murasaki as the Fujiwara outright state what was unspoken throughout the early chapters:

The Empress Mother’s countenance nevertheless failed to lighten. She could not have Genji pointedly mocking and belittling her by brazenly invading her house while she was at home, so nearby, and this gave her a fine reason to set in train the measures to accomplish his downfall.

Murasaki’s love for the unspoke extends toward Genji himself.  About 3/4 through the story, Genji dies. His death comes after he retires from the world as a monk, a common practice for Heian period nobility (Phillips, 2010). The last years of his life do not appear in the story; a blank chapter marks his death. The following chapter picks up 8 years after Genji’s death and focuses on two of Genji’s descendants. Genji’s subtle last years and death, however, doesn’t end Genji’s story. Throughout the last chapters, the story becomes far grimmer and darker. The death of Genji infects the story with a sadness that the thin veneer of beauty and courtliness can’t hide any longer.

The Tale of Genji ends without the closure those of us in the West expect. The tale ends with a young girl, chased by Genji’s descendants Niou and Kaoru, throwing herself into a river to escape them. A group of monks finds her alive, but she can’t remember what happened. When she finally does, the book ends. The abrupt ending and lack of closure troubles modern readers. It doesn’t feel finished. Yet, when you look at the story as a whole, with its veneers and suggestions, the ending fits. Murasaki expects us to see through the veil and fill in the gaps. The ending’s cut off also fits the darker mood of the last portion of the tale. Death couldn’t save the girl from the flowered conflict swirling about her.

The Strangeness of the Tale of Genji


When I read Genji, Murasaki’s reticence struck me. Despite the dalliances of Genji and the general frivolousness of the tale, I felt something was wrong. The entire novel has a pall, a darkness, overlaying it. The characters feel devoid of hope or direction despite their cultivation. An emptiness pervades their behavior, and they appear to be aware of it but unwilling to face it. Murasaki’s genius shows in how she weaves all of this through suggestion alone. The blank chapter that stands in for Genji’s death stuck me. Its silence says more than the most purple prose could.

The complicated nature of the text, with its tangled relationships and emotions, is designed to stimulate discussion. Much of the text is open to interpretation. This makes sense. Heian women were shut off from the world. Boredom was a struggle. A complex, interpretive text like the Tale of Genji would allow them to imagine and discuss the story for years. The longevity of the text and the fact the text has seen over 20 manga adaptions attest to this (Myake, 2008).

The story influenced Japanese art. Genji-e scrolls from the 12th century influenced the Edo period’s woodblock prints, particular that of Utagawa Kunisada. In turn, Utagawa would influence the modern manga adaptions of Genji (Myake, 2008).

You can read Genji as a fluffy romance full of affairs or as a darker story of people attempting to ignore the frivolousness of their lives and looming catastrophes. Without some knowledge of Japanese history, The Tale of Genji makes for a difficult read. Despite the difficulty of understanding the unstated, The Tale of Genji stands as the first novel and speaks about the importance of women’s contributions to world culture.


Hirota, A. (1997). The Tale of Genji: From Heian Classic to Heisei Comic. Journal Of Popular Culture, 31(2), 29-68. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3840.1997.00029.x

Miyake, Lynne (2008) Graphically Speaking: Manga Versions of the “Tale of Genji” Monumenta Nipponica. 63(2) 359-392.

Naito, Satoko (2014) Beyond the Tale of Genji: Murasaki Shikibu as Icon and Exemplum in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Popular Japanese Texts for Women. Early Modern Woman 9 (1). 47-78.

Phillips, Brian (2010) The Tale of Genji as a Modern Novel. The Hudson Review. 63(3). 373-390.

US Clown Scare, a Real Life Laughing Man Incident?

laughing-man-clownsYou may have heard on the news (do people still watch the news?) about murderous clowns rampaging across the US. Okay, not really rampaging, but people are genuinely scared. These clowns are reportedly terrorizing and assaulting people. Actually, there’ve been few assaults, but fear beats reason most of the time. In any case, this clown scare rehashes another incident back in the 1980s.

During April and May 1981, Boston school children reported sightings of clowns. Daniel O’Connell, the Investigative Counselor of Boston Public Schools, released a memo telling the principals about the sightings. As the days passed, police responded to reports of various clowns harassing children, but the police failed to find any suspects or confirm the reports. The sightings spread through various other cities, including Kansas City, Omaha, Pittsburg, and Denver ( Fee, 2016).

Some analysts suggest Stephen King’s It sparked the clown fears, but that doesn’t explain the resurgence of clowns today. These clown incidents lack a single event that sparked them. They are a real life Laughing Man Incident.

You may not know of the Laughing Man Incident. It’s a strange case from the anime show Ghost in the Shell. The incident contains many twists and turns, but it involves a string of people copying an unknown man known as the Laughing Man. The Laughing Man first appears on news streams when he assaults the head of Serano Genomics. The news media coins the name Laughing Man from the logo the man uses to hide his face from cameras and cyborgs. He hacks their eyesight. We eventually learn that the Laughing Man himself was inspired by a file he found online. The file inspired him to become something of a social justice warrior against certain corporations, but despite his effort to track down the file’s author he was unable to do so.

The investigators call the Laughing Man Incident a series of copies without an original. People copy the actions of the original Laughing Man, who was, in turn, copying the actions he read about in a file. The current clown situation involves copies without an original. In the 1980s, police were unable to pin down the first incident, if there was one. So too with today’s clown sightings. People copy what they see in the media and online which, in turn, is just a copy as well.

This points out a few facts. Media feeds on itself, particularly online media. It can be hard, if not impossible, to trace the beginnings of a meme or incident. Next, it points to how fears gain a life of their own before fading from awareness for a time. These fears return when least expected. Finally, this real life Laughing Man Incident points to how anime can describe reality. People scoff at anime, but intelligent anime like Ghost in the Shell can shed light on human behavior. Not all anime involves fluff and hijinks.


Fee, Christopher and Jeffrey Webb (2016) American Myths, Legends, and Tall Tales: An Encyclopedia of American Folklore.

The History of Cosplay

star_trek_the_original_seriesCosplay sits as the best-known expressions of anime and manga fandom. Each year, fans spend countless hours designing and sewing their costumes and perfecting their impersonations. Many view cosplay, a contraction of costume play, as a Japanese import. However, like anime, cosplay comes from the interplay of American and Japanese culture.

What Exactly is Cosplay?

By RyC - Behind The Lens from San Francisco, United States of America - green mighty morphin power ranger, CC BY 2.0, Link

By RyC – Behind The Lens from San Francisco, United States of America – green mighty morphin power ranger, CC BY 2.0, Link

Cosplay involves more than donning a costume. After all, people don’t consider Halloween costumes a part of cosplay culture. We can define cosplay as a performance art. It involves more than dressing up. It involves people taking on the physical and mental role of a fictional character (Bainbridge, 2013). Cosplay expresses a fan’s adoration of a character. In a study of cosplayers, over 70% of people surveyed became fans of a specific character because the character possessed traits the fans wanted to have as well. The fans expressed a desire to “get inside the skin” of the character. Many of the fans surveyed (79%) stated they learned to draw by copying commercially produced drawings of their favorite characters (Rosenberg, n.d.; Manifold, 2009).

We call people who dress up like this cosplayers. The focus on the word play in both labels emphasizes two points: fun and performance. Cosplay involves 4 points (Winge, 2006; Bainbridge, 2013):

  • Narrative – the personality and story of the fictional character
  • Clothing – the design of the outfits and the community surrounding this design
  • Play – mimicking the mannerisms of the character as accurately as possible
  • Player – the character and identity of the cosplayer

Cosplayers identify wth the personality and story of their favorite characters, and this is the main drive behind cosplay (Rosenberg, n.d.). It’s fun to dress up as someone else! It helps when you admire that character, even if it’s just a cool outfit you like.

By greyloch (Flickr: Superman) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By greyloch (Flickr: Superman) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of outfits, costumes define cosplay culture, and the community surrounding it. Many cosplayers take pride in sewing their own costumes. The cosplay community contains forums and websites dedicated to helping people learn how to sew accurate outfits. Accuracy matters in cosplay. Cosplay competitions judge entries based on the authenticity of the costume and how well the character is portrayed. This is where the “play” element kicks in. Fans fall on a spectrum from those who dress for fun to those who obsess over a character and try to recreate every detail. Detailed oriented people can spend thousands of dollars and spend endless hours tweaking their costumes. They practice poses and memorize dialogue in order to win competitions with prizes rarely worth the cost of the costume. However, fans do this because it is fun, and it wins the praise of the community (Winge, 2006; Caffrey, 2015).

Authenticity can be difficult to achieve which the cosplay values it. Many character designs feature physics defying clothing. Especially busty female characters. Other characters sport details or designs that can be difficult to mimic, such as Samus Aran’s suit. This touches on an important point, cosplay doesn’t limit itself to anime and manga characters. It encompasses American superheroes, Star Wars characters, Star Trek characters, and video game characters. This hearkens back to the origins of cosplays as we shall see.

I have to note that Renaissance fairs and war reenactments are not considered cosplay. These costume events seek to recreate historical reality. Cosplay focuses on fiction, much like a Shakespearian play focuses on fictional characters (Caffrey, 2015).

Cosplay and Self Identity

Essentially, an anime or manga cosplayer can be almost anyone who expresses his or her fandom and passion for a character by dressing and acting similarly to that character (Winge, 2006).

The community aspect of cosplay matters. Making your own outfit ties the cosplayer together with the greater cosplay community. Competitions and donning the character’s mannerisms acts as a way to express yourself and fit into the community. It’s not unusual to see Bleach’s Ichigo square off in mock battles with Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud or other crossovers. These impromptu skits, when done well, earn praise from other cosplayers and create a sense of belonging. Shared interests cement people together. Who you chose to cosplay as–the word acts as both a noun and a verb–creates a statement about yourself: your likes, values, and interests ( Bainbridge, 2013).

The character provides a (protective) identity for the cosplayer, which may allow for more confident and open interactions. Moreover, cosplay dress and environment(s) permit the cosplayer to role-play the character he or she is dressed as and engage in such social activities within a “safe” and “supportive” social structure (Winge, 2006).

Taking on the persona of a manga character allows the cosplayer to express their interests and act in ways they may not normally behave. A normally shy person who admires a boisterous character like Naruto has a reason to explore a different way of behaving in an environment that would encourage Naruto-like behavior. Narratives play an important role in building self-identity. Heroes and villains help us learn different ways of navigating through life (Manifold, 2009). Impersonating them gives us a chance to see what life is like through their eyes.

Of course, with all of this we can’t forget, cosplaying is fun. The age of cosplayers ranges from the usual teens to middle-age adults and even some senior citizens (Caffrey, 2015). Fun transcends age.

The Origin of Cosplay

Karen Schaubelt's historic first cosplay group.

Karen Schaubelt’s historic first cosplay group.

Now that we have cosplay defined and explained, let’s look at how it all started. Japan didn’t develop cosplay in isolation. Although, some elements of cosplay developed before its official birthdate in the 1980s. Fan cultures in the United States developed other elements which eventually merged with the Japanese to form cosplay as we now know. Let’s look at the Japanese side first.

Girls left a prominent mark on anime and manga culture, including cosplay. Shojo, or girls comics, laid the groundwork for cosplay through its full-body fashion illustrations. The post-WWII artist Junichi Nakahara pushed manga character design toward fashion with these full-body illustrations. He continued a trend started by the shojo artist Yumeji Takehisa who designed his own lines of clothing, stationary, and accessories. Shojo manga became a type of fashion magazine in addition to telling stories. Girls could buy clothing that matched their favorite characters. At the same time, girls shifted the types of stories and characters manga had through their fanfiction. Many girls would write, draw, and print their own manga to distribute at fan conventions (Kinsella, 1998; Brainbridge, 2013). This opened the door to fan-driven character identities and alternative story-telling. The combination of fashion and fan-written stories became important creative factors for cosplay.

By greyloch from Washington, DC, area, U.S.A. (Ryuko Matoi 2) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By greyloch from Washington, DC, area, U.S.A. (Ryuko Matoi 2) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

On the American side of the equation, cosplay owes a debt to Star Trek. In the 1960s, the budget television show about explorers who “boldly go where no one has gone before” sparked an interest in science fiction. The first cosplayers dressed up as crew members and aliens from the Star Trek series at science fiction conventions. Comics book heroes like Batman and Robin mixed with science fiction at these conventions, which provided a medium for fans to don costumes outside of Halloween. American science fiction merged with shojo fashion to create cosplay in 1984.

American science fiction merged with shojo fashion to create cosplay in 1984. When Takahashi Nobuyuki, founder of an anime study called Studio Hard, attended the scifi WorldCon in Los Angeles, the costumes of trekkies impressed him. When he returned to Japan, he wrote about the costumes and the convention’s masquerade. In his articles, he encouraged his Japanese readers to add costumes to their anime and manga conventions. He coined the term kosupure, or costume-play, for these events because the Japanese word for masquerade means “an aristocratic costume party” which was far different from the costume competitions he saw at WorldCon (Winge, 2006;Caffrey, 2015). And so Western science fiction costume competitions merged with manga fashion designs to create cosplay as we know it.

Actually, the first known costume of a manga character appeared in the US a few years before Nobuyuki’s visit. In 1979 at San Diego ComicCon International, 6 fans led by Karen Schaubelt appeared in full manga costume. Schaubelt dressed as Captain Harlock and her friends dressed as other Star Blazer characters (Bainbridge, 2013). However, manga and anime characters didn’t become popular until after Nobyuki’s visit to WorldCon.

Reception to Cosplay

Despite anime fans viewing Japan as a wonderland of cosplay and cosplay shops, the practice isn’t acceptable. While Akihbara and Harajuku districts of Tokyo are famous for their daily cosplay and shops, the United States accepts the practice more readily. In fact, Winge (2006) writes: “In Japan, cosplayers are not welcome in certain areas beyond the convention, and some conventions request that cosplayers not wear their dress outside the convention.” Whereas here in the United States costumes are perfectly acceptable. I remember a few years ago I saw a pair of Klingons walk into a Burger King, and the restaurant erupted into smiles and oos and aahs.

In Japan, otaku suffer from negative stereotyping. Otaku culture lacks the same negativity in the US. It helps that the US has a long tradition of Halloween and masquerades like Mardi Gras. The popularity of Star Trek also helps with this. By the time cosplay began, Americans have been dressing up as superheroes and Star Trek heroes for over 20 years (Bainbridge, 2013). Japan hadn’t adopted Halloween until recently while the US has enjoyed it in some form since the nation’s founding.

American and Japanese cosplayers differ in a few areas. For example, American cosplayers perform onstage skits as part of cosplay competitions. Japanese cosplayers strike a signature pose or recite the motto of the character. American cosplayers wear their costumes outside of conventions and put on impromptu skits. Japanese cosplayers are not welcome outside of conventions because they are seen as individualists in a culture that focuses on community values (Caffrey, 2015).

Like anime, cosplay comes from a merging of American and Japanese media culture. The emphasis on fashion found in shojo mixed with American Trekkie and superhero costumes. While Nobuyuki encouraged cosplay in Japan, Americans were pulling manga into their science fiction conventions with Karen Schaubelt and her friends’ debut in 1979. Cosplay soon became a part of anime and manga fandom and a staple in conventioms across the world.


Bainbridge, J., & Norris, C. (2013). Posthuman Drag: Understanding Cosplay as Social Networking in a Material Culture. Intersections: Gender & Sexuality In Asia & The Pacific, (32), 6.

Caffrey, C. (2015). Cosplay. Salem Press Encyclopedia,

Kinsella, S. (1998) Japanese Subculture in the 1990s: Otaku and Amateur Manga Movement. The Journal of Japanaese Studies. Vol 24, 2. 289-316.

Manifold, Marjorie C. (2009) Fanart as craft and the creation of culture. International Journal of Education through Art Volume 5 Number 1 doi: 10.1386/eta.5.1.7/1

Rosenberg, R. & Letamendi, A. (n.d.) Expressions of Fandom: Findings from a Psychological Survey of Cosplay and Costume Wear. Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media.

Winge, T. (2006) Costuming the Imagination: Origins of Anime and Manga Cosplay. Mechademia 1, Emerging Worlds of Anime and Manga. Pp. 65-76.

Top 4 Strangest Things about Japanese Culture


Okay, the title of this post is click bait, but from a Western perspective, Japan is strange. Most lists focus on the rare oddities of Japanese culture like panty fetishes, vending machines, and game shows. Let’s approach the topic from a different angle. There are some strange aspects of Japanese culture that go beyond the typical list.

Cultural Affection for Animation


In the US, studios aim animation at children with a few exceptions like Family Guy and The Simpsons.  However, in Japan, as any anime fan knows, people accept animation. Cute animated characters serve even as logos. If anything, the American view of animation is weird.  I view animation as a storytelling medium as valid as live action. But let’s set that topic aside and look at Japan from an American Western perspective.

Japan’s acceptance of animated fictional characters has roots in Shinto, Japan’s main religion. Shinto teaches everything has a spirit, much like Native American beliefs. This includes rocks, trees, water, and other elements of nature. This makes it easier for Japanese to feel personal connections to inanimate objects like anime characters. They too can have a spirit. While this isn’t a conscious idea, the environment Shinto beliefs create sets the stage for an unconscious view. Marketing efforts also contribute to the idea. Companies in Japan pitch cute characters frequently to adults. This allows adults to feel an affinity toward the character, much like sports team branding does here (Baseel, 2014). The Edo period’s popular woodblock prints and puppet shows contribute to Japan’s embrace of animation. Woodblock prints laid the foundation for manga, and puppet shows often performed the stories woodblock prints retold.

It helps that Japan loves Disney. Walt Disney, after all, inspired the father of anime and modern manga Osamu Tezuka. Disney’s Frozen became Japan’s third highest grossing film, after Titanic and Spirited Away (Blair, 2014). Two of the highest grossing films came from animation studios. Whereas here in the US live-action superhero movies blow out box offices.

Long History of Robot Obsession


Speaking of puppet shows, Japan has a long history of using robotics as a form of entertainment.  Called karakuri, these devices were used to trick or tease people.  Karakuri came in various types. Japanese puppet theaters featured automated puppets for centuries. Other puppets served tea or shot arrows. Nihon Shoki — known in English as  The Chronicles of Japan,  the second oldest book of Japanese literature–mentions the first karakuri: the South Pointing Chariot, made in 658 AD. It always pointed south and acted as an early compass. The technology came from China through clocks and marionettes. This ancient form of robotics took off when the Christian missionary Francisco de Xavier introduced Western mechanical clocks around 1551. Japanese clock makers began to use clock springs to store energy, allowing karakuri to move on their own (O’Shea, 2015; Yan, 2009).

The most famous karakuri ningyo, or mechanized puppet,  is the chahakobi ningyo, the tea-serving doll. A host places a teacup in the doll’s hands, and it moves toward the guest. It stops in front of the guest who takes the cup and drinks. When they return the cup to the doll, it turns and walks back to the starting point.  A book from 1690 describes this robotic doll,  and in 1662, hosts used tea-serving dolls to entertain people. Takeda Ohmi introduced marionette performances that featured these mechanical actors. Troupes focused on this continued into the Meiji period.

Another doll called sake-kai, designed by Iidzuka Igashichi, automatically walked into a sake shop and buy sake, but no examples survive. Another doll picks up an arrow from the table and shots it from a bow and then repeats the motion. Still other dolls could write calligraphy and perform other actions.

Here in the United States, we  fear and resist robotics. For some they mean doomsday. Think the Terminator movies. For others, they mean job losses. Still others are excited by the possibilities. But we lack the history Japan does with robots. Masahiro Mori, a roboticist, suggests Japan may have had more fertile ground for the acceptance of robotics (O’Shea, 2015):

“Even if Buddhism and Shinto contain nothing that intrinsically promotes robots, the argument goes, they contain nothing to hinder them, whereas Christianity does. Since Japan is dominated by the former, it must have less resistance to robots.”

Mori’s comments link with the reason why animation is more accepted in Japanese culture: the idea that inanimate things have a spirit. Judaeo-Christian tradition teaches against this idea, which underpins some of our resistance to animation and robotics. Modern Japanese fascination with robots also results from science fiction anime. It’s thought stories like Astro Boy and Neon Genesis Evangelion make Japanese culture more open to robotics than American culture (O’Shea, 2015).

We think of robots as machines made of steel and plastic, but karakuri were made primarily of wood. You could say Japanese culture revolved around wood. Mineral resources are scarce. This leads me to the next strange aspect of Japan.

History of Environmentalism


Other than rice, wood was the most important resource of ancient Japan. It was used for construction, heat, and other uses.  Considering this, you’d think Japan would be barren of forests. Well, 67% of Japan’s land area is forested (Convention on Biological Diversity, nd).

Japanese culture has a long history of environmentalism because of their reliance on wood and because of their isolation. For those of us in the West, this historical environmentalism strikes us as little strange. We have a habit of clear cutting for farms. Our towns tend to sprawl. In medieval Europe, peasants viewed forests as threatening. They housed bandits and devils. However, Japan wrestled with the same issues we have in the West. Japanese folklore speaks of dangerous creatures lurking in deep forests.

Several times through Japan’s history, deforestation became a severe problem. The amount of wood needed to construct Japan’s castles and cities was enormous. And some of these wooden structures still stand. The oldest wooden structure is a temple Horyuji, made from old growth Japanese cypress. It dates to over 1,000 years old.  During the 17th century, Edo ranked as the world’s largest city and would remain that way until the 19th century.Edo was mainly built of wood (Iwamoto, 2002).

However, Japan wrestled with the same issues we have in the West. Japanese folklore speaks of dangerous creatures lurking in deep forests. Several times through Japan’s history, deforestation became a severe problem. The amount of wood needed to construct Japan’s castles and cities was enormous. And some of these wooden structures still stand. The oldest wooden structure is a temple Horyuji, made from old growth Japanese cypress. It dates to over 1,000 years old.  During the 17th century, Edo ranked as the world’s largest city and would remain that way until the 19th century.Edo was mainly built of wood (Iwamoto, 2002).

Several times through Japan’s history, deforestation became a severe problem. The amount of wood needed to construct Japan’s castles and cities was enormous. And some of these wooden structures still stand. The oldest wooden structure is a temple Horyuji, made from old growth Japanese cypress. It dates to over 1,000 years old.  During the 17th century, Edo ranked as the world’s largest city and would remain that way until the 19th century. During this period, Edo was mainly built of wood (Iwamoto, 2002).

The first effort to stop deforestation was in Kiso after more than 100 years of war.

In 1665, Kiso’s feudal lord introduced seedling protection and selective cutting to preserve the resource. The effort failed. The second reform of 1724 succeeded, allowing Kiso forests to recover while meeting needs for timber (Iwamoto, 2002).

From an American perspective, these efforts to reverse deforestation are strange. Good, but strange. Environmentalism has never been high on our priority list. Mainly, this is because the North American continent is large and rich in resources. It takes disasters like the Dust Bowl for us to take conservation measures. Whereas Tokugawa Japan acted before their environmental problems became disasters of Dust Bowl magnitude. The top-down authority of the period, and people’s acceptance of that authority, allowed the country to move proactively.

This feature of Old Japan feels the most alien for us Americans. We don’t accept orders in that way. Well, we do but we don’t like to think of ourselves as doing so. In any case, Japan’s isolation played a role in this proactive environmentalism. The Tokugawa shogunate had a vested interest in long-term management of forests because wood built the foundation of the country. Without it, they faced death and an end to their long reign.

Westerns view Japan as modern and urban, which it is. But the country’s vast forests and rural mountain villages rarely enter our perspective of Japanese culture. Realizing 67% of Japan is forest goes against typical thinking. Japan has another open secret that surprises us: Japan is predominately non-Christian.

Christianity Failed to Make Significant Inroads


Americans like to think of Japan as Western, and Western means Christian. But less than 1% of the population is Christian (Hoffman, 2014).  Francisco de Xavier had an initially positive view of Japan when he landed in Kyushu in 1549:

“In my opinion no people superior to the Japanese will be found among the unbelievers.”

However, when he left Japan two years later, he had changed his tune. He called Japanese Buddhism “an invention of the devil.”

The first Christian daimyo was Omura Sumitada, who converted in 1562. His land included Nagaski, which was destined to become a  vital trade hub. The economic and cultural threat Christianity posed roused the most powerful lord of the time. Toyotomi Hideyoshi decided put an end to the spread of Christianity. Over a period of 40 years, he executed Christians and drove the religion underground. Christianity never recovered.

How could actions so long ago leave such a long effect? Why does Japan embrace baseball and celebrates Christmas but Western-influenced Christianity languishes? After all, China has 52 million Christians despite regulating the religion. South Korea’s Christian population hovers around 30% (Hoffman, 2014). Today, Japan doesn’t actively persecute Christians. So why doesn’t the religion grow?

According to Minoru Okuyama, director of the Missionary Training Center in Japan, the Japanese focus on harmony is the strongest barrier. They “are afraid of disturbing human relationships of their families or neighborhood even though they know Christianity is best.” Japanese culture values relationships above everything else (Hoffman, 2014). They see Western Christianity as divisive. This is one of the reasons that drove Hideyoshi’s successful effort to tamp down the religion.

For Western Christians, this is certainly strange. After all, we consider Christianity good and healthy. Christianity focuses on the family as well! However, Shinto Buddhism is woven into Japan’s cultural fabric in ways that gives few wedges for Christianity to enter. This underpins Xavier’s frustration with Shinto Buddhism. It seems natural to Western Christians that the religion would spread with baseball, movies, fashion, and other aspects of Western culture. But Shinto Buddhism creates a fabric where Christianity isn’t needed. It encompasses Japanese culture and subconscious. In many regards, it is a part of Japanese identity even for those who are secular.

Japan’s Weird

Weird and strange are a matter of perspective. American culture is weird too. I would say it is weirder than Japanese culture. Strangeness extends beyond the typical targets of panty fetishes, game shows, vending machines, and other surface culture. A different perspective is far stranger and more welcome. Weird ideas may provide inspiration to solve a similar problem. It is strange how American culture relies on business for everything, including environmentalism. Edo period Japan’s approach makes more sense. It involved cooperation from all levels of society for the benefit of all. Some things are more important than short-term profit. Japan focuses on family, community, and social harmony. These three pillars are perhaps the weirdest things about Japanese culture to Western eyes. These ideas, perhaps, shouldn’t be so weird. After all, we too once had these pillars underneath Western society.


Baseel, Casey (2014) Why does Japan love fictional characters so much? Japan Today.

Blair, Gavin (2014) Why Frozen was such a Big Box-Office Hit in Japan. Hollywood Reporter.

Convention on Biological Diversity. Japan.

Hoffman, M. (2014) Christian missionaries find Japan a tough nut to crack. The Japan Times.

Iwamoto, J. (2002) The Development of Japanese Forestry. UBC Press.

O’Shea, M. (2015). Karakuri: Subtle Trickery in Device Art and Robotics Demonstrations at Miraikan. Leonardo, (1), 40.

Yan, Hong Sen & Marco Ceccarelli. (2009) International Symposium on History of Machines and Mechanisms. Springer Science & Business Media.

Musings VII: On Monkeys in Japanese Culture.

Story: Three in the Morning, Four in the Evening.

In the times of the Song Dynasty[i] in China lived a man they called Sokō, which means monkey trainer. He loved monkeys and reared a whole horde of them at his house. Sokō understood the monkey’s minds quite well, and likewise the monkeys understood their master. He even reduced the number of inhabitants in his household in order to fulfill the monkeys’ wishes. But nevertheless, soon the food was almost gone.

Sokō was about to ration the food, but he feared the monkeys would not obey him. Thus he deceived them. First he said: “I will feed you chestnuts; three now, in the morning, and four when night comes. That may be enough.” Now the horde rose outraged, so quickly he said: “I will feed you chestnuts, four now, in the morning, and three when night comes. That may be enough.” So all the monkeys threw themselves happily at his feet.[ii]

The baffling monkey

monkeys arashiyama park family

Japanese macaques in Arashiyama Monkey Park, Kyôto. Picture taken by me.

There is one thing which bugs me about monkeys in Japan: the paradoxical way they are portrayed. In some stories, like the Chinese one above, monkeys are stupid and easily led by those smarter than they are. In other contexts, such as the Chinese zodiac, the monkey is characterized as clever. There are tales of lustful ape deities who demand human sacrifice, and at the same time, monkeys are believed to exorcise evil influences. There are even gods whose avatar and messenger is a monkey.  And lastly, monkeys can be funny. So, what does the monkey signify?


Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney postulates: “the monkey has sensitively expressed the changing notion of the self and other in Japanese culture; thus, by tracing the meanings of the monkey, we are able to trace the transformations of the Japanese structure of thought.”[iii] That may seem farfetched, but let’s run with it for the moment, and consider the aspects.

Monkey context: Hanuman and Sun Wukong


Hanuman India ape god

Hanuman. Source

The Japanese word saru (猿), usually translated as ‘monkey’, may be as specific an animal as the Japanese macaque,[iv] or be used as a vague catch-it-all term for monkeys. Being the only monkey indigenous to Japan, Japanese macaques inhabit forested mountains everywhere on the Archipelago except Hokkaido.[v] Half-domesticated monkeys close to human dwellings and wild ones in deeper recesses of the mountains may have behaved quite differently and contributed to the ambiguous image. In addition, tales and images of other monkey and ape species came to Japan via India and China.


In media, “the monkey is portrayed initially as foolish, vain, and mischievous [but he] learns valuable lessons along the way, makes changes, and eventually gains redemption”.[vi]

An early example of this is the Hindu deity Hanuman, who initially was stupid enough to interpret the sun as a fruit he could eat, and vain enough to attempt to grab it. In addition, he liked playing tricks on people. Thus he was punished, made to forget his powers until reminded of them. Only when he redeemed himself through good deeds he was forgiven and his powers restored.[vii]


Likewise, the ancient Chinese epic Journey to the West tells of Sun Wukong (Son Gokū), “a mischievous demigod obsessed with desires”[viii] who even aspires to the throne of heaven. Like Hanuman, he is punished and does good deeds until he reaches redemption. An interesting detail: “Sun Wukong is always clothed and depicted in clearly anthropomorphic poses.”[ix] Why might that be?

The monkey as metaphor

Sun Wukong Son Goku monkey deity rabbit

Sun Wukong as depicted by woodblock artist Yoshitoshi, 1889. Source

Let’s return Japanese macaques for a moment. They live in hordes and thus are social creatures, which makes them “an apt metaphor for humans”[x], especially in the rather group-based society of Japan. If one reads the tale of Sun Wukong in a similar fashion, “each stage of [the m]onkey‘s mythological journey may serve as an elaborate allegory for the evolution of the human mind.”[xi] In this vein, the monkey as a symbol was taken up by Buddhism.

To reach enlightenment, one has to overcome earthly desires. The state of confusion and greed associated with the unenlightened mind is called shin’en 心猿, “monkey mind”.[xii] Thus the stupid, greedy, vain monkey represents a stage humans need to leave behind in their journey to enlightenment. In the stories of ancient China, one encounters “the legendary ape figure characterized by animal instincts and portrayed as an abductor of women and a lustful creature”[xiii] – a sort of ancient Chinese King Kong, perhaps? Sun Wukong also had his lustful moments early in his career, for example allowing a female demon to charm him just out of sexual curiosity.[xiv]

However, the monkey cannot be simply read as a metaphor for human weakness and earthly desires. Remember the ending of the stories about divine monkeys, Hanuman and Sun Wukong? They did not stop being monkeys as their character changed. So, there must be more to this image.

Japan: monkeys as gods and divine messengers

As a result of the various influences on Japanese culture, the image of the monkey in Japan is multi-faceted. Although there are some tales of evil monkey deities who demand virgin girls as human sacrifice, mostly the image is a positive one. Monkeys serve as messengers and intermediaries between Shintō gods and humanity.[xv] The Shintō god of Mt. Hiei, Sanō, for example, has a monkey as both messenger and avatar.

Kyoto imperial palace kimon northeast corner

The non-corner of Kyôto Imperial Palace, sarugatsuji. Source

Moreover, since saru 猿is also a homonym for 去る, which means ‘to expell‘, it came to be believed that monkeys could drive out evil influences. This can be seen in conjunction with Chinese geomancy (Feng Shui) in the layout of the old imperial palace in Kyōto. Like the city itself, the palace is built according to the cardinal directions, which means one of ist corners faces Northeast. Northeast, however, was believed to be kimon 鬼門, the ‚demon gate‘, the direction from where evil influences could enter.[xvi] Thus, the circumference wall of the palace grounds was indented at the northeast corner. (SO there is no actual kimon. In addition, under its eaves was placed a statue of a monkey holding a Shintō staff used for purification rituals, to ward off evil influences. Hence it is called sarugatsuji 猿が辻 (the monkey’s crossing).

The same idea of purification and healing, in addition to their reputation as lustful, probably caused the association of monkeys with fertility, defense against smallpox, and safe childbirth. Also, monkeys are considered protectors of horses, and carved images of monkeys are sometimes found around old stables, the most prominent example being the Three Monkeys (Don’t See, Don’t Hear, Don’t Speak) at Toshōgu Shrine[xvii] in Nikko.[xviii] Later these Three Monkeys came to be associated with the Kōshin belief.

Monkeys as scapegoats: The migawari-zaru of Nara

Scape-apes ;).

Scape-apes ;). Source

According to the Chinese calendar, the 57th day in a 60-day cycle and the same year in a 60-year calendar, Kōshin 庚申, was particularly ominous. In Kōshin nights, three worms living in a person’s body would ascend to heaven while the person slept, and report on their sins. One possible countermeasure was to simply stay awake that night, also known as kōshin machi: the Kōshin wake. Alternatively, the people of Nara identified the god being reported to as Kōshin-san, whose messenger was a monkey. Therefore, if they tied little monkey-shaped charms to the eaves of their houses before Kōshin nights, they were safe: “the monkey (Koushin’s messenger) is punished instead.”[xix] Again the monkey represents humans as fallible, sinful beings, while at the same time playing an angelic role as divine messenger. Paradoxical, isn’t it?

Comic monkeys

Last semester in my early modern Japanese class, we translated a couple of stories from the Seisuishō 醒睡笑, a collection of humourous tales compiled by monk Anrakuan Sakuden in the early 17th century. It was the way the monkey appeared as a symbol in these funny stories which finally gave me the clue to a possible common denominator of the monkey images in Japanese culture. So, I will give you my translation of the two stories I worked on and my idea what may be the baseline of monkey symbolism in Japan.

Story: If monkey faces resemble the lord

Once lived a lord with an unusually emaciated body and dark skin. He called his most trusted retainer to him, told him to sit opposite his lord, and asked: “I have heard that everyone says my face looks like that of a monkey. Say, is this true or a lie?”

The retainer listened attentively and said: “I am honoured by your trust, my lord, to be asked this question. But who would dare say such a thing? No, people only say that the faces of monkeys resemble your own.“

When the lord heard this, he said “Well spoken. Then it must be as you say“, without the slightest indignation. In such cases, when a lord completely misunderstands their brazen words, the common people tend to say “The Lord has big ears [like a monkey]!”: He hears everything, but does nothing.

Interpretation: The monkey as Self and Other

baby monkey glasses face funny

Yes, my lord? Source

As a reason for the negative aspects of the monkey’s image, Ohnuki-Tierney suggests a form of Othering. “[S]eeing a disconcerting likeness between themselves and the monkey, the Japanese also attempt to create distance by projecting their negative side onto the monkey and turning it into a scapegoat, a laughable animal who in vain imitates humans.”[xx] In other words, it is once again human weakness, hubris, and stupidity which the monkey represents. This becomes clear in the story above, where the lord is only ‘aping’ (sarumane 猿真似 in Japanese) a ruler’s style, without understanding the situation. He does not just resemble a monkey outwardly; his stupidity and self-deluding vanity recall the characters of Hanuman and Sun Wukong before their transformation.

Already in the Man’yōshū, an ancient collection of Japanese poetry, monkeys represent ugliness.[xxi] But more than ugly, a stupid leader is dangerous for his subjects as well, as another Chinese fable featuring monkeys, 井中撈月, details. In this story, the chief monkey decides to try and grab the moon reflected in a still pool. Following his orders, the monkeys grab each others tails and form a chain from the tree branch toward the water surface, until the bough breaks under their weight and they all drown.

The stupid, ugly lord failing in his job is a comical character because he is such an average human being. The general populace can recognize such a character as one of themselves, and laugh about the familiarity – despite the hint of danger an incapable lord brings. In contrast, the next story is set in a Buddhist temple, quite removed from the life of common people.

Story: A monkey-like acolyte climbs a tree

One day, the poet Sōchō visited Kasadera temple. As he was strolling on the temple grounds, he saw a chigo, a boy acolyte, dexterously climb into a treetop. He composed the opening verse of a poem:

             The acolyte climbs

            up the tree as skillfully

            as a monkey’s child

The acolyte answered with a closing verse:

            Since a useless monk draws near

            to bark at him in fury.

Interpretation: The boy’s ambiguous monkey mind

As I mentioned above, in order to reach Buddhist enlightenment, it is necessary to overcome the restless, greedy thoughts which characterize the ‘monkey mind‘. It is fitting, then, to compare a young acolyte to a monkey, even more so if he climbs a tree to escape his studies. However, the acolyte’s answer displays the cleverness characteristic of the Taoist zodiac sign of the monkey.[xxii]

dog monkey idiom japanese

“Like Dogs and Monkeys”. Source

In his verse, the acolyte takes up the comparison of himself to a monkey, but turns it around. By casting the pursuing priest as a dog, he alludes to the saying “a relationship like dogs and monkeys” (ken’en no naka, 犬猿の仲), thus portraying himself as the clever monkey who solves a problem with intellect (hiding), whereas the wild dog (the priest) can only resort to violence (shouting at him).

The monkey as trickster

Such a twist in the meaning of an image between the first and the second verse was a typical feature of linked-verse poetry. Therefore, the acolyte shows off not only his wit but his learning. However, here he falls back into the trap of monkey vanity, the flaw of young Hanuman and Sun Wukong. Arrogantly he dares to pitch a verse to an actual poet while he is a mere novice, and looks down on the very monks he learned his skill from, by comparing them to dogs. So, is he clever or is he stupid and vain? Well, both, of course.

The acolyte is overestimating his own ability; he tries to act and appear very clever but fails, as the lord in the previous story did. Firstly, hiding in a tree is not of much use if you engage in clearly audible poetry contests. Secondly, by making up his clever verse, the acolyte accidentally admits to running away from his studies and/or evading punishment. In this way, he fits Ohnuki-Tierneys definition of the monkey “as a trickster, […] who uses his wits in an attempt to outsmart others”, in order “to achieve beyond [his] capacity [or] ascribed status”.[xxiii] But ultimately, as the lord above, this ‘aping’ of his betters has to fail.

Conclusion: the monkey as human

So, back to the categorization of the story as comedy. The acolyte’s reply is funny, but why? It is because the punchline is based on the ambiguity of the monkey image, which the acolyte uses to turn its meaning around. Humor is usually based on either an unexpected, surprising turn, or the recognition of ourselves. The acolyte’s answer is such a surprising turn, and in his attempt to evade an unpleasant situation, as well as in his desire to show off his skill, we can recognize ourselves.

monkey mobile phone bath hot spring

No whatsapping in the bath, please. Source

Thus, the monkey as a symbol is ambiguous because it represents humans. The Indian and Chinese monkey deities first display human weakness, then repent and redeem themselves to a level of greatness or sainthood which is the other end of the spectrum of human ability. The Japanese monkey symbolism has absorbed these stories as well as indigenous myths of monkey gods and divine messengers and created a deeply ambiguous image. This image, in turn, is very appropriate for comic use because of its ambiguity. Be it an ugly, stupid lord unfit for rule, or a self-important acolyte skilled in poetry, what we laugh about in these stories is the humanity of its protagonists. And the monkey is the symbol for this multi-faceted humanity.

Notes and References


[ii] The Chinese story朝三暮四, read in premodern Japanese and translated by me. A different version, with historical commentary, can be found here

[iii]Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. The Monkey as Mirror. Symbolic Transformations in Japanese History and Ritual. Princeton UP, 1987, p.74.


[v] „Saru“ in Nihon Hyakka Daijiten日本百科大辞典, Tōkyō, 1919. Vol.3, p.945-6.

[vi] Schumacher, Mark. „Monkey in Japan“, in A to Z Photo Dictionary: Japanese Buddhist Statuary. Gods, Goddesses, Shinto Kami, Creatures and Demons. Available online via, last access 22.08.2016, 13:22; p.2.

[vii] „Monkey in Japan“, p.2.

[viii] Wang, Jing. The Story of Stone. Intertextuality, Ancient Chinese Stone Lore, and the Stone Symbolism in Dream of the Red Chamber, Water Margin, and Journey to the West. Durham & London: Duke UP, 1992, p.224.

[ix] Welch, Patricia Bjaaland. Chinese Art. A Guide to Motifs and Imagery. Tōkyō, Rutland, Singapore: Tuttle, 2008, p.137.

[x] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.24.

[xi] Wang 1992, p.241.

[xii] “Monkey in Japan”, p.2.

[xiii] Wang 1992, p.222.

[xiv] Wang 1992, p.225-7.

[xv] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.6

[xvi] „Monkey in Japan“, p.3.

[xvii] For tourist info, see

[xviii] „Monkey in Japan“, p.3.

[xix] Monkey in Japan“, p.3.

[xx] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.6.

[xxi] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.53.

[xxii] Welch 2008, p.137; „The Monkey“., last access 24.08.2016, 11:36.

[xxiii] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.54, 58

One Punch Man Impressions

one-punch-man Who knew boredom and apathy could be so entertaining? One Punch Man, so far, has plenty of all three.

Saitama approaches superheroing as a hobby. What’s his main problem as a part-time superhero? Outside of supervillains attacking during grocery store sales, Saitama struggles with being too powerful. One Punch Man explores what happens when a superhero attains the apex of power and is no longer challenged. I’m watching the series on Toonami, and I haven’t seen every episode yet. So these impressions may change.

Anime heroes strive to become stronger, faster, and better. But what happens when they can’t get any stronger? What happens when they get powerful enough to kill Superman with a single punch? What happens when there is nothing to strive toward? One Punch Man answers with boredom and apathy. Saitama gets more excited about a sale than a villain appearing. Although he hopes one villain, some day, will provide the rush only a challenge can bring. Throughout anime, shonen heroes pit themselves against villains and obstacles in order to prove their power level and to feel a rush. Saitama no longer has villains that can do this. One punch ends it. He avoids the contrivance we see in Dragonball Z and Bleach of holding back power and slowly increasing it. Those shows use that method to build tension. In One Punch Man, villains follow this contrivance and expect Saitama to do the same. Only Saitama lacks hidden power reserves. He’s power incarnate. He also scoffs at the verbose speeches shonen characters love. Despite his boredom, he can’t turn a blind eye to crime, but he lacks the protection instinct we see in shonen heroes. He doesn’t proclaim  he will protect people. He simply does it, but he does it on his own terms and cares little about the fallout. Apathy stands at the core of his character.


For someone like me who has grown tired of shonen tropes, One Punch Man stands apart. At the core of it, superheroes are rather ridiculous. They don spandex and face impossible creatures. I knew One Punch Man was something special when I saw the first villain: a lobster man in underwear. I know, I know. Superheroes are meant to be fantasy, but they struggle with power creep that leads them to ever-more ridiculous scenarios. One Punch Man reveals this with its quirky events and mashed up freaks.

When you look at classic fantasy, the heroes rarely achieve god-level powers. Yet, when they do, the story twists in a way that makes those powers worthless. Take the Wheel of Time for example. Rand slowly gains stronger abilities in the story’s version of magic. He eventually wields the strands of reality itself. But despite having these god-level powers, he finds himself faced with a foe he can’t vanquish. Namely, because he shouldn’t.  Superheroes, on the other hand (and I’m mostly looking at shonen heroes), rarely find a villain they shouldn’t vanquish, as opposed to unable to vanquish.

I’ve never been much of a comic book superhero fan. I do, however, enjoy shonen heroes to a degree. Shonen heroes are made, not born like most comic book superheroes. I prefer the communal effort of shonen heroes. They become heroes through their effort and the help of their friends. Saitama, like American superheroes, is self-made. He trained to become powerful, but unlike Goku and other heroes, he trained alone. He achieved his power in the American way (more or less) than the communal Japanese way.

one-punch-man-punchDespite how much I beat up on superheroes, I enjoy American superhero movies (but not the comic books), but comic book heroes are predictable. They will win. When they die, they don’t stay dead.  After all, their properties are too valuable. One Punch Man satirizes this with a few lines of dialogue here and there. Death is one of the best parts of shonen. When a hero dies, they die. DBZ notwithstanding. The finality of this increases tension and shocks the reader. In some cases, this would the equivalent of Superman dying, and DC announcing there will be no new Superman comics. Ever. One Punch Man pokes at this through its lack of tension. Saitama will always win. The story lacks any type of struggle. Sure, Superman will struggle a little, but in the end, he too will always win. Even when he loses and “dies” he still returns in a later installment. One Punch Man takes this lack of tension inherent in the structure of most superhero comics and runs with it.

Okay, this post has meandered quite a bit. I’ve gotten away from writing personal posts like this, so I thought this would be a good break. While I enjoy satire, it proves difficult to discuss because discussing it makes satire lose its impact. It becomes dry and dull.  I could tell you how Saitama pokes fun at superhero and shonen hero tropes in various scenes, but it’s better for you to watch it for yourself. If you are a fan of shonen like Bleach, give One Punch Man a watch. If you are a fan of American superheroes, give One Punch Man a watch. It may not be for everyone, but this is one story that points out just how ridiculous the modern hero narrative can be.