I like to think of myself as not entirely uncultured but there is always going to be a bit of a culture clash when I watch anime. I think that’s true for a lot of western viewers. The social reality we live in as well as the history, traditions and beliefs we grew up with are bound to affect how we take in our entertainment. When an author writes a story there’s all sorts of things they take for granted. For instance if a large male character goes grocery shopping in a ball gown, that’s an odd and maybe comical scene but only because our social conventions skew against it. There was a time where a similar scene would simply have been used to mark the character as an aristocrat.
Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with interpreting a story within your own context but I do get curious about the world it was crafted in. For instance I’m vaguely aware of Japanese mentality and biases regarding gender, visible minorities and foreigners. I’m somewhat acquainted with the myriad of social conventions and norms expected of anyone within Japanese society and the general consequences of breaking with said taboos or conventions.
But for all of that, I’m almost entirely ignorant of Japanese class constructs. I know they exist. I assume they are somewhat rigid and complex because…well because most of what I know about Japanese social mores is a little rigid and complex. It’s possible that my perception is outdated.
Anywho, we all know that there’s an elaborate social hierarchy present in almost every level of Japanese society. It’s most obviously expressed through the multitude of honorifics one can use depending on who they are addressing but it can be seen through the language as well. Polite forms of Japanese can easily be considered as their own dialects. It dictates actions and reactions and really defines relationships. But what are these class distinctions based on?
One that I know is “age”. Unlike the youth cultures of North America, Japan still has a healthy respect for seniority. As such people that are older than you or have been working at a place for longer, automatically outrank you. But what about money? Just plain old wealth? Who do I owe *more* respect to, the guy that’s a few years older than me in school or the kid in my class that comes from an obscenely rich family? Does education matter at all and if so is there a bias. For instance does a scientific background prime over an artistic one?
What of reputation and nobility? Can tracing your bloodline back to some ancient renowned general or emperor give you some instant cred or is it a neat factoid to whip out at a party and nothing more?
It’s not that you need to know the answers to any of those questions to understand and appreciate anime. However appreciating the social context of a story can add another layer to it, which is.. cool… Guys, I really don’t know why I had ever considered myself a decent debater. I think I just exhausted my opponents.
All right, I’ve already cluttered half the post with vague questions. I believe it’s about time we go find some answers. Disclaimer, for today’s post my source will be “the internet” as such the integrity of the information cannot be guaranteed. Please learn responsibility!
The few articles I read were more interested in the behaviour and integration of Japan’s economically elite into greater society than the other way around. One thing that was stressed though is that the Japanese **upper class**, keeping in line with general Japanese tendencies towards modesty and discretion, does not tend to flaunt their wealth.
It is therefore fairly difficult to even know that someone is from an advantageous family situation unless you know them well or they are downright famous. This fact alone should skew perception towards a more indifferent regard for money.
I’ve been using the notions of wealth and social class pretty interchangeably so far and I fear we’ll run into an issue of semantics. For the purposes of this post alone, I’m referring exclusively to earner class or tax bracket when discussing Japanese Class structure. I know that Japanese society is in fact extremely complex and moreover, evolving when it comes to social conventions and norms, and I’m not pretending to understand any of it. But let’s get back to money.
From what I was able to pick up, it seems the Japanese in general are a bit more relaxed when it comes to issues of money than in western or even european society. A growing rich poor gap in the country is slowly changing that mind you but traditionally, money was just one element to bring you clout and by far not the most important one.
If we go back to my earlier question of how much riches weight in comparison to age, social service, academic achievement and so forth. The answer is probably about the same to slightly less. Or for comparison, the reputation and respect you can get just based on how much money your family has (especially if you didn’t earn it firsthand) is less than in most other parts of the world.
This sort of fits in with what I’ve seen in anime. You will occasionally see insanely rich characters but no one knows about it until they go visit their house or something. The riches in question can be used to help the plot along on a practical basis but rarely come with much influence beyond the ability of bribing people, and other characters’ attitude rarely changes at all with the reveal of someone being well off. It’s just a trait that gets less dramatic build up than finding out a character is older than another.
This is pretty different to how we’ve come to view and represent money in North America. We’ve long been a merchant class society with a relatively short history so it makes sense that money would be an easy way of defining societal success and worth. We just don’t have that many other things to go by.
It’s nice to see a healthier and more relaxed attitude towards wealth. Especially coming from a place that’s not exactly renowned for being relaxed. This is mostly conjecture though and the attitudes might change quickly. If you have experience living in Japan, let me know, is money an important factor? How is class structure defined?
20 thoughts on “I know nothing of Japanese class structure”
The interesting thing I realized while reading this post is, personally, I find a dichotomy between living in such a cultured, calm, uniform environment and actually watching it. Eerily similar to a “would you rather live in x or y world?” situation. Japan is a beautiful place! Even if the traditional aesthetic can sometimes grow tiring for me it is one of those places I’ve dreamed of maybe living in one day. Or to even visit just to take in the sights. Not that I am pretending to know everything about its culture but based on what I know I can’t imagine a reason to ever dislike or disapprove of the society built. Besides, potentially finding the people boring but… I find everyone to be a tad boring until I seriously get to know them. Watching it all occur in anime through visualization and dialogue? Very boring, I gotta admit. A very boring setting with few exceptional titles that manage to grant me intrigue.
Great Daikichi pic! Usagi Drop is my favorite show, ever! (Please note that I did not say “favorite anime.”)
Noted. You also didn’t say favourite manga. On purpose?
Oh, the direction the manga took just sickened me. Absolutely disgusting! Probably the single most important decision that the anime’s producers made was limiting it to the first year. . .as its own independent work, the anime is the greatest single television program that I’ve ever watched!
Great post Irina! I actually never thought about the wealth side… It’s a little bit strange, from what I know about Japanese culture, they seem to have the most and least society healthy habits which is really strange…
Being so geographically isolated, japan does have a very unique history. That shows in the culture.
Yeah, it also doesn’t help being bombared twice on World War 2 and then have foreign people there trying to impose their lifestyle to the locals. That just made Japan to isolate itself even furhter.
Going off what Artemis said, there are certain subsets of what could be considered “the Japanese population” which would be considerd socially inferior – the buraku people are the ones you hint about when both of you are talking about ancestry (as their ancestors had “dirty” jobs like being an abattoir). I think it was (so don’t quote me on this) that sometimes parents who are going to have someone marry into their family or potential employers check ancestry to see that the person involved is not a buraku. As for other potentially repressed groups in a similar vein, the Ainu and Ryukyu (from Okinawa) people can be treated like any other indigenous community if that’s made public.
Apparently, there is a sizeable homeless population in Japan these days (mostly in the cities), but you have to look quite hard for them and/or they spend the day doing temporary government work if they’re lucky (only guys of the NEET/freeter age, so maybe about the ages of 20 – 40).
I read a lot on both indigenous Japanese population and the very complex issue if growing poverty in Japan but I don’t have enough of a handle on either to discuss them.
I didn’t realize the cast system was still so deeply ingrained. You don’t see it that much in anime. That’s interesting.
So that’s the history behind the trope, eh? Now I just wanna be friends with all my (imaginary) Japanese classmates in the off chance that one of them is filthy stinkin rich!
A good plan. If doesn’t workout you now have tons of imaginary Japanese friends.
I know nothing about this either, and I can only really guess from anime. Apart from the secretly rich class mate, there’s another pattern I’ve noticed. Sometimes there are people who are super-rich, and they live in a parallel world with more traditional values. How this is played depends on genre: comedy tends to foreground the quirkiness, extravagance and indulgence of the characters (e.g. Hayate no Gotoku), and noir thrillers tend to use them as a source of depravity (e.g. Kurenai). I still remember being confused as hell by the plot of Ai Yori Aoshi – not in the sense that I didn’t understand what’s going on (it’s very straightforward); I just didn’t know what to think of it. It’s a romcom about arranged marriage, but the backstory of the male lead was fairly dark. The idea is that the main character left a very rich family for how they treated his mother, abandoning an arranged marriage in the process. But the girl then seeks him out to marry him – as expected (and against the family’s wishes). I saw this show fairly early on and wasn’t yet familiar with “childhoodfriend romances”, so I just couldn’t tell what the show thought of arranged marriages.
In all those shows, money functions as a sort of isolator: you can afford to stick to a traditional life style in an environment you create, and you communicate with the outside world only via proxy. Elements of this sometimes come out of the blue in shows where you don’t expect it. Take Yuyushiki, a CGDCT show about looking up random stuff on the internet and goofing off. One of the characters, is super rich and has her future planned out in out in front of her and has thus never thought about what she wants to do in the future. She’s thus determined to enjoy her school life as much as possible: this comes out in a regular scene, changes the mood a little, but otherwise is within the flow of those girls talking nonsense. You see her character in a totally different light after that scene, though.
Often rich kids in anime are associated with firms, and it’s less the money than the standing of the firm that influences what people think of them (think Yosuke and Junes in Persona 4, for example). The phrase tends to be “Wow, X as in X,” and it seems to me the implication is more “I see the logo everywhere!” than “Wow, you’ve got money.”
A lot of this is Zaibatsu-level rich, though, and it reminds me somewhat of those eighties shows like Dynasty or Dallas in the west: rich families with their own values and source of income to sustain them. Traditional families with money: inspiring soap operas and anime since… a long time ago?
The notion of riches being associated with history, rigor and tradition is also a good one. It’s often seen in fiction though in real life we see it used to created futuristic lifestyles with the latest technology and fairly easy going lives
This is why I am trying to learn Japanese 🙂 So much of meaning is in the context of the message that many times you watch anime/read manga and ask yourself “What was that?” The only way to get the meaning (short of turning on the pop-up bubbles in Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi 🙂 ) is to learn the cultural context.
Indeed. And I’m sure it’s super interesting too
Take this with a grain of salt because I’m surely no expert on Japan’s very complex hierarchal system, either historical or modern, but from my time in the country, I feel that even in ye olde times, money wasn’t the be all and end all when it came to status. For example, Japan had a fairly rigid caste system (which was officially abolished in the late 1800s), where the general population was divided into Samurai, Peasant, Craftsman or Merchant. You’d think Peasant would be the lowest because they typically had the least amount of money, but no, Merchant was because although they sure made money (and sometimes hand over fist at that), they didn’t produce any product of their own and were therefore considered socially inferior. Plus, it was still (socially) preferable to be, say, a poor samurai than a rich craftsman because, again, the mark of a superior person was much more about race and lineage than about finances. It woudn’t surprise me to learn that this has impacted Japanese society in some way today.
I do still hear people being refred to as samurai and that has always fascinated me. This is great info
This is so interesting, Irina! I guess the Japanese do have a thing for uniformity and perfection.
If I wasn’t a girl I think I would have fit in very well in that society