American Behaviors Explained

I spend a fair amount of digital ink speaking about Japan’s culture and how it affects anime. As an international medium, anime also sees American influences on it. As an American, I struggle to see how odd some American behavior may be to Japanese people and other people around the world.  In this post, I try to step outside what I take for granted and attempt to explain our strange Americanisms. Of course, many of these behaviors aren’t unique to the United States. Some of the behaviors have leeched into anime as well. American culture is an export culture. We import cultural elements from immigrants and media like anime, but most Americans I know avoid foreign films and want immigrants to “act American.” But I live in a rural area and that doesn’t reflect the attitude of the rest of the nation. Internalizing culture creates a framework that feels natural. However, it is a just a human construct, a construct that isn’t always healthy.

The Nod

You’ll see American men do this unconsciously. I’ve seen women do it too. The nod comes in two flavors, the upward jerk and the downward bob. The upward jerk is used for men (and sometimes women) the guy knows. It’s informal and similar to saying “What’s up?”. The downward bob acts as a more formal acknowledgement, an “I see you, but don’t want to bother you” greeting. It can be a signal of respect.

Distance Measured in Time

Americans aren’t unique in this one, but I’ve encountered many people who are confused as to why distance is measured in terms of time. Instead of saying a destination is X miles away (darn English units!), we say it is an hour or 2 hours away. Part of this comes from sometimes large distances we have to travel. By stating the average travel time, we assume a route and rate of speed. Depending on the route and speed limit, a longer route may take less time. The time-measure also reflects the cultural value placed on time. American culture focuses on the use of time, trying to squeeze productivity out of every second. This isn’t to say other cultures don’t do the same. But the time focus means more than saying something is 30 miles away (which is about a 30 minute drive). Time-distance generally defaults to a mile-a-minute in my area. The time-measure varies on the region of the US you are talking about.

Sugar, Sweet Everything

Corn syrup appears in nearly everything in the United States. This cheap filler provides a boost of sweet and makes items that shouldn’t taste sweet, like bread, taste like desserts. All the sweetness strikes people outside of the US as odd. Bread, after all, shouldn’t be sweet. But American taste buds are ruined by cheap salt and syrups to the point where anything that tastes proper, like old-school “sugarless” bread, tastes bad or off. I’ve ran into people who can’t stand drinking water because it lacks flavor. One admitted to developing kidney issues after discovering iced coffee and drinking nothing but that. Water has a flavor–water. But flavors and sweetness aren’t considered odd by most Americans. For us, its how food is.

Price Tags Don’t Include Tax

Prices in American stores don’t reflect sales tax. You have to calculate that and add it in. Stores do this to create the illusion of lower prices. Some of this is because of laziness (or “cost cutting”) by the retailers. Sales taxes vary by county and by state. Not including them allows companies to avoid the headaches of regional pricing and offloads the responsibility (and cost) onto consumers.

The American Smile

American culture requires a smile in public interactions. The illusion of friendliness comes from the bias toward extroversion that is entrenched in the culture. Many businesses with a public face require employees to be jovial and smile with every interaction. For introverts, this can be exhausting if not impossible some days. The smile is considered default. If you aren’t plastering it on your face, people assume something is wrong with you or you have an attitude.  Part of the American smile involves inane small talk and phrases like “Have a good day”,”Have a good morning”,”Hope to see you again”. These phrases are uttered even to customers who are acting in ways that should bar them from going outside until they learn to behave less seflishly. Many people accuse Americans of being fake because of the default smile.

American Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism is the almost unconscious–I say almost because the phrase does show up in conversations about America time to time–idea that America is unique in the history of the world. Many Americans internalized this idea and don’t think much about how it effects their actions. The phrase takes for granted our relationship with the world and involves a sense of entitlement. Americans expect welcome when they travel overseas. The unconsidered sense of superiority (which is inherited from the defunct British Empire) carries into unintentionally disrespectful behavior toward other cultures, such as being loud or pushy. It also carries over to create a sort of blindness to the faults of American society and an unwillingness to make drastic societal changes that would make the US truly exceptional, such as attacking the roots of drug abuse at a societal level–depression, hopelessness, lack of purpose, lack of community. The US does have good things going for it, but American Exceptionalism works against those great aspects by creating a collective arrogance.

Hyperbolic Excitement and Tragedy

Everything has to have over-the-top, better-than-sex excitement in the US!!!!!!! From toilet paper to make-up to cars, every product and action has to be life changing. The hyperbolic marketing that surrounds Americans has stripped us of our ability to describe truly life-changing events or truly catastrophic events. Words used too often lack impact. Even sacred words like God and Jesus are used to the point where they lack the same level of meaning. Some words used to stir the soul or were reserved for the heinous, but overuse and hyperbole have ruined them now. Whenever there is a school shooting or some other tragic event, Americans reach for worn-out boilerplate words that were used just a week before to describe some inane celebrity story.  Truly momentous events like death and marriage and childbirth are couched in terms that mean nothing now–miracle of childbirth *yawn*. The bombastic culture of awesome has rendered language unable to describe the events of life. Instead, once sacred and meaningful words have become slogans for consumables that we can live rather well without possessing.

Nudity and Sex are Taboo, but Killing People is Okay

We Americans have a strange relationship with sex, nudity, and violence. First, nudity can never be innocent. It always has a sexual component to it. As you likely know, Japan has a different attitude toward nudity, at least child nudity. Nudity itself isn’t a big deal unless it is meant to be sexual. Children like to run around naked, as any parent knows, and manga/anime aimed at young children shows this normal part of childhood. However, this is taboo in the US. Nudity can never be innocent, even with young children involved. There’s always a fear of sexualizing–child predators in the case of our argument. When it comes to adult nudity, despite the long tradition of nude art, there is always a sexual, pornographic component. We struggle to admire the body for its beauty and just its beauty. Instead, there often is an element of objectification, of possession, of a nude body.

Conversely, violence is accepted. Television shows teem with violence and death. Blood is fine to show but not female breasts. It’s perfectly okay to show people being shot, mauled, or hurt. But making life is wrong to show. I’ve heard people talk about the sexuality in various TV shows, but they make no mention of the violence. Even foul language garners more of a response than violence.

Lack of Volume Control

Americans are loud. Even I, despite being soft-spoken, am loud compared to Europeans I know. This comes from a combination of hyperbole and noise escalation and American individualism. American hyperbole require escalating loudness in order to be heard. All the marketing noise, advertisements blare at you almost constantly, means people get used to talking over artificial background noise.

Individualism plays another role–it affirms your view and voice should be heard and is more important (to you, anyway) than the voice of others. The end result? Conversations tend to get loud as people keep talking over each other. Hyperbolic excitement plays into this too. American culture expects people to speak loudly when they are passionate and excited. Calm and logic isn’t seen as passion or excitement. I’m soft-spoken and calm, and I’ve been accused of being a cold-fish, never excited about anything. This isn’t to say I don’t get loud. I’m an American, after all, and I’m not always aware of my volume relative to others. But I don’t like to emote in conversations. Some people don’t care about the sensibilities of others either. I hate Harley Davidson motorcycles. They are obnoxiously loud and disruptive when they zip past. But that’s is their selling point. It’s an expression of individualism. People can’t do anything except notice you as you pass. Some people are like that with their conversations, especially with soapbox issues they are passionate about, such as gun rights and religion and abortions.

American Behaviors Aren’t Strictly American

These behaviors aren’t limited to the United States.  They also affect anime. The reservations around nudity leads to anime’s censorship (Japan has its own reservations about nudity) and many stories never make it to the US in the first place. Every culture has certain norms people internalize and consider natural. That naturalness disguises the fact such behaviors are cultural and not necessarily a human norm.  Some writers tailor more American-friendly messages that include some of these behaviors. I find it fascinating when these writers look in on the United States and comment about the culture.

Despite being American, I am critical about many American behaviors, particularly hyperbole and loudness. Hyperbole is dangerous because it removes the ability to communicate properly. It is better to reserve certain words for when they are merited. A catastrophe is an event that kills hundreds if not thousands of people. It isn’t something as inane as a celebrity divorce. Likewise, people toss about sacred words  too readily. It is better to use words like Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, and the like rarely so they retain their reverence and impact. Sadly, I hear Jesus uttered so often that the name has about as much meaning as the word car.  American culture needs to learn the value of silence.

This list falls a bit on the negative side. It’s easier for me to see the negative aspects of American culture than the positive, sadly. The American Smile can come off as friendly–which is the point. Americans are also neighborly. Just yesterday I joined my neighbors  in shoveling snow from each other’s driveways. I selected the behaviors on this list because I’ve had to explain them to my foreign friends. The behaviors confused them.

Are there any other American behaviors that confuse or trouble you?

My Favorite Articles to Write in 2017

I’m always a bit late with this sort of post. Well, I’m a bit late in reviewing anime too. I have a review slated for Oreimo soon, and that show is 8 years old. I had thought to post a short article about my favorite anime posts from other websites, but I’m sad to admit that I don’t spend a lot of time reading about anime on other blogs. I read articles that catch my attention in the various feeds I track, but I am pressed for time so I can’t keep my fingers on the anime community’s pulse as much as I would like. That, and I abhor Twitter. Much of the anime community has moved there it seems. However, I regularly read Manga Therapy and Beneath the Tangles. Sadly, my list of regular reads has shortened as bloggers stopped writing.

2017 marked a fun year for writing. These articles challenged me as I wrote them. I prefer a good challenge when I research.

Japan’s Hidden Christians
This is the longest article I’ve written so far. It was hard to write because of what I had to leave out. There’s a lot of history on this topic, but space is limited here. It’s hard to know what to cut. This is also my favorite article for the year. It’s a topic dear to me as a Christian. It’s hard to fathom a religion almost disappearing as Christianity did in Japan. I was fascinated by the oral traditions that survived in the Christian community.

A Look at Japanese Feminism and Misogyny
I learned quite a bit as I researched this one. I didn’t know how closely the early Japanese feminists worked with American feminists. The differences in concerns and approach also caught my interest. Sadly, misogyny is common online and comes out in some areas of the Men’s Rights groups. I’m all for men’s rights, but it isn’t a zero-sum game against women. Rather, both should have the right to choose what they wish to do.

Anime, Eating Disorders, and the Body Image of Men
Speaking of men, society doesn’t pay enough attention to male-body image problems. I didn’t realize how pervasive the problems are until I started digging into academic research. I am self-conscious about my body despite (and because of) being thin. Media pressures men just as much as women if from a different angle.

I enjoyed researching many articles in the last year. Yellow Fever – The Sexual Preference for Asian Women and Anime’s One-Piece Swimsuit Fetish and the History of Japanese Swimsuits also numbered among my favorite articles to research and write. Of course, 2017 was a good year for anime too. I actually watched a few current-season shows! I’m not sure what 2018 will bring, but if you have any article suggestions, I am always looking for ideas. Send them to me.

I’ll see you each week throughout 2018. Have a safe and auspicious year.

Anime’s Big Brother and Little Sister Complex, Examining Incest in Anime

Recently, there seems to be a glut of anime focusing on sibling incest. Known as the big bother complex or little sister complex, sibling incest has become a subgenre of romance. The level of romance varies. Most of the time, the complexes appear between siblings without any genetic ties or removed cousins. Sometimes, you have blood relatives flirting with each other but never going all-in to a romantic relationship. As you can guess, I’m staying away from hentai for this discussion. I also recommend you check out the article at Manga Therapy in addition to my analysis here. In any case, the complexes center around an attachment toward an elder brother by a younger sister, as in Oreima, or an attachment toward a younger sister by an elder brother. The attachment goes behind normal sibling behavior and into the realm of dating and romance.

When I started to research this topic after noticing just how many anime on Crunchyroll center on this lately, I had wondered if it was unique to anime. But it turns out that western Romantic literature teems with incest between siblings and cousins. Lord Byron writes about it in Manfred, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein features an incestuous relationship between Victor Frankenstein and his cousin Elizabeth. Throughout romantic literature is a single theme: love is agony (Reed, 2012). Manfred describes his sister using this theme:

She was like me in lineaments—her eyes,

Her hair, her features, all, to the very tone

Even of her voice, they said were like to mine;

But soften’d all, and temper’d into beauty;

She had the same lone thoughts and wanderings,

The quest of hidden knowledge, and a mind

To comprehend the universe: nor these

Alone, but with them gentler powers than mine,

Pity, and smiles, and tears—which I had not;

And tenderness—but that I had for her;

Humility—and that I never had.

Her faults were mine—her virtues were her own—

I loved her, and destroy’d her!

In Frankenstein, Victor accounts of how painful his affection for his cousin is:

“Sometimes, indeed, I felt a wish for happiness; and thought, with melancholy delight, of my beloved cousin.”

He goes on:

“At these moments I often endeavoured to put an end to the existence I loathed; and it is required unceasing attendance and vigilance to restrain me from committing some dreadful act of violence [upon myself].”

Romantic period literature introduced a sibling story line we’ve seen in Star Wars. A brother and sister were separated a birth and fall for each other only to learn about their blood relationship after they become involved. Only Luke and Lea didn’t get as involved as in Romantic period stories. Anime usually involves stories where the siblings grow up with each other. Sometimes they go through a period of separation. Of course, the siblings aren’t always blood relatives, such as Sword Art Online’s Kirito and Leafa. Nor do they always develop full romantic relationships. Anime likes to flirt with sibling romance rather than fully commit as English Romantic literature does. But anime fans would readily recognize the 3 main relationships found in Romantic literature (Richardson, 1985):

  1. Erotic relationships between foster brother and sister who are raised as siblings and believe they are blood relatives.
  2. Brothers and sisters who are close and share a common fate but lack a sexual relationship.
  3. Brothers and sisters who share a sexual relationship.

The first type of relationship is the most common in the literature and fairly common to anime too. All three types involve a death of sort sort that relates to the consummation of the siblings’ romantic feelings. The death may be a physical death or an emotional death, but either way, the theme ties back to the idea that love is pain. I have to point out that anime touches on this theme in many stories too. Oreima, for example, while not a full-on incestuous romance touches on how the taboo of incest can make the feelings of affection feel painful and unnatural. Romantic writers linked pain with pleasure, considering them inseparable. Incest, with its pleasure and destruction (incest being unacceptable) represents the single theme that captures the Romantic view (Reed, 2012).

The Taboo of Incest

Among traditional societies, death was the most common form of punishment for sibling incest (Yates, 2016). Most societies, but not all, have a taboo against sibling relationships. There are times when this taboo broke down, such as during Ptolemaic Egypt. Language sometimes confuses things. People sometimes think all of Egyptian history involved incest among the pharaohs. Hawaii and Peru also confuse because of the custom of referring to a spouse as sister or brother and how the language didn’t distinguish between siblings, cousins, and unrelated peers (Bixler, 1982). Sometimes incest isn’t a matter of language. During the 2nd and 3rd centuries, it was common for lower class brothers and sisters in Roman Egypt to marry.

There are two explanations as to why the taboo is almost universal, the Freudian view and the Darwinian view. In the Freudian view, incest is a universal feeling that must be repressed. The Darwinian view considers the taboo to be a built-in avoidance mechanism because incest hurts the ability of genes to survive (Tidefors, 2010).

Despite the near universality of the sibling relationship taboo (blood relatives or otherwise), modern studies have found incest to be more common than originally thought. Some of these studies seem to contradict each other, but the problems come from the definitions used in the studies. Surprisingly, the definition of sibling incest varies–some require one or both parents in common. Others count it as among those who call themselves as a family. The definitions of sexual relationships also varies from study to study. And these definitions give us the variety of numbers we will see, but in the end, it seems sibling relationships are common enough to explain why anime and English literature feature them.

Medical Studies of Incest

Sibling incest can also be between brothers and between sisters. Most of the time, they are step or adoptive siblings such as in Super Love

In a study in the 1980s, a sibling incest study in New England found such behavior in 25% of respondents and the majority of them regarded it as a positive experience. This study and others like it, shaped medical professionals’ view that sibling sexual behavior is usually harmless. This view leads many to downplay sibling sexual abuse as a problem. Other studies estimate anywhere between 2%-13% of the general population has engaged in sibling incest behavior during childhood. Again, definitions explain the strange data ranges (Yates, 2016). Researchers have drummed up a few other trends (Kokkola, 2016): most incidents happen between 13-15 years of age and consensual fondling is the most common event with 80% of respondents reporting this in various studies.

The taboo of incest along with the apparent commonness of it makes it hard for medical professionals to know what is medically normal and what is abusive. Literature and anime also normalizes what is essentially abuse. From the medical studies I’ve read, abuse comes down to a few indicators. Harmful sexual behavior usually distracts the siblings from other important developmental tasks” but defining what is harmful is still up for debate (Yates, 2016). The three indicators: large age gaps between involved siblings, the use of threat or force, and the use of bribes and other forms of manipulation. What constitutes normal sibling sexual behavior remains unclear to medicine, making it more difficult for nurses and other professionals to know when they are required to act.

Parents shape the chances of sibling incest.  Researchers have found families with parents who are victims of abuse sometimes reinforces abusive behavior between siblings–including witnessing abuse and not stopping it, such as what happens in Oreima. Parent absence results in a higher degree of bonding between siblings and that comfort-seeking can become sexual (Tidefors, 2010).

Westermarck and Childhood Friends

A common theme in romance anime is the childhood friend who has romantic interest with the protagonist who doesn’t share the same feelings. This trend in story telling comes from observation and the Darwinian view of relationships. If you remember, the Darwinian view states there are natural mechanisms against incest that are built in by natural selection. Edward Westermarck developed this idea by hypothesizing that people lack sexual attraction toward those they had lived with during childhood. Anime’s childhood friend falls directly into Westermarck’s idea. A few studies have put Westermarck’s idea into question: “…people brought up in small involuntary groups with high levels of social cohesion are less likely to be sexually attracted to each other, and less likely to act on attractions, in order to maintain the social order.” Some studies suggest incestuous marriages were encouraged in human societies when they preserved social harmony. Some cultures, like the Hoti in central Venezuela lack defined family boundaries. Incest has no meaning for them and marriages between ‘siblings’ are not uncommon (Yates, 2016).

However, more studies support Westermarck’s conclusion. A 2003 study found a correlation between the time children live together and sexual aversion in males and females. Females also report higher aversion than men. De Smet’s study (2014) was the first to study women and this aversion:

Our study is the first to indicate that, at least in women, frequently shared “sibling-typical” experiences (i.e. bathing together and sleeping in the same bedroom) with an opposite-sex sibling during early childhood (0–6 years) correlates positively with later sexual aversion…

The studies that support Westermarck’s idea suggest blood-relationship doesn’t matter as much as time spent together during the most formative years. Romantic literature mostly ignores Westermarck, but anime often follows this observation. In many–though not all–sibling romance stories, there is some type of early childhood separation, either emotional or physical, that halts the bonding process found to correlate with incest aversion. Of course, this becomes comedy fodder when a sibling or childhood friend, often the lady, wants to try to recapture this lost bonding by bathing with the guy. Westermarck explains why the childhood friend rarely becomes the protagonist’s romantic interest: they are too close. Of course, this is also a piece of the rom-com formula anime has perfected.

Anime doesn’t focus as much as the Romantic period on the idea that love is agony. If anything, anime finds love amusingly awkward, but I guess you could argue that embarrassment can be painful. Anime, like the Romantics, enjoys flirting with the sibling incest taboo. As Kokkola (2016) points out, sibling relationships disgust and fascinate. The dichotomy of comfortable bonding and understanding with the taboo against such relationships attracts many people. After all, forbidding something makes people curious. As we’ve seen, incest has deep roots in history and language. Most cultures have forbid it, and it appears humans have natural mechanisms that reduces attraction toward those we share childhood.

Candy Boy features a romance between twin sisters.

Sibling relationships aren’t unique to anime. English Romantic literature teems with it more than anime does today. It is a relatively small subgenre of romantic comedies. Sibling relationships of all stripes gains more appeal as we fragment and struggle to connect with others. Communication has become superficial and rife with problems. Siblings, on the other hand, mostly skip the awkward getting-to-know you period. They also share a closeness (usually) that many romantic couples wish they could achieve. While the Romantics viewed sibling relationships as the best representation of “love is agony,” anime views sibling relationships as a stand-in for the state of relationships today–often a forbidden place rife with problems but still containing a deep level of connection people often can’t achieve.

Of course, anime avoids the problems of real-life incest: abuse, psychological issues, and birth defects. It avoids the fact Japan forbids sibling marriage even if it doesn’t criminalize such relationships (Kokkola, 2016). Despite these problems, anime will continue to explore these relationships for as long as audiences remain interested. Sibling relationship stories will remain a part of world literature because of its built-in conflict and tension between disgust and appeal.

References

Bixler, Ray. (1982) Sibling Incest in the Royal Families of Egypt, Peru, and Hawaii. The Journal of Sex Research. 18 (3) 264-281.

Bryce, Mio (2008) Another half and/or another individual: representation of twins in manga. The International Journal of the Humanities. 5. 143-153.

Kokkola, Lyida & Valovirta, Elina (2016) The Disgust that Fascinates: Sibling Incest as a Bad Romance. Sexuality & Culture. doi: 10.1007/s12119-016-9386-6.

Reed, Mandi (2012) The melancholy of sibling incest in British Romanticism. LOGOS: A Journal of Undergraduate Research. Fall 2012. 111-120.

Richardson, Alan (1985) The Dangers of Sympathy: Sibling Incest in English Romantic Poetry. Studies in English Literature. 1500-1900. 25 (4) 737-754.

Tidefors, Inga, Arvidsson, Hans, et al (2010) Sibling incest: A literature review and a clinical study. Journal of Social Aggression. 16 (3) 347-360.

Yates, Peter (2016) Sibling sexual abuse: why don’t we talk about it? Journal of Clinical Nursing. 26, 2482-2494.

The Dream Story of Gojiro

ascent of the dragon's gate - gojiroOnly a few years ago there was a gentleman in Fukui, Japan, who had a son, a bright lad of twelve, who was very diligent at school and had made astonishing progress in his studies. He was especially quick at learning Chinese characters, of which every Japanese gentleman who wishes to be called educated must know at least two thousand. For, although the Chinese and Japanese are two very different languages, yet the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese use the same letters to write with, just as English, Germans, French and Spaniards all employ one and the same alphabet.Now Gojiro’s father had promised him that when he read through five volumes of the Nihongi, or Ancient History of Japan, he would give him for a present a book of wonderful Chinese stories. Gojiro performed his task, and his father kept his promise. One day on his return from a journey to Kioto, he presented his son with sixteen volumes, all neatly silk-bound, well illustrated with wood-cuts, and printed clearly on thin, silky mulberry paper, from the best wooden blocks. It will be remembered that several volumes of Japanese literature make but one of ours, as they are much lighter and thinner than ours.Gojiro was so delighted with the wonderful stories of heroes and warriors, travelers and sailors, that he almost felt himself in China. He read far into the night, with the lamp inside of his mosquito curtain; and finally fell asleep, still undressed, but with his head full of all sorts of Chinese wonders.

He dreamed he was far away in China, walking along the banks of the great Yellow River. Everything was very strange. The people talked an entirely different language from his own; had on different clothes; and, instead of the nice shaven head and top-knot of the Japanese, every one wore a long pigtail of hair, that dangled at his heels. Even the boats were of a strange form, and on the fishing smacks perched on projecting rails, sat rows of cormorants, each with a ring around his neck. Every few minutes one of them would dive under the water, and after a while come struggling up with a fish in its mouth, so big that the fishermen had to help the bird into the boat. The game was then flung into a basket, and the cormorant was treated to a slice of raw fish, by way of encouragement and to keep the bird from the bad habit of eating the live fish whole. This the ravenous bird would sometimes try to do, even though the ring was put around his neck for the express purpose of preventing him from gulping down a whole fish at once.

It was springtime, and the buds were just bursting into flower. The river was full of fish, especially of carp, ascending to the great rapids or cascades. Here the current ran at a prodigious rate of swiftness, and the waters rippled and boiled and roared with frightful noise. Yet, strange to say, many of the fish were swimming up the stream as if their lives depended on it. They leaped and floundered about; but every one seemed to be tossed back and left exhausted in the river, where they panted and gasped for breath in the eddies at the side. Some were so bruised against the rocks that, after a few spasms, they floated white and stiff, belly up, on the water, dead, and were swept down the stream. Still the shoal leaped and strained every fin, until their scales flashed in the sun like a host of armored warriors in battle. Gojiro, enjoying it as if it were a real conflict of wave and fishes, clapped his hands with delight.

Then Gojiro inquired, by means of writing, of an old white-bearded sage standing by and looking on: “What is the name of this part of the river?”

“We call it Lung Men,” said the sage.

“Will you please write the characters for it,” said Gojiro, producing his ink-case and brush-pen, with a roll of soft mulberry paper.

The sage wrote the two Chinese characters, meaning “The Gate of the Dragons,” or “Dragons’ Gate,” and turned away to watch a carp that seemed almost up into smooth water.

“Oh! I see,” said Gojiro to himself. “That’s pronounced Riu Mon in Japanese. I’ll go further on and see. There must be some meaning in this fish-climbing.” He went forward a few rods, to where the banks trended upward into high bluffs, crowned by towering firs, through the top branches of which fleecy white clouds sailed slowly along, so near the sky did the tree-tops seem. Down under the cliffs the river ran perfectly smooth, almost like a mirror, and broadened out to the opposite shore. Far back, along the current, he could still see the rapids shelving down. It was crowded at the bottom with leaping fish, whose numbers gradually thinned out toward the center; while near the top, close to the edge of level water, one solitary fish, of powerful fin and tail, breasted the steep stream. Now forward a leap, then a slide backward, sometimes further to the rear than the next leap made up for, then steady progress, then a slip, but every moment nearer, until, clearing foam and ripple and spray at one bound, it passed the edge and swam happily in smooth water.

It was inside the Dragon Gate.

A woodblock print of a koi-nobari, carp banner.

A woodblock print of a koi-nobari, carp banner.

Now came the wonderful change. One of the fleecy white clouds suddenly left the host in the deep blue above, dipped down from the sky, and swirling round and round as if it were a water spout, scratched and frayed the edge of the water like a fisher’s troll. The carp saw and darted toward it. In a moment the fish was transformed into a white dragon, and, rising into the cloud, floated off toward Heaven. A streak or two of red fire, a gleam of terrible eyes, and the flash of white scales was all that Gojiro saw. Then he awoke.

“How strange that a poor little carp, a common fish that lives in the river, should become a great white dragon, and soar up into the sky, to live there,” thought Gojiro, the next day, as he told his mother of his dream.

“Yes,” said she; “and what a lesson for you. See how the carp persevered, leaping over all difficulties, never giving up till it became a dragon. I hope my son will mount over all obstacles, and rise to honor and to high office under the government.”

“Oh! oh! now I see!” said Gojiro. “That is what my teacher means when he says the students in Tokio have a saying, ‘I’m a fish today, but I hope to be a dragon tomorrow,’ when they go to attend examination; and that’s what Papa meant when he said: ‘That fish’s son, Kofuku, has become a white dragon, while I am yet only a carp.'”

So on the third day of the third month, at the Feast of Flags, Gojiro hoisted the nobori. It was a great fish, made of paper, fifteen feet long and hollow like a bag. It was yellow, with black scales and streaks of gold, and red gills and mouth, in which two strong strings were fastened. It was hoisted up by a rope to the top of a high bamboo pole on the roof of the house. There the breeze caught it, swelled it out round and full of air. The wind made the fins work, and the tail flap, and the head tug, until it looked just like a carp trying to swim the rapids of the Yellow River—the symbol of ambition and perseverance.

This story explains the folklore origin of the nobori banner flown as a traditional wish for health and prosperity. May 5th stands as a holiday called “Children’s Day” since World War II. Koi-nobori fly for each member of the family. The festival traces back to the 18th and 19th century where boys staged battles using iris leaves as swords. Tradition calls the holiday Shobu no Sekku, festival of the irises, for this reason. The festival sought to recreate the battles between the 12th century families Genji and Heike. The festival acts as a prayer for young boys to grow up strong and courageous. 

So why the carp? The carp, or koi, stands as a symbol of courage and strength because it can leap up waterfalls as we’ve seen in Gojiro’s story. Folklore captures the reasons for festivals in fantastic stories such as this. In this case, the wish for children to grow strong enough to become successful: dragons.

References

Griffis, William Elliot (1887) Japanese Fairy World: Stories from the Wonder-lore of Japan. London: Trubner and Company.

Do Reviews Really Matter?

Some of you may have noticed that I don’t post anime reviews all that often. It’s not that I’m not watching anime. In fact, I’ve watch more recently than in recent months thanks to the Crunchyroll app on the Nintendo Wii-U. In part, I haven’t been writing reviews of these stories because I haven’t felt the drive. I’ve had various editorials to write. However, I’ve also been wondering about the worth of reviews. I don’t know about you, but I tend to read reviews after I watch something. I’m often curious if anyone else felt the same about a story or the messages as I did. Not to mention most anime fans go to the big sites like My Anime List for reviews instead of small blogs like mine. My traffic stats are conclusive–editorials just do better.

Of course, the problems with reviews aren’t limited to anime. If you look at Amazon, you will see how reviews become noise. Sure, I will glance through them before buying something, but I’ve seen how most reviews skew toward this-product-is-the-best-thing-ever to 1-star reviews because of shipping problems–which has nothing to do with the product quality itself. There are standout reviews that look into the pros and cons of the product, but I’m finding these are scarce for most of the products I buy–books mainly. Reviews are also bought or, as in the case of many self-published books, subject to Good Samaritan reviewing. Good Samaritan reviewing is when a fellow author or family member or friend gives you a glowing review without actually reading your book. Now, you might think this is good. After all, reviews tend to sell books. But the ethics of this is, well, a problem. It’s lying.

Reviews are subjective. Shipping issues for an otherwise great product can be a deal breaker for one person and a non-concern for another. When reviewing something like anime, taste plays more of a factor. Reading a review from a random writer, like myself, doesn’t really help you all that much. You don’t know how much my tastes align with yours. Now, for some of you who have been with me since JP started, you’ve gotten to know my tastes, and this will lend more weight to your decision to watch an anime or not after reading one of my reviews. But this takes time. Unless you follow a certain reviewer on MAL, one who reviews regularly, the review isn’t all that useful. The point of reviews is to find something that you would want to consume, but if the reviewer’s tastes clash with yours more often than not, then you had best follow another reviewer. It’s akin to a friend recommending a movie. The friend knows you well enough to offer something to your tastes. Unfortunately, here all I do is talk at you without getting to know you like a friend would. Yes, I know. I could take to Twitter and fix that….but I loathe Twitter. With a passion. There is just no room for nuance or a proper conversation with all the noise and limitations. Not to mention I’m just not a conversationalist like that.

Okay, back on topic. Most of the time I know if I will enjoy an anime after two episodes. There’s been few times I’ve read a review and tried the anime–you know, like you are supposed to do–only to dislike the story. That’s that thing about reviews. They are subject to a person’s filter, which may not align with your own. And that filter may also change based on how the reviewer is feeling. They may be going through a rough time and find harem comedies appealing escapism when the reviewer may normally eschew them.

Sometimes, I will purposefully seek out anime I dislike. I do the same with books for that matter. But again, reviews don’t play a part of my selection. I just scroll through Crunchyroll’s most popular anime and pick one I know I will dislike. Why? Because I want to be aware of what other people like or see why something is popular. Much of the time it is because it is sexualized fluff, but that’s a topic I’ve covered many times. As an anime and otaku culture researcher, I have to watch and study things I dislike in order to understand anime and otaku culture better.

Now, I’m not saying reviews are completely worthless. But they also aren’t critically helpful. My voice is just one of thousands of anime watchers who speak into the void. Free blog networks teem with anime bloggers reviewing episodes and stories. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to express your thoughts. JP began as one of those review sites. My very first post was a review of Eureka Seven. That was about 7 years ago. JP didn’t really take off until I started writing editorials about history and Japanese culture. However, I’ve noticed posts about current season anime do better than mining old anime as I tend to do. After all, many of you have already seen older anime that I am only now watching such as Izetta. But then I don’t watch a lot of new stuff. My American movie tastes are back in the 1930s-1970s.

So basically I’m saying I’m not convinced as to the value of reviews. Most of the time I’ll enjoy movies that are poorly reviewed by critics more than well-reviewed films. I grew up watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, however. I have a high tolerance and a guilty affection for bad films. But also unless you follow someone for a long time, you don’t get a lot of value from reviews. Only someone who knows you can offer a film you may enjoy that you may not pay attention to otherwise. And there’s the rub. You can seek out reviews that align with your tastes, but that isn’t the same as a friend’s suggestion about something different. Starred reviews are terribly subjective. I don’t like to rate anything 1 or 5 stars just because I don’t like using the low or high end of scales. It’s a resistance within me. Few things are 5 star good or 1 star bad, yet there are other people who avoid the middle of the scale. In fact, many people seem to avoid the middle on Amazon.

So what do you think about this? Are reviews helpful? What skews or problems have you seen in review systems?

What is in Ramen?

Have you ever wondered what goes into the otaku’s go-to food on the cheap? It’s also Naruto’s favorite food–ramen. The bowl of noodles and magic-flavor powder, like most packaged foods, is a wonder of engineering and chemical science. There is some actual food in it too.  Some brands have slightly different formulas (you really can’t call them recipes), but these components are in most of them.  I pulled this list from a package of chicken-flavored ramen in my cabinet.

Enriched wheat flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine, mononitrate, Riboflavin, folic acid) This is wheat flour that’s been processed to take out much of the good, healthy stuff and then some of it is put back into it artificially. Like with all food-processing, this is done to stretch the batches and increase profits.

Palm Oil – oil derived from the pulp of oil palm fruit. It’s cheap, and it has a long shelf life. It’s oil appears in soaps, detergents, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical drugs. In 2015, we consumed 17 pounds of it, on average over the year (Raghu, 2017).

Salt – Salt is the go-to preservative and flavor enhancer. In the past, people died from not getting enough salt. It’s necessary for our health, but now people die because of getting too much of it. It’s hard to avoid salt too. As ramen goes, if you eat an entire block and its magic powder–and who doesn’t?–you’ll eat 1500mg of salt, at least half the recommended amounts you are supposed to eat.

Autolyzed yeast extract – This is a fancy name for yeast corpses. Yep, you are eating the remains and poop of yeast. Their cell walls break down as they eat proteins and release amino acids, salts, and carbs. Food engineers separate the yeast and their poop from the stuff that doesn’t dissolve in water ( Wiesenfelder, 2017). The result tastes umami, like monosodium glutamate and mushrooms.

Dried leek flake – Real food! A leek is a type of veggie related to onion, garlic, scallion, and chives. In this case, the leek is dried and turned into flakes.

Egg white — Don’t eat ramen if you have an egg allergy.

Garlic powder — More real food! This staple in cooking is good on spaghetti, buttered bread, and more.

Hydrolyzed corn and soy protein – Hydrolyzed vegetable protein is made by taking wheat gluten in water and mixing it with an enzyme like Neutrase to break down the proteins. The result is a protein with umami flavor. It happens naturally in foods like cheese and other foods that ferment for a time (Wang and others, 2015).

Lactose – Lactose is better known as milk sugar. It’s a type of sugar that appears in milk and can be extracted to add to other foods, like ramen.

Maltodextrin – A food additive that comes from partial hydrolysis of starches like corn or wheat. It contains glucose, sugar, molecules within it. It shows up in candy, beer, soft drinks, potato chips, jerky, and more. It thickens foods.

Natural flavors – The “secret recipe” that gives ramen its beef, chicken, or donut flavor. Yeah, not so much donut, but there are tons of flavors out there. The flavors are likely spices such as paprika, onion powder (which is listed), chili powder, etc.

Potassium carbonate – A type of salt used in making soap and glass. It’s a drying agent that keeps powders like ramen’s magic powder from clumping with moisture. It’s also used in making cocoa powder. It appears naturally or is manufactured.

Sylvite is just one of several rocks found in ramen.

Potassium chloride – This type of salt can be used to make potassium carbonate. It appears in natural rocks like sylvite.

Sodium alginate – Yet another salt (explains the 1700mg a packet, doesn’t it?) that comes from brown algae. It protects against intestinal absorption of radioactive isotopes so you can’t say ramen isn’t at least a little healthy (National Center for Biotechnology, n.d. A). Ramen sounds like a good food to have in the event of a nuclear war, eh?

Sodium carbonate – Works as a water softener and comes from the ashes of plants or from seaweed. Used in making glass.

Powered chicken – Bones and all?

Rendered chicken fat – Rendering takes all the waste parts of a chicken and turns it into fats like lard or tallow. Think candles.

Silicon dioxide – In a word, sand. Silica, which contains silicon dioxide is the major component of sand.

Sodium tripolyphosphate – Used in laundry detergents and dish-washing detergents. It’s used in foods to texture and thicken (National Center for Biotechnology Information, n.d. B)

Soybeans – Something natural! Actually, a good number of the ingredients in ramen appear in nature or through natural processes which allows the marketers to use the phrases “natural flavors”  and “contains small amounts of naturally occurring glutamates”. All of which is true.

Spice and color – Gotta get the chicken-gold broth looking and tasting right.

Succinic acid – Used in medicines and making lacquer. The acid is also found in and around cancer tumors. It’s main purpose here is to add to ramen’s shelf life (National Center for Biotechnology Information, n.d. C).

Sugar – Balances all the salt.

TBHQ – Short for Tert-Butylhydroquinone. An antioxidant  used to add shelf life.

Wheat – Some whole wheat is hidden in the noodles.

Many of these components are common to processed-packaged foods where self-life is one of the main factors. As you can see, ramen has many different types of salts. Salts are the most common additive in packaged foods because we crave them, and they help food keep longer. But too much salt is linked to health issues such as high-blood pressure and vertigo. Salt is hard to avoid today, but with some planning you can curb it. So if you want a bowl of ramen, you can enjoy it. Just cut salt from the other meals you eat that day and drink a lot of water.

References

National Center for Biotechnology Information. (n.d. A)  PubChem Compound Database; CID=5102882, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/5102882.

National Center for Biotechnology Information. (n.d. B) PubChem Compound Database; CID=24455, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/24455

National Center for Biotechnology Information. (n.d. C) PubChem Compound Database; CID=1110, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/1110

Raghu, Anuradha (2017). We Each Consume 17 Pounds of Palm Oil a Year. Bloomberg News. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-05-17/soap-to-chocolate-we-consume-17-pounds-of-palm-oil-each-year

Wang, Lihua and others (2015) Enhancement of umami taste of hydrolyzed protein from wheat gluten by β-cyclodextrin. J Sci Food Agric 96. 4499-4504.

Wiesenfelder, Heidi (2017) What is Autolyzed Yeast Extract? LiveStrong. https://www.livestrong.com/article/71755-autolyzed-yeast-extract/